BEHIND THE NEWS: New year, old problems

January 5, 2009 12:57:40 PM PST
Happy New Year. It's the proper salutation, but it seems a bit improper given the bigger context of a world in so much turmoil, and with two peoples now locked in a bloody war.

I received many thoughtful responses and comments from my last column on the Middle East last Wednesday. Many people disagreed with my premise that maybe war isn't the answer to the decades-old violence between Palestinians and Israelis. Blast away at Hamas, that was their overwhelming response. Many others, however, took the flip side and wondered if perpetuating the vicious cycle of violence is the answer, given how well it's worked in the past. Not.

Only a couple picked up on the notion that Israelis and Palestinians were actually the same people in different clothing -- discarded and unwanted by most of the world and in search of peace for their people.

I tried to keep that in mind as I watched the continued bombing and then, on Saturday, the beginning of a ground invasion into Gaza by Israeli troops.

It is a lopsided battle, with casualties (now nearly 550 Palestinians - many of them civilians) tilted against the Palestinians. According to the United Nations, nearly 100 civilians have been killed since the ground invasion, all of of the electricity in Gaza is off, and about 40% of Gaza's water wells are shut off, with half a million entirely cut off from water supplies.

The military steamroller hasn't yet stopped Hamas rockets from getting lobbed into Israel, and it's also creating a humanitarian crisis that will tug at the heartstrings of millions around the world -- including many Jews.

This is not, despite the rhetoric from both sides, a cut-and-dried situation. Which made Mayor Bloomberg's comments in Israel to our reporter N.J. Burkett a big puzzling. The mayor virtually chastised Burkett for daring to ask about all the civilian casualties in Gaza. After verbally slapping Burkett, Bloomberg then suggested that we should be aware that Burkett is allowed to ask such a question in Israel, but in Gaza, reporters wouldn't be allowed to ask it. (Watch video)

First, that's simply not true. Reporters indeed ask questions of Palestinians. And second, and to the bigger point, many people were surprised by the Mayor's lack of any subtlety in his comments. One can support Israel's position and also express sorrow, even outrage, over the death of civilians.

I ran into a confident of the Mayor's last night, and asked him about the civilian deaths. Well, he said, that's what happens when the military uses civilians as cover.

Right, the same way the NYPD uses civilians as "cover" by putting precinct buildings in the middle of residential neighborhoods? If some enemy planes targeted police stations, they'd also take out apartment buildings, which just happen to be next door.

It's the same in Gaza as it is in the U.S.

Gaza is a relatively small strip of land; certainly the center city is a condensed area.

The big question for Israel: what's the exit strategy? It can't be to keep Gaza in the dark. And if it's to overthrow Hamas, then how does a democratically elected government justify overthrowing another democratically elected government? Hamas was, after all, elected.

The questions facing Israel about this invasion are, like the long-running conflict itself, seemingly intractable.

N.J. Burkett is the only New York area TV reporter in the Middle East, and he'll have the latest from the region and the war zone, tonight at 11. You can also track his journey on Twitter and Google Maps via our website by clicking here.

Also at 11,

And we're following closely the developments in Washington -- on several fronts. The economic stimulus package, of course. The Obama transition - Richardson out as Commerce Secretary, Leon Panetta in as CIA Director (Leon Panetta?) - naturally. And we're also watching the digital television transition situation. Or at least the coupon shortage. Turns out that the government woefully underestimated the response to the public's desire to participate in the converter box coupon program. The Dept. of Commerce set aside $1.34 billion to send out coupons (two per household) for $40 of the price towards a new converter box. The boxes sell for between $40 and $60 each.

There are some people who have long wondered why more wasn't allocated. But now there's a problem, at least if people who don't have cable, satellite or digital televisions want to continue to get free TV after February 17. That's when the country goes digital, and the old analog signals will no longer carry free TV signals.

Unless people who don't have cable, satellite or a digital television don't now get a converter box, they will see a black screen on their TV.

The overwhelming majority of these people are either poor, the elderly or the disabled. So now the government is in a position of having bailed out major corporations with hundreds of billions of dollars, but it's falling far short in keeping free, over-the-air broadcast television.

It will be fascinating to see how quickly this problem is solved, or not.

You should know we as a television station are doing everything we can to make sure people know about the DTV transition, and to answer as many questions as possible about how to hook up the converter box, how it will work, and what you need to do now to make sure you don't get caught without TV. You can find more information on by clicking here.

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Lee Goldberg's AccuWeather forecast and Scott Clark with the night's sports. I hope you can join Liz Cho and me, tonight at 11.