Mindless in Gaza

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 Kennedy School.

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.

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