It was a moment made for television. Abed Fatah al-Sharif could be seen lying on the ground in Hebron, after he and a friend had been shot while trying to stab Israeli soldiers. Still moving, 21-year-old Sharif lay there without receiving medical attention for several minutes, until a helmeted Israeli soldier, in the presence of his officers, walked up and shot him in the head.
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Just like that – what looks like a summary execution in the middle of the day, on camera.
You would have expected the killing of Sharif to be headline news around the world, not only an internal debate over the battlefield morals of the Israel Defense Forces, as it has in the last four days. The IDF Spokesman Unit was prepared for a media onslaught, notified in advance through operational channels of the incident.
By the time the footage, taken by a field worker of human rights NGO B’Tselem, landed in the journalists’ inboxes, a statement had already been prepared announcing that the soldier had been arrested and his actions, which were contrary to “the IDF’s values,” were under criminal investigation. It took Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few hours but eventually he came out with a similar statement, distancing the IDF and its values from what was seen on the screen.
But as far as the foreign media was concerned, they need not have bothered. The foreign correspondents stationed in Israel dutifully filed their reports, but in a week in which Europe was still in shock from the devastating Brussels attacks their story barely had a chance. Add to the continent’s news agenda that day the conviction in The Hague of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic for charges of genocide and the American media’s preoccupation with Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency as well as with their current president, Barack Obama, watching baseball in Cuba and doing the tango in Argentina, while trying to get as far as possible from the Middle East.
When the officials in charge of Israel’s global PR saw on Friday the daily summaries of the previous 24 hours in the world media, they heaved a sigh of relief. With the exception of Al Jazeera, the Hebron killing didn’t feature prominently on any of the main news channels, in the news bulletins of major networks or on the front pages of influential newspapers. It was relegated deep in to the inside pages and low down on the websites’ home pages.
“My report got quite a lot of clicks” said one reporter for a top news-site. ”But it didn’t make it into our top-ten news stories. There was just way too much happening elsewhere.” And if the media isn’t interested, then foreign politicians and diplomats won’t be making much of a fuss either. Perhaps even if it hadn’t taken place on a such a heavy news day we may have been surprised at the relatively low level of international media interest. After all, the global audience has become inured in the last three years to much more distressing images of ISIS beheadings, immolations and explosions of prisoners.
The improved professionalism in recent years of the IDF Spokesman’s Unit’s foreign media branch also played a role. They didn’t try to duck the issue or stonewall the reporters. Any hint of a cover up would probably have generated a few more headlines. But then after all, the world has also grown sick of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and hardly expects better of us anymore.
Some Israelis are certainly happy that the world has more burning issues to deal with and may even be experiencing a feeling of schadenfreude that this time the Europeans have too many dead bodies of their own to be interested in those here. Not only is such an attitude ugly and callous, but Israelis may find that living in one of the areas where the world media has lost interest in its cruelties is not such a great a thing, even if the coverage is sometimes biased and disproportional.
A world which is no longer shocked by Israeli cruelty towards Palestinians probably won’t be that excited when the cruelty goes the other way either. Even if the lack of interest from the foreign press this time is a result of a freak storm of global events coinciding, it’s an interesting test case of how the Israeli leadership acts without the fear of the international media looking over its shoulder. When the world isn’t looking, we can deal with what really interests us – not the IDF’s moral dilemmas but political point scoring.
The backward somersault Sunday by Netanyahu and the IDF Spokesman, from denunciation to equivocation and promises that all soldiers, including the shooter, will have backing, was motivated by the roar arising from the social networks and Netanyahu’s need to show he was no less supportive of “our soldiers” than Naftali Bennett. But it’s hard to shake the impression that if they weren’t worried by then that the Hebron incident could metastasize into a global scandal, they would have exercised a bit more care in their statements on Sunday.
At least one foreign correspondent said that “at first I was amazed Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting didn’t even condemn with one word what happened in Hebron.” But then he understood. “Netanyahu’s realized the world simply isn’t interested,” he observed.