Last Update: 23/02/2003 01:16

It's only Sderot. Only us

By Gideon Levy

These are the names: Al'a Hilo, 23, and his brother Said, 28; Tamer Qata, 27; Amar al-Dayeh, 19; Abd al-Karim Bakroun, 25; Mohammed Salhoub, 27; Abd al-Rahman Kassam, 26; Munzar Safadi, 27; Ali Abu al-Hir, 30; Iyad Abaed, 27; and Abd al-Rahim Abu Naja, 30. Eleven Palestinians, who were killed in the Israel Defense Forces operation in the Sejiya neighborhood of Gaza City last Wednesday. Most (not all) of them were armed, but were they all marked out for death? Together with two others killed in Nablus and one in Jenin, 15 Palestinians died in that day's bloody harvest.

The next day the headline in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth blared, "City under shelling." Which city? Sderot, in southern Israel. In the twin paper, Ma'ariv, none of the headlines and sub-headlines contained any mention of the Palestinians who were killed or of the destruction wrought in Sejiya by the Givati infantry brigade combined with tanks and helicopters. Only Sderot, only the Qassam rockets, only us. Four Qassams landed in the southern town in the wake of the Sejiya operation, lightly wounding a forklift driver, Vladimir Valodya, 48, who works in a local factory that makes shower stalls (he was initially said to be in serious condition).

Israel was preoccupied exclusively, and almost hysterically, with him and his city. A future historian who peruses the papers will reach the conclusion that Sderot was the only city that was shelled last Wednesday. Israelis again learned that they are the only victims of the violence. As for the killing and devastation in Sejiya, who heard about it? Who knows about it? Similarly, the fact that the rocket attack was in direct response to the action in Sejiya, following three weeks of quiet on the Qassam front and an effort by the Palestinian Authority to put a stop to the rocket attacks, was barely noted. The Palestinians are shooting, and it makes no difference why.

The afternoon current events programs on television, which are a particularly good index, dealt only with the Qassam rockets. No call from Gaza, no report from the dead or critically wounded. Even the intention of "New Evening" (Channel One) to interview an IDF officer who would describe the Gaza operation - from the army's point of view - was torpedoed by the IDF Spokesperson's Office. After the Qassams struck, the unit joined the militant effort to present only the Sderot story, and the interview with the officer was canceled. No one thought of interviewing anyone from bloodied Gaza. The Israeli media again told the truth, but not the whole truth. Only the evening newscasts partially balanced the picture.

One shouldn't make light of the terror that struck the people of Sderot or the wounds of Valodya. But on that same day Gaza endured wholesale killing and destruction. In the first 20 days of the month, no fewer than 56 Palestinians were killed (according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights), including seven children and teenagers. What did we hear about them? What were we told about the circumstances in which they were killed? Hardly anything. Does knowing about them necessarily mean identifying with them? Don't Israelis have an obligation to know what happened in Sejiya? After all, even the defense establishment warns after every harsh operation that a wave of terrorist attacks can be expected in response. What we are seeing, then, is a systematic effort to conceal information, entailing a serious breach of trust by the media.

Focusing exclusively on our victims while ignoring the other's victims is morally contemptible, but above all this it has grave political ramifications. With such selective and distorted information at the disposal of the Israeli public, it is little wonder the country has moved so far to the right. Every sensible person who is nourished by the Israeli press would reach the same conclusions. If the Palestinians really are firing rockets at us while they are ensconced securely in their homes, as could be understood from the reports of the Israeli media, the political conclusion is clear: the only solution is force. If there is no occupation, no appalling wrongs and no war crimes, the only possible conclusion is that the Palestinians really were born bloodthirsty. The news pages and the current events programs on radio and television shape public opinion in this way more than a thousand learned and enlightened op-eds.

"We have different views partly because we see different news," the columnist Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times last week. Krugman was talking about the great divide that has opened up between Europe and the United States, but his comment is even more true of the Middle East. Every night the Arab world - and to a lesser degree, the Western world - is exposed to images of atrocity from the territories, whereas the Israeli viewer doesn't have a clue about what is happening less than an hour's drive from his home. He knows only about the brutal suicide bombings and the Qassam rockets.