The heart-wrenching photograph of little Louay Al Khoudari, not yet three years old and sick with cancer, worked: Last Thursday, hours after it was reported that Louay’s mother, Hanan, had not been permitted to accompany him to Nablus for medical treatment, she received a call informing her that she could leave Gaza immediately and travel to her son.
The report on Louay’s plight exposed the height of the absurdity: As Israel negotiated, albeit indirectly, with Hamas officials, it simultaneously imposed the punitive criterion according to which any “relative of a Hamas member” cannot leave the Strip – thereby forcing a toddler to undergo chemotherapy treatment alone, without his mother’s soothing words and embrace. Publicizing this cruelty and coldheartedness apparently elicited a feeling of shame from someone, somewhere.
Here we have a journalistic and humanistic success story for Haaretz, but it’s not as much of a success at it appears to be. The bureaucratic ability to change the original order and let Hanan Al Khoudari join her son relies upon the Israeli pretense that this is an extraordinary case, and that the coldheartedness of the bureaucrats who are our neighbors or brothers or childhood friends was a one-time mishap. In other words, this particular journalistic achievement is directly tied to our ability to ignore the basic fact, to ignore the big picture: We Israelis are the heartless jailers of the two million residents of the Gaza Strip.
For every cruel and absurd case that is publicized about someone being prevented from leaving Gaza, I learn of hundreds more cases every year that are not publicized. For the most part, these are cases handled by Palestinian and Israeli human rights organizations through persistent correspondence with the authorities and by taking legal measures, sometimes going as far as to petition the High Court. For each known case, there are hundreds more we don’t know about that fall under the category of “humanitarian cases.” Even if we did know of all of them, it would be impossible to report on them all, whether for lack of space in the newspaper, or because there are so many other matters that need attention, or even because, admittedly, after a while they cease to be a professional challenge.
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The capacity of consumers of information to be shocked (and hence to influence decision-makers) depends on the rarity of the report. The more the same story is repeated, the more the readers’ sensitivity becomes dulled. Who is appalled anymore about yet another story of a kid getting shot by a soldier at close range, or about olive trees in a Palestinian village being uprooted by settlers, or by another illegal outpost receiving generous state funding and military protection in order to expand and drive Palestinian farmers and shepherds off their lands?
This is the journalistic trap: A story that keeps recurring is ostensibly indicative of a policy. But this is just where it loses its ability to hold people’s attention – because the policy that enables the cruel behavior of bureaucrats and military officers is perceived as the accepted standard.
Even if we could report on each and every “humanitarian” case, it would be a journalistic trap of collaborating with a perverse set of rules set by ministers and prime ministers: For example, dying Palestinians and their first-degree relatives are to be given transit permits, but not second-degree relatives or students from Gaza who want to study in Bethlehem, or poets and writers from Gaza who want to participate in the book fair in Ramallah.
We have a “story” if Israel didn’t grant a permit to a person who meets the restrictive criteria for a permit determined by the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories. There’s no “story” if there is no such criterion on the list – say, the right of friends who live 70 kilometers away from each other to get together. So when we report on humanitarian cases, we’re inherently accepting the dehumanization of Palestinians, inherent in the Israeli closure policy, which has turned a basic human need like freedom of movement into a rare act reserved for exceptional cases.