International media review

Blame game and biblical exegesis: World press reports on Operation Pillar of Defense

While leading British and French papers start their stories with news of three Israelis killed, Germany’s Der Spiegel focuses on Israel ‘bombarding’ the Palestinians

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli citizens take cover as a warning siren sounds in Nitzan, on November 14 (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
Israeli citizens take cover as a warning siren sounds in Nitzan, on November 14 (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

Operation Pillar of Defense is making headlines around the world, with media outlets choosing to highlight different aspects of the conflict. While some papers predictably choose to focus on the Palestinian perspective, relegating information about Israeli victims to the bottom of their articles, certain journalists often suspected of an anti-Israel bias begin their stories with the three Israeli casualties.

One website commented on the name of Israel’s operation, saying it is a reference to the biblical story “about God terrorizing Egyptians.”

On Wednesday night, hours after Israel announced the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari and the launch of Operation Pillar of Defense, the German Der Spiegel newspaper led its online edition with the words “Palestinians fear a new war.”

“The situation in the Gaza Strip escalates, although both sides don’t really want war,” the paper’s Beirut-based correspondent writes in the subhead underneath the headline.

The article began by stating that Israel on Thursday continued air strikes against Gaza and is ready to expand the operation and send ground troops into the Strip. The second paragraph reports on the assassination of Jabari and the other Israeli airstrikes that followed and killed eight people, “including a child.”

Only the third paragraph mentions that well over a hundred rockets have been raining on Israel’s south in recent days.

On Thursday morning, Spiegel Online, the country’s largest news website, led with the headline “Israel again bombards Gaza.”

The story’s first paragraph quotes a Palestinian news agency saying that 11 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s airstrikes, including two children and a pregnant woman, and that more than a hundred were injured. The second paragraph states that “Israeli tanks and warships” also participated in the attacks on Gaza. The three Israeli victims, who were killed by Hamas rockets hitting a residential building in Kiryat Malachi, are mentioned further down, in the sixth paragraph.

The New York Times’ website led Thursday morning with news about the scandal surrounding CIA director David Petraeus, relegating the story about Israel-Gaza to second place.

“The Israeli fatalities were the first in a spasm of violence that killed the top military commander of Hamas on Wednesday, damaged Israel’s fragile relations with Egypt and escalated the risks of a new war in the Middle East,” the paper writes.

The Times of London was one of the few newspapers that opened its coverage on Thursday with the news that three Israelis were killed, “and four more were injured when a Hamas rocket scored a direct hit on a home near the Gaza strip.”

The online versions of the French Le Monde and Le Figaro newspaper also led with the news of three Israelis killed by rocket fire.

The London-based Guardian, often accused of an anti-Israel bias, ran a rather straight news story, with Jerusalem correspondent Harriet Sherwood writing that Israel launched “a military operation to eliminate militants and weapon sites in the Gaza Strip” which could lead to “potentially serious repercussions beyond its borders.” On Thursday morning, the paper ran a live blog covering events as they unfolded.

The website of the BBC, which pro-Israel critics often say is one-sidedly anti-Israel in its reporting on the Middle East, titled its story on the events in the South on Thursday morning, “Gaza rocket fire kills three Israelis.” The network’s Jon Donnison, reporting from Gaza City, said he could see “vapour trails from rockets being fired by Palestinian militants” and “intermittently large mushrooms of smoke appear from Israeli air strikes.”

“But so far the violence does not appear on the same scale as the last Gaza war almost four years ago when hundreds of Palestinians were killed on the first day of Israel’s operation, our correspondent adds. Thirteen Israelis also died in that conflict,” the report states.

The popular New York-based website Gawker ran an article entitled “Israel Names its New War After Biblical Story About God Terrorizing Egyptians.” The piece explains that the Hebrew name of the campaign — Amud Anan, which literally means Pillar of Cloud — is a biblical reference to God’s taking on the form of a pillar of cloud during the Exodus from Egpyt, “in order to light their way and to frighten the Egyptian army.”

The article’s author, John Cook, then quotes numerous Bible verses mentioning the pillar of cloud, such as Exodus 14:24, which says the pillar threw the Egyptian army “into confusion.” According to Cook, the biblical Pillar of Cloud is thus a “worldly instantiation of an all-powerful, vengeful God seeking to demonstrate the primacy of his chosen people, to guide them in their affairs, and to confound their enemies.”

“If anyone was worried about the increasing religious and ethnic fanaticism of the Israeli leadership, they should still be worried,” Cook writes. “Did Israel launch this attack because there was no other rational route to maintain its security? Or was it pursuing a broader agenda rooted in ancient mysticism?”

Writing in Tablet, Yair Rosenberg challenges Cook’s theory, saying that the IDF was likely inspired by a Midrash, an ancient commentary to the Bible, which explains that the Egyptians “shot arrows and catapult stones at them [Israel’s army], but the angel and cloud caught them.”

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