The Israeli army, normally so careful to curry favour with the media, departed from its usual practice and imposed a total news blackout on the Gaza Strip offensive it launched on 27 December 2008. Akiva Eldar, senior commentator with the liberal daily Haaretz, said it was perhaps the first time since the Six-Day War that Israel had launched a major military operation without witnesses, “behind closed doors, as it were.”
The blackout was so strict that soldiers were made to leave their mobile phones behind when they crossed into Gaza. Accredited Israeli “military correspondents,” who had been in all of Israel’s wars, were completely shut out, at least in the first two weeks of the operation, even though their newspapers, especially Maariv and Yediot Aharonot, ran headlines urging the army to “finish off the Hamas state.”
The army was quite open about imposing the blackout. The Israeli Foreign Press Association (FPR) in vain protested and even appealed to the supreme court against the decision, but the army went right ahead and “did its job” far from prying cameras and microphones.
The major newspapers were content to illustrate what they called “the Gaza War,” “the Hamas War” or “the Battle of the South” with pictures supplied by army photographers and camera crews and with faces of some officers obscured. Even the journalists’ union did not see fit to protest against the news blackout. Its chief, Yossi Bar Moha, had said when the army banned the media from going to Gaza nearly two years ago that journalists “have a duty to obey the security services.”
“Quiet ! We’re shooting !”
In the absence of quick and energetic protest, as one might have expected from the region’s most liberal media, Maariv, one of the country’s three biggest dailies, failed to mention the ban on journalists until 6 January, more than a week after it was imposed, and then only in a docile way (“Army spokesman says ‘silence !’”).
It quoted army officer Avi Benhayoun as saying Israelis approved the war, did not want to know anything more about it, so the media should accept this, spare readers shocking images and wait for the end of the operation – a ceasefire and the defeat of Hamas. For the time being, the mass-circulation paper said, the watchword was “Quiet ! We’re shooting !” (“sheket yorim”).
An agreed silence, then, by a media with a proud record of challenging the Israeli establishment, including bringing down cabinet ministers, generals and even a president (Moshe Katsav, accused of rape in 2006).
Haim Yavim, probably Israel’s most popular journalist, tries to explain by noting he is “not a United Nations or French spokesman but an Israeli, a Jew, a citizen of a country at war, and very concerned about the fate of my people.”
But Yavin, a polite but cutting presenter in his 70s known as “Mr TV,” is no conformist. He presented the well-known news programme Mabat (“Outlook”) on the state TV Channel 1 for 40 years until 2008 and had to fight from the start to establish his idea of journalism.
During the 1976 local elections on the West Bank and Gaza won by the Palestine Liberation Organisation, he says, he was told on no account to give a platform to Palestinian nationalists. He refused to comply and won his case in the supreme court.
But, he says, he is still a Jew, a convinced Zionist and a citizen worried and concerned about his country’s future. So freedom of expression has its limits when the precious security of the state (“bitakhon ha-medinat”) is threatened. “That’s why I talk about ‘our’ soldiers and ‘our’ army,” he says.
Nobody would now dare write that ‘the only good Arab is a dead one’”
Yavin deplored the fact that the Israeli media had not managed or wanted to change and humanise the image of Palestinians and in 2005 shocked the public by making a controversial five-part documentary series called “Land of the Settlers,” about daily life in Jewish settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, that was all the more striking because it was made by a national icon.
He strongly supports a Palestinian state, he says, with East Jerusalem as its capital, and feels no hostility towards Palestinians, though sometimes a twinge of fear when he comes across one brandishing the key to “his” house in Jaffa or Ashkelon. Yavin says he is ready to listen to anything, except the call by Arab members of the Israeli parliament to dilute Israel’s Jewish character in a dual Jewish-Arab state.
Ron Ben Yishai, a combative reporter with Yediot Aharonot, agrees. “Journalists are never abstract ethereal beings, totally cut off from their surroundings,” he says. “I’m independent and free but I’m also and above all an Israeli, so I can’t for a moment imagine myself at odds with my own society.”
Ben Yishai was a paratrooper in the famous Golani Brigade and has stayed close to the army. He went to Syria in late 2007 and even posed proudly in front of the Deir Ezzor Research Station, a supposed nuclear site just bombed by Israeli planes. He was an early “embedded” reporter in Operation Cast Lead and published a revealing account of his experiences, describing the good spirits of the troops and their respect for civilians.
He says he is pleased the Arab media – TV stations Al Jazeera and Al-Arabiya and the London-based Saudi daily El-Charq El-Awsat (“The Middle East”) – have managed to “humanise, almost normalise Israel’s image in Arab eyes.” He much regrets that Israeli journalists have not made a similar effort, but says the Israeli image of Arabs is now more nuanced and that nobody would any longer associate Arabs with “backwardness.” At worst, he says, “some people call Arabs treacherous, fanatics or impulsive but nobody would now dare to write that ‘the only good Arab is a dead one’ because no reader would accept that.”
Surprisingly for a country at war, little racism is found in either the Arab or Israeli media. Former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger understood this, says Shimon Schiffer, Yediot Aharonot’s military expert, when he said the problem between Jews and Arabs was not that they did not know each other enough but that they knew each other too well. They were too familiar, he said, and not distant enough to demonise each other.
Ehud Yaari, an “Arab affairs” expert with Channel 2 TV, indifference and even growing irritation among Israelis towards Palestinians. He blames it on the old argument of the late Yasser Arafat’s duplicity, on Arab refusal of genuine peace and the Intifada (“uprising”), which he calls the Intifawda (“anarchy”).
He sees it as a kind of snobbery he calls “Neve-Avivism,” after the name of a rich northern Tel Aviv suburb where the “white,” Ashkenazi liberal Westernised elite live. “For these people,” he says, “Palestinians live on another planet. They aren’t their physical neighbours, fellow tenants of the House of Israel. So they simply aren’t interested in them. Jewish settlers have far more daily contact with Palestinians than these left-wing intellectuals who don’t go to see where they live, in Nablus or Jericho, far from Tel Aviv.”
Israel’s chief media outlets are – along with the government TV and radio station Kol Israel (The Voice of Israel), the army radio Galei Tsaha and privately-owned TV stations Channel 2 and Channel 10 – the daily papers Haaretz (The Country), Maariv (Evening News), Yediot Aharonot (Latest News), the English-language Jerusalem Post.
The “Arab sector” (a fifth of Israelis are Palestinians) has a flourishing press, including one daily paper and the weeklies Koul El-Arab (All Arabs), Sawt El-Haq wa-l-Houriya (Voice of Truth and Freedom), Panorama, El-Sennara (The Hook), Sawt El-Arabi (The Arab Voice).
The West Bank (including East Jerusalem, occupied in 1967 and annexed in 1980) has three dailies – El-Quds (Holy City), El-Ayyam (Days) and El-Hayat El-Jadida (New Life), both in Ramallah. Gaza has the Hamas TV and radio station El-Aqsa and two daily papers, El-Rissala (The Message) and Filastin (Palestine).
Only the Israeli press is distributed everywhere, except in the Gaza Strip because of the blockade. The Israeli Arab papers are sold in the Arab sector, mainly Galilee, where half the inhabitants are Arabs, but also East Jerusalem and the West Bank, except when the Occupied Territories are sealed off. The Ramallah and Gaza dailies are not distributed in Israel, except at the Safadi bookshop in Nazareth, Israel’s biggest Arab town.
Three kinds of media outlets, three ways of looking at the crisis.
Words as weapons
It’s impossible to talk about the Arab-Israeli conflict without bringing up the real or imagined role of the media. Each side sees it as a mighty weapon used by the other to justify its cause. The media is a second front just as important as (if not more than) the actual battlefield.
It involves TV and radio propaganda, dramatic images and a war of words – such as Palestine, Israel, settlers, occupation, resistance fighters, terrorists, refugees, Right of Return, “promised” or “stolen” land. Each side has a fighting vocabulary it uses to try to knock out the enemy.
So what can be done to bring hearts and minds together ? Not much, says Ehud Yaari, Channel 2 TV’s “Arab affairs” expert who has Polish and Lebanese parents, because the average Israeli, dismayed by the failure of the peace process and Al-Fatah, and the violence of Hamas, “just doesn’t want to hear any more about Palestinians.”
Ben Caspit, a top journalist with Channel 10 and influential commentator in the daily paper Maariv, largely agrees. “Palestinians and Israelis cross paths and talk casually every day in the likes of Tokyo, Washington, Rome, London, Madrid or Rabat,” he says. “Everywhere except in Ramallah or Tel Aviv.”
To make up for this serious lack of direct contact, which Israel’s West Bank wall makes even more dangerous, every newspaper has its “Arab affairs” expert. These are often people drawn from the internal state security service Shin Bet and some do not even bother to hide their links.
The media does not educate the public these days, he says, but “if every Israeli had a Palestinian friend and vice-versa, things would be different.”
An “embedded” media
Akiva Eldar, of the liberal daily Haaretz, sees the relative ambivalence of the Israeli media towards the Arab-Israeli conflict – by turns bellicose and liberal, pacifist and arrogant, chauvinist but not really racist – as resulting from “an historical accident.” Like the US media, he says, Israel’s is both “free, outspoken and critical but also patriotic, disciplined and legitimist.
“Up until 1984, Israel was a stable country with a government and an opposition, so there were at least two approaches, which were echoed in the media. The coalition formed that year between Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Shamir soon changed things, along with minds and words,” he says, and the state of the Israeli media today is a result of this cohabitation.
As elsewhere, says Eldar, “when a left-wing opposition allies itself with the right in a national unity coalition it waters down its criticism and no longer attacks the government, which has embraced it. This produces a hybrid, moderate message and eventually a lowest-common-denominator consensus.”
Gideon Levy, a well-known journalist with Haaretz, is much more critical of the Israeli media. He is a thorn in the side of the establishment and every week raises the painful issues of land seizures, settler abuses, repression or the deaths of innocent people. He thinks the media invents public opinion as much as it reflects it. “It’s played a frankly criminal role in its reporting of the conflict since the start of the second Intifada in late 2000,” he says.
Even worse are the words it uses and the ideas it promotes, which he says are nothing better than public relations (“tikchoret”) for the army than journalism. “So Israelis are said to be killed by Arabs while Palestinians simply die. Hamas attacks but the army only reacts, retaliates or counterattacks. A Jewish settler who kills an Arab is said to be unbalanced while a Palestinian who kills a Jew is called a fanatic. The word ‘occupation’ has vanished from the Israeli media, he says, and is only used in Europe or Arab countries.
Levy accuses the mainstream media of imposing a “shameful media embargo” on Palestinians in the Occupied Territories but not on Jewish settlers there.
Meron Rapoport, a former investigative journalist who worked for many years on Yediot Aharonot before moving to Haaretz, says only a dozen of the country’s 2,000 or so working journalists still sometimes go to the occupied West Bank, with Gaza being inaccessible to everyone since Hamas took power there in 2007.
“Not just the word ‘occupation’ but the term ‘peace process’ has disappeared,” says Rapoport, who now works for the website of the pacifist NGO Ir Amim (“City of Peoples”), which campaigns for a true Jewish-Arab Jerusalem. “Palestinians now even buy space in these same Israeli papers to remind Jewish readers of the peace process launched by the Arab League in Beirut in March 2002,” he says.
“Who would have believed Arabs would mount advertising campaigns begging Israelis to make total peace with them,” says Benny Tzifer, editor of the Haaretz literary supplement, who criticises what he calls the “shameless” exploitation by the mainstream Israeli media of the failure of the Oslo Accords. “This has given us an excuse to be arrogant and now just look after our patch and quickly forget that Israel continues to occupy the land of another people and even more harshly than before,” he says.
Yet he says few local media outlets produce hate-filled material. “There’s no distrust of Palestinians, just a vague fear and, more often, genuine respect. Despite the tendency by TV stations to only report human interest stories, honour crimes, polygamy, vendettas and so on about Palestinians, an Arab professional elite of pharmacists, teachers, artists and surgeons is steadily taking root in Israel,” he says.
“They have so many things to teach Israelis about the conflict”
And journalists as well. Reporter Ohad Hemo, the son of Iraqi and Moroccan parents, says he meets them at his job with Channel 10. He learned his trade with Haim Yavin and finds his Arab colleagues more curious about Israelis than vice-versa, and also more subtle in their approach. “But Palestinian journalists are paid much less and their movements are more restricted,” he says. “Those in the West Bank and Gaza are not allowed into Israel or even East Jerusalem without a special temporary individual permit. They have so many things to teach Israelis about the conflict, says Hemo.
The Arab press has little money and is often makeshift but every day it translates and passes on to Palestinians a range of articles, commentaries and reports appearing in the Israeli press. Danny Rubenstein, a semi-retired former Haaretz journalist and Middle East history teacher, is probably the most translated Israeli journalist in the East Jerusalem and Occupied Territories print media.
On both sides, he says, “newspapers are in the front line and they stir people up.” But the Arab press provides a glimmer of hope in that while “it used to just translate hate-filled articles to show Israel’s racism, it now it reprints peaceful Israeli editorials, to remind people Jews can be peace-lovers too, and has understood that it should reflect the whole range of volatile Israeli opinion,” he says
Rubenstein’s biggest regret is probably that Israeli newspapers continue to arrogantly ignore the press of their closest neighbours, the Palestinians. “They quote the likes of Le Monde, The Guardian, The New York Times and El Pais, but never El-Quds or El-Ittihad,” he says. “I’ve often almost heard my colleagues, through their looks, anxiously saying : ‘If we read what Palestinians think, we’ll become like them and have their vision and version of the conflict.’”
Only one Israeli paper, Haaretz, has a “Jewish” permanent correspondent in the Occupied Territories. She is Amira Haas, who has already made headlines with her blunt reporting that does little for Israel’s image, though she does not spare the Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas. She took a boat from Cyprus to Israeli-blockaded Gaza last summer and stayed in the territory for almost a month before being invited to “go home” by Hamas, who probably did not know that “home” for her was the West Bank.
Haas, a fluent Arab speaker, lives in Ramallah and covers the West Bank and its “occupied” Palestinians, its president who she says is too often absent in Washington, and its Jewish settlers and its soldiers. Ramallah is very far from Tel Aviv and even West Jerusalem, though it only takes an hour to drive there. “If Israeli journalists have the right to say what they want, they are unfortunately not being obliged to make use of that right, she says.
The “Arab sector” – the other Israel
Palestinian journalist and Israeli citizen Wadeh Awawdy, formerly with the Nazareth weekly Koul El-Arab, knows the value, and these days also the limits, of freedom of expression. He lives in Galilee, in Kafr Kana, the town where the Bible says Jesus changed water into wine, and speaks Hebrew as fluently as he does Arabic. He wrote a profile 15 years ago of Abdelrazzak Abdelkader (great-grandson of the 19th century Algerian nationalist Emir Abdelkader), an ardent Zionist who chose to live in Israel. Awawdy also worked for Haaretz.
He said he never had any problem with what he wrote for Haaretz until October 2008 when it did not print a story he wrote about clashes between Jewish and Arab youths in Acre. Since leaving Koul El-Arab, the most read paper in the “Arab sector,” he has been working for the past year with the Al Jazeera website. He strongly deplores the “provincial” content of Arab magazines but deplores the fact that Israeli newspapers report so little about the Arab population, which is a million and half strong.
The Tel Aviv media ignores the Arab sector, but the press in Nazareth, where nearly all the Arab newspapers are based, covers it in detail almost to the point of forgetting the rest of the country. They report its events down to the last detail (human interest, marriages, deaths, exam results, meetings, sports events and Christian, Muslim and Evangelical religious festivals). One almost forgets this is Israel.
“It’s nothing to do with journalistic eye-for-an-eye,” says Awawady. “It’s just showing the world the daily life of a whole chunk of Israel’s population that the rest of the country ignores.
Sayed Kashua, Haaretz’s only Arab columnist, says that like anyone else his writing is based on his experience, which is the life of a Palestinian who is a citizen of a country, Israel, that is in open, daily, inevitable conflict with Palestinians. “It’s hard,” he says, “because each side demands fierce loyalty.” Kashua has a caustic, pseudo-casual, deadpan style and writes novels as well as humorous articles and TV programmes, including Arab Work, a sitcom about the life of a boisterous and unpredictable Israeli Arab couple.
Israeli Arabs describe their awkward relationship with both sides by saying “our country is waging war on our people.” Love and duty now conflict, says Kashua, who has written a cheeky novel called Dancing Arabs, “because you have to perfect the subtle art of both supporting your people without attacking your country and also being loyal to your country without betraying your people. Israeli Arabs are doing acrobatics with their feet on the ground,” he says.
The voice of the Arab
Journalist Fayez Abbas says he can no longer stand being “torn between bitter, humiliated Arabs on one side and, on the other, Jews just off the plane from Russia or Ethiopia already strutting around as if they own the country.” Abbas, who speaks better Hebrew better than Arabic, has worked on several Israeli papers, including Yediot Aharonot for 13 years with Meron Rapoport before resigning over what he considered a racist editorial.
He has just launched his own paper, Sawt El-Arabi (Voice of the Arab), a political and cultural weekly. “I definitely didn’t want to take refuge in the Arab press, which is very mediocre, not rigorous, full of trivia and just not up to the times and the issues at stake,” he says. “Even worse, despite big advertising revenue – especially since it won a hard fight to carry government advertising in Arabic – the Arab press still depends on the printing facilities of Yediot Aharonot.”
Abbas works from his home in Kafr Kana, putting together the paper in his garage, helped with layout by his son, with printing by his daughter and sub-editing by his brother. To keep his hand in, he writes for a well-known Israeli website, www.walla.co.il, whose editor has personally promised he can write what he wants. What does he think of his Jewish former colleagues now ? “They’re all different,” he says. “But since the second Intifada, I sometimes think that with each other they feel journalists first but faced with an Arab they feel Jews first.”
An isolated press
The Arab press in Israel, where Arabic is an official language, suffers from being isolated between Galilee and the mixed Arab-Jewish cities of Acre, Haifa, Lod and Ramleh. “It’s no longer regularly distributed in the Occupied Territories and not at all in the Gaza Strip,” says Mustafa Kabha, a historian of the Palestinian press under the British Mandate, “and this deprives it of four million readers, which is almost three times its Arab readership in Israel.
Along with this political handicap is a journalistic one, says Zakariya Hassan, a senior reporter with El-Sennara. “It’s difficult, almost impossible, for an Arab to get accreditation to report on events involving state security and all Arab journalists without exception are victims of this security suspicion.”
This suspicion cuts both ways and can strike anywhere, including among Palestinians. Arab Israeli Druze journalist Riad Ali, of the Arabic section of Israeli state TV (which puts out 90 minutes of Arabic programmes daily), was kidnapped in Gaza by Hamas militants while interpreting for a CNN reporter. He was harshly interrogated and before being freed was forced to make a video “appeal” to youths of “his” ethnic community not to do their military service in Israel.
Ali, who calls Palestinian fighters “mukharribin” (“saboteurs”), barely hides his bitterness towards Hamas. He wonders who they are fighting against, Israelis or Jews, and if they want an independent state or an Islamist one.
Amjad el-Omari, an ex-fighter for the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, talks calmly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as if it were taking place on the other side of the world, even though he saw combat and was sent to prison for life before being freed after a few years by special agreement following the Oslo Accords. His life is quieter now and he sits in his office in Atarot, near Ramallah, as editor of El-Quds, the most influential Arab daily in East Jerusalem.
The paper is as ascetic as its editor, who says he avoids sensational headlines or photos. “We need plain facts, things seen and things said. People can then interpret them how they like,” he says.
He says he regrets that the paper’s distribution is “seriously hindered by the 700 roadblocks and obstacles Israel has put up on the West Bank’s roads” and regrets even more the lack of money to hire one or more correspondents to report from Israel, at least in the Arab sector where he cannot even distribute the paper. Meanwhile, he fills two pages each day (headed “Israeli affairs”) with articles reprinted from Haaretz, Maariv or Yediot Aharonot reflecting a wide range of opinion, including harsh criticism of the Palestinian leadership.
Tell me who you read…
According to Mohamed Daraghmeh, a Reuters news agency staffer on the West Bank, the late Yasser Arafat’s office used to subsidise El-Quds, which he says sells no more than 5,000 copies a day. An Israeli-based paper is “a handy way to criticise Al-Fatah without drawing the wrath of Ramallah,” he says, and El-Quds is just the tip of “the floating iceberg that is the Arab press in the Occupied Territories.”
Apart from El-Quds, the other unofficial papers – El-Ayyam, El-Hayat and El-Jadida – “are not very popular and reflect more the power struggles at the top of Al-Fatah than everyday concerns of ordinary people, with articles that are political rants and news items that are calls for action,” he says.
Is journalism a profession or a calling ? Former Marxist militant Nasser Laham wanted to practise “a noble, independent and honest profession.” He spent tough times in prison, “an ordeal where I learned Hebrew and also about Russian literature and Italian cinema.” He managed to get $3 million in funding from Denmark and the Netherlands to launch a website in 2005 about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He is based in Bethlehem, not far from the Dheisheh refugee camp where he was born, and runs www.maannews.net, one of the Middle East’s most respected news agencies, in Arabic, Hebrew (five of his translators learned Hebrew in prison) and English.
“I don’t have a pass to go to Israel or even East Jerusalem,” he says without bitterness, “but I meet my Israeli friends at peace conferences in Amsterdam, Lisbon, Rome and Berlin.” The agency’s news about Israel is very popular and aims “to let Palestinians know what their neighbours and occupiers are thinking and writing about the conflict,” he says.
Fourth estate or fifth wheel of the carriage ?
Dani Dor, a researcher and lecturer in Tel Aviv University’s communication department, has monitored the Israeli and Palestinian media’s language about the conflict since the start of the second Intifada in 2000.
He says the Israeli media’s line has been that the conflict is “supremely political and is a matter of life and death, a fight for survival at any price.” For the Palestinians, “the eclipse of a corrupt and incompetent Al-Fatah and tighter Israeli control of the Occupied Territories has produced a similarly extreme and uncompromising line.” Also “a cultural approach, very popular in Israel, that sees the conflict simply as a “clash of civilisations.”
Israel has come to see itself as an outpost of the free, Western, Judeo-Christian world facing Islam, the spearhead of the “axis of evil” and worldwide jihad, Dor says, while the Palestinians pride themselves on being the vanguard of Umma (the Truth) against the forces of the Devil. “So talking about the peace process in these turbulent times and about two states living side by side in peace seems out of place and out of date.”
The media is “unfortunately no longer the fourth estate it once was,” Dor says. “It’s more like the fifth wheel of the carriage of those holding military, political or economic power.”