The UK and US media have been criticized for dehumanizing Palestinians, reducing them to numbers, and covering Israel in ways reflecting their governments’ priorities. The media prioritizes Israeli suffering, while Palestinians are depicted as faceless victims of a natural disaster. This dehumanization is evident in the front-page coverage of Israel’s war in Gaza by five major US and UK news media from October 7 to October 26, 2023.
Analysis: How The UK And US Media Dehumanize Palestinians
Authors examine headlines and front pages from five major news media – Washington Post, New York Times, Guardian, Times, and BBC – showing how they reduce Palestinians to numbers and cover Israel in ways reflecting their governments’ priorities.
By Claire Lauterbach and Namir Shabibi
UK-US media are clinical and routine in prioritizing coverage of Israeli suffering while Palestinians are routinely depicted as faceless victims of a natural disaster, deserving of Western magnanimity and Israeli acts of aid, not political or military intervention in their defense
There have been suspensions and sackings of journalists speaking out against Israeli policies, while dehumanizing speech about Palestinians has been aired without challenge Nazis. Beneath animals.
This is a small sample of what Palestinians have been called by commentators speaking to Western media outlets in the last month of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – examples of the bestiary of zoological terms natural to a colonizer’s view of the colonized.
Political philosopher Frantz Fanon wrote during France’s colonial war in Algeria of “hordes of vital statistics”, “hysterical masses”, “faces bereft of all humanity”, and “children who seem to belong to nobody”.
These are all terms that could describe how Western media covers the suffering of Palestinians—”a tide of humanity…a teeming mass of Gazans”, as the BBC put it (15 October). This is all sharply in focus since Hamas’ October offensive and Israel’s genocidal razing of the Gaza Strip.
We analyzed the front page coverage of Israel’s war in Gaza by five major US and UK news media — the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Times, and the BBC (the news landing page at 7 am daily) between October 7 to 26.
Over these three weeks following Hamas’ offensive, the mechanics of the Western press’ dehumanization of Palestinians in death and life are revealed as clinical and routine.
Israelis are murdered, Palestinians die
The dehumanization process begins (or ends) with questioning who counts in death, and how the killer and the victim are portrayed.
In the UK-US mainstream media, Israelis die actively. They are either killed or murdered by Hamas, or “after a surprise Palestinian attack”. “The Palestinians” stands in for “Hamas” for sloppy or ideological editors, for example, in the Guardian on October 8.
Palestinian civilians, by contrast, die passively – and yet it is they who have done most of the dying since October 7—over ten times the number of Israelis killed.
“The media treat Israel’s blockade of Gaza as wholly logical, proportionate and even restrained”
Gazans aren’t killed by Israeli forces or Israeli government policies. They “dehydrate to death as clean water runs out” (Guardian, October 18), while Israeli airstrikes “continue to pound the Palestinian territory”.
On October 9, the BBC ran with “700 people have been killed on the Israeli side with more than 400 also dead in Gaza”, presumably succumbing to shock or an act of God.
On November 8, the Times of London noted: “Israelis marked a month since Hamas killed 1,400 people and kidnapped 240, starting a war in which 10,300 Palestinians are said to have died”, which is of course qualified.
Palestinian deaths are natural, undifferentiated. This is only possible because the media treat Israel’s blockade of Gaza as wholly logical, proportionate, and even restrained.
Violations of international law
Collective punishment, which is essentially what Israel is doing by striking civilian “targets” and totally blockading the “open prison” (in former prime minister David Cameron’s words), is also illegal. This is the view of EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, UN human rights chief Volker Türk, and Human Rights Watch, among others.
When UN chief António Guterres noted Israel’s decades-long occupation of Palestine and called for an end to the siege, Israel’s UN representative demanded he resign. At least one of Guterres’ colleagues, the head of the New York office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Craig Mokhiber, resigned of his own accord, protesting Israel’s “genocide unfolding before our eyes” in Palestine.
However, in none of the three weeks’ of front-page headlines and lead paragraphs for the five UK-US media analyzed for this article are Israel’s serial violations of international law mentioned.
The exclusion of this important context on Israel’s crimes is important. As journalists, we’re trained to account for the fact that most people don’t read beyond the headlines or first paragraphs.
Off the front page, some media published separate analysis pieces, such as the New York Times’ “Israel, Gaza and the laws of war” (12 October). This, unsurprisingly, goes nowhere near calling Israel’s crimes what they are: crimes.
Despite discussing at length how civilians cannot be targeted or disproportionately harmed for military purposes, the closest the New York Times gets to criticizing the action of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is quoting the opinion of an expert on siege law.
This was that Israel’s siege is “an unusually clear-cut example of starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, which is considered a violation of international humanitarian law, a crime against humanity and a war crime” (emphasis added).
A swift qualifier follows: “Jurisdiction over some war crimes would depend on whether the conflict is considered inter-state.” So some crimes are not a crime as long as Palestine or Palestinians don’t exist, as Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir asserted over 50 years ago, repeated by current Israeli politicians.
By contrast, Hamas’ actions are, to the same cited expert, “not close calls”.
Moving on from, or ignoring completely, both the illegality of Israel’s total siege of Gaza, the UK-US media portray the starvation and preventable deaths resulting directly from it in almost entirely passive, naturalistic language.
For example, the Washington Post’s print version front page: “Civilian harm in Gaza looms over Biden’s visit; Rising human toll from attacks could threaten Israel’s global backing” (harm arising, of course, from Israel’s battering).
On October 13, from the New York Times: “300,000 homeless in battered Gaza as food runs low” (because Israel is blocking food from entering Gaza). It continues: “Hospitals overwhelmed and fuel scarce” (because Israel is blocking medical supplies and fuel from reaching Gaza) “as Israel strikes back at Hamas”.
That’s fine then – the reader should feel at ease since Israel’s crushing of hospitals is merely an act of “self-defense”.
The Israeli military is not much a fan of Gazan hospitals – it regularly bombs them. It ordered 23 hospitals in northern Gaza to evacuate on October 13 October and seems to have been picking them off, with patients inside, ever since.
When Israel might have gone too far, as it did in almost certainly bombing Al-Ahli Arab Hospital on October 17, most outlets covered the strike by repeating both Israel’s and Hamas’ “he said-she said” accusations against the other.
Nevertheless, the New York Times gave the IDF’s denial more weight with “Hamas fails to make case that Israel struck hospital” (October 23, emphasis added), which is a catchier headline than “We don’t know and don’t want to work it out ourselves”.
Meanwhile, the Times ran with “Strike kills up to 500 in Gaza”, swiftly adding that “Israel denies responsibility and blames jihadis”, with no comment from a Palestinian voice.
Mirroring the discrepancy between how Palestinians have died (passively, often with no mention of Israeli actions) and Israelis have died (actively, directly attributed to Hamas or “Palestinian” actions) is how the media describes child victims of both sides.
“Gazan civilian deaths are reported as authorless natural disasters”
Discussing a prisoner exchange, a Washington Post columnist described Israel’s “children hostages” while referring to Palestinian children as “young people”. Under Military Order 1591, the Israeli government can hold minors as young as 12 without trial and potentially indefinitely in “administrative detention”, UNICEF reports.
When Gazan civilian deaths from the siege and strikes against civilian infrastructure are shown as authorless natural disasters rather than as war crimes, any access Gazans get to essential goods becomes “aid” or “relief”, and every tiny amount allowed to reach them is an act of Israeli mercy.
For example, the New York Times (19 October): “Deal lays groundwork for aid to reach desperate Gazans”. Or the Washington Post (12 October): “Closed borders, falling bombs choke Gaza; thousands injured as supplies wane”, adding “humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsens” (due to Israeli siege, let’s not forget).
Also in the Washington Post is the incredible headline (16 October) “As the Palestinian death toll rises, aid stuck in Egypt”, as if it couldn’t physically fit through the door, which ignores the fact that Israel prevented aid from entering Israel via Rafah, demanding proof it would not be diverted to Hamas.
Having reduced Palestinians to numbers, the work then becomes to cast doubt on these numbers.
When Israel’s flattening of Gaza began raising international alarm, Biden said he didn’t trust that “Palestinians” (or the Hamas government, since to him the distinction is irrelevant) “are telling the truth about how many people are killed.”
His statement was the latest in a time-honored tradition of US administrations disputing the number of deaths wreaked by their allies abroad, from Suharto’s Indonesia to Salvadoran death squads in the 1980s and Saudi Arabia today, as historian Bradely Simpson notes.
No one seriously disputes the Gazan Ministry of Health’s numbers as too high. If anything, they are likely a serious undercount given how many bodies are trapped under rubble.
Nevertheless, the attribution of figures to the “Gaza Ministry of Health” is now almost always prefaced by “Hamas-government” or followed by “controlled by Hamas”. This would seem an odd waste of words, considering that everyone from the UN to the US State Department cites Gazan health ministry casualty data, and Gaza’s government is run by Hamas.
Dead Palestinians are simply irrelevant for some media. The first mention of Palestinian deaths in Times headlines occurred 11 days after Hamas’ assault: “Strike kills up to 500 in Gaza”. It had by then run several front-page pieces about specific, named Israeli victims, including an in-depth profile (with portrait) of a kibbutz family horrifically killed by the Hamas-led offensive.
Unsurprisingly, on October 12, the Telegraph published the number of Israelis killed in factors of “9/11s” in a striking infographic which didn’t even bother to include an estimate of Palestinian deaths.
Once people are truly dehumanized, it becomes logical – necessary, even – to apply a wholly different standard of (in)decency to them.
UK-US media report Palestinian deaths passively, as if through apparent acts of God, often couching the deaths in language suggesting that they were mostly Hamas or Hamas-adjacent, or at least that they inconveniently stood in missiles’ way.
For still-breathing Palestinians, it is not enough to have somehow escaped being killed by the almost 6,000 bombs Israel launched in its first six days of punishing the densely populated territory. This is more than the US, not usually known for its restraint, deployed in any single year of its war in Afghanistan.
A living Palestinian must justify his or her continued aliveness by disavowing Hamas. A viral example of this can be seen in BBC Newsnight’s interview of the head of the Palestinian mission to the UK, Husam Zomlot.
“A living Palestinian must justify his or her continued aliveness by disavowing Hamas”
Presenter Kirsty Wark barely flinched upon hearing Zomlot describe in detail how members of his family had been killed by Israeli strikes in the previous days before repeatedly demanding Zomlot condemn Hamas’ actions.
To reverse this, in other words, to ask every Israeli who had lost a family member in this conflict to first begin by condemning Israel’s murders and collective punishment of civilian Gazans would be rightly seen as outrageous. Unsurprisingly, we have not seen any examples of such in the Western press.
The UK-US press also tells us that to support Palestinians is to support Hamas, in case anyone doubted the conflation.
The BBC declared London’s peaceful pro-Palestine protesters as providing “backing for Hamas.” It later retracted its “poorly phrased” comments.
Sky News did no better in using images of peaceful protesters bearing Palestinian flags to accompany its discussion of efforts by the London Metropolitan Police to “tackle extremism”.
These “slips” pale in comparison with the virulently offensive terms guests on BBC programs have called Palestinians, completely unchallenged by their hosts.
For example, BBC Arabic hosted former Israeli intelligence veteran-turned academic, Mordechai Kedar who refused to recognize popular Israeli racism towards Palestinians, claiming that bestial comparisons of Palestinians are “denigrating to animals.”
Tellingly, the BBC Arabic host neither ejected Kedar from the interview nor did she admonish him and demand an apology. Instead, the host pivoted away from Kedar’s genocidal language with the comment “that’s your opinion”.
Platforming Israeli justifications
UK-US media have also taken to running pieces, platforming Israeli justifications for the IDF’s actions when the staggering number of dead Gazan civilians was becoming harder to write around.
“How Israelis justify scale of airstrikes” ran the New York version front page of the New York Times on 26 October. It was later rewritten as “Israel’s strikes on Gaza are some of the most intense this century”.
“UK-US media have also taken to running pieces platforming Israeli justifications for the IDF’s actions”
It is unthinkable that a Western newspaper would carry a piece platforming in the same benign-to-neutral terms Palestinian rage, or worse, justifications for Hamas’ crimes.
Another trend is to normalize Israel’s actions by focusing not on its costs in Gazan lives but its intentions which, of course, are shown as benign. (Note: intentions don’t matter in the laws of war.)
Three days into Israel’s illegal total blockade of Gaza, the BBC asked: “Could an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza meet its aims?” (14 October). Charitably characterizing Netanyahu as “risk-averse” (for Israelis, not Palestinians), the New York Times ran with “All-out war is untried ground”, comforting readers that “limited strikes in past were safe politically”.
Dissenting voices: harder to hear
Journalists at the BBC and Agence France Presse (AFP) who have been critical of their agencies’ bias against Palestinian lives and minimization of Israeli war crimes told Declassified that there is no space to discuss editorial concerns.
Palestinian commentators have seen their segments edited out of mainstream news programs. Palestinian Americans report their events are being canceled while they’re called Hamas supporters.
Meanwhile, a senior editor at US publication Newsweek called for Gaza to be flattened to resemble a parking lot, apparently without censure.
Elsewhere in the media ecosystem, an official of the UK’s communications regulator OFCOM, Fadzai Madzingira, was suspended for a social media post criticizing UK support for “ethnic cleansing and genocide of Palestinians” and “this vile colonial alliance”.
None of these points—that Israel may be committing genocide, that it continues to ethnically cleanse Palestinian land or that Israel was founded as a colonial project which still uses settler outposts to consolidate territorial control – is outside of reasonable analysis of historical facts.
It’s looking an awful lot like the beginning (or end, depending on your starting point) of a genocide.
The IDF has instructed all Palestinians to flee south of the Wadi Gaza area “for their safety” from Israeli strikes. Some were struck as they were evacuating, and Palestinians are still being shelled by the IDF in southern refugee areas.
Soldiers plant Israeli flags on Gazan beaches, while Israel’s intelligence agency floats the idea of permanently expelling Gazans to Egyptian Sinai as a preferred solution. Netanyahu invokes a Bible passage where God orders the Israelites “to put to death men and women, children and infants” of a rival kingdom.
Still, the New York Times uncritically presents Netanyahu as “seeking [a] permanent end to threat but not a reoccupation” (13 October).
That last bastion of dissent gallows humor, is also at grave risk. Michael Eisen, editor of science journal eLife, was sacked for posting on Twitter an article from humor site the Onion, with the headline “Dying Gazans criticized for not using last words to condemn Hamas”.
The Guardian’s cartoonist Steve Bell’s contract was not renewed after his sketch of Netanyahu preparing to operate on his own stomach with an outline of Gaza was deemed too reminiscent of the “pound of flesh” anti-Semitic trope.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post published a cartoon of a Hamas official with Gazan children and women strapped to him saying “How dare Israel attack civilians”. It’s since been deleted following racism complaints.
Yet the cartoonist is still drawing for mainstream media. Last week he published another cartoon in the Las Vegas Review showing a (fat, black) woman with a Black Lives Matter t-shirt holding up a sign saying “Terrorist Lives Matter: Blame Israel, Support Hamas”.
How dare Israel attack civilians indeed.
About The Author
Claire Lauterbach is an independent investigative journalist and producer. She is the former Head of Investigations at Privacy International, where she investigated the use and abuse of surveillance and military technologies and a former Senior Investigator at Global Witness. Claire previously investigated war crimes in Goma, DR Congo, for Human Rights Watch.
Namir Shabibi is an independent investigative journalist, visiting lecturer in Geopolitics at the University of Westminster, and Ph.D. candidate researching covert paramilitary action in the ‘War on Terror’. He is a former International Committee of the Red Cross delegate investigating breaches of the Geneva Conventions in Darfur and Guantanamo Bay.
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