Media coverage of suicide bombings: All effect, no cause

Media reporting of suicide bombings in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories is as predictable as it is inadequate, for while such attacks are rightly given much coverage, the necessary context and background information are almost always totally absent, giving the false impression that such events occur out of the blue, irrationally, to provoke an innocent, peaceful Israel.

Israel’s daily injustices and provocations leading up to suicide bombings are often not reported, even less so now with the carnage in Iraq, Sudan and elsewhere, as the media falls into the trap of reporting "big" news such as explosions, while ignoring the "drip, drip" effects that lead to acts of horrendous, desperate, indiscriminate revenge.

The twin suicide bombings in Beersheba on August 31 typify all that is wrong with the media’s approach.

"Hamas reignites conflict" read one broadsheet headline, "violence returns to Israel" read another, "Israel shaken by return of the suicide bombers" read another.

The articles proved no better, reporting that a "five-month lull", a "period of relative peace", had been "shattered". One broadsheet reporter went so far as to claim that "a sort of peace has hung over Israel and Palestine for much of the summer."

Nothing could be further from the truth. In that "five-month lull" between the Beersheba suicide bombings and the previous one at Ashdod on March 14, Israel killed 436 Palestinians and injured 2,221, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society. In this "period of relative peace", more Palestinians were killed than the total number of Israelis by suicide bombings throughout the entire four-year uprising against the longest military occupation in modern history.

During that time, Israel made thousands homeless through house demolitions, and continued its settlement expansion, arrests, military attacks, barrier construction and land expropriation. Meanwhile, 30 Israeli Jews were killed and 57 injured, almost all of them soldiers and settlers in the occupied territories, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry. That is a ratio of almost 15 Palestinians killed for every Israeli, and almost 39 Palestinians injured for every Israeli.

Is none of this worth reporting? The media doesn’t seem to think so. In fact, out of all the British national dailies, the only person that did was the Guardian’s Middle East editor Brian Whitaker, who reported that "the killing of Palestinians continues unabated, with 2004 set to become the second worst since the uprising began."

These glaring omissions are inexcusable. One cannot claim that such information is hard to find –” it is readily available on the websites of the PRCS and Israel’s Foreign Ministry. The former even allows one to view fatality and casualty figures for any desired date range instantly.

One also cannot claim that there is no space or time for such background information. Besides the fact that articles on suicide bombings often remind people that they have killed hundreds of Israelis, it is our job, our duty as journalists to report not just the what, where, when and how, but perhaps most importantly, the why.

This certainly does not mean excusing suicide bombings, which in my opinion are as reckless and damaging to Palestinians as Israelis. However, failing to provide such background decontextualises suicide bombings, giving people a blinkered view of what is happening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It also results in Palestinian suffering being ignored or trivialized as somehow less important than the suffering of Israelis. We are constantly told of the effect, but seldom the cause.

Another frequent omission in the media’s coverage of suicide attacks is any background detail of the bombers. Again, this is not to excuse their actions, but to investigate what may have happened to those people for them to consider taking their lives and those of surrounding innocents.

Such detail is easy to come by through an internet search of the bombers’ surnames and their towns of origin. In the case of the Beersheba bombings, the families of the perpetrators, Ahmed Qawasmeh and Nasim Jaabari, both from Hebron, had been subjected to a horrendous series of killings, injuries, house demolitions and detentions by Israeli forces. It is difficult to see how such experiences would not fill someone with hopeless, lethal rage.

The Mirror quoted Eaatadal Qawasmeh in June 2003 as saying: "When these youths are harassed by the Israelis, when they see their families beaten and killed, when they close their universities and take away their futures, they become time bombs."

That same month I wrote an article about suicide bomber Hiba Daraghmeh, and pointed out what the media had failed to –” that she had lost 10 relatives, including children, during this intifada.

A recent phenomenon in the media’s coverage of suicide bombings is the supposed link with Israel’s barrier. All news organizations reported that it has not yet been built in Hebron, the closest Palestinian town to Beersheba. None reported that the planned Israeli route will entail annexing large swathes of Hebron land.

Many used the subjective term "security barrier", as if to back Israel’s justification for its construction, and some reported that it had reduced Palestinian attacks in Israel. Ignored was the fact that Israel has yet to provide a reasonable explanation for why the barrier is being built on Palestinian land rather than its internationally recognized borders. It is this that led the International Court of Justice to rule that the barrier is illegal and should be dismantled, and affected Palestinians compensated. This did not stop the Daily Telegraph publishing the headline "Deaths are proof for Israel that barrier must be finished quickly".

Giving context to suicide bombings will no doubt be resisted by apologists for Israel and those afraid of coming under pressure from them, but this resistance is short-sighted, for there will be no end to such carnage as long as journalists, decision-makers and the public are blind to its root causes. In this case, everybody loses.