While correspondents in the Middle East strive to add up the numbers of casualties correctly, the news media have failed for the most part to show us the real human face behind the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
A CNN reporter interviewed Amnesty International forensic pathologist Derrick Pounder on April 19 about his experience in the Jenin refugee camp a few days earlier. Asked whether the Israeli army might have committed a massacre when no media or aid workers were allowed into Jenin, Pounder told the reporter he thought there was no doubt about humanitarian violations by the Israeli army in Jenin. Obviously, he said, many civilians, including women and children, were among the casualties.
While Pounder waited in a nearby town more than a week before journalists and aid workers were allowed into Jenin late last month, he saw dozens of injured Palestinians who had fled the camp to seek help at two local hospitals. “We noticed that only slightly injured civilians reached the two hospitals,” Pounder said, “which meant the severely injured couldn’t make it and almost certainly have died because of their injuries.”
Some eyewitnesses who fled the camp were interviewed by Amnesty International and all gave detailed descriptions of humanitarian violation incidents. Pounder called their statements “consistent and very credible.”
Towards the end of April, some human rights workers from Jenin said there was no strong evidence of the killing of hundreds of Palestinians, but there was proof that the Israelis had killed many civilians, including women, children and old men and that they may have used civilians as human shields to capture other Palestinians. That, according to international aid workers, was a “severe human rights violation.”
On May 2, Amnesty International urged the UN Security Council to “live up to their responsibility to establish the truth into what occurred at Jenin refugee camp,” an AI internet news release said.
During the CNN feature, however, I wondered why the reporter had wasted Mr. Pounder’s time by not utilizing this opportunity to hear a first-hand account of the Jenin aftermath. Were there any children among the casualties? What happened to the homeless and trapped people under and around the rubble? And how many, exactly, were arrested? None of the real questions were asked.
Yet only a day before the CNN interview was aired, Khaled Zighari, a Palestinian photojournalist, told me by telephone on April 18 from Jerusalem that what he’d seen in Jenin was “horrifying.” After being denied access to the camp, Zighari and five other Arab journalists walked for about five hours until they were able to get in without going through an Israeli checkpoint. He told me that the buildings and the roads of Jenin should probably be torn down and built again from scratch.
“Many men and women walked around the rubble of what used to be their homes isolated from what’s going on around them. They… don’t respond if you try to talk to them,” Zighari said, describing the numb horror still reflected in their eyes. He feared there was little aid available for such traumatized people, including the children, wandering among decomposing bodies or body parts on the streets.
When I asked him whether a massacre had occurred in Jenin, he answered: “I don’t know. And it’s painful not to have an answer. If the [UN] fact-finding mission workers find out there was no massacre, we will be pleased and might, finally, be able to sleep at night.”
Zighari had also managed to enter Jenin secretly a week earlier on April 12. “I visited a family of 20 people living in a very small and damaged house. They had a 70-year-old man bleeding for four days whom they couldn’t help,” he said. “At the end of the day I was very tired and thirsty. I asked for some water, and a woman brought me a small water bottle that I drank half of,” he remembered. “Before I left, a young boy came towards me and told me that water was the last thing they had. I felt guilty, but I couldn’t help them.”
On May 3, an Israeli soldier threatened to kill Zighari and break his camera because he’d tried to photograph him pointing his gun at a woman and her children trying to go to church for prayers. Luckily, there were seven other photojournalists with Zighari at that time and another one took a photo of the incident.
Bob Hackett, co-director of NewsWatch Canada and a communications professor at Simon Fraser University, said the North American media are negative, one-sided, and apply a double standard in Middle-East coverage.
“Palestinian suffering and perspectives are sometimes scanted relative to those of the Israelis,” he said. “Coverage of conflict, when it’s offered without politics, history and context, tends to reinforce mythical interpretations. Excessive focus on violence and negativity reinforce desensitization, despair or political immobility within the audience. It’s not how much violence coverage we get. It’s about which victims get covered depending on the political scene. News media need to try harder to incorporate different cultural perspectives.”
I was relieved to hear this balanced opinion from an expert media observer and feel encouraged to urge people to seek the truth in areas other than mainstream media. We should also insist that all journalists present the whole truth, not just half of it..
“Palestinians are suffering severe degrees of humiliation, hunger, brutal death and trauma,” Zighari concluded, “but no one cares because they are not Israelis.”
It is shameful to realize how true this is.
To view Khaled Zighari’s photography, visit www.zighari.com
Mayyasa El-Ali is a Muslim Canadian freelance journalist from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.