Last week, I wrote about the Washington Post’s decision to publish a large photo of a Palestinian toddler killed during Israel’s Gaza operation on the front page. The picture captures the most tragic aspect of war, the death of innocent civilians and the pain of the families they leave behind. But by not balancing this photo with an image of Hamas attacks on Israel, it also gave the impression that Israelis were fighting a war of aggression, rather than self-defense. 

The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Patrick Pexton, responded to criticism on Friday:

Many readers asked why The Post didn’t balance the photo of the grieving father with one of Israelis who had lost a loved one from the Gaza rocket fire. That’s a valid question.

The answer is that The Post cannot publish photographs that don’t exist. No Israeli civilian had been killed by Gaza rocket fire since Oct. 29, 2011, more than a year earlier. The first Israeli civilian deaths from Gaza rocket fire in 2012 did not take place until Nov. 15, when Hamas, the group that controls Gaza, began firing more accurate and deadly missiles in response to the Israeli offensive that had begun the day before. There were no recent photos of Israeli casualties to be had on the night of Nov. 14.

Perhaps the Washington Post didn’t have photos of recent Israeli civilian casualties on Nov. 14, but that’s not because these casualties didn’t exist. On Nov. 11, southern Israel was pounded with over 100 Hamas rockets, injuring at least three. Perhaps WaPo didn’t think these casualties were worth documenting, or maybe it didn’t have a photographer nearby at the time. But they certainly existed, and it’s puzzling that Paxton doesn’t even mention them in his column.

Beyond that, three Israelis died in Hamas rocket attacks the night the WaPo front page in question was printed, yet the paper didn’t follow up with a front page photo of these casualties. In fact, it hasn’t printed any pictures of any Israeli casualties whatsoever on its front page since the start of Operation Pillar of Defense. So the argument that “balanced” photos would have been published prominently had they existed doesn’t hold up.

Pexton continues:

I think we can all agree that the Gaza rocket fire is reprehensible and is aimed at terrorizing Israeli civilians. It’s disruptive and traumatic. But let’s be clear: The overwhelming majority of rockets fired from Gaza are like bee stings on the Israeli bear’s behind.

These rockets are unguided and erratic, and they carry very small explosive payloads; they generally fall in open areas, causing little damage and fewer injuries.

“Bee stings on a bear’s behind”? Maybe Pexton can explain that to the children of Sderot, many of whom suffer traumatic stress disorders after being dragged out of bed night after night by the sound of air raid sirens. Or to the families of the Israelis killed by what Pexton refers to as “unguided and erratic” Hamas rocket attacks last week. Or to over a million Israelis forced to put their lives on hold to hide in bomb shelters, because, as effective as Iron Dome is, it can’t block every missile — and it just takes one.

The truth is, Hamas’s rockets don’t cause as many casualties as they otherwise would because Israel goes to great lengths to protect its people. It spends fortunes on bomb shelters and missile defense systems. In contrast, Israel’s military responses cause more Palestinian casualties than they otherwise would because Hamas goes to great lengths to endanger its people. It shoots missiles out of hospitals and schools, uses children as human shields, and tells Gaza civilians to ignore Israeli warning pamphlets that advise them to leave targeted neighborhoods.

Washington Post stories that give prominent coverage to Palestinian casualties and downplay Israeli ones — and columns like Pexton’s that compare Hamas missiles to bee stings and Israel to a bear — play into Hamas’s strategy of endangering its own people, and ensure that it will continue in the future.

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