New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright Proffers Palestinian Narrative

“Letter from Gaza – Captives“( New Yorker, Nov. 9, 2009) by Lawrence Wright, the acclaimed author of The Looming Tower; Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, promised to be a penetrating piece. It starts out strongly with an informative and captivating description of the evolution of the conflict in Gaza, but Wright’s reliance on biased sources becomes increasingly apparent with each successive factual misstep. His journalistic insight flags entirely towards the end of the piece when he resorts to reciting dubious figures for Palestinian civilian casualties and destroyed civilian structures provided by biased sources.
Several glaring factual gaffs early in the piece offer a hint of what follows later on. For example, according to Wright, the greenhouses left behind intact by Jewish settlers “were meant to become an important part of the agricultural economy” of Gaza, but “then the borders were clamped shut and the fruit rotted…The greenhouses are nothing more than bare frames, their tattered plastic roofing fluttering in the sea breeze.” The implication here is that the greenhouses are a casualty of the Israeli blockade. But Wright fails to mention that much of the damage to the greenhouses was done by Palestinian looters immediately after the Jews evacuated Gaza. 
Wright does not soft-pedal the extreme ideology of Hamas. He exposes the absurd mix of  Islamist and European originated Jew-hatred that permeates the group’s beliefs.  But he is unable to shake free of the hyperventilating exaggeration that so often characterizes depictions of the Palestinian predicament and Israeli military actions.
Wright describes Gaza as a “territory [that] has long had the highest concentration of poverty, extremism and hopelessness in the region.”  He decries the level of humanitarian aid to Gaza as “insufficient to sustain life.”
While the humanitarian situation in Gaza is tenuous, it is not the most serious in the region. The affected populations in war-torn Yemen, Afghanistan or Sudan live under more dire circumstances.  As recently as December, 2008, Khaled Abdel Shaafi, the director of the United Nations Development Program clarified that Gaza was “not a humanitarian crisis, It’s an economic crisis, a political crisis, but it’s not a humanitarian crisis. People aren’t starving.” Israel has confirmed that the amount of humanitarian supplies going into Gaza in 2009 is up 900 percent from 2008.

It is this tendency towards exaggeration that leads him to resort to the propagandistic term, “gulag” to describe Gaza’s isolation.  As an author who pays attention to detail, Wright should know enough to avoid inaccurate historical comparisons. Gulags refer to vast prison camps where millions of political prisoners and other societal undesirables were forcibly sent to be worked to death. Whatever one’s view of the situation in Gaza, it is not a gulag.  To describe it as such, undermines the author’s credibility and diminishes the scale of human suffering associated with the real gulags.

On some key events, Wright gives undue credence to unproven Palestinian claims and repeats inaccuracies of the type typically found in unbalanced sources.

He describes the explosion that killed a Palestinian family on a Gaza beach on June 9, 2006 as “apparently caused by an Israeli artillery shell,” while noting in parentheses that Israel denies this. In fact, the accusation that it was an Israeli shell came from Hamas and discredited Human Rights Watch “senior expert” Marc Garlasco. A more scientific analysis conducted by Israeli investigators refuted that explanation. 

Wright also writes that “the wall that defines the Gaza strip along the Israeli border simply turns the corner upon reaching Egypt.” His failure to accurately describe the fence – not wall – that runs along most of the Israeli border is likely due to sloppiness, but also suggests an overreliance on biased sources that tend to conflate the fence with the wall.

It is on the fighting in Gaza, though, that the piece takes on a one-sided narrative by ignoring contradictory evidence. Wright concludes his discussion of the UN Gaza mission report (the Goldstone Report), which accuses Israel of intentionally targeting Palestinian civilians, by repeating that Goldstone “maintains the report is fundamentally correct, and has demanded the the Americans specify what the inaccuracies might be.” This implies that official American condemnation of the report was based on ignorance or blind support for Israel. But in fact, numerous inaccuracies have been specified and the report has been widely criticized for its willingness to accept Hamas and Palestinian claims at face value while rejecting Israeli statements as not credible.

At times, there seem to be two Lawrence Wrights in contention with each other. In one paragraph, Wright maintains that the Israelis held “that Hamas terrorists and the Gazan people were one in the same”– a serious charge. Yet several paragraphs  later he describes how the Israelis took “painstaking efforts to spare civilian lives” by dropping leaflets warning civilians of impending attacks and urging them to flee targeted areas. He then reverts back to an accusatory stance, citing the testimony of Israeli soldiers that they were instructed to shoot at anyone they saw.  Wright omits discussion of the full text from which the statement was drawn. In that text, the soldier also stated, “We directed them towards a certain area hoping they wouldn’t be hit there. In our designated area we directed them southwards in the Gaza Strip towards where our forces were not present. We sent them south. We did not abuse them.” Wright mentions the group, “Breaking the Silence,” who have disseminated claims by Israeli soldiers that war crimes were committed.  However, he does not discuss the Israeli investigation that found no substance to these accusations and he does not clarify that these testimonies were made anonymously.

The figures he gives for the destruction in Gaza, such as his claim that 21,000 homes were partially or completely destroyed, are exaggerated. Even the Goldstone Report cites sources reporting as few as 1,404 homes destroyed and 453 partially destroyed or damaged to as many as 11,135 homes partially or fully destroyed.  A UN estimate counted 3,354 destroyed and 11,112  partially damaged (Gaza Mission Report, page 344).
His claim that sixteen hospitals were fully or partially destroyed is false as well. The World Health Organization found 15 were damaged, none were destroyed or even partially destroyed. OCHA, a UN group active in helping the Palestinians, reported that all hospitals were fully functional.
His handling of Palestinian fatalities is similarly skewed. Wright mentions Hamas’s claim that only 48 of its members were killed along with Israel’s claim that 1166 Palestinians died of whom just 295 were civilians. But for a middle-ground, he relies upon Amnesty International and B’tselem, two organizations notably partisan in their treatment of the conflict. Both claim that civilian deaths far outnumbered combatant deaths. B’tselem method of distinguishing civilians from combatants substantially inflates civilian figures and undercounts combatants. Meanwhile, researcher Jonathan Halevi and the International Institute for Counter Terrorism have documented numerous instances where combatants were incorrectly identified as civilians. Wright seems unaware or uninterested in these studies. 

“Letter from Gaza” describes in a thorough manner  Palestinian and Israeli actions and counter actions that led to the Cast Lead military operation. Wright’s account incorporates extensive information on the fighting from interviews with key participants. Yet his adherence to the biased and error-riddled anti-Israel narrative undermines the credibility of his account of the military operation. As a result, Wright’s ambitious piece comes off as another partisan attempt to disparage Israel for its handling of the difficult situation in Gaza. Given Wright’s reputation as an astute investigative journalist, one would have expected of  him a rigorous vetting of the accuracy and reliability of his sources, rather than a recitation of dubious figures and claims that mars the account.

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