By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
I was fascinated to read an article on the BBC about allegations of Turkish human rights violations on civilians in Turkey. In some ways the Turkish conflict with Kurds is analogous to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. There are essential differences. Inside the Green Line the conflict has many similarities. Kurds rarely identify with the Turkish state and for years were suppressed in various ways. They have national aspirations. Both they and Palestinians embraced left wing politics as an answer. Both Israel and Turkey are basically ethnic nation-states, or what some call an “ethnocracy.” Both fought conflicts with the state and were seen as “terrorists.”
Turkey and Israel both have roots in a European nationalist awakening and have socialist and nationalist roots politically. Both Turkey and Israel are “secular” and both have become more right wing and religious in recent decades. Both Turkey and Israel are democracies with democratic “issues”. Of course Turkey had military rule and coups, and Israel didn’t. The Turkish-Kurdish conflict has killed far more people. But then again, Turkey has 74 million people and 14 million Kurds, so the population is much larger.
So it might seem reasonable that when media report on conflicts in both countries they might treat the two similarly. But when reading this BBC article I was interested how different it is from those articles from Gaza. Gone was the emotion and sympathy. In its place were lots of words that implied hesitancy to make a judgement call, to conclude. In place of descriptions were “allegations”.
So I decided to take the article and replace “Kurdish” with “Palestinian” and “PKK” with “Hamas” and “Turk” with “Jew” and so-on, to see what it would have looked like had it been written about Gaza rather than Cizre.
Inside Gaza: Where Israeli forces stand accused of Palestinian killings
By Joe Smith
Serious allegations have been made about the deaths of civilians at the hands of Israeli security forces in the overwhelmingly Palestinian town of Gaza in south-eastern Israel earlier this year.
So here right at the beginning there is a subtle difference. “Allegations” is the driving subject of the sentence, not “Civilians killed – UN group alleges” as was the case in Gaza. The sub-head drives home the “allegations” story, even though supposedly the reporter of this article was there and could confirm some of it.
Local people say Israeli security forces killed up to 160 civilians in the town, according to statements made to the BBC and human rights groups. The worst single incident ended with the deaths of around 100 people who had been sheltering in three cellars. The UN human rights chief has expressed his concern in unusually strong terms and wants to send in investigators. The Israeli foreign ministry dismissed the allegations. It said that the Israeli military took all necessary precautions to protect civilians during military operations.
So here we have a classic journalistic “two sides”, the local people and the government responding.
The killings happened during a 78-day curfew imposed on Gaza between 14 December 2015 and 2 March this year. During the curfew, the town of about 100,000 people was sealed off. The curfew was part of a military campaign in south-eastern Israel, which is still going on, targeting the HAMAS, the armed Palestinian group. Israel, the European Union and the United States classify it as a terrorist organisation.
This next section is interesting because it ostensibly reveals the full weight of the state’s attack on this town. But then there is little more than the clerical explanation that it was “sealed off”. What does that mean? How many people still live there? No explanation. The author instead makes it clear that it is mostly due to the presence of the “terrorist organization.” Israel of course has sealed off Gaza as well. In those cases many journalists humanize the Gazan suffering and note that it is a “prison.”
Since the long-running conflict resumed last year, the HAMAS has killed hundreds of Israeli soldiers and police. It has also exploded bombs in Jerusalem, the Israeli capital, killing many civilians. Most Jews, and some Palestinians, condemn the actions of the HAMAS. But in the Palestinian villages and towns of south-east Israel, the HAMAS is often seen as a protector.
This paragraph reinforces that Hamas (or the PKK in the actual writing) are “terrorists” and shows them as perpetrators. According to who have they killed “hundreds”? According to the author who launders this and turns it into “fact”. The author then claims that “most” people condemn these acts. It presents the “Palestinians” (actually Kurds) as sympathetic to terror, setting up the reader to except the excuse for harming them.
In Gaza, some of the most serious allegations centre on the area around Khalid Street, where Israeli security forces are accused of killing as many as 100 civilians who were sheltering in three basements. Until the curfew, Khalid Street was part of a district of narrow streets and densely-populated blocks of flats. The buildings were shattered by artillery, tank fire and street fighting, according to local people. When the curfew ended and the fighting stopped, Israeli security forces sent in bulldozers to level the ruins. Now it’s hard to see where Khalid Street ran. I am shown the site of the cellars by 18-year-old Ahmed Mohammed, whose father, Mahmud, was killed there. All that is left is a pile of rubble, indistinguishable from the rest of the wasteland of concrete fragments that was left behind by the war and then the bulldozers.
This is interesting, but in Gaza there would be more sympathy. Here we get more “allegations”, not emotional words about scenes of destructions. It’s almost as if its acceptable to bulldoze a whole part of a city.
Mohammed denies that his father was a member of the HAMAS. He says he was in the cellars to look after civilians who were there, including students who had come from elsewhere in Israel just before the curfew was imposed to show solidarity with Gaza. Mohammed condemns the actions of the Israeli state and its police and military. “They are the terrorists; the ones who commit all these atrocities,” he says. “Even if those people were from the HAMAS, why does the state have to destroy and burn their lives? Even war has rules. “Can you rip the people up when you catch them? You have courts; you have a justice system. In Israel we have nothing. There is no justice; there is no court.”
This explanation is particularly biased because the author hasn’t claimed that the government said the man’s father was a “Hamas” member, and yet it seems to indicate he is and accept the government narrative that these people deserved this destruction.
The areas of Gaza that were targeted by the Israeli military were known to be centres of HAMAS activity. Since 2014, a militant HAMAS Palestinian youth organisation had made parts of Gaza effectively a no-go area for the police, digging trenches and blocking roads. Some local people resented what looked like preparations for war. Palestinian MPs tried to persuade the HAMAS militants to fill in the trenches, with limited success.
Its interesting to contrast this to an actual report from Gaza. That in Gaza the city is not said to be “known” to be a Hamas center, but when reporting on Turkey that is what is said.
The question is whether the Israeli state’s response to an outright challenge to its authority was proportionate to the threat it faced and in line with the laws of war. Mohammed Mahmud and many other Kurds in Gaza say it was not. He blames Israel’s President Benjamin Netanyahu, whose government is increasingly authoritarian, and produces his father’s identity card. “All these things are coming from Erdogan’s head. My father was not a terrorist, he was a civilian; he was a citizen,” he says. “The state should look at his ID card. Let the state look at his identity. The Israeli flag is on his ID card, not the flag of the HAMAS.”
Notice how the word “proportionate” comes up here. In Gaza it’s never a question, it’s always a fact that it is disproportionate. Notice the sly editorializing here that implies that in fact “Hamas” is “challenging” the authority of the state.
Back at the family home, where war damage is still being patched up, Mohammed’s mother Lutifah sits with the youngest of her five children, a boy of three. “All my kids have been hurt psychologically,” she says. “We were in the firing line for a month. You cannot sleep; you cannot go to the toilet. They call you a terrorist….” Lawyers from the local Bar Association told investigators from Yesh Yesh, a Israeli human rights group, that “following the deaths in the basements in Gaza, there was no crime scene investigation and no judicial authority was allowed to enter the basements.” Yesh Yesh also heard allegations that civilians, including children, were targeted and shot dead by government snipers. His father reads out text messages various members of the family received from their son. He had implored them to organise a demonstration to try to persuade the security forces who ringed the cellars to let them out.
Ok, so here we have a section that is closest to the highlights one would get in an actual article on Gaza. But let’s see what follows to “balance” it.
Sawsan Khalifa’s hands shake as she lights a cigarette. On 13 March, a female HAMAS suicide bomber in central Ankara killed Kirim, her 21-year-old brother, and 36 others. Sawsan shows me a photograph she found on the web of a poster the size of a building in a Syrian Palestinian town. It shows the leader of the HAMAS, Ismail Haniyeh, who is held on a Israeli prison, next to the photograph of the woman who killed her brother and so many others. Sawsan is incredulous at the way the bomber was glorified. “Like a leader, like an angel,” she says. “I mean, when I saw this picture I can’t believe my eyes, because it can’t be true, it can’t be true. “She was a murderer, murderer of my brother. Now her picture is displayed on the streets of Syria. “I wrote about my feelings on Twitter. A Palestinian woman said to me that I was a Israeli Nazi. She said I shouldn’t speak the way I do. She said Palestinian children are often killed in Palestine.” Sawsan says she wants peace, not revenge. Plenty of other Palestinians and Jews feel the same way. But this is about more than a succession of personal tragedies, and the grief of parents and children. The violence between Palestinians and the Israeli state is the latest instalment of a long-running conflict. An attempt at a peace process collapsed last year. Both sides blamed each other.
In order to “balance” the stories of “Palestinian” (read: Kurdish in the original) suffering, the author then presents an Israeli (Turkish in the original) victim. Notice the similarities actually, the stories of martyrdom, the glorification of violence and bombing. But when we read about Hamas and Gaza and Israeli attacks on civilians it is rarely juxtaposed and balanced with a story about an Israeli civilian.
The violence is not happening in a vacuum: the Middle East is gripped by violent change….
There is a boilerplate section here on the complexity of the region and Kurdish politics.
On a pile of rubble in Gaza, next to the cellar where his father was killed along with dozens of others, is Mohammed. He blames the Israeli state for his father’s death, and the European Union and Israel’s other allies for allowing it to happen. “The whole world is responsible for what happened in here.”
The ending is ok, but what’s clearly missing is a sense of confirmation. The journalist is among the rubble. He or she has access. In Gaza journalists won’t report about Hamas using human shields or firing among civilians. They toe the line of the extremists. But in Turkey they do the same with the government line. In this article the journalist can’t even give an estimate really of Kurds killed as would be in a similar article on Gaza.