Who dictated the news from Gaza?
Even the briefest of glances at film-maker Martin Himel’s recent back catalogue reveals a consistent focus on the way the Israel-Palestine conflict is reported. In 2003, he made Confrontation at Concordia about the campus riots at the American university when Benjamin Netanyahu visited the previous year. In 2004, he made Jenin: Massacring Truth, unpicking the claims made against Israel over its “massacre” of Palestinians in the West Bank town. In 2013, he made the uncompromisingly titled Jew-Bashing, about global antisemitism.
And now Himel has made Eyeless in Gaza, an hour-long documentary which asks a disturbing question — why has the world’s media bought into the Palestinian narrative about the 2014 Gaza war?
Himel’s conclusion is that too many journalists, who were either based in Gaza, or who were sent in as “firefighters” by their foreign desks, fell foul of intimidation by Hamas. He is unhappy, too, that the conflict is reported as a political war, when he believes it is actually a religious war.
Eyeless in Gaza began as a project when Robert Magid — who, among other things, is the publisher of the Australian Jewish News — approached Himel. They agreed that not only had a balanced narrative been suppressed, but that the reporting led directly to the worldwide anti-Israel demonstrations in the summer of 2014.
“He came to me because he knew that what was going on was misre- porting”, Himel says.
He started working on the film in 2015 but — conscious that Israel and Israelis were “easy and accessible” — was keener to talk to people who were “completely pro-Palestinian. That was very hard”.
He succeeds, however, with the testimony of Russia Today reporter Harry Fear, who says of himself “I’m known to be one of the most Palestinian-sympathetic journalists in the world… yet I found myself under a great deal of pressure as a result of the way I covered the conflict”. Fear, who had worked in Gaza for three years, was expelled from the Strip after tweeting that Hamas was firing rockets from civilian areas. On camera, he tells Himel that it was clear to him that the repeated rejection of ceasefires by Hamas had cost thousands of Palestinian lives, as every rejection brought renewed Israeli bombardment and subsequent Palestinian deaths.
Even more damningly, Fear says that he doesn’t think that any journalist who covered the 2014 conflict “didn’t see prima facie war crimes committed by Palestinian militant groups.
Rockets were being fired consistently from densely populated areas”.
Though he reiterates that his natural allegiance is to the Palestin- A 2014 protest against Israel’s actions in Gaza. Below: Martin Himel ians, “it doesn’t mean I can’t use my brain and see questionable military activity taking place on the Palestinian side, as well as the Israeli side”.
Fear cites the best-known example of this when, on August 5 2014, an Indian TV crew, by chance, managed to film a blue tent set up next door to their hotel. Inside the tent, Hamas militants were assembling rocket launchers, ready to fire into Israel. The blue tent and its deathly contents were right in the middle of a residential area, but as Fear points out, the Indian TV journalists only screened the damning footage “as they left the Gaza Strip”. This shows, says Fear, “a downward pressure on journalists’ freedom of information.”
The Gaza war, says Himel, “was a religious war waged by a radical Islam, which sees Jews as the enemy.” For proof, he films — via Palestinian journalists — hardline Hamas leaders who are uncompromising in their attitudes to Jews.
One such is Dr Yunis al-Astal Mohieldin, a Hamas parliamentarian and writer. He says: “Of course the Holocaust did occur in Germany, but this massacre was a Jewish plot, and then the Jews exaggerate the number of deaths… the massacre was a Jewish conspiracy to frighten Jews in Europe to coax and force them to go to Palestine.”
Or there is Ahmad Bahar, vicepresident of the Hamas legislative council: “The Jews live only to be malicious and cunning. As history shows, their strategy is to take control of the country they live in, with money and women… It’s either us or them. No dealings with the Jews. I don’t need the Koran to see they’re evil”.
The Palestinian journalists who spoke to the Hamas leaders were unsurprised by these responses, says Himel. “There is a kind of group-think that there is a monolithic Palestinian identity, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. Palestinians are not monolithic and there are tremendous rivalries between Fatah and Hamas, wellknown and understood.”
Watching the film, one is left with two central questions: first, why didn’t Himel go to the news organisations and their editors, to ask whether the claims of the reporters on the ground were true, that they were intimidated and were afraid for their personal safety, if they reported the allegations against Hamas?
And, second, does he think the film — which has not yet been shown in Israel — is something of a propaganda tool for the Israeli government?
To the first question, Himel says he did use that technique in other films, such as his documentary on Jenin. But this time, he says, he was more interested in “speaking to the guys on the ground. My general feeling is that, in a dangerous place, we have a tendency to be with other journalists and take a line from them about, for example, whether a road is safe. There is a pressurecooker feeling, and there is an unconscious pressure about the parameters of a story. [For this film] I wanted first-hand testimony from the reporters who were there”.
As for acting on behalf of the Israeli government, Himel laughs wryly. Included in the film is the claim of Palestinian activist Lauren Booth (Tony Blair’s sister-in-law), that the editorial policies of the BBC “are made in the Israeli embassy”, but Himel dismisses this utterly. He is unhappy about the “putting out fires” attitude of the Israeli government and says “there is a tremendous disconnect between the Netanyahu government and the needs of the media”.
‘Eyeless in Gaza’ has been screened in the US, Canada and Australia and will be premiered in London on February 27. www.eyelessingazamovie.com
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