Heartbreak in Gaza: a Lesson in Non-Investigative Journalism

This guest post is written by Brenda Yablon, an award-winning Canadian author, journalist and film critic.

Nicholas Kristof is a New York Times journalist who fills a very important niche: he writes on human rights abuses and social injustices. He’s won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for his reporting on Tiananmen Square, and the other for Darfur. He provides a voice for those who can’t speak for themselves. Together with his wife, Sheryl Wudunn, he’s written a book called “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.” It is an in-depth investigation of the global oppression of women.

So when Mr. Kristof produced both a video and an article for the New York Times that appeared on March 8, 2015, entitled “Heartbreak in Gaza”, I was very interested to see the report.

He introduces the piece by saying that “my job as a journalist brought me to Gaza to see how last year’s war with Israel is affecting ordinary people.” I expected that in addition to the widespread destruction, no attempts at reconstruction and the general pervasive misery of a hapless people there would also be a portrayal of Hamas, how it governs Gaza and how Gazans are affected by their own government’s policies.

The video opens with Kristof interviewing a young mother and her infant son. Though they live in Gaza, the husband and father of the boy lives in the West Bank, and has never seen his son.
How did this unfortunate situation come about? The couple were obviously together at some point, long enough to get married and produce a child. But the issue is not even raised. Instead, Kristof asks the mother, “What’s it like to raise a child who has never seen his father?” He gets the young father on his cell phone and we see and hear him expressing his sadness at the situation.

The only explanation Kristof offers is “Israel forbids most Gazans from leaving Gaza.” Why can’t the father come back to Gaza? Was he deported by Hamas? By Israel? A critical detail of the story is omitted and we are left with the impression that Israel is completely responsible for the unhappiness of this young family.

He then visits a cookie and chocolate factory that was a thriving enterprise in Gaza, before the war with Israel, employing hundreds of people. However, during the war Israel bombed it. Now the factory barely functions. Machinery doesn’t work, parts can’t be ordered, 150 people have been laid off. The owner is clearly in bitter despair, and understandably so.
But WHY did Israel bomb this factory? Was it an error? Were Hamas “fighters” using it an a launching pad for missiles directed against Israel, as they did with hospitals, schools, UN buildings and private homes? It’s a critical question. Kristof deals with it in one sentence, “I don’t know why this factory was bombed.” Whatever happened to investigative journalism? Not answering the question tells the viewer that it’s not important. What is important is that Israel did the bombing.

He speaks to a woman whose home was damaged and whose husband was injured. “Do you want Israeli mothers to suffer the same pain that you are suffering?” he asks her, in a fine example of a leading question. She answers that Israeli mothers don’t fight and are also afraid for their children. He persists in questioning people until he finds two 14-year-old boys, one of whom would be prepared to give his life for the “resistance.”

Kristof is prepared to acknowledge that “Israel has legitimate security concerns. Tunnel intrusions are real. Hamas has fired rockets from civilian locations…” Tunnel intrusions? An intrusion is a minor disturbance. Is that how Kristof interprets the existence and purpose of the tunnels? How about to kill or take hostage as many Israelis as possible? Or to appropriate materials that could have been used to build a better life for Gazans? And yes, Hamas has fired rockets from civilian locations – upwards of 5,000 of them in 2014, and over 11,000 since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005.

Kristof sums up his “findings”: “Israel and Hamas have both failed Gazans, creating cycles of war after war.” So Israel and Hamas are equally to blame for the abysmal situation in Gaza. Though he is known for passionately supporting human rights, not once does he refer to Hamas’ well known executions of anyone they suspect of not supporting them, and certainly without due process; of their brutal kidnapping and murder of Israeli civilians; of their successful attempt to Islamize Gaza, with all its inherent restrictions, especially for women. He suggests that the way to break the cycle is for Israel to ease the embargo. That’s it. Simple.
In the print piece accompanying the video called “Winds of War“, Kristof does make one concession. “True, Hamas’ misrule is central to the problem, but we don’t have influence over Hamas; we do have influence over Israel.”

Kristof may be a brilliant journalist with a heart and a conscience but none of this was apparent in his reporting from Gaza. His reporting was very much in line with much of the journalism that came out during Operation Protective Edge, and still continues: it’s sloppy, lazy , characterized by omissions, lack of historical knowledge and muddled thinking. By absolving Hamas of responsibility, this misguided journalism does nothing to help diminish the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza.  It does, however, empower Hamas.