U.S.- Jihadist Clash in Iraq Could Change Perceptions of Israel’s Gaza Campaign

Embattled Israelis and persecuted Yazidis agree: The media pays too much attention to Gaza.

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Displaced Yazidi, fleeing violence from the Iraqi town of SInjar, take refuge at Dohuk province. August 7, 2014.Credit: Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Backers of the Israelis and supporters of the Yazidis in Iraq found common ground this week: both protested the media’s obsessive focus on the fighting in Gaza. As one frustrated Yazidi refugee told the New Yorker: “In one day they killed more than two thousand Yazidis in Sinjar and the whole world says ‘Save Gaza, Save Gaza’.”

He has a point, of course. The massive coverage of Operation Protective Edge and the non-stop 24/7 live broadcasts from Jerusalem and Gaza over the past month evaporated even the modest media interest that was starting to stir after Islamic State (IS) began its conquests in northern Iraq. While experts around the world were dissecting the personal rivalries inside the Israeli cabinet, the internal logic of the Hannibal procedure and the exact origin and/or destination of each and every Hamas rocket or IDF artillery shell, near the site of the great city of Nineveh a potential genocide that could wipe a proud and ancient tribe off the face of the earth was just getting under way.

Until a few days ago, most of the Western world hadn’t even heard of the Yazidis, an ethnically Kurdish tribe that numbers about half a million people, whose origins are in northwest Iraq and which is also dispersed in Iran, Syria, Turkey, Armenia and Germany. The Yazidis, whose religion incorporates pagan and Zoroastrian beliefs with elements from the three monotheistic religions, are considered by most Moslims and many Kurds to be infidels and heretics. They don’t eat lettuce and never wear blue, but their detractors’ main objection is to the Yazidi belief in a fallen peacock angel who is called, in terms suspiciously similar to Hebrew, Malak Taus.

The Yazidis are described - unjustifiably, according to experts - as devil-worshippers.

Since the 12th century AD, Muslim clergymen have periodically issued religious fatwas justifying the annihilation of the Yazidis, a task that Sunnis, Shiites, Ottoman troops and fellow Kurds have all tried to carry out at one point or another. The early 20th century Encyclopedia of Islam credits the “remarkable resolve and strength of character” of the Yazidis for their ongoing success in clinging to their faith and identity. But that was before August 2007, when a group then described as Al-Qaida detonated two tons of explosives in two villages near Mosul in the second biggest terror attack in history – after 9/11 - that left 800 Yazidis dead and thousands injured.

And it was before the organization known then as the Islamic State of Iraq – today’s IS – published yet another fatwa calling for Yazidis to be exterminated wherever they are.

In recent weeks – after the conquest of Mosul, the march northwards, the capture of the strategic Tigris dam and the quick collapse of Kurdish strongholds – the IS finally got the chance to start carrying out its genocidal plans. According to numerous reports reaching the West, hundreds of Yazidi men who refuse to convert to Islam have been executed, their families sold into slavery. And the Yazidis are not the only IS targets: a similar fate awaits Iraqi Christians, Turkoman Shiites and members of the Shabak tribe, another unique Kurdish offshoot whose roots can be traced to ancient Mesopotamia.

But in death, as in life, timing is everything. At the very same moment that a cease fire went into effect on Wednesday, the Washington Post published a horrific but nonetheless riveting account of forty thousand Yazidis who had been expelled from their villages and were seeking refuse from the IS in the Sinjar mountain, where they faced a truly satanic dilemma: go down to the IS hell at the foot of the mountain or stay on Sinjar and die of thirst and starvation. This story, along with other media reports and the heart-wrenching You Tube clip of Yazidi representative Vian Dakhil wailing for help in the Iraqi parliament all came together towards the end of the week, just as the media was looking for a new story to seek its teeth into. Within hours, Kurdish forces prepared to break through to the encircled Yazidis while the White House announced that it was undertaking an airlift of food and water that could theoretically entail defensive air strikes on IS forces as well.

Such a forceful move would be based on humanitarian imperatives but would also answer those US government officials who have been pushing for a firmer U.S. response to IS advances. Politically, a US rescue mission could bolster President Obama’s faltering image and nose-diving approval ratings just in time for the November elections. And it seems almost superfluous to note that any confrontation between US forces and extremist Islamic forces could change the negative dynamics of Israel’s image in the U.S. in the wake of the Gaza campaign.

Prime Minister Netanyahu was quick to pounce on the first whiff of possibly changing winds, telling Fox News that Hamas was part and parcel of the array of extremist jihadists from IS to Al Qaida and that by fighting the militant group in Gaza, Israel was doing America’s work as well. It goes without saying that if U.S. aircraft were to get involved in combat, and civilian casualties are incurred, Israeli hasbara types will be hard put to hide their smiles: Quod erat demonstrandum, they will say smugly, what we needed to prove.

But whether Obama will intervene or step back at the last minute, the shift from Gazans to Yazdis (and quick return, if the cease fire breaks down) proves that the media cannot resist a good David and Goliath stories, especially those with interreligious conflict, but also that the media devotes itself to whatever hits closest to home. For the American media Israel is almost a local story: Jews are central to their religion and culture, Israel has been in the media spotlight for most of its existence and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is arguably the longest and most closely followed confrontation in modern newspaper history. The only thing that is more familiar to American news consumers than the IDF is the American army itself and you can bet that if Americans get involved, the media will forget us forthwith.

Those who complain about prejudice and double standards want to have it both ways. We are the chosen people, the only democracy, the most moral army and the vanguard of Western civilization but hey, you should judge us the way you would any other despotic dictatorship or homicidal terror group. “What about Syria and North Korea?” our wailers yelp “and what about the thousands of dead Iraqis and Syrians”?

True, there are quantities of hypocrisy and anti-Semitism in some of the media’s coverage of Israel, but this is our package and its definitely preferable to the alternative: that no one will pay any attention, that the world will be otherwise engaged and that the media will shift its focus to us when we are surrounded on all sides and on the eve of destruction, but only if there is peace and quiet in all the other fronts as well.

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