From a media viewpoint, Israel could not have picked a better moment for its offensive against Hamas in Gaza. The period between Christmas and New Year is normally a desperate time for real news, with publications forced to fill the space between ads with endless retail stories, quizzes and easily forgotten predictions by key columnists.
One forecast which the media broadly predicted was Ehud Olmert’s last stand. A Guardian report on December 27, the day Israel’s offensive began, noted that over the previous three days Hamas had “pounded Israel’s neighbouring southern townships with 36 rockets, hitting a water park, a house and a factory”.
If the intention was to provoke the lame duck Kadima-led government, facing defeat by Likud in February’s elections, then Hamas’s political antennae were well tuned. The only confusion was the orchestrated pictures of Gaza crossings the day before the assault, showing convoys carrying humanitarian aid entering the territory and ending a lengthy blockade.
The Israeli attacks dominated the BBC bulletins on Saturday. The BBC’s website claimed that most of the 200 people killed in raids by Israeli F-16 bombers were policemen in the Hamas militant movement but it also gave credence to unnamed Gaza officials who claimed that “women and children” also died.
By Sunday morning, Israel’s attacks were the lead or prominent front page stories for all the main broadsheets, accompanied inside by dramatic images, histories of the Gaza conflict, analysis and leading articles. The Sunday Times argued that the stalemate in Gaza “must be broken”. Like other media outlets, it described the raids as the fiercest since the 1967 war, adding “we appear to be back to square one”, with no reference to the fact that Gaza was handed back to the Palestinians in August 2005.
In the same paper, columnist Michael Portillo suggested that the Israel-Hamas issue could move to the top of Barack Obama’s in-tray. Portillo believes it will be “an attractive issue” for Obama following President Bush’s general aloofness from the conflict, conveniently forgetting that the “road map” was a Bush-Blair initiative.
The Observer is now more integrated with its sister paper, the Guardian, than at any time in recent years, with reporters sharing a newsroom. The latter’s Middle East analyst, Ian Black, comments that “prospects for revived talks must have now diminished further”. The paper’s leader, however, was distinctly more Observer than Guardian, arguing that Hamas thrives on the Israel blockade because it taxes goods smuggled in and provides welfare.
But it reminds readers that Hamas is a terrorist organisation whose charter claims the Holy Land “exclusively for Islam and calls for the annihilation of the Jewish state” — points rarely noted in the UK press.
A Sunday Telegraph front page story quoted Israeli human rights group B’Tselem saying 1,400 Palestinians had been killed since Israel withdrew from Gaza, contrasting it with nine Israeli civilians killed by rockets. No reference is made to the extreme fear visited on Israelis in Sderot and nearby.
In a comment piece, Telegraph Middle East correspondent Tim Butcher speculated that the Israeli assaults might be seen as ending what Hamas may come to see as “a golden period of unprecedented power in Gaza”.
What none of the reports point out was that Hamas rule has been disastrous for Fatah and for Gaza’s historic ruling clans, many of which Hamas has eliminated. Unfortunately, such context is all too often lost amid the propaganda battle which accompanies any Middle East flare-up.