Israeli airstrikes on Palestinian civilians – The Dehumanising coverage by the Swiss media

Alaa Qadoum (5), Mohammed Hassouna (14), Ahmad Al-Nairab (11), Momen Al-Nairab (5), Hazem Salem (9), Ahmed Al-Farram (16), Jamil Al-Deen Naijm (4), Nazmy Karsh (16), Hamed Najim (16), Mohammed Naijm (17), Jamil Ihab Najim (13), Muhammad Al-Nabahin (13), Ahmed Al-Nabahin (9), Dalia Al-Nabahin (13), Haneen Abu Qaida (10)

These are the names of the Palestinian children killed by the Israeli military in the recent airstrikes in Gaza. They are just a few of the many innocent civilians who have lost their lives in the past few days as a result of Israel’s brutal and inhumane attacks.

When covering wars and occupations, human rights violations and war crimes, especially the cold-blooded murder of civilians, must be at the centre. And yet the double standards of Western mass media could not be greater. As soon as attention turns to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Israeli war crimes against Palestinian civilians fade into the background. Moreover, the media often adopts a biased stance that welcomes the Israeli view.

Using the examples of the online media watson.ch, 20minuten.ch and srf.ch, this article will show how Swiss mass media have failed miserably to present the Israeli attacks on the Palestinian civilian population in a factual manner over the past few days. The three news portals mentioned were chosen for analysis because, according to the Yearbook Quality of the Media 21, they have the largest reach among online media in Switzerland. The analysis integrates articles published or updated from the beginning of the Israeli attacks on 5 August 2022 until the ceasefire on 7 August at 22:00. 

Irrelevant headlines

Headlines from watson.ch, 20minuten.ch and srf.ch are meant to give Swiss readers a picture of the situation on the ground. Watson and 20minuten write the same thing in terms of content: “After killing of jihad chief: Several rockets fired at Israel” (watson.ch); “After killing of jihad chief: Israel reports rocket fire from Gaza Strip” (20minuten.ch). Both headlines reveal a biased stance of the media portals, which clearly side with Israel by using this wording. They imply, namely, that the Israelis carried out a lawful act (execution of the jihadi leader) and that the Palestinians reacted to it with an unlawful act (firing rockets at Israel). They also display Israelis as the victims and Palestinians as the perpetrators. However, the two headlines ignore that there was more than a precise military operation behind the killing of the jihadi chief. It involved several Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, which at the time of publication of the articles included the bombing of a residential building, the killing of ten Palestinians, including a five-year-old (Alaa Qadoum) and 23-year-old girl (Duniana Adnan Al-Amour), and the injury of 55 civilians. 

SRF described the Israeli airstrikes on Palestinian civilians the next day as follows: “Violence in Gaza continues for second day”. This is outrageous on two counts. First, the headline’s use of the term “violence” trivialises the brutal and bloody conditions in Gaza. This is evident from pictures and videos of bleeding and lifeless children and adults, which circulated on social media. Secondly, the headline avoids holding Israel responsible for this atrocity. In another headline, SRF wrote “Islamist chief killed: Israel attacks more Gaza targets”. This wording gives the reader the impression that the “further targets” refer to terrorists and that the attacks are therefore legitimate. In reality, numerous homes were bombed and completely destroyed. Watson mentioned in the headline of 07.08.2022 the “hail of rockets on Israel” – which incidentally did not result in any serious casualties on the Israeli side – but excluded the Israeli hail of rockets on Palestine, which by that time had already resulted in 31 deaths, including six children, four women, and 265 wounded. 

Glancing over Table 1, one immediately notices that none of the headlines mention the killing or wounding of Palestinian civilians. This is worrying and confirms that Palestinian civilian casualties are not a priority in the reporting of the Swiss online media.

watson.ch20minuten.chsrf.ch
Nach Tötung von Dschihad-Chef: Mehrere Raketen auf Israel abgefeuert (published on 05.08.2022, 22:14, updated at 23:04)Nach Tötung von Jihad-Chef: Israel meldet Raketenbeschuss aus dem Gazastreifen (published on 06.08.2022, 02:52)Nach Tötung von Dschihad-Chef: Gewalt im Gazastreifen hält zweiten Tag an (updated on 06.08.2022, 10:29am)
«Katastrophale Situation» in Gaza – einziges Kraftwerk vorübergehend abgeschaltet(published on 06.08.2022, 14:44, updated at 17:05)Naher Osten: Israelischer Luftangriff tötet Dschihad-Kommandeur Chaled Mansour(updated on 07.08.2022, 11:44am)Islamisten-Chef getötet: Israel greift weitere Ziele im Gazastreifen an (published on 06.08.2022, 16:23, updated at 21:24)
Tötung von Dschihad-Militärchefs und Raketenhagel auf Israel – das Wichtigste in 8 Punkten (published on 07.08.2022, 04:47am, updated at 17:05) Gazastreifen: Wieso eskaliert die Gewalt ausgerechnet jetzt?(published on 06.08.2022, 20:35)
  Gewalt im Nahostkonflikt: Gaza: Ab heute Abend soll offenbar ein Waffenstillstand gelten (published on 07.08.2022, 10:29, updated at 17:26)
Table 1: Headlines of the three online media outlets concerning the situation on the ground

Biased reactions of the Swiss media

Not only the headlines, but the articles themselves put the Israeli attack on the Palestinian civilian population in the background, despite the fact that such actions violate the principles of international humanitarian law. Moreover, the articles are filled with biased and out-of-context formulations. This is illustrated by the three original reactions from watson.ch, 20minuten.ch and srf.ch. 

Watson

In the first article published by Watson, the opening paragraphs are devoted to the situation in Israeli cities (based on Israeli media reports), the threats of the “Palestinian organisation Islamic Jihad” (PIJ) and the Israeli assassination of its leader in a “military operation in the Gaza Strip” in response to “planned attacks on [Israeli] civilians”. As a crowning conclusion – before the Palestinian civilian victims are even mentioned – it is emphasised once again that Islamic Jihad is “classified as a terrorist organisation by the EU and the USA”. At this point, the average reader is already influenced and has formed an opinion: The Israeli attack on Gaza is legitimate because they are taking out terrorists in Gaza as a preventive measure against attacks on their own civilian population. Israelis are the good guys, Palestinians the bad guys.

Then finally, after nine pro-Israeli phrased sentences, a misleading headline and a photo showing Palestinian rockets “heading towards Israel”, Palestinian civilian casualties are mentioned for the first time: “According to Palestinian sources, at least ten people were killed in the Israeli airstrikes, including a five-year-old child and other PIJ members, in addition to al-Jabari [jihadi leader].” This sentence is abysmal for several reasons. First, the “five-year-old child” has a name: Alaa Qadoum, a young girl still in kindergarten and ripped from life in the worst possible way. Secondly, Alaa is only mentioned in a subordinate sentence. The article consists of 32 sentences in total, and yet Watson does not dedicate a single sentence to her. Finally, Alaa is placed between “al-Jabari” and “other PIJ members”. By placing Alaa between two descriptions of “terrorists”, Watson is deliberately trying to trivialise her death and legitimise the Israeli attack. This once again highlights the neglect in reporting of Palestinian “collateral damage”, as the Israeli military often legitimises attacks on innocent civilians. 

20minutes

The 20minuten article on the Israeli air strike in Gaza is basically identical to the Watson article. It is slightly shorter and some sentences have been changed, but the biased wording and the neglect of the Palestinian civilian population remain. Under the title, the news portal added a photo of an explosion in the Gaza Strip and commented as follows: “Fire and smoke in Gaza: Israel reports targeted killing of Palestinian militant leader.” This description overlooks the devastating impact of Israeli attacks on Palestinian civilians. Below the photo, 20minuten also included an information box to inform readers about the main  events. Again, the attack on Palestinian civilians was not reported. Even more unsettling: the Israeli airstrikes were not even mentioned, but only that the Israeli military “killed the military chief of the militant Palestinian organisation Islamic Jihad (PIJ) in the Gaza Strip (…)”. 

SRF

SRF’s original reaction – here we have an updated version of the article on 06.08.2022 at 10:29 – to the events on the ground is equally worrying. As in the case of 20minuten, many distorted and biased formulations are repeated in line with the Watson article. Moreover, once again the summary of key events at the beginning of the article does not even mention Palestinian civilian casualties. When this issue is finally mentioned, the figures are again played down: “Among the dead are at least four members of Islamic Jihad and one child. Rephrased, this means: Among the dead are up to five civilians, including one child. SRF could have opted for the latter formulation, but instead decided to place the killing of the child in the context of killed PIJ members. 

Regarding the beginning of the article, two formulations are misleading. “Targets in Gaza” implies a feigned legitimacy, since the airstrikes had already hit several residential buildings at the time this article was published. There is no trace of this in the SRF article.Additionally, the sentence “the Palestinians continue to fire rockets into Israeli territory” is a misplaced generalisation, implying that Palestinians in general, and not PIJ, are responsible for the rockets fired. This once again illustrates how the Swiss online media fail to differentiate between civilians and PIJ members. 

SRF’s reporting also lacks context, as do the other two articles. It writes “Israelis and Palestinians in fear – Many Israelis in the south of the country spent the night in shelters. In the Gaza Strip, on the other hand, people fear the Israeli air strikes that began Friday afternoon and continued.” To the reader, it appears that both civilian populations were equally affected by the events. Omitted is the fact that Palestinians in Gaza have been living in an “open-air” prison for 15 years due to the Israeli land, sea and air blockade. There are no shelters in the Gaza Strip, and no Iron Dome to intercept Israeli rockets. The approximately two million inhabitants, trapped in one of the most densely populated regions in the world, are defenceless against Israeli airstrikes. SRF briefly addresses this at the end of the article, but only selectively. “In the Gaza Strip, some two million inhabitants live in very poor conditions.” Instead of addressing how the Israeli blockade massively restricts access to electricity, clean drinking water and life-saving medical treatment, any responsibility is shifted away from Israel. The blame is placed on the Palestinians by emphasising that Hamas is a terrorist organisation and implying that the ongoing Israeli blockade was a legitimate response: “Hamas, classified by the EU as a terrorist organisation, had violently seized power in 2007. Israel then tightened a blockade of the area, (…)” Watson uses the same reasoning, while 20minuten completely ignores the context of the blockade. 

Finally, it should be pointed out that a 37-second video entitled “Many dead and injured in Gaza” appears at the top of the SRF article. The clips are apparently intended to give readers an understanding of the situation in Gaza. One can see a group of Palestinians filming rubble with their mobile phones; smoke coming out of a building; and a close-up of three apartment blocks that appear to still be standing. The choice is surprising, considering the videos that have been circulating on social media. Why weren’t Swiss readers shown one of the many videos available of Israeli rockets hitting Gaza? Or the video in which a group of Palestinian children with bloodied faces fearfully stare into the void? Or the video in which a distraught young man carries the lifeless body of Alaa in his arms?

Conclusion

The examples of these three media portals highlight several problematic issues in the coverage of the Israeli occupation of Palestine in general and the recent Israeli attacks on Gaza specifically:

  • The coverage downplays the drastic situation in Gaza. The attacks on the Palestinian civilian population are for the most part blanked out or pushed to the background. In the few cases where they are mentioned, their killing is legitimised as collateral damage, thus degrading and erasing their existence. 
  • The coverage implies a biased attitude on the part of the media portals, which clearly side with Israel through their writing and wording. The actions of the Israelis are erroneously presented as lawful and legitimate, those of the opposing side as unlawful and illegitimate. Readers are given the impression of who are the “good guys” (Israelis) and who are the “bad guys” (Palestinians). Accordingly, the victim/perpetrator role is also clearly assigned. In some cases, Palestinians are generalised as terrorists by the online media. 
  • The coverage refuses to hold Israel responsible for their human rights violations and war crimes. Instead, readers are given the impression that Palestinians themselves are the ones to blame for their plight. 
  • The coverage fails to present the events within an adequate context – the inhumane, illegal and ongoing Israeli blockade of Gaza. 

The online media portals watson.ch, 20min.ch and srf.ch reach a wide readership. Swiss readers form their opinions on certain topics based on their headlines and formulations. Therefore, balanced and contextual reporting that focuses on the suffering of civilians, defines war crimes as such and holds its perpetrators accountable is all the more important. In this respect, the three media portals analysed failed miserably. 

Reporting that does not lead with the attack on the Palestinian civilian population and the serious extent of war crimes on the part of the Israelis is irresponsible and dehumanising. Moreover, it contributes to the legitimisation of the illegal Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

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