War in Gaza: Between Seeing and Believing

Posted: August 12, 2014 in Israeli - Palestinian Conflict, Politics, Religion
Tags: , , , ,
Screengrab from the video by NDTV

Screengrab from the video by NDTV

When Indian reporter Sreenivasan Jain from NDTV woke up in his hotel in Gaza on Monday morning, August 4, he noticed something strange right outside the hotel. There was an “incongruous blue tent on a tiny, vacant, overgrown patch of land behind a low, abandoned building” (words of the reporter himself in providing the backstory to the video that the crew shot that morning). As the indian TV-crew is watching and filming, three men walk in and out of the tent with something that from that distance looks like wire or cable. After about an hour, the tent gets dismantled, some shrubbery is placed on top of the spot that before had been hidden from sight by the tarp, the men change clothes and leave. In his live commentary by what he is witnessing, Sreenivasan Jain presumes this is most likely footage of Hamas preparing a rocket launching site, a first-off, as this has not been filmed before. On August 5, the day when the NDTV crew is scheduled to leave Gaza, at around 7 a.m. in the morning, the crew registers a big explosion and a haze of smoke going up from the exact spot where they had witnessed those activities the day before. Hamas, it is assumed, has fired yet another rocket into Israel. Five hours after they have left Gaza, the indian crew files the video-report on the internet. In the hours that follow, all major media rush to bring the news: finally there is proof that Hamas is in effect firing rockets from within “densely populated areas”.

As so many others, in the past month I have been venting on social media my emotions and opinions with regard to this new violent escalation of the war between Israel and the Palestinians in the Gaza strip, but I had as well been thinking already to write an article about it. Only, I couldn’t find the right angle to tell what I wanted to say … until few days ago I set my eyes on this video-report and identified it as a perfect starting point for several points I had wanted to make for some time already and that have to do with the way things are presented, the value of truth, the way media manipulates what we think and the way we look at the media; points also that have to do with the questions being asked but just as much with the questions that are not being asked.

In jotting down here the comments and questions that have come up in my mind, I have no intention whatsoever to discredit the work of that indian crew, for I see no reason to believe that the footage they shot would not be legit. Quite to their credit, in all their time in Gaza, they seem to have done a fairly balanced reporting of all that is wrong with that war and to the personal credit of Sreenivasan Jain I would like to add that it is laudable that in the end of his report, he mentions the names of the crew that is with him. The camera- and the soundmen or -women all too often get forgotten, while they are running the same risks as the one whose face will show up on television screens all across the globe. Yet, for all the legitimacy it may have, it also lays bare the superficial way in which we tend to view reports like this and all the problems that entails.

So, let’s take a closer look at the video.

Jain and his crew bring their footage to the internet under the heading  “NDTV Exclusive – How Hamas Assembles and Fires Rockets”. Sure enough, in no time, a multitude of newspapers and websites jump on it and report on it along the same lines. Here’s what two major American news outlets had to say:

The New York Times: “Indian TV Crew Shows Rare Video of Rocket Launch from Gaza”

The Washington Post: “Watch: rare videos that actually show Hamas firing rockets into Israel”

The first, most obvious and major problem with these headings is that, no matter how many times or how hard you look to that video, there is simply not a single rocket (or even the tiniest part of it) to be seen during the entire 4 minutes 23 seconds that it lasts: not under the tent (since shielded by the tarp) and neither at the moment of the explosion the next morning, for all one can see is smoke. For anyone unfamiliar with the situation in Gaza like me, that smoke may point to a rocket launch just like it may point to a hit by an incoming projectile or to the motor of an overheated car that just exploded. From the images, you just can’t tell what it is and for sure there is not a rocket visible in the entire footage. Needless to say the assembling of such a thing is even farther out of sight. Actually, the only thing clearly visible is someone holding a wire or cable in his hands and taking it outside the tent.

Second problem is the direct reference to Hamas. I have no idea, to be honest, what a Hamas militant looks like, but I can imagine they don’t walk around in military fatigues, which would make them pretty much like sitting ducks for the snipers or drones of the IDF. So I’m assuming they stay hidden most of the time and when they do come out look and dress like anyone else in Gaza to keep their cover. But in that case: how do you identify them unambiguously as Hamas ? Yet, after this report, the world is sure it has just witnessed an action from Hamas. There are other militias active in Gaza, Hamas is not the only one, so how can we know those three men we see are indeed Hamas members ? If you ask me: we can’t. Even more, since we can not see the rocket that is allegedly being assembled under that tent, we can not tell whether it would be of any type that would only be under the control of Hamas only or if it would be of a type widely available to any militant group in Gaza.

Quite frankly, with what we have on tape, it would be just as fair to assume that this is a technical crew doing some repair to the communication infrastructure near the hotel where most of the world press is housed. I would like to remind that also here in the West, in our very own streets, in a not so distant past, it used to be a normal sight to see a repair crew set up a tent before starting their activities, to be sheltered from rain, sun or whatever. There is nothing in the video to discredit such an assumption, were it not for the explosion and of course the entire context of daily life in Gaza under siege, which bestows credibility on the story as it is presented by the NDTV crew, but … without a single piece of hard evidence provided.

Now why do I think it is worth to point out these things and label them as potentially dangerous ?

First and foremost: because if we are going to make far-reaching judgements (or even more implicating: policy), such judgement or policy should always be evidence based. We simply can not go to Court, saying Exhibit A, B & C are all missing, but hey, Your Honour, we have a rock-solid case nevertheless. Let’s for a moment go back to the purported source of what triggered this latest episode in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the abduction and killing by Hamas of three Israeli youths … or so we were told. Without a shred of evidence  (and never mind that those youngsters had not even been abducted in Gaza but on the Westbank), Israel squarely placed the blame for this atrocious crime on Hamas and used it as a pretext to open the hostilities of Operation “Protective Edge” (what’s in a name ?). It is sad to say but the world did not react. No leader of government asked Netanyahu to produce the evidence underpinning that accusation of Hamas. We just bought the story, only to find that, over 1800 Palestinian casualties later, those murders had nothing to do with Hamas (who had always denied responsability, btw) and were most likely undertaken by some lone wolves and that the Israeli government knew already several days that they had been killed before breaking the news to the parents and the world, allowing the atmosphere in Israel to ferment towards a loud cry for retaliation. No one ever insisted that even the slightest piece of evidence that would condemn Hamas beyond a reasonable doubt be produced. For that lack of insistence, many people have in the meantime paid the price with their lives.

But let’s take things back now to what is shown (and not shown) in the video. Why the lack of hard evidence here is so dangerous, is for instance because basically, by branding the activities in the footage with the label “Made by Hamas”,  I can imagine that (I maintain: unintentionally), NDTV has now outlawed anyone or anything that is working, resting, sleeping under a tent as a legitimate target of the next Israeli attack (in as far this was not yet the case, of course) for “Hamas is assembling rockets under tents”, making any tent a virtual terrorist threat. In a cynic twist, the lack of evidence in the video could be exploited by the Israeli side as an argument … as evidence … to justify actions they may still have in mind. Now I don’t know how many tents there are in Gaza, but I know there is an awful lot of internally displaced people and refugees and I can imagine part of those do live in tents, like in so many other places all over the world. Have these people now been even more endangered ? Future will tell.

There is another disturbing thing in the video, and that is the labeling of the place as “a densely populated area”. Let’s take a little deeper look at that as well.

In the very first sentence, as he is commenting the activities going on outside his window, Sreenivasan Jain is referring to the place as “an abandoned plot of land”. In the backstory to his report, which I already referred to here above, he is explicitly mentioning the building behind the “assembly” site as being a “low, abandoned building”. Now he and his crew is filming from a hotel in Gaza where it is said that most of the foreign reporters are staying. And let’s also take a look at this footage being filed by France24 which seems to corroborate the fact that indeed rockets have been fired from that place, if we assume that what they show is actually the same place as was filmed by the NDTV people (which to me seems to be the case). This French reporter makes the same claim about the densely populated areas, while at the same time pointing to a UN flag floating in the sky one hundred meters behind him. So we have an abandoned building closest to the launching site, a hotel crowded with foreign reporters on one side and a UN building on another side. If they had really wanted to demonstrate what a “densely populated area” in Gaza (and I mean: populated by Gazans) looks like, these reporters have done themselves a disservice, because one could easily take this as proof that Hamas is going out of its way to keep their rockets as far away as possible from their own people. But we see buildings, so that makes it de facto a “densely populated area”, although we can be pretty sure that Israel will think not twice, but ten times, before bombarding the gathering place of the foreign press corps and although they have shown less restraint towards UN facilities, I am assuming the IDF still needs orders from pretty high up the command ladder before shelling a place like that.

So if seeing is believing, let us at least look twice to make sure what exactly it is we are seeing. We owe it to the people who are at the center of what is going on there, we owe it to ourselves and the opinions we form from it and we owe it to the policies that may spring from it (unsurprisingly, a short clip of this footage was shown at a press-conference given by Netanyahu) because, as already pointed out before, lives may depend on it.

Yet let us now take it one step further and for the sake of this exercise accept that this was indeed a rocket launching site, operated by Hamas. Then the next question that comes up when analysing that footage is how do you respond to such a hostile attack ? We have seen a tent, three men doing something inside that tent, disassembling the tent and … leaving. The reporter is pointing out that that poses a threat to all of  those living in the vicinity of that area and I assume he’s right, but why should it be like that ? Once that rocket is fired, there’s nothing the IDF can do anymore to stop it, except for waiting for their “Iron Dome” defense system to intercept it. Shelling the surrounding buildings is not going to prevent this specific attack anymore and is only going to kill a lot of innocent people who most probably have nothing to do with it, as I consider the chance that any of those three men would be hiding out in the vicinity is minimal.

These images only help to reinforce the well-known notion that an enemy who engages in guerilla warfare (hit-and-run tactics, as we allegedly see displayed here) is very hard to conquer. Unless you can catch them red-handed and take them out during the hostile act they are preparing or committing, you are bound to run after the facts and get innocent civilians paying the price for it, which in turn mostly helps to reinforce the support of the locals towards the guerilla, making them again stronger and dragging you ever further down into this vicious circle. Force simply can not and should not be the only answer. The way we have seen, time and again now, the IDF bombarding buildings, hospitals, schools (with, yet again, the world still waiting for the first piece of evidence that Hamas was in effect hiding ammunition in those buildings, as is alleged) is obscene and a mockery of  “proportional retaliation” when related to this footage. No crumpled building can stop that rocket once it has been fired, no maimed or murdered child can make it come back or halt it in mid-air. Any bomb dropped on any building nearby that plot of land, will either be futile in reaching its objective or will simply be intentional murder. For any of the big guerilla movements that the world has witnessed, from Mao’s communists to Castro’s “Granma” crew to Colombia’s FARC, the initial outset may have been political conviction of some, but the support has always been rooted in economic oppression and unequal treatment of broad groups of people. When Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruitstall vendor, on December 17, 2010 set fire to himself and thus started what became known as the Arab Spring, he didn’t have religion on his mind, he had economics on his mind: he was not allowed to peddle his wares anymore, virtually impeding him from earning a life for himself. So instead of annihilating the buildings and the people who live in them, Israel had better start building houses, tear down that wall and return the land from the people it was stolen from. That, in combination with their “Iron Dome” in the intermediate term (which I consider a valid system -Israel does have the obligation to protect its own citizens- and which I even wouldn’t mind them to perfect it even further, such as to intercept 100% of the rockets launched from Gaza and to frustrate the hell out of Hamas ), will be the only reasonable and just self-defense. All the rest is just “cutting the lawn”, with the blood of innocents spilled as fertilizer for the grass to grow again, leading us to the next “self-defense” campaign.

Let us now revert one last time to the video, for there is one more thing we haven’t tackled yet and that is the question that, as far as I have seen, no one has asked yet: how come that the NDTV crew was able to shoot this footage in the first place ?

If you read the reports from people who have been to Gaza, Hamas is like a ghost-organisation: you don’t see them, their activities are never caught on film and it’s only when you see or hear a rocket flying overhead that you know they have been active again. Sounds plausible to me. So how come this little band of militia-men got caught on camera ? Did they throw overboard their caution or is something else going on ?

A clear blue tent amidst white buildings, patches of green and yellow sand. Not night, but a clear sunshiny day. A patch of land that is open to the street … and that sits right underneath the biggest gathering place of reporters, camera’s and microphones in the whole of Gaza. I suppose it is even fair to assume that, with so many foreign reporters hanging around in that hotel, the place is probably also infested with undercover Israeli security personnel. Yet, that is the exact spot Hamas would have chosen to deploy their activity, making sure by the colour of their tent alone that any drone flying above would have its target locked immediately on that spot. Then the men take about an hour to accomplish whatever it was they were doing there, walk off … and leave the place alone for a full 24 hours before the rocket is launched … from under a pile of shrubbery.

Am I the only one to think this resembles more an episode from Comedy Capers than a professionally planned and executed “terrorist” attack ? This footage in no way corresponds to the general consensus about the behaviour of Hamas. Though, at the time of the recording, there still was a ceasefire in place, I think it still would be very odd for any militia to behave in this almost ridiculous way.

Which leads me to the following question: did Hamas have a message to convey, by almost being sure this would be picked up by someone, and if so, what could that message have been, or could it be that we have been witnessing a false-flag operation by Israel, in which case of course the objective is clear ?

I have no answer to those questions. I’m no reporter or expert and I have far too little knowledge of the situation on the ground to come to a conclusion on that. Still, it’s beyond my comprehension how the media does not tackle this sort of questions and seems more and more turning into a machine that takes in the various reporting on one side and spitting it out again on the other side, while having dismantled the entire analysis-module. Too expensive, probably ?

This was just my personal analysis of one tiny piece of reporting in this tsunami of reports that claim to cover this ongoing conflict. It is impossible to sift out all the half-truths, the full lies and the propaganda that is hitting our screens and newspapers every day. I neither wish to throw blame to the majority of the reporters bringing this news to us, often at risk of their own safety. They do a tremendous job under very difficult circumstances. My only intention has been a call to each and every one of us to scrutinize and analyse as careful as possible the images we are being shown and the messages we are being fed on a daily basis. The first thing that gets killed in a war like this is the truth and so if we take things at face-value, people may die because of it. Sreenivasan Jain and his crew did their job. Up to us to do ours.

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