Violence and Understanding: The British broadsheets’ coverage of the “first Gaza war”

Violence and Understanding: The British broadsheets’ coverage of the “first Gaza war”

Dávid Kaposi (The Open University)

“The conflation of Israel with Jews raises thorny questions of when political views cross into bigotry”, notes The Economist in a recent article on the renewed wave of violent antisemitism in Europe. Indeed, as one tries to comprehend the Copenhagen shootings and the Paris attacks, the familiar issue of criticism vis-a-vis the State of Israel resurfaces. An utterly irrelevant issue, at first sight, as European Jews are in no formal connection to the State of Israel. A Highly relevant issue, at the same time, as European Jews are deeply connected to the Jewish state – if not necessarily in their own eyes, then definitely in those of the extremists who carried out the atrocities, or in those of the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu whose response to the atrocities was to call for mass Jewish immigration to Israel as it is “Israel [that] is the home of every Jew.”

In line with this, for some commentators, many or most critical remarks about the State of Israel merely serve as masking an underlying intent of antisemitism; for others, it is precisely many or most of these attempts to identify antisemitic remarks in criticisms of Israel that are suspect as they steer the debate away from Israeli responsibility and may even immunize the state from criticism.

Thus, the act of criticism in itself is central to the discourse over the rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is this state of the discourse which I tried to examine in a recent book on the British broadsheets’ coverage of “Operation Cast Lead” or the “first Gaza war” – in many respects a very similar inflammation of the conflict as last year’s war. What I found was that, by and large, the difference between left- and right-wing newspapers’ critical perspective and arguments was negligible and not at all for the better.

The British broadsheets and the “first Gaza war” (2008-2009)
To be sure, the Daily Telegraph and The Times predictably supported the State of Israel and noisily condemned Hamas, whereas for the Guardian the problematic agent was Israel with Hamas’s contribution barely worth mentioning. (In important respects the Independent’s coverage was a simple mishmash of these two poles and I do not intend to review it here.) Yet these differences belonged to the surface, and as analysis turned to the deeper structure of arguments and the underlying conceptions of the publications, apparent differences looked to carry little more political-moral significance than that of cheering on Chelsea or Arsenal.

Namely, newspapers invariably conveyed a decontextualized picture of the relevant agents, as they removed them from history and the web of human relationships they are inevitably located in. As such, “Israel” or “Hamas” ceased to read as human agents with political-moral responsibility, and became quasi-mythological essences of Crime and Innocence; of Impurity and Purity – or, at least, without much role in bringing about the conflict. Whether it was the Guardian branding the IDF simply “violent” or the Telegraph and Times categorizing Hamas as “antisemitic”, a binary and essentialist logic of violence prevailed at the expense of the relational logic of understanding. What was completely missing was a perspective from which we can start to understand why Hamas might be antisemitic or Israelis violent. And from where we can appreciate what impact Hamas’s action may have on Israeli identities and actions; or how Israeli policies might influence what Hamas had come to be.

Nowhere was this dynamic more intriguing as in the case of an apparent exception to it: The Times’ editorial coverage of the Israeli Defense Forces’, to use The Times’ own term, “illegal” deployment of a chemical material. Ostensibly contradicting its position as a firmly pro-Israeli newspaper. In a succession of editorials the conservative newspaper raised the issue of the IDF’s deeply problematic use of white phosphorous, with what appeared to be strongly worded criticism. Yet what followed was not the full development of a critical perspective. Instead, we witnessed the emergence of various sorts of undesirable and suspect figures, foremost amongst them “Israel’s critics” who understand its relationship to the United States as “Jewish axis” and wish to solve the conflict by “abandoning Israel”. No wonder, perhaps, that amidst this enumeration of arguably antisemitic figures and equating criticism with antisemitism, the original thrust of The Times’ argument got lost. Instead of a call for an independent inquiry – the logical consequence of an agent’s apparently illegal conduct of war, the conservative newspaper concluded by asking Israeli authorities to issue an unequivocal statement, lest they hand “more ammunition […] to those who would accuse them of war crimes.”

In short, British broadsheets converged towards a quasi-mythological and anti-political framework where agents’ respective innocence and purity had to be kept apart from blame and impurity – never more so when the pure actually appeared to act in problematic ways.

How to write about Israel/Palestine
There was one substantial exception to this dynamic in the sample examined, however. In the Financial Times’ editorials we encountered a systematic attempt to develop a relational, and therefore truly political-moral, perspective to help understanding the conflict:

‘Yet Israel, backed by the US and the mute assent of Europe, has sought to isolate Hamas. After Hamas fought it out with Fatah and ejected it from Gaza 18 months ago, the 1.5m Gazans have suffered a blockade rationing food, fuel and medicine entering the enclave.

This policy makes Palestinians dependent on Hamas for basic needs. It makes violence an attractive alternative both when (Hamas) truces fail to lift the blockade and (Fatah) peace talks fail to deliver peace. (29 December, 2008)’

This rather simple passage is not exemplary by dint of being critical of Israel, of course. It is exemplary as Hamas violence is not explained as an essence to be blamed or brushed aside as essentially immaterial. It is rather understood in relation to history and the Israeli policy of the blockade of Gaza. Not that it offers some sort of fully-fledged historical tableaux of the events. It is a perspective presented where the State of Israel becomes an agent partly contributing to Hamas’ conduct and identity. And, likewise, a perspective is raised that Hamas too has its role in who Israelis are and what they do. Both with regard to past and present, therefore, a simple yet powerful horizon is developing here, where what matters is not the simple question of who is right and who is wrong; who is to blame and who is innocent; who is antisemitic and who wishes to immunize Israel from criticism, but that this story is composed of human agents whose conduct can only be understood by unpacking the past and present relations between then.

In a similar vein, the argument developed here does not wish to proscribe what political-moral position one needs to take in debating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What it does wish to contribute to political-moral arguments is the finding that it is as simple to acknowledge that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict occurs between two people (both of whom will bleed if you prick them), as mightily difficult as it appears to be to sustain this acknowledgment in practice. It is a certain capacity that is required to understand what sort of bleeding is masked by someone pricking the other and, on the basis of the evidence reviewed here, this capacity proved to be next to impossible to come by in the British broadsheets’ account of the “first Gaza war”. Yet, it is this capacity – not just facts, not just arguments – that is needed if we want to understand, and persuade, and educate.


Dávid Kaposi is Lecturer in Social Psychology at The Open University. He is author of the book Violence and Understanding in Gaza: The British broadsheets coverage of the war published by Palgrave Macmillan and featuring the picture of two football stadiums sitting peacefully side-by-side. His present and future publications on the Arendt-Scholem correspondence, the Milgram experiments and other issues around violence and understanding can be found here.