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Middle East Issues





While Western Media Fixated on Gaza, The Main Action Was Elsewhere


According to news reports in late September, Sana'a, the capital of Yemen, fell to a Shiite militia known as the Houthis. Yemen is a predominately Sunni state located in the historic Arab homeland on the Arabian peninsula. It is an impoverished country few westerners know or care about. Media coverage of events there is sporadic and usually perfunctory. So it was not unexpected that the fall of the capital was viewed quite differently by leading news organizations.
 
On October 5, the Washington Post reported that Shiite fighters

plastered the city with fliers proclaiming their slogan — "Death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews and victory to Islam" — a variation of a popular Iranian slogan often chanted by Shiite militants in Iraq and supporters of Lebanon's Hezbollah...

Houthis staged a massive victory rally in the city, flying Hezbollah flags and portraits of Iran's late supreme leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In contrast, The New York Times article on October 9 saw the result as mainly a reflection of internal dissatisfaction, noting,

The Houthis' ascendance has brought trepidation, but also relief among those who have welcomed the rebels' populist promises or have simply tired of the government's failures.

Concerning Iranian or Hezbollah involvement, the Times offered a more nuanced view, "Saudi Arabia, Yemen's often domineering neighbor, has long painted the Houthis as an Iranian proxy."

Like the events in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, the fall of Sana'a is a roadmark in the transformative upheaval throughout the region. Yet the media does not effectively convey the connections between seemingly disparate events in Yemen and Syria or Iraq. That is not surprising as even major media organizations do not maintain a solid presence in these conflict areas. As former Associated Press [AP] correspondent Matti Friedman noted in a recent critical essay on the region's news coverage, "Before the outbreak of the civil war in Syria, the permanent AP presence in that country consisted of a single regime-approved stringer." According to Friedman, AP devoted 40 times the resources to Israel and the Palestinians as it did to the far larger conflict in Syria. Yemen is even more remote and inaccessible to the media than Syria.

Inevitably, the unbalanced allocation of resources imparts exaggerated importance to minor incidents between Israel and the Palestinians that would not register as newsworthy anywhere else. During exacerbations of hostility, as occurred between Israel and Hamas in the summer of 2014, more media resources are brought in, further squeezing out coverage of the rest of the region.

Such excessive attention to conflict between Israel and the Palestinians creates the impression that there is a unique quality to the Palestinian plight and grievances that demands our undivided attention.

As a consequence, a highly distorted perspective on the region sets in. The casual observer would never guess that despite repeated flare-ups and the limitations imposed on Gazan residents by Israeli and Egyptian security measures, the Palestinians still receive better healthcare and access to clean water and adequate nutrition than do the inhabitants of large swaths of the Middle East. The deluge of wrenching images from the Gaza Strip obscures the reality that cumulative Palestinian fatalities represent a tiny fraction - barely one percent - of what has been experienced across the region in recent years.

Even as the destruction in the Gaza Strip dominated media coverage, more indelible events in the region were occurring elsewhere. Over a two-day period during mid-July, more than 700 deaths were reported in fighting between Islamic militants and Syrian forces, far exceeding the toll in the Gaza Strip during that same period.

It was left to Patrick Goodenough of CNSnews.com, a relatively unknown newcomer to Middle East news coverage, to observe at the time,

As hundreds of thousands of people held pro-Palestinian rallies in cities around the world over the weekend, the death toll in Syria continued to mount, with relatively little attention.
It was only the Islamic State's rapid expansion at the expense of the hapless Iraqi army and the terrorists' skilled use of the internet to disseminate images of its brutality to western audiences that shifted the media's attention. But the campaign of ethnic cleansing in Syria and Iraq has been underway for over ten years, during which time more than two-thirds of the Christian population in Iraq fled or perished, a loss already exceeding one million people.

The Yezidis, a small pre-Islamic sect, who most western audiences had never heard of until their dire situation on Mount Sinjar in August 2014 drew media attention, are also not new to victimization. The largest terrorist attack in Iraq during the period of the American intervention in Iraq targeted the Yezidi community. In August, 2007, a coordinated truck bomb attack carried out by Al Quaeda-related terrorists killed as many as 500 civilians gathered for a ceremony.

And the Kurds, a non-Arab Sunni Muslim people long denied sovereignty, again find themselves under attack. The Kurds suffered poison gas attacks by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and decades of violent suppression by the Syrian regime and successive Turkish governments. A reported 200,000 fled their homes during just four days in early October as the Islamic State advanced on Kurdish towns. The media is now paying more attention, but there are no mass demonstrations and no letter writing campaigns in the West and no widespread agitation on college campuses on their behalf. That is reserved for the Palestinians.

Even further off the media-activist map is Yemen, with its 20 million impoverished inhabitants bordering oil-rich Saudi Arabia. After decades of civil conflict, Yemen is a prime breeding ground for Islamic extremist movements including Al Qaeda. Because of its mixed Sunni and Shiite population, it is a target for Iranian subversion. It is a place where few journalists and fewer human rights activists dare to venture.
 
In the months prior to the seizure of Sana'a, Shiite Houthi fighters began making gains against the Yemeni government forces. On July 8, as the Israeli-Hamas confrontation flared up, the Houthis captured the Yemeni city of Amran, killing hundreds. Little-noticed reports at the time noted that the advance of the Iranian-backed Houthis also benefitted Al Qaeda by forcing the Yemeni army to split its forces. During September, in the week leading up to the capture of Sana'a, 340 were reported killed in the fighting. Since then there has been a steady drumbeat of violence. On Oct. 9, twin suicide bombings killed 67 more.
 
But at the BBC, the world's largest media organization, it was not the beheadings and the countless victims in Iraq or Syria that stirred internal passions. Nor was it the appearance of Hezbollah and Iranian-backed fighters in Yemen, where they had never before had a presence. No, it was an objective analysis by the BBC’s own head statistician, that raised an outcry. By even raising the question as to whether the ratio of civilian fatalities in the Gaza Strip provided by the Hamas-run Gazan health ministry might be exaggerated, statistician Anthony Reubens discovered that he had crossed the line.
 
More than 7000 pro-Palestinian activists wrote a letter of protest to the BBC demanding that Reubens be "banned" from writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The BBC did the unusual action of rewriting one of his sentences that stated, " If the Israeli attacks had been 'indiscriminate', as the UN Human Rights Council says, it is hard to work out why they have killed so many more civilian men than women." Jana Krause, an academic, explained that "Palestinian men were more likely to be killed than women, not because they were fighters (as Reuben suggested) but because they left shelters to source food and water, and to care for abandoned homes." Krause's explanation is speculation; she has not demonstrated understanding of how Israeli spotters identify and confirm their targets.
 
Maybe one day, when the media develops a sustained passion and commitment to covering the conflicts throughout the Middle East comparable to what it has reserved only for the Palestinians, western audiences will finally receive a balanced perspective through which they can understand the transformation occurring in the region. When that happens, maybe public outrage will be directed where wanton atrocities proliferate and religious-supremacists extend their reach rather than at statisticians raising legitimate questions over data.

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