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History Must Not Excuse Israel for Gaza's 'Telegenic' Dead

Prime Minister Netanyahu says Hamas wants the optics of innocent dead. Israel cannot escape the blame for producing the horrifying visuals.
July 21, 2014, 8:25pm
Photo by AP/Khalil Hamra

To talk of the assault on the people of Gaza (and that is how I see the current shape of Israeli-Palestinian conflict) is to talk about bodies. At the time of writing, there are 593 bodies in need of discussion: the dead bodies of 566 Palestinians and 27 Israelis.

As the numbers alone highlight, some bodies get more attention than others. But I'm not going to talk here about false equivalencies or the different valuations of Israeli and Palestinian lives. Sadly, those articles have needed writing, and have been written, for many years of wildly unequal body counts in this unending conflict.

I want to talk specifically about dead bodies and their mediation. From the vantage point of New York, Israel's Operation Protective Edge is narrativized through a ghastly visual field of corpses. We saw the mangled, limp frames of four Palestinian children killed on a beach by Israeli missiles.

Then, today, a video emerged from the devastated neighborhood of Shujaiyeh that will knock the air from your lungs. The footage apparently depicts a young man, searching for his family, who is repeatedly shot by a sniper until dead. Like the volunteer who captured the execution on his cellphone, all we can do is watch as the man flails and falls still, and the buzz of Israeli drones is heard overhead.

Cellphone video captures Gaza civilian shot and killed by sniper. Read more here.

Around 75 percent of the Palestinian dead are civilians, including nearly 100 children. These are the bodies that we are seeing. Some would call the capturing and publication of these images "news."

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees it differently. In a monstrous comment to CNN, he condemned Hamas for displaying "telegenically dead" Palestinians to garner international sympathy. His words bear picking apart.

Bibi is not wrong: Dead children are more suited for TV coverage than most.

Telegenic, of course, means that something is specifically suited to the medium of TV. Young children are arguably more telegenic than most other members of our species. So Bibi is not wrong: Dead children are more suited for TV coverage than most. This is terrible, this is true; this is true because it is terrible. If news media barters in horror and bathos, innocent dead bodies are prime currency.

Bibi says the "telegenically dead" are a Hamas PR tool, and in so doing he admits that Israeli fire is producing the sort of dead bodies that make news. This has been true outside of Gaza. To call on a recent (and ongoing) example, bereft families clutching tiny corpses in Syria, where over 11,000 children have been killed, have been a focal point of international coverage of the civil war. "When there is an attack, bodies are brought to my school," a little girl in Homs told NPR at the end of last year.

In the case of Syria, the very visible dead — the civilian dead — prompted an unmitigated international censure of Bashar al-Assad's regime. Nuanced understandings also proliferated that countered any simple "goodies versus baddies" reading of Syria's civil strife. But there was no prevarication around Assad's civilian massacres. Such nervousness to condemn the mass murdering of children and other innocents is reserved, it seems, for Israel. (And, it's worth adding, the US. Remember — never forget — that Obama advisor Robert Gibbs defended the drone killing of Anwar al-Awlaki's teenage son by saying that the boy "should have [had] a far more responsible father.")

The point being, we should be able to put blame on Hamas and outrightly condemn Israel's actions here. Bibi says that Hamas wants the Palestinian dead to visibly pile up. His words, as Glenn Greenwald pointed out, were hauntingly reminiscent of a comment made by Joseph Goebbels about Jews "send[ing] out the pitiable" to gain sympathy. His words are also of no consequence compared to the fact that the dead bodies, horrifyingly suited to media consumption, continue to pile up in Gaza.

It comes as no surprise that these remarks are not seared into US political memory.

The prime minister's words are inconsequential for another reason, too. Namely, Israeli politicians currently in key positions in the right-wing Knesset have a grim history of vile rhetoric that has either been ignored or passed over by the US media. Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni said of the IDF's Operation Cast Lead "our troops in the Gaza strip behaved like hooligans, which I demanded of them." At the time of the comment, she was running for office on a centrist platform.

Meanwhile, this week Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, condemning any hesitation from Netanyahu, said: "We must go all the way. There is no alternative." The prime minister himself last year expressly ruled out Palestinian sovereignty in a press conference, which garnered scant international coverage.

It comes as no surprise that these remarks are not seared into US political memory. What outrage can be expected in response to politicians' remarks, when policies of occupation, destruction, and racism get a pass, year on year? (More than a pass — complicity: The US subsidizes around 25 percent of Israel's defense budget.)

So long as "telegenic" has been an available concept, history has offered only one conclusion when presented with dead children's bodies. We often learn of the darkest points in modern history through visceral images of innocent dead. Images coming from Gaza now of Palestine's telegenic dead should confine this Israeli government to a reviled place in history. But the work of historical condemnation has got to start now.

In photos: The conflict's deadliest day as Israel intensifies ground offensive in Gaza. Read more.

Follow Natasha Lennard on Twitter: @natashalennard