Deconstructing AP report on Israeli ‘suffering’ in Sderot

Deconstructing AP report on Israeli ‘suffering’ in Sderot

Top: Sapir College, near Sderot, June 8, 2021 (source: Instagram video). Bottom: Yahya Al-Saqa, who earned a 95% GPA in the high school exams in the scientific route, sitting in his home in Gaza that had been bombed by Israel (source: Facebook Aug. 7, 2021).

Many Americans read AP reports on Israel-Palestine without realizing that the Associated Press has a long record of Israel-centric reporting:

A 2018 study found that AP’s reports on Israeli deaths averaged three times longer than reports on Palestinian deaths, headlines reported on Israeli deaths at a rate four times greater than they reported on Palestinian deaths, and significant facts and context available in other news reports were often missing… A 2006 study found similar pro-Israel distortion…This may not be surprising given that the AP bureau for the region is largely staffed by journalists who are Israeli citizens and/or whose families are Israeli

Below is the full text of a recent article by AP bureau chief Josef Federman. We have interspersed his statements with some of the relevant facts and images that the story omitted (our additions are in boldface): 

Despite calm, Israeli town copes with scars of rocket fire

SDEROT, Israel (AP) — Just three months after the latest war between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, the border town of Sderot appears to be on the road to recovery.

In the latest “war” Israeli forces killed 253 Palestinians, while Palestinian forces killed 12 Israelis.  Those are not the statistics of a war.

Palestinians stand amidst the ruins of a neighborhood of Beit Hanoun which was destroyed by the recent Israeli bombardments, northern Gaza Strip, May 21, 2021. (ActiveStills)

The streets are bustling, and the town is filled with well-kept parks and playgrounds. The local real-estate market is booming.

This is unlike the situation in Gaza, where the Israeli blockade has caused skyrocketing poverty, and Israeli assaults over the years have destroyed Gazan infrastructure. Most recently, Israeli forces destroyed/damaged over 14,000 homes, and hit Gaza’s hospitals, schools, power and sewage plants. UN officials said it could take years to rebuild.

A Palestinian woman washes her children for the last time inside her destroyed house in Beit Hanoun neigborhood, Gaza Strip, June 12, 2021. Residents of the city of Beit Hanoun suffer from lack of water and electricity due to the recent Israeli bombardments and massive destruction in the northern Gaza Strip. (ActiveStills)
A Palestinian man sleeps in the ruins of his house that was destroyed in Israeli air strikes, Gaza June 9, 2021. (Mohammed Salem/REUTERS) (New Humanitarian)

But underneath the veneer of normalcy [in Sderot], the scars of years of rocket fire run deep.

The rockets have killed a total of 39 people in Israel in the entire time they’ve been used. Israeli air strikes during this time have killed over 4,000 Gazans.

Metal rocket fragments are on display outside the main police station [in Sderot], as a museum of sorts. Next to every park and bus stop is a small concrete bomb shelter — often decked out with colorful murals and street art. An Iron Dome rocket defense battery sits on the eastern edge of town, a few hundred meters (yards) from a new apartment complex.

Israel’s anti-rocket battery is provided by US taxpayers, who give Israel $10.5 million per day despite the country’s long documented human rights violations and harm to Americans.

AP provides this photo of a boy riding a bike in Sderot:

A boy rides his bicycle in a public park in Sderot, Israel, July 21, 2021. (AP)

Below is a photo of a boy riding a bike in Gaza:

A Palestinian boy rides his bicycle past the rubble of Jala Tower destroyed during an Israeli air strike in Gaza City, May 23, 2021. (Global Times)

Such photos from Gaza are common. Below is one from 2015: 

A boy rides a bike in Gaza amid devastation from Israeli airstrikes. (Catholic News Service)

Some Sderot residents say they jump at the smallest noise. Parents report children still wetting their beds or being too scared to sleep alone.

In Gaza, US News reports that 91% of Gazan children suffer from some form of conflict-related trauma, according to a new report from the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, a Geneva-based independent, nonprofit organization. The study found that prior to the attack, about 33% of children in Gaza needed mental health support as a result of conflict-induced trauma. The violence disproportionately impacted women and children, who comprised 75% of the residential neighborhoods that Israeli Defense Forces targeted.

This is not new. A 2015 report stated that a new assessment of Gazan children by Save the Children found:

  • An average of 75% of children surveyed experience unusual bedwetting regularly.
  • In one area, al-Shoka, nearly half the children interviewed wet the bed every night.
  • Up to 89% of parents reported that their children suffer consistent feelings of fear, while more than 70% of children said they worried about another war.
  • On average seven out of 10 children interviewed suffer regular nightmares.

On top of this, Gazan children suffer from malnutrition caused by Israel’s illegal blockade of Gaza.

Professor Juan Cole reported last year that a study by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found that Israeli authorities had “calculated what would be necessary to keep the Palestinians of Gaza alive but without any fat on their bodies (so as to avoid the appearance they were being starved), and to keep goods allowed into the Strip to that level. They miscalculated, because stunting was observed among Palestinian children, to whom they pettily denied chocolate in specific.”

Noam Biton says she has enjoyed a normal childhood in Sderot. But the 16-year-old high school student says it hasn’t always been easy. One of her strongest memories was an air-raid siren that sounded while she was attending a bar mitzvah celebration on what had been a quiet day.

Children in Gaza have not had a normal childhood. Below is a video of a 10-year-old girl in front of the rubble of her neighbor’s home; an Israeli airstrike had destroyed it, killing eight children and two women:

 

“We lay on the ground, three of us,” she said. “The only thing protecting us was a car.” The rocket landed nearby, spraying shrapnel in the area.

Outgoing and active in her local scout troop, Biton says she is always careful to sit next to the door when she rides the bus — just in case there is an air-raid siren and she needs to evacuate quickly.

Her mother Dvora, a lifelong resident, says uncertainty is a constant companion. “It saddens you that at any moment someone controls your life,” she said. “We can’t escape.”

In actuality, Israelis are able to move, a luxury largely denied to Gazans, who are regularly prevented from leaving the area by Israel, which controls all exits (in the south, Egypt is the proxy). Israeli officials frequently prevent Gazans from traveling elsewhere for urgent medical care, prevent students from traveling for educational scholarships abroad, and prevent Gazans from visiting dying parents or attending their funerals. Gaza has accurately been called “the biggest open air prison in the world.” The American Friends Service Committee reports: “Nearly all access to the outside world for the residents of Gaza is blocked.”

Israel and Hamas, an Islamic militant group that opposes Israel’s existence, have fought four wars and numerous skirmishes since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, a year after winning a Palestinian election.

Hamas has periodically offered Israel long term truces. It is consistently Israel that initiates violence, not Hamas. The AP article fails to report that in 2017 Hamas implicitly accepted the existence of Israel based on the 1967 borders (also see this). 

It is impossible to compare conditions in Gaza and in southern Israel. Israeli strikes have killed some 4,000 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, in the four wars and inflicted heavy damage on Gaza’s infrastructure. Tens of thousands of people, unable to flee the impoverished and blockaded territory, suffer from deep psychological wounds.

Finally, the AP article mentions the situation in Gaza…. for anyone who has read this far down into the article. AP states that among the 4,000 Palestinians killed in the four “wars”, “hundreds” were civilians. In actuality, over half of those killed by Israeli forces during those years were civilians.

Israelis are now protected by a rocket-defense system, have the option of temporarily escaping rocket range and have access to psychological counseling and government support. Still, over 100 people have died on the Israeli side in the four wars, while heavy rocket fire has brought life to a standstill for millions of people during times of fighting. Even during times of quiet, rocket fire can erupt at any moment without warning.

No place in Israel has been hit harder by Palestinian rocket fire than Sderot, a working-class community just about 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) from the Gaza border. Yet two decades after the first rudimentary rockets landed in town, experts are still struggling to figure out their long-term effects on a generation of parents and children who have come of age in this traumatic environment.

There is no mention that Sderot is built on top of the Palestinian village of Najd, which was ethnically cleansed during Israel’s founding war, and that Israel confiscated the land. Najd’s refugee families now live in Gaza, many in poverty. There is no mention that thousands of Gazans recently took part in a nearly two-year long Gandhian, nonviolent “Great March of Return,” where Israeli forces shot participants every week.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered on the first day of the Great March of Return
Tens of thousands of Palestinians gathered on the first day of the Great March of Return (Mohammed Asad/Middle East Monitor)

“People who are living in the south of Israel live with the understanding that it’s just a question of time until the next time,” said Talia Levanon, director of the Israel Trauma Coalition.

“You are literally trying to heal from the last time while preparing for the next time, which makes our job very, very tough,” she said.

The article fails to report that there are many Israelis who oppose Israeli aggression and call on the Israeli government to end the oppression of Palestinians. Levanon could join with these Israelis to work to end the violence. 

Levanon’s nonprofit operates a series of “resilience centers” throughout southern Israel that provide a variety of services, including counseling and workshops for families and communities.

In an indication of how widely people have been affected, she said that during a brief round of violence in 2019, nearly two-thirds of the area’s 60,000 residents received services from a resilience center.

The article fails to report the comparative situation for Gazans. As US News reports: “While Israel has an integrated health care system to treat its people for physical and mental health, the lack of an integrated health care system in Gaza compounded with restrictions on mobility, the blockade on goods and services from both Israel and Egypt, and the threat of violence with no place for shelter leaves Gaza with a traumatized population and a system ill-equipped to help, experts say.”

USA Today similarly reports: “‘(What) children in Gaza are exposed to on a regular basis exceeds anything, anything that any children anywhere else in the world experience,’ said Jess Ghannam, a professor of psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco who specializes in the health consequences of war on displaced communities and the psychological effects of armed conflict on children. ‘There’s basically no place to go for these children. They are unable to escape.'”

The 11-day war between Israel and Hamas in May was the latest reminder of Sderot’s precarious position. Nearly 300 rockets were fired at Sderot, according to the municipality. Despite the protection of the Iron Dome, 10 rockets scored direct hits on buildings — including a strike that killed a 5-year-old boy.

During this time, Israeli forces killed 66 Palestinian minors, including a 2-year-old girl, a 2-year-old boy, a 3-year-old girl, a 5-year-old boy, and a 10-year-old boy, and a number of young teens. Recently and always, Israel has killed vastly more Palestinian children than the reverse. 

Israeli children & Palestinian children killed (Timeline)

Sderot residents often use the word “resilience” when describing the community. And in many ways, Sderot appears to be thriving.

Once known as a dusty backwater in Israel’s Negev desert, it has evolved into a bustling town of some 27,000 people, with new apartment complexes and expensive villas seeming to pop up in any piece of open space. It has a heavily fortified train station linking it to major cities. There are shopping centers, bars and restaurants popular with students from a college in town.

Researchers say that people who grow up here tend to remain in the area as adults, out of pride and a strong connection to its tight-knit community.

Yaron Sasson, spokesman for the local government, said veteran residents and newcomers are drawn by special tax breaks, generous services made possible by government support and overseas donors as well as the small-town feel. At a time when much of the country is now within rocket range, he said Sderot is even seen as relatively safe, thanks to its many bomb shelters and reinforced schools and kindergartens.

The story leaves out that the special tax breaks, generous services, and governmental support offered by Israel are in large part due to the massive US aid from US taxpayers and by multi-millionaires & billionaires in the US who take the money they’ve made from Americans and give it to Israelis.

Yet according to the trauma coalition, residents suffer from a wide range of symptoms. Teens suffer from higher rates of diabetes, aggression and hypertension than their counterparts in other communities.

Anxiety, depression, sleeping difficulties and general exhaustion are common symptoms among adults, and researchers only now are beginning to study the effects of growing up in Sderot on young parents’ child-rearing skills. Another question is how Sderot’s youths — who are frequently spooked by loud noises — can perform in the military, a compulsory rite of passage for most Jewish Israelis.

The devastation for Gazan children is almost incalculable. As a rare New York Times feature reports:

Nearly everyone in Gaza knows someone who has been killed in the fighting.

“When I think about the children who died,” said Ola Abu Hasaballah, a child psychologist in Gaza, “I also think about the ones who survive, those who were pulled out of the rubble and lost a limb, or those who will go to school and see their friend is missing.”

11-year-old boy in Gaza, who lost his leg after Israeli soldiers shot him. Numerous Gazans have lost limbs.
Palestinian child Sehed Saad Abu Hasna wounded by Israeli strikes on a refugee camp in Jebalia, 2014, taken to Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahia, Gaza (Daily Mail)
A Palestinian boy in Gaza weeps for 17 members of his family killed by Israeli forces in July, 2014. (Photo from BBC)
A Palestinian boy weeps during the funeral of Hani Wahdan, killed during “clashes.”

Dvora Biton said that whenever she goes out in the car, she plans a route that will take her past any of the dozens of bomb shelters scattered throughout town. The car window is always open, the volume on the radio is kept low and the pantry is filled with canned goods. Any loud sound, even a popping balloon, makes her jump.

“It’s something that you think about 24 hours a day,” she said. “You can’t escape it, even when you are sleeping.”

Fifteen years ago, before there was the Iron Dome, a rocket landed outside the family’s home, leaving a metal fragment embedded in her front door. Biton left the fragment in the door for years, only recently finding the strength to remove it during a home renovation.

While Biton had a damaged front door, thousands of Gazans have had their entire homes destroyed.

A Palestinian woman pauses amid destroyed buildings in the northern district of Beit Hanun, July 26, 2014.Credit: AFP (Ha'aretz)

“I wanted to leave it there as a reminder that we live in an unhealthy reality,” she said. “But on the other hand, there is a feeling you want to be released from these things.”

Providing justice for Palestinians would go a long way toward releasing Biton from these things.


In 2018 AP Bureau Chief Josef Federman was honored by an Israeli university, Ben Gurion University. On accepting the award, Federman spoke about his pleasure at “enlightening the world” about Israel, an “amazing, infuriating, gut-wrenching, tragic and uplifting place.” Federman moved to the region 18 years ago; he speaks Hebrew, but not Arabic. It is not known whether Federman and/or his family members, like many of the journalists reporting from the region, have Israeli citizenship; AP has not responded to our request for information on this. 

Josef Federman, AP bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian territories, receives an award from Israel’s Ben Gurion University in 2018. (BenGurionUniversity)

Annotations above are by Alison Weir, executive director of If Americans Knew, president of the Council for the National Interest, and author of Against Our Better Judgment: The Hidden History of How the U.S. Was Used to Create Israel

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