Naked in Abu Ghraib/Naked in Gaza– the U.S. press’s double standard

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Nakedness, humiliation, and torture made Abu Ghraib an important story in the American media five years ago. The abuse of Iraqi detainees damaged the American reputation across the Arab world; and exposing Abu Ghraib distinguished 60 Minutes, the New Yorker, and Seymour Hersh. The New York Times called for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation, and the Defense Department disciplined dozens of soldiers and officers.

Now read the Goldstone report on the Israeli assault on Gaza of a year ago. The 575 page report published by the U.N. Human Rights Council last September documents incident upon incident of Palestinians stripped naked at gunpoint. The statement “made to strip completely” occurs frequently, as Israeli soldiers enter houses in the northern parts of the Gaza strip. “He was stripped and made to stand alone, naked, for almost an hour…” “strip searches were carried out regularly…” “They were made to line against the wall before being asked to strip naked. They were made to stand, blindfolded, naked and exposed to the cold winds, for about three or four hours.” “The men were made to strip, sometimes naked, at different stages of their detention.” “Many of the men remained in their underwear, exposed to the harsh winter weather.”

In several instances, Goldstone alleged, these detainees were also tortured during interrogations. Or terrorized by being used as human shields: “Johnnies,” the Israelis called them, forced to enter other Palestinian houses to look for combatants.

In one episode Goldstone documented, 11 women and 7 children were in a group that the Israelis forced to march through a village to a gun emplacement, where they had to climb down into sand pits surrounded by barbed wire. They were held for three days as tanks moved around them, firing shells into the strip. “[T]hey had limited access to toilet facilities… A few of them were told to relieve themselves inside the pit, behind a small mound of sand. They stated that it was culturally difficult for the women to seek permission to relieve themselves and they did not ask…. [they experienced] feelings of futility, isolation, helplessness and abject terror.”

Other atrocities included blindfolding detainees and carrying them into Israeli prisons, then releasing them a few days later and dropping them at the border. They weren’t combatants. The Israelis just wanted them out of the area.

Goldstone was unstinting in his description of this barbaric treatment. He said that it violated international norms, including those governing the treatment of women. “Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against.. any form of indecent assault.”

I ask you: Where is the American press, which burnished its brass buttons over Abu Ghraib? The Goldstone report has been dismissed out of hand. No American paper has printed extended excerpts of its findings, let alone sought to confirm and extend them. The New York Times has used its op-ed page to attempt to nullify the report. The only serious efforts by Americans to look into the report have come from bloggers, Richard Silverstein and Jerry Haber (and new blogger Jerry Slater says he plans to follow).

Do you think this conduct has not affected the American image in the Arab world? Of course it has. I remind you that in Abu Ghraib there was at least some claim that the victims of the abuse deserved to be in prison; and my memory is that all of them were men. But these Palestinians were civilians; many were women and children. The Israeli army never contended that they were combatants, they were just people in the way.

You will tell me that there are not horrifying photos, as there were at Abu Ghraib. Is that a real reason for a serious journalist? The abuses are just as bad. And maybe those photos exist, who has even looked into it.

There is a double standard here: in which the American press holds American soldiers to a far higher standard than we do the conduct of the soldiers of our closest ally in the Middle East. When we humiliate Arab prisoners, or kill a score of civilians in an attack– something the Israelis did repeatedly in Gaza– there is a meaningful investigation, pushed ahead by crusading press. Here there is a thorough investigation by a leading jurist, and the American press won’t hear of it.

We saw the same thing when it came to terrorism in Baghdad. The Sunni bombers were understood to be motivated by a political dispute over resources and power. We forgave them, to help build a coalition government. While in Palestine, Hamas is forever marginalized, as terrorists–when they too are motivated by dispossession and a battle over rights and resources.

Why do we set aside our American experience? The answer is obvious. The Israel lobby in American public life. Even when civilians are stripped and humiliated, Israel must be blameless.

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