A heartbreaking picture dominated the world media last November, just a day after Israel launched its “Pillar of Defense”-campaign to stop the barrage of rockets from Gaza. The picture showed a grief-stricken young father in Gaza holding the shrouded body of his baby son.
The Washington Post was among the newspapers that featured the photo prominently on its front page.
Unsurprisingly, Hamas was quick to also distribute the photo, adding rather ridiculously: “Where is the media coverage of Israel’s crimes in Gaza[?]”
But while the media generally agreed with Hamas that it should be taken for granted that Israel was to blame for the death of the baby, blogger Elder of Ziyon pointed out that there were many reasons to question this supposed “fact.” However, the BBC would have none of that: while it devoted several reports to this tragic story because the bereaved father was employed by the BBC’s Gaza office, it firmly dismissed all doubts, insisting that baby Omar most likely “died in the one of the more than 20 bombings across Gaza that the Israeli military says made up its initial wave of attacks.”
Months later, the BBC continues to feature this story – despite the fact that by now, a UN investigation has concluded that baby Omar Masharawi (also spelled Mashhrawi or Misharawi) was indeed killed “by what appeared to be a Palestinian rocket that fell short of Israel.” As BBC Watch notes, the relevant UN report has been published four days ago, and the BBC hasn’t yet gotten around to issuing any correction to its original stories. The same is probably true for most of the mainstream media that prominently featured this tragic image and the related story – and even if corrections were issued, they wouldn’t be given the prominent and dramatic coverage that the original received. The grief-stricken father in Gaza holding the shrouded body of his beloved baby son will inevitably become part of the “lethal narratives” that are spread eagerly by mainstream journalists who have long embraced the notion that Goliath Israel is cruelly oppressing and killing the Palestinian David.
I wrote about this tragic incident in late November last year, when the Washington Post’s ombudsman Patrick Pexton (whose term just ended) responded to the controversy about the front page photo. His article included a callous dismissal of the rocket barrage from Gaza, which Pexton compared to “bee stings on the Israeli bear’s behind.”
According to Pexton, the photo of Jihad Masharawi mourning his baby son was selected for the front page because everyone at the Washington Post felt that it “went straight to the heart, this sobbing man who just lost his baby son.”
Of course, the rocket was fired with the intention to create such a scene in Israel.
Pexton also argued that “an effective photograph…moves the viewer toward a larger truth” – though he didn’t make entirely clear what he had in mind. But he also linked to a related Washington Post article on “The Israeli-Palestinian politics of a bloodied child’s photo,” which featured three images: the first on the left is the photo that was the controversial choice for the Washington Post’s front page; the one in the middle is an injured Israeli infant, and the third photo is again from a boy killed in Gaza who was rushed to Gaza’s Shifa Hospital just when Egypt’s Prime Minister was visiting there with Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.
Commenting on the three images, Max Fisher argued:
“Each tells a similar story: a child’s body, struck by a heartless enemy, held by those who must go on. It’s a narrative that speaks to the pain of a grieving people, to the anger at those responsible, and to a determination for the world to bear witness. But the conversations around these photos, and around the stories that they tell, are themselves a microcosm of the distrust and feelings of victimhood that have long plagued the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Whatever story Max Fisher thought the three photos were telling and whatever uplifting contemplations he intended to offer, the plain truth is that all three children were victims of rockets shot by Hamas and other Gaza terrorists. The plain truth is also that they hoped that only Israeli children would be injured or killed by their rockets, but they knew that if they wouldn’t quite succeed and some children in Gaza got killed by their rockets, nobody would hesitate to blame Israel for it.
After all, everyone knows that the strikes of the Israeli Goliath kill, while the attacks of the Palestinian David are merely “bee stings on the Israeli bear’s behind” – and who cares that every Israeli strike that kills a Palestinian child or civilian is considered by the Israeli military and the vast majority of the Israeli public a tragic event, while every Palestinian “bee sting” that kills an Israeli child or civilian is considered by Palestinian terror groups and their supporters a reason to cheer and celebrate.
The Washington Post’s Max Fisher certainly doesn’t care about this well-documented fact, as his not-so-subtle exercise in equivalency illustrates: “a child’s body, struck by a heartless enemy” implies after all that just as Hamas is a “heartless enemy” to Israel’s children, the IDF is an equally “heartless enemy” to Palestinian children.
As far as Fisher is concerned, this is the “story” told by the three images he comments on. But it is of course he who is telling a story about heartless enemies wounding and killing innocent children. I doubt that Fisher will take the time to revisit his story and ponder how much – or rather how little – sense it makes once we know that each of the children shown in the photos was a victim of Palestinian fire.
Fisher focuses mainly on arguing how terrible it is that there are controversies about such photos and the stories they supposedly tell. But as this example illustrates so well, it is always people who tell stories about images, and it indeed matters a lot what stories they tell – because facts matter if we want to understand reality.
Of course, when it comes to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians (and the broader Arab and Muslim world), focusing on facts and their proper context isn’t all that fashionable.
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Cross-posted from my JPost blog.
In the end, quite a lot of media outlets reported the UN finding that the son of Jihad Mashrawi was most likely the victim of a Palestinian rocket. However, as J.E. Dyer rightly points out in her excellent and detailed analysis of several incidents that were falsely blamed on Israel (“Oops – The IDF didn’t kill Baby Mashrawi (and other things that didn’t happen during Pillar of Defense)”), this incident showed once again that media organizations that care about their reputation should be considerably more careful about vetting their sources and verifying the details of events they report on.
The perhaps most impressive correction for the Masharawi incident was published by AP, which had taken the widely published photo of the mourning father back in November.
However, the BBC was extremely reluctant to correct its story. Similarly, the Washington Post’s Max Fisher doubled down on his earlier false equivalence that implied there was no difference between Hamas and the IDF. Accordingly, Fisher now wrote in his new post on the subject:
“But, as I wrote in November when reports suggested that an Israeli strike had killed Mishrawi, does knowing which military’s errant round happened to have landed on this civilian home really determine the larger narrative of one of the world’s thorniest and most complicated conflicts? Does assigning blame for Mishrawi’s tragic death, awful as it may be, offer us any real insight into who holds the blame for 60 years of fighting? And is partitioning blame really going to serve either side particularly well?
It’s difficult to see how knowing whose rocket or missile killed Mishrawi would resolve the larger questions for which that debate is a proxy: responsibility for continuing the long-term conflict, for sparking the latest round of fighting in November, and for the Israeli and Palestinian civilians who suffer as a result. But these are notoriously thorny debates. As with so many protracted geopolitical conflicts, neither side comes out looking as angelic or demonic as its partisans might wish. In many ways, something as isolated as a single photo of a wounded or killed child offers a purer, cleaner, lower-risk way to talk about issues too messy to engage with directly. […]”
While this is pure nonsense on several levels, I will for now just note that if Fisher wants to see Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza as a “military” just like the IDF, he would have to hold them both to the same standard – which means he would have to deal with the fact that Hamas and the other Palestinian terror groups intentionally target Israeli civilians and are jubilant if they manage to kill or maim them. The fact of the matter is that there wouldn’t be any photos of wounded or killed children from Gaza if Palestinian terror groups stopped using the territory they control as a launching pad for mortars, rockets and terror attacks on Israel.