The American Media and the Palestinian Intifada

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The Palestinian Intifada, the uprising against Israeli occupation in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, erupted spontaneously in the late 1980s.  In the dozen or so years in which the levels of violence have ebbed and flowed in this conflict, the American media has provided television and print coverage of this news story.  The actual events of the Intifada, in this study, are secondary to the coverage of the uprising by the American media.  It will be shown that American media coverage, was initially sympathetic to the Palestinian position, but that both public perception and media coverage has shifted 180 degrees since the Gulf War, and that current media reporting of the intifada is biased and pressured to support the Israeli position.

Media coverage of the intifada, like the uprising itself, was haphazard and chaotic.  The uprising can be said to have begun on December 9, 1987.  The previous day, a road accident between an Israeli tractor-trailer and car along the Erez checkpoint (the division between the Gaza Strip and Israel) killed four Palestinians.  On December 9, rumors spread through the nearby Jabalya refugee camp that the crash was not an accident, but deliberate retaliation for the murder of an Israeli businessman.  A demonstration broke out, and the crowd overwhelmed the Israeli soldiers sent in to restore order.  A seventeen-year-old Palestinian was killed and sixteen others were wounded.  Demonstrations continued the next day.  On December 11, the uprising spread to the West Bank, and the media arrived to cover the breaking story.  The intifada had begun (Lederman, 1-2).

Very early in the uprising, one of the main goals of the intifada was to gain public sympathy and a change in US policy through violence.  It was hoped that the anti-Israeli occupation riots would receive media attention, leading to popular support for their position among the US population; this, in turn, would pressure the American government to accept Palestinian demands (Gilboa, 93).  However, of these two goals, only one was met.  Early media coverage of the intifada was extensive and favorable, but there was no shift in US public opinion.  “Americans continued to sympathize much more with Israel than with the Arab states and the Palestinians, [and] blamed the PLO and the Palestinians for the violence” (93).  It is especially ironic that the US public blamed the PLO for the violence, since that organization was the last to react to the intifada, waiting until February 1989 until its position was clarified (Lederman, 3).

However, one of the major problems in the early understanding of the intifada is that, although journalistic coverage of the events was accurate (but incomplete), the totality of the uprising was misinterpreted from the start.  At the time, the intifada was not a PLO-directed action, but more akin to a social revolution within the Palestinian community.  The problem in this new thread was that the media either did not or would not report on the background story.  Media coverage was easily able to insert the intifada into the continuing “Middle East violence” genre without further explanation (3).  Most American public opinion had linked the Palestinian struggle with the PLO.  During the 1970s, Yassir Arafat’s organization became synonymous with terrorism.  For Americans at the time, anti-Arab sentiment ran high: Iran, Libya, Lebanon, and the PLO were all viewed as an Islamic Anti-American monolith of terrorist violence.  American shortsightedness failed to grasp the root causes of this Anti-American sentiment — despite the 1988 renunciation of terrorism by Arafat, and the Reagan Administration’s agreement to open US-PLO dialogue.  American public sympathy continued to run three times higher for the Israelis (Gilboa, 100).

In many respects, the American media can be blamed for this shortsightedness.  Jim Lederman quotes Elie Abel:

 An event, however defined, is easier to report that a trend or an idea.  It takes less time, meets the definition of hard news more squarely, and is, of course, inherently visualé .  TV is a storytelling medium.  It abhors ragged edges, ambiguities, and unresolved issuesé.  The effect all too frequently is to impose upon an event a preconceived form that alters reality, heightening one aspect at the expense of another for the sake of a more compelling story, blocking out complications that get in the way of a narrative (Lederman, 15-16).

In the scramble to put together a three-minute report for that evening’s news, or a newspaper’s daily deadline (hourly deadlines for radio reporters), the deep background needed to explain and understand a story is ignored.  A second problem is encountered when a massive influx of foreign journalists are suddenly sent to cover a breaking story in the Middle East, journalists with little or no understanding of both the languages and the cultures of the region (16-17).  Therefore, the images are molded to fit into preconceived notions.  In the case of American public opinion, the intifada was seen as yet another PLO tactic of violence against Israel, regardless of the “truth” of the situation.

However, the failure of the intifada to alter US public opinion led the PLO to what most Americans would see as a giant political blunder.  After Iraq invaded Kuwait in the fall of 1990, the PLO offered support to Iraq against the US-led coalition.  “The PLO viewed failure by the West to condemn Israel as an aggressor and occupier in her own right as proof of a double standard traceable to classical imperialism’s anti-Arab prejudice” (Klein, 89).  However, the PLO’s support for Saddam Hussein merely led to a hardening of American public perception against the Palestinian cause, and a “perceptible decline” in media coverage of the intifada (88).

America remains Israel’s strongest supporter in the international community. “The United States is surely Israel’s closest ally, upon which it relies for military, economic, and political support.  The relatively large Jewish population in the United States has always supported most of Israel’s policies and actions” (Cohen, 121).  Some sources would even argue that pressure from both the state of Israel and the American Jewish community has altered the media coverage of the intifada towards an overwhelmingly pro-Israel bias.

The United States has been the largest supporter of Israel since its founding in 1948.  A decade ago, Adel Safty, writing in the Arab Studies Quarterly, noted that Western media has consistently reinterpreted the Arab/Israeli conflict to the public:

Reinterpretation was thus of crucial importance in the construction of a propaganda systemé.  In other words, “inconvenient facts” such as Zionist displacement of Palestinian society were reinterpreted within a context that aroused sympathy for the displacer, not the displaced.  Such a context was created through the American media’s depiction of Israel as an outpost of Western civilization in the midst of an alien and inhospitable culture (Safty, 94).

In fact, Noam Chomsky writes: “In the US, it is far more important for the population to be kept in ignorance, for obvious reasons: the economic and military programs rely crucially on US support, which is domestically unpopular and would be far more so if its purposes were known” (Chomsky).  These programs include the recent sale of 35 Blackhawk helicopters for $525 million to the Israeli Air Force.  According to Chomsky, only one American newspaper, in Raleigh, North Carolina, reported the sale, a sale condemned by Amnesty International because they have been used “to violate the human rights of Palestinians and Arab Israelis” during recent conflicts (Chomsky).

Israeli publicist Dan Margalit has recently begun a “planned and creative PR campaign” to attack the Palestinian uprising in order to combat Israeli “misrepresentation.”  This strategy’s main thrust is the argument that Arafat “sacrifices children.”  Newspaper reports have now surfaced telling of Palestinian mothers who raise their children to become martyrs.  Mass e-mails assert that Palestinian gunmen use children as human shields.  This new strategy has turned into a critique of Palestinian society, equating Palestinians to pagans that practice child sacrifice.  It is a classic racist strategy of blaming the victim and dehumanizing the enemy (Montell, 19).  This story has now appeared in the op/ed pages of American newspapers, and has been called a “shameless ploy” on the part of Israeli apologists to explain the killing of children by Israeli soldiers (“Israel Whitewashes”).

Israel’s foreign ministry even opened a PR office in New York City as a means of controlling media spin.  Nachman Shai, an Israeli government spokesman, announced to American Jewish leaders that the CNN network was a specific target of pressure to “shift its coverage in a more pro-Israel direction.” According to the Institute for Policy Studies, Shai told American Jewish leaders “We are putting real pressure on the heads of CNN to have [Palestinian correspondent Rula Amin and other reporters] replaced with more objective pro-Israel reporters that are willing to tell our side of the story” (Ackerman, 70).

It is ironic then, that:

While the American press is perceived abroad as being unambiguously sympathetic to Israel, the most visible form of media criticism in the United States takes the opposite view-that the US press is constantly propagandizing for the Palestinian cause.  This belief is repeated so often, and by so many prominent organizations and individuals, that it has been largely absorbed into conventional wisdom (70-1).

From where, then, does the bulk of American media information on the intifada come?  Most foreign correspondents (and this includes US journalists) receive information from three sources:

1.              The Israeli Government.  The Israeli Government Press Office (GPO) distributes, free of charge, information bulletins via fax, e-mail, websites and printed material.

2.              Palestinian Press services and Stringers.  The Palestinian Jerusalem Media and Communication Center offers (for a fee) daily summaries of the Arabic press as well as news alerts.  Most larger news organizations use Palestinian stringers (freelancers) in the cities and towns of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

 3.              Other journalists and media.  The content in numerous reports can often be traced back to the Israeli government news reports.  In such cases, journalists use other journalists as their sources (Parry).

Often, what is not reported in the American media is more important than what is reported.  There is a persistent passive bias of omission in coverage of the intifada.  For example, on CNN’s website (http://www.cnn.com/WORLD/meast/sites.html), there is a list of related websites in the Middle East, however, there is not a single Palestinian site listed (Parry).

Secondly, analysis of the semantics of “news” reports shows a continuing pro-Israel bias.  Over a two-year period, through September 1998, of all NPR (National Public Radio) reports on Israel/Palestine:

é        49 focused on “security”

é        33 referred to “terrorism”

é        32 referred to “Hamas”

In contrast, during the same period:

é        6 reports referred to “human rights”

é        8 referred to “closure”

é        1 referred to “Shin Bet” (Israeli internal security forces)

é        2 referred to “live ammunition” or “rubber bullets”

é        3 referred to “torture”

é        2 referred to “demolition”

Further, of 42 reports that referred to “Israeli settlements,” 18 contained the word “security” (Israeli justification for the settlements), while only contained the word “[land] confiscation.”  The term “illegal” never appeared in conjunction with reports on the settlements (Parry).

What is perhaps most disturbing about American media coverage of the intifada is its complete lack of global context.  Israel has occupied both the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967.  Both the UN and the international community, except the United States, have repeatedly condemned this occupation.  Most American media sources have simply stopped referring to these areas as “occupied territories,” but now consider them to be part of the state of Israel (Ackerman, 62).  During the early 1990s, the term “occupied territories” occurred in hundreds of Associated Press articles, but was mentioned only one percent of the time in AP articles beginning in the year 2000 (62).  In this lack of context, the intifada appears as unprovoked Palestinian aggression, rather than Palestinian efforts to defend their land in the onslaught of illegal Israeli settlements.

Indeed, most reports refer to “Palestinian violence” and Israeli “retaliation.”  This violence is the result of Palestinian “hatred.”  Therefore, the staggering Palestinian casualties are the inevitable, but unfortunate, by-products of Palestinian violence (64, 66).

The intifada shows no signs of going away.  The Palestinian people have a legitimate grievance in regards to the invasion and military occupation of their land.  However, the American public does not perceive the story in this way as a direct result of media coverage of the intifada.  At first the story was distorted to fit into the prevailing mindset of the American public, this distortion was further abetted by a view that is wholly sympathetic to the Israeli cause.  The peace process and the intifada will continue to remain enigmas to the American public as long as they receive a distorted pro-Israel view.  Until there is a major shift in the way that the media portrays the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the American public will remain ignorant of the truth and unsympathetic to the real victims of this tragedy.

Notes/Work Cited:

Ackerman, Seth.  “Al-Aqsa Intifada and the U.S. Media.”  Journal of Palestine Studies XXX, no. 2 (Winter 2001): 61-74.

Chomsky, Noam.  “The Al Aqsa Intifada.”  Al-Hewar Center, The Center for Arab Culture and Dialogue.  Retrieved March 24, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://www.alhewar.com/noam_chomsky.htm

Cohen, Akiba A., Hanna Adoni, and Hillel Nossek.  “Television News and the Intifada: A Comparative Study of Social Conflict.”  In: Akiba A. Cohen and Gadi Wolfsfeld, Eds.  Framing the Intifada: People and the Media.  Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1993, p. 116-141.

Gilboa, Eytan.  “American Media, Public Opinion, and the Intifada.”  In: Akiba A. Cohen and Gadi Wolfsfeld, Eds.  Framing the Intifada: People and the Media.  Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1993, p. 93-115.

“Israel Whitewashes Its Killing of Children.”  American Arab Anti-Discriminatory Committee.  Retrieved March 23, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://www.adc.org/press/2000/28november2000.htm.

Klein, Menachem.  “The PLO: From Intifada to War and Back.” In: Gad Barzilai, Aharon Klieman and Gil Shidlo, Eds.  The Gulf Crisis and Its Global Aftermath.  New York: Routledge, 1993, p. 87-102.

Lederman, Jim.  Battle Lines: The American Media and the Intifada.  New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992.

Montell, Jessica.  “The Al-Aqsa Intifada: How media has skewed Israel conflict.”  Tikkun, 16, no. 1 (Jan. 2001): 19.

Parry, Nigel.  “Introduction to Media Coverage.”  Electronic Intifada.  Retrieved March 23, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://www.electronicintifada.net/introduction.html#I

Mr. Ahmed Al-Hameli is a student at American University in Washington D.C.  He is from the United Arab Emirates.

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