Why would an independent-minded reporter respected for his mettle in
covering tough stories produce a hackneyed attack on Israel? New York
Times correspondent Chris Hedges has explored admirably the plight of
Coptic Christians in Egypt, the treatment of other minorities in the Middle
East and the resistence to democracy by regional monarchies, important stories
ignored by many journalists. Yet a January 16, 1994 report, entitled "Gaza
Arabs to Take Over a Health System in Crisis," displays none of his usual
journalistic rigor, offering instead a recitation of spurious charges against
the Israeli administration.
Hedges' report is crowded with factual error, resulting apparently from
failure to substantiate the Arab allegations on which he relied. He wrongly
states that Gaza's six hospitals "have had the same number of workers and
beds since Israel occupied the Gaza Strip in 1967," and are overcrowded.
In fact, the number of beds has increased, and in 1991 the rate of hospital
occupancy in Gaza (82.8) was actually lower than that in, for example, Hawaii
(83.6) and New York (86.5). More importantly, he fails to mention that the
Israeli administration has sharply increased health care delivery through
community health centers. While his report notes there are 28 such centers
today, it fails to point out that only 3 existed in 1967. In a population whose
birth rate is one of the highest in the world and in which 50% of residents are
under the age of 15, access to neighborhood health centers has been a priority.
Painting a gruesome picture of neglect and decay, the reporter describes
rats and roaches scurrying down the halls of Nasser Hospital. He calls this
"typical." But he's wrong and unfair here too. (Has he seen the
infestation described, I wonder, or just heard about it?) Why omit, for
example, that renovation and enlargement of Gaza's Shifa Hospital in recent
years has made it a modern medical center. A 100-bed obstetrical unit was
completed in 1986, a neonatal intensive care unit and radiology center in 1987,
a 46-bed orthopedic department, 101-bed surgical unit, in addition to intensive
care, recovery and emergency units in 1990. 180 new staff positions were added
in the process. Much of this development proceeded under the difficult
conditions of intifada violence which, at times, targetted Shifa and resulted
in assaults against and murder of staff and patients on hospital premises.
Hedges cites Arab accusations that Israel has failed to develop capable
medical staff, and here again ignores the facts; Gazan physicians, nurses and
administrators regularly receive training in Israeli teaching hospitals. Gazan
administrators have also recently obtained degrees from Harvard University's
Hedges links charges of malign medical care to claims of Israeli
dereliction in other service areas. He repeats the complaints of Gaza residents
about power outages but fails to tell readers that prior to Israeli control of
the area only 18% of the residents had electricity at all. In 1992 the figure
was 97%. The same shoddiness is apparent in charges about sewage treatment and
drinking water. Nowhere does he remind readers that Israel has met outright
resistance from Arab states and the PLO to programs aimed at improving living
conditions for Gazans. Bent on sustaining a resentful refugee class, Arab
states, for example, orchestrated yearly UN condemnations of Israeli efforts to
settle refugees in new housing.
Hedges is careless with population numbers too, mistakenly remarking
that most Gazans live in refugee camps. In fact, 60% live in urban
centers, 12% in villages and a quarter live in refugee camps. He trots out the
tired charge that Gaza is "one of the most densely populated areas in the
world." According to comparative statistics published in the 1993
Statistical Abstract of the U.S., population density in Gaza is 4,798
people per square mile. The number for Singapore is 11,731, for Gibraltar
13,601, for Macau 77,352, and for Monaco 40,155. The population of Cairo is
concentrated at 97,106 souls per square mile, Tokyo at 25,019, New York city at
11,480 and Tel Aviv at 17,660. Gaza is crowded like a lot of other
places, rich and poor, on this planet.
Most indefensible in Hedges' report is the failure to inform readers about
the dramatically enhanced health of the people of Gaza, however imperfect the
Israeli-sponsored system. As a telling measure of that improvement a mortality
rate of 86 babies per thousand live births in 1968 has declined to 26 per
thousand in 1990, thanks to the introduction of Israeli medical programs.
(According to a Unicef report, in 1987 infant mortality in Egypt was 87, in
Iraq 70 and in Jordan 45.) Childhood diseases, including polio, pertussis,
tetanus and measles, have been virtually eradicated because Israel has carried
out systematic programs of innoculation and treatment.
No one would argue that life in Gaza is pleasant or pretty for many of its
inhabitants though a rich Arab Gazan upper class lives in startling
luxury or that the Israeli-administered health care system is ideal, but
Chris Hedges' report, in which only Arab accusations are heard, betrays a
disturbing, and uncharacteristic, disregard for the whole truth.