“The use of media as a weapon,” Hezbollah operative Sheik Nabil Qaouk told New York Times reporter John Kifner in 2000, has “an effect parallel to battle.” Terror organizations are certainly aware of how to manipulate and shape press coverage, even if many reporters aren’t. Indeed, some have even conflated Hamas, the U.S.-designated terrorist group, with a “free press.”
On May 15 as part of the recent “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” Israeli Defense Forces took out an office building in Gaza that was used by press outlets like the Associated Press and Al Jazeera. It was also, Israeli officials noted, used by intelligence operatives for Hamas, the Iranian-backed terrorist organization that rules the Gaza Strip and calls for Israel’s destruction.
As they often do before strikes, the Israeli forces gave the building’s inhabitants advance notice—reportedly, more than an hour—of the strike. This tactic helps minimize civilian casualties, but it also, of course, allows terrorists and their material to escape as well. For that latter reason, it is used sparingly, if at all, by other countries fighting terrorists. Israel, however, uses it with far greater frequency.
It is not unusual for Islamist terrorist groups and their benefactors to station headquarters or operational centers in places like schools and hospitals—or press offices. And Hamas is no exception, as an abundance of evidence, including video footage, proves. In a recent interview with Mark Stone of Sky News, a Hamas spokesman admitted that the group uses human shields. And in 2014, the United Nations—certainly, no friend to Israel—acknowledged that U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) buildings were used by Hamas to store missiles. As The Atlantic reported, it seems likely that UNRWA even returned the rockets to the terrorist group.
In a May 17 article, The Jerusalem Post’s Lahav Harkov reported that on the weekend of May 15-16, “Israel shared intelligence with the U.S. showing how Hamas operated inside the same building with the Associated Press and al-Jazeera in Gaza.” Israel showed U.S. President Joe Biden “and American intelligence the intelligence” behind the strike, including a “smoking gun proving Hamas worked out of the building.” A senior diplomatic source told Harkov that the U.S. officials “found the explanation satisfactory.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed the report in an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Yet none of this important context was noted in a May 20 column in The Washington Post titled, “What happens when allies like Israel don’t respect a free press?” When shared on social media, the article by global opinion writer Jason Rezaian had an even more ridiculous headline: “Israel’s attacks on the free press in Gaza are a problem for the Biden administration.”
But there is no “free press in Gaza.” The very sentence itself is absurd and contradicted by statements by former AP reporters themselves.
Matti Friedman, an author and former AP reporter, noted in 2014 that he was informed by the bureau’s senior editors that our Palestinian reporter in Gaza couldn’t possibly provide critical coverage of Hamas because doing so would put him in danger.”
In a May 19 Tablet magazine article, titled “Let’s Talk About Reporting in War Zones,” Mideast analyst Lee Smith noted as much. As Smith observed: “There’s nothing surprising about Western press organizations making arrangements with terror regimes. It happens all the time in the Middle East.”
Hamas, which has constructed a totalitarian state in Gaza, attaches strings and conditions for being able to report under its watch. Consequently, one finds few AP reports from Gaza on how Hamas “stores missiles in homes, schools and hospitals, or how little of the money it receives from Tehran goes to building civilian infrastructure or responsible governance.” Instead, “the only story Hamas wants coming out of Gaza is about the fundamental evil” of Israel.
Accordingly, the terrorist group uses “direct threats, as well as fixers and minders, appointed to steer journalists in the right direction” and “if they do not understand this fundamental angle, they were not welcome in Gaza.”
For its part, the AP’s Gary Pruitt said, “We have had no indication that Hamas was in the building or active in the building. This is something that we actively check to the best of our ability. We would never knowingly put our journalists at risk.”
But in a 2014 Atlantic article, former AP reporter Friedman noted that “the AP staff in Gaza City would witness a rocket launch right beside their office, endangering reporters and civilians nearby—and the AP wouldn’t report it.” Hamas would even regularly “burst into the AP’s Gaza bureau and threaten the staff—and the AP wouldn’t report it.”
Indeed, Tommy Vietor, the former spokesperson for the National Security Council under Obama, tweeted: “I talked to someone who used to work out of that building periodically who said he believed there may have been Hamas offices there.”
Yet none of this context is reported by Rezaian. He doesn’t even note that Israel claimed Hamas operated out of the building until the very bottom of the article, preferring instead to insinuate that the Jewish state was attempting to “silence the press”—a remarkable insinuation considering that blowing up a press building is unlikely to achieve that aim. Rather, it is Hamas, and not Israel, which seems to have an effect.
Nor does Rezaian tell readers that Israel shared the “smoking gun” verifying Hamas’s presence with the United States, which found it “satisfactory.” He doesn’t note the long history of AP’s questionable reporting from Gaza, as detailed by a former AP staffer. Nor does he mention Vietor’s comments. These omissions run counter to the Post’s own stated guidelines, which call to “tell ALL the truth so far as it can learn it” and note that “no story is fair if it omits facts of major importance or significance.”
Nor does Rezaian tell readers about the long history of press collusion with anti-Semitic autocrats. As Friedman wrote in Tablet magazine on June 5, 2017, the AP actively colluded with the Nazi regime in order to gain access. In the 1970s and 1980s in Lebanon, the Palestine Liberation Organization intimidated journalists, creating “enemies lists” of those who didn’t cooperate. The intimidation had its desired effect and PLO head Yasser Arafat fondly referred to the press corps based in Beirut’s Commodore Hotel as his “Commodore Battalion.”
Rezaian does, however, take the time to get comments from Sally Buzbee, “the executive editor of the AP and soon-to-be executive editor of The Washington Post.” Buzbee will have to decide what kind of newspaper she wants the Post to be: Will it “report,” as the AP “reported” in Gaza, or will it tell the full truth “so far as it can learn it?” If she opts for the latter, it seems that she’ll have her work cut out for her.
(Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared as an op-ed in JNS on May 27, 2021)