Who dic­tated the news from Gaza?

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - DOC­U­MEN­TARY JENNI FRAZER

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

Guns and Gaza: Were re­porters in­tim­i­dated?

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