So far, the Times' coverage of Israel's fight against the terrorist group Hamas has been surprisingly balanced, especially considering the anti-Israel bias embedded in its summer 2006 coverage of the Israel-Hezbollah war overLebanon.
But Times Watch wonders whether Thursday's front-page story by Taghreed El-Khodary, "In Dense Gaza, Civilians Suffer," doesn't mark a turning point and signal that thepaper will (once again)argue that Israel has gone too far in self-defense.
A dentist stood at the bed of a doctor, his good friend Ehab Madhoun, 32, who had just died, his shrapnel-pitted body wrapped in a white shroud.
The day before, Dr. Madhoun, a general practitioner, was in an ambulance responding to an Israeli strike at the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza. Another missile hit the ambulance. The driver, Muhammad Abu Hasira, died instantly. Dr. Madhoun lingered for a day, dying of his wounds on Wednesday in the intensive care unit of Shifa Hospital, where hundreds of people have been brought since Israel began its heaviest assault on Gaza in three decades.
The dentist cried.
"He was just doing his work," said the dentist, who would not give his name. "He's a doctor, and I can't understand why Israel would hit an ambulance. They can tell from the cameras it's an ambulance."
It has always been this way, over years of conflict here, that civilians are killed in the densely populated Gaza Strip when Israel stages military operations it says are essential for its security. But five days of Israeli airstrikes have surpassed past operations in scale and intensity; the long-distance bombardment of the Hamas-controlled territory has, however well aimed at those suspected of being militants, splintered families and shattered homes in one of the most densely populated places on Earth.
El-Khodary did not mention that Palestinian terrorists have often used the cover of ambulances to transport terrorists and bombs. Nor did he sufficiently emphasize the successful Palestinian PR strategy of firing rockets from civilian areas, invitingcounterattacks that often hit civilians,saying only that "Israelis say Hamas fires rockets at Israel from civilian neighborhoods."
The thrust of the article was slanted against that true assertion:
Israeli officials are coming under increasing pressure to ease conditions for civilians, with tight supplies of electricity, water, food and medicine worsening shortages in an area already largely sealed off from the outside world. While Israel on Wednesday refused a 48-hour cease-fire suggested by the French to allow critical supplies into Gaza, it has been sensitive enough to the ever-louder complaints to say it will do all it can to allow in supplies.
On the issue of civilian casualties, Israeli officials maintain that they do not take aim at civilians and do everything possible - like using precision-guidance systems, up-to-the minute intelligence, leaflets and phone calls to targeted areas - to avoid hitting them.
They say killing and wounding civilians only undermines their primary mission: to stop Hamas from firing rockets into civilian areas of Israel.
"I haven't seen too many tears shed in Paris, London or Berlin over the fact that we have hit Hamas targets," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's prime minister, Ehud Olmert. "So we have many reasons, both moral and political, for doing the utmost to make sure that our strikes are as surgical as possible."
Further complicating matters is that fact that Gaza is the size of Detroit, with one and a half times as many people. The military and government facilities of Hamas are intertwined with buildings where Gaza's civilian population lives and works. Israelis say Hamas fires rockets at Israel from civilian neighborhoods.
In the debate over civilian casualties, there is no clear understanding of what constitutes a military target. Palestinians argue that because Hamas is also the government in Gaza, many of the police officers who have been killed were civil servants, not hard-core militants. Israel disagrees, asserting also that a university chemistry laboratory, which it claims was used for making rockets, was a fair target in an attack this week, even if it could not show conclusively that those inside the laboratory at the time where engaged in making weapons.