Panorama on Gaza: war crimes before the watershed

I must admit I haven’t watched Panorama for ages. (Did I ever watch it? Yes, but I think the last time I actually saw one was that amazing programme where John Sweeney loses his rag after getting stonewalled by a Scientology spokesman. “No!! YOU, listen to ME!!”).

But last night’s Panorama on Gaza looked important – and here’s my (long!) account of what I thought of it.

This was not, it has to be said, a programme that bypassed an emotional encounter if it could find one. Jeremy Bowen’s interviews were powerful, but also slightly over-cooked. For example, was it really useful to ask Palestinian children how they felt only days after they had seen their own siblings killed? This was moving, yes, but informative?

Izzeldeen Abuelaish, the Palestinian doctor whose anguished grieving after his three daughters were killed was also broadcast live on national Israeli television, was a similar case. But he’s an adult and in also revealing something of the circumstances of the incident it was worthwhile.

Despite his unimaginable grief (unimaginable to me anyway), as far as I could see Izzeldeen managed – somewhat miraculously – to stick to a dignified position of nevertheless wanting to live in peace with his Israeli neighbours. (Less usefully, a very contrived meeting between him and some Israelis who suffer from Hamas rocket attacks was tacked on to his story in a pretty pointless way).

(Incidentally, for an interesting compare and contrast experience, listen to Izzeldeen also being interviewed by Robin Lustig on last night’s The World Tonight (about the 10.30 point). It was powerful and informative, as sometimes only radio can be).

Meanwhile, back in the Panorama programme, Israeli Interior Minister Meir Shitreet batted back every question about civilian deaths in Gaza by blaming Hamas. The doctor’s daughters’ deaths were unfortunate, but the reason, claimed the Israeli spokesman, was that the Israeli Defence Forces were convinced that they'd seen “Hamas spotters in the building”. Maybe they had, I couldn’t help thinking, but why fire tank shells when there’s a civilian house in the cross-hairs?

Over-emotive techniques aside, alternating between Bowen interviewing a masked Hamas fighter one minute and the immovable Israeli spokesman the next was nevertheless gripping. (How often, for example, do you see Red Cross personnel actually crying when asked about civilian casualties?)

Yes, the programme was something of a “cookie-cut” documentary format, but Bowen’s skills and knowledge still shone through. Without wasting time (he didn’t have much!), Bowen still managed to sketch in some of the key elements of life for 1.5 million Palestinians in the “pressure cooker” of the Gaza Strip (“about the size of the Isle of Wight”, noted Bowen in a neat comparison).

And what appears to have been “wanton destruction” by IDF forces running amok in Gaza was brought home by some of the on-screen images – vistas of mangled steel, broken concrete, misshapen earth mounds…. Explaining that Israeli soldiers entered some Palestinian homes, smashed up all the furniture, defecated in the rooms and daubed graffiti like “Die you all!” on the walls, also made a powerful point about how war crimes were clearly committed during Operation Cast Lead.

(Read Clare Short’s new CiF article on why the UK should back investigations into war crimes. And compare this to reports that the senior Hamas figure Khalid Mish'al has been aggressively warning the International Criminal Court against any investigation. What has he got to hide? And, if you’re still not convinced of the need for a proper investigation into the behaviour of both Israel and Hamas, see today’s new report from Amnesty detailing a string of killings, punishment beating and "kneecappings" from ultra-violent Hamas gunmen against alleged “collaborators” during and after the conflict. It’s truly gruesome).

So my verdict? Panorama was good but, like anything decent on TV, it was far too short. (Oh god, let’s not risk people switching off by making it more than half an hour…). Cramming all of the horror of the latest Gaza conflict into about 26 minutes (sandwiched by an unnecessary Jeremy Vine at both ends) was a missed opportunity. At least put a longer version on BBC4. 

But, then again, getting this stuff onto BBC1 at 8.30 in the evening is incredibly important and the BBC should be commended for it. Now as to that DEC appeal, that was a different story …

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