From the perspective of the West, the media coverage of last week’s flare-up between Israel and Gaza can be broken down into three phases.
In the first phase, wire services (Associated Press, Canadian Press, Reuters) gave a “tit-for tat” account of what transpired following Israel’s March 9 targeted killing in Gaza of Popular Resistance Committee (PRC) leader Zuhir al-Qaisi. According to Israeli intelligence, al-Qaisi was planning to launch another terrorist attack on Israelis from the lawless Sinai, where terror groups have been operating freely in the past year.
This “tit-for-tat” reporting is the media’s basic approach to covering events. How many mortars and rockets were being fired from Gaza in response? How many were intercepted by Israel’s “Iran Dome” missile defence system? How many “militants” in Gaza were killed by IDF strikes? How many civilians were wounded in southern Israel, where one million people live within range of missile fire?
This sort of coverage dominated from March 9 to 11, when Islamic Jihad and the PRC fired missile volleys. AP reported that Hamas itself did not fire rockets, but “allowed other smaller militant groups to unleash salvos,” implying that Hamas, the governing authority in Gaza, was ultimately responsible, as Israel has long maintained.
Even Patrick Martin’s March 12 Globe and Mail story dealt with the body count – 18 Palestinians dead (“mostly militants”) and hundreds of thousands of Israelis taking shelter, and he described what he claimed was a similar civilian reaction on both sides respectively – “cheers” – to the rocket and counter-rocket (“Iron Dome”) firings. Still, Martin noted an important disparity, namely that “While tens of thousands of Israeli school children stayed home in shelters… it was school as usual for the Palestinians in Gaza.”
In the second phase, March 12 and 13, western journalists began to notice some of the deeper analyses of the situation by Avi Issacharoff (Ha’aretz), Yaakov Katz (Jerusalem Post), and David Horovitz (on his new Times of Israel website).
Issacharoff wrote on March 13: “There’s no doubt that one reason Islamic Jihad is continuing its rocket fire on southern Israel is its glaring lack of success. After firing more than 200 rockets at the Negev, they still haven’t killed any Israelis.” The success of Israel’s anti-rocket Iron Dome system – a success that exceeded IDF expectations – was the principal source of frustration for Islamic Jihad and the PRC.
But this wasn’t the only factor to frustrate terror groups. Despite Palestinian expectations, Arab leaders across the region largely failed to condemn Israel. Their attention remained focused on the ongoing massacres in Syria. In fact, Gaza ended up down the list of items in major media outlets, including the Arab satellite news station Al Jazeera.
Israel has warned that Iran and Syria have their own interest in distracting attention from both Assad’s atrocities and Iran’s nuclear program. Shifting the focus to Israel at this time is clearly in their interest, and yet this effort is largely failing due to structural changes in the region. The ongoing power struggle between the Sunni world (led by Saudi Arabia) and the Shiite world (led by Iran) is surfacing in Gaza through various Palestinian proxies.
In the past, Islamic Jihad and Hamas co-ordinated their efforts. Following the “Arab Spring,” with the rise of the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas is drifting from Iran to Egypt – which is hostile to the Shia. But Islamic Jihad is keeping its ties to Iran, and its leadership remains in Syria (from which Hamas has departed). It’s no wonder that most Sunni leaders have refused to voice support for Islamic Jihad and the PRC. This sectarian divide will no doubt continue to affect the internal dynamics of Gaza.
In the third phase of coverage, even wire services reflected some of the deeper (and mainly Israeli) analyses, particularly noting Iran’s fingerprints on Gaza. Media also considered how the successful Iron Dome system can benefit western countries. As Iran draws closer to a nuclear weapons capability, Israeli defence technologies will surely interest North American and European countries, which rightly recognize the threat Iran poses beyond the Middle East.
Paul Michaels is director of research and media relations for the Centre for Israel and Public Affairs.