Getting away with murder

The excesses of Israel’s enemies are too often excused by an indulgent media


The way in which the media has turned the narrative of human rights and political accountability in the Middle East on its head is remarkable. Israel, at times no doubt deservedly, finds itself under constant fire. Yet the behaviour of Hamas and Hizbollah is rarely accorded the same hostility.

It could be argued that this is because no one expects better of the regimes in Gaza and southern Lebanon, areas from which Israeli settlers and military emplacements have been removed. Some writers blame the situation left behind on Israel itself for unilateral pull-outs which failed to address fully security and social issues.

In Ha'aretz (on Israel's 62nd birthday), Amir Oren remarked that the removal of Israel from the Har Dov border region "did not address the problem of Hizbollah" but simply deferred the next round of violence. Similarly, the Gaza pull-out was carried out with "unfortunate timing in a mistaken manner by a fading leader".

Nevertheless, the lack of symmetry and the tendency to gloss over abuses by Hamas and Hizbollah is a distortion. Monitoring group Just Journalism has examined the reporting of the execution by Hamas of two Palestinians in Gaza in April on suspicion of collaborating with Israel. The short reports in The Times, the Guardian and the Independent presented the event as unprecedented. The Indy described it as the first "formal" executions since Hamas took control of Gaza in 2006.

The tendency to gloss over abuses by Hamas and Hizbollah is a distortion

On The Times website James Hilder was clearer, noting Hamas's use of unofficial executions of political dissidents. Human Rights Watch records that Hamas has killed 32 political opponents and suspected informers since taking control of Gaza. Indeed, reports of Hamas brutality during the 2007-08 Israeli incursion, dragging Fatah supporters from hospital beds and shooting them, were widespread. Yet none of this was recorded by the BBC, which saw the use of the "death penalty" as new to Hamas. It was portrayed as an example of the increasing tensions between Islamist groups and Fatah.

Far from being a new development, the executions, without a fair trail process, were the continuation of abuse which can be dated back to when Hamas brutally seized power.

The latest episode evoked comment from the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who was quoted by French news agency AFP as saying she was "alarmed by unconfirmed reports that several more prisoners may be executed soon". Pillay noted the UN's opposition to the death penalty and argued that should such sentences be carried out, it should be only after a "fair trial", which was not possible in Gaza.

Similarly, fragile reporting was to be found in the BBC website account of the conviction in Egypt of 26 Hizbollah operatives accused of planning attacks on tourist sites popular with Israelis. The article focused on the relationship between Hizbollah and Egypt with Israel scarcely receiving a mention.

A different take was to be seen in the Daily Telegraph. It noted that the 26 were accused of plots on Israeli tourists and in the Suez Canal. It went on to say that the plot leader, Muhammad Qabalan, was allegedly affiliated with Lebanese militant group Unit 1800, "which recruits activists in countries surrounding Israel to attack it".

The BBC's Middle East reporting still struggles for impartiality. Analysis by Honest Reporting on the period January 1 to March 31 this year, found that website articles "often lead with the Palestinian perspective". Hamas supporters are routinely referred to as "militants" or "fighters" rather than terrorists, while the current Israeli government is always "right-wing". So the BBC is making a political judgement about the nature of Israel's ruling coalition (in which Ehud Barak, the former Labour PM is defence minister) while describing Hamas more neutrally.

Such reporting sleight of hand may look innocuous, but is part of a pattern in which Hamas and Hizbollah are treated too kindly by Western media.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

    Last updated: 3:51pm, May 21 2010

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