Here are 3 Ways the U.S. Media Tries to Justify Israel’s Attacks on Civilians in Gaza

From the use of terms such as “human shields,” “terror tunnels” and “Hamas strongholds,” media outlets are covering for Israel’s devastating bombing campaign on Palestinians.

Adam Johnson

People search through buildings, destroyed during Israeli air raids in the southern Gaza Strip on November 6, 2023 in Khan Yunis, Gaza. More than 40% of the dead in Gaza after nearly four weeks of war are children. (Ahmad Hasaballah / Getty)

As the staggering number of civilian deaths in Gaza grows every day, and as fresh reports of Israel’s brazen attacks on mosques, hospitals, churches, refugee camps, and other civilian targets come across our social media timelines every few hours, there’s a mounting urgency among Israeli officials, pro-Israel groups in the United States, and the U.S. media and political establishment that’s backing these manifest war crimes to downplay the horrific mass killing of Palestinian noncombatants. 

With polls showing that a majority of voters, including 80% of Democrats, back a cease-fire — putting the vast majority of Democratic politicians at odds with their own constituents — excuses are needed to justify and handwave away the reports of carnage coming out of Gaza every day. 

There are three popular tropes commonly employed by U.S. media, politicians, and pundits tasked with supporting President Biden and his lockstep backing of the Gaza bombing to effectively, ex post-facto, militarize civilians being killed and maimed by Israel: 

1. Terror tunnels” 

Over the past two weeks, the New York Times ran three different articles full of hand wringing over what to do about the scary reality of Hamas’ underground tunnel network in Gaza. Such a network, to some extent, no doubt exists. Many Palestinians have argued it’s more of a network for smuggling harmless goods in and out of Gaza due to the Israeli blockade preventing imports and exports, rather than a sprawling, sophisticated underground lair teaming with James Bond-like Hamas villains. 

The tunnels in Gaza almost certainly serve a combination of functions, for Hamas and non-Hamas-affiliated Palestinians alike, but the breathless coverage of the alleged terror tunnels” serves one primary purpose: to justify massive civilian death. 

Reporters at the Times have focused intently on the terror tunnel” issue, including lead liberal opinion-shaper David Leonhardt, who built a whole article around it for his very popular daily newsletter. He writes:

The battle over the tunnels is a major reason that this war already has a high civilian death toll. More than two million people live above the tunnels — a layer of human life between many Hamas targets and Israeli missiles.
Hamas has hidden many weapons under hospitals, schools and mosques so that Israel risks killing civilians, and facing an international backlash, when it fights. Hamas fighters also slip above and below ground, blending with civilians.
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Citing a 2014 Washington Post article—an article that largely relies on Israeli and pro-Israel sources — Leonhardt casually asserts that these tunnels are deliberately placed under hospitals, schools, and mosques so that they can be used as protection from bunker busters aiming for the tunnels. 

Surely, such a major claim would require more neutral sourcing, or evidence, or some type of demonstrable methodology for coming to this conclusion (rather than, say, concluding that tunnels in urban areas naturally undergird all types of civilian infrastructure, by definition). But Leonhardt is unconcerned with these deeper questions. He has lazy conventional wisdom to spout and articles to write that Boomer Liberals can brandish at friends on Facebook expressing concern about mounting child body counts in Gaza.

There are also two massive holes in the ghoulish logic of we have to kill civilians because the terror tunnels leave no other option,” neither of which Leonhardt, nor the Times reporters who provided the collateral for his newsletter, seem concerned with addressing.

  1. If Israel has no choice” but to kill thousands of innocent civilians because these civilians are placed between Israel’s otherwise targeted” bombs and the terror tunnels” in which Hamas fighters supposedly dwell, then why doesn’t Israel publish a map of the tunnels and advise civilians to avoid these areas? Israel has provided such information about so-called safe zones” in the past; it has also bombed those safe zones.” In theory, the Israeli government could provide a clear map of the terror tunnels” — they supposedly know where the tunnels are. Yet, it doesn’t do this. Why? Is Leonhardt even curious about why Israel doesn’t do this? Apparently not.

  2. An enemy blending with civilians” was the exact same logic the U.S. used to justify killing millions of Vietnamese civilians in its decades-long war against the Vietnamese insurgency. That’s the same crap we did in Vietnam,” Marc Steiner pointed out on The Real News, recalling the ways the slaughter of Vietnamese civilians was similarly justified by the repeatedly stated suspicion that enemy combatants were hiding among them. “[We said], Let’s destroy that village, because the [National Liberation Front] is there, the Viet Cong are there.’” Clearly, insofar as this tactic is or was employed by fighters in Palestine and Vietnam, the tactic itself wasn’t devised out of some discrete moral failing on the part of Palestinians in Gaza, or the Vietnamese, but is a specific feature of an occupied people engaging in asymmetrical war with a military power with total aerial dominance. Doesn’t this invite bigger questions about the nature of the Israeli occupation, the blockade of Gaza, and the cycle of violence they perpetuate? There are no Hamas militants or terror tunnels” in the West Bank, for example, but Israeli military and settlers are also killing hundreds there as well. If collateral damage killing of civilians has to do with terror tunnels,” then why have 144 Palestinians been killed in the West Bank in the past four weeks as well? 

Ultimately, scare stories about Hamas terror tunnels” have no practical journalistic effect other than militarizing the whole of Gazan society. After all, if the terror tunnels” are everywhere, and are legitimate military targets, then any civilian standing in any Gazan population center is little more than a Hamas human shield.” Which leads us to our second trope:

2. Human shields”

A variation on the terror tunnel” panic is the idea that Israel reluctantly kills civilians because Hamas uses them as human shields.” This was casually asserted by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) last week while she lamented the deaths of hundreds killed by an Israeli airstrike targeting Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza.

This is a trope that has been debunked by human rights groups for years, namely by Human Rights Watch Middle East and North Africa former director Sarah Leah Whitson in 2021.

The short version is: Even if one accepts the premise that Hamas is using human shields, from an ethical and legal standpoint, Israel is compelled by international law to not kill hundreds of civilians at a time in order to target, allegedly, one Hamas commander.” That is a war crime. But the premise itself needs to be questioned, too. 

The claim that Hamas is “using human shields” is a specific charge that requires a specific standard of evidence to prove, none of which has been publicly provided by Israel thus far to any media outlets or third-party human rights groups of any kind.

As Whitson notes, a Human Rights Watch report of Operation Cast Lead in 2009 found that, In the killings documented in this report, Human Rights Watch found no evidence that the civilian victims were used by Palestinian fighters as human shields or were shot in the crossfire between opposing forces.”

The claim that Hamas is using human shields” is a specific charge that requires a specific standard of evidence to prove, none of which has been publicly provided by Israel thus far to any media outlets or third-party human rights groups of any kind. Israel’s definition of human shields” is simply a combatant may or may not be in the same general area as hundreds of civilians.” Israel rarely bothers naming these combatants, much less providing evidence that they were in the area in question after said area has been reduced to rubble and corpses. The human shields” talking point can’t simply be tossed around as a post hoc justification after a crater in the ground leaves hundreds of Palestinian civilians dead. But, so far, Israel has mostly gotten away with doing just this. 

3. Hamas strongholds” 

A breaking news alert Tuesday by the New York Times about an Israeli strike on the Jabalia refugee camp in northern Gaza, which killed hundreds of civilians, revived an old racist trope used to militarize civilian populations by referring to them as living in, or being part of, a militant group’s stronghold”:

In 2015, the Times’ Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard infamously reported on an ISIS suicide bombing that killed 43 and maimed over 200 civilians in a market in Beirut in an article with the headline, Deadly Blasts Hit Hezbollah Stronghold in Southern Beirut.” A Reuters headline published around the same time read, Two Suicide Bombers hit Hezbollah Bastion in Lebanon.”

This framing was widely criticized on social media, and the Times eventually changed its headline (Barnard even published a half-hearted mea culpa following the controversy). The Times, of course, would never frame an ISIS attack in downtown Paris with a headline like Deadly Blasts Hit NATO Stronghold in Paris,” but the paper of record has no problem doing this for Arabs in Lebanon for no apparent reason other than orientalist dehumanization. Referring to Paris, London, or New York, after an ISIS attack on civilians, as a NATO stronghold” would be seen as bizarre, callous, and effectively doing free propaganda for ISIS. 

While the context is obviously different, a similar dehumanizing effect is achieved when sites of mass civilian death are callously referred to as Hamas strongholds.” Justifying airstrikes that kill hundreds of civilians by claiming that the struck site was an enemy stronghold,” even though Israel cannot be bothered to produce evidence of any military personnel or activity at the site, serves no other purpose than to posthumously conscript the dead men, women, and children buried under rubble as apparent Hamas militants who deserved to die.

Another Times report from Oct. 14 noted that Gaza City is itself Hamas’s stronghold and the enclave’s largest urban center.” USA Today, reporting on the Jabalia refugee camp airstrike, wrote, Israeli airstrikes hit apartment buildings in the Jabaliya refugee camp, a Hamas stronghold near Gaza City.” On Oct. 10, AP told us that Israel pounds Hamas stronghold in Gaza’s Rimal.” On Oct. 31, Axios referred to Gaza City as a Hamas stronghold.”

What purpose does this framing mechanism serve other than implying, not so subtly, that the civilians who were killed more or less had it coming because many of them support, in some abstract way, the goals of Hamas? If spatial proximity to Hamas fighters means one’s collateral murder is already justified, then Israel already had its built-in justification for targeting Gaza and eliminating or displacing anyone and everyone living in the 25-by-5-mile open-air prison.

This article was first posted at The Real News Network.

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Adam H. Johnson is a media analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and co-host of the Citations Needed podcast.
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