By Ershad Abubacker
24 July, 2009
The very idea of Middle East conflict gives a bizarre picture not just to the common middle class, but even to the knowledgeable public. This is based on the well known perception that anything that comes out of the Middle East must naturally be of the interest to the Muslims or in the least sense to Jews. Many tent to stumble over the fact that Arabs are not just Muslims. Arab population mainly consists of Muslims living peacefully with large groups of Christians, Jews and other religious minorities like Kurds, Druze and Sabians. Hence a generalization of Middle East issue as just a Muslim only issue tends to take out the universal acceptability and attention that is due to the people of this region. Palestinian Christians are equal sufferers as its Muslim population in terms of oppression at the hands of Israeli military regime. In this context it is highly important to look into the premises of world public opinion about the conflict and the factors that shape up the so called public opinion.
A careful observation would bring forth the fact that mainstream media, especially the American media plays a vital role in shaping the world public opinion. And it needs a detailed analysis into the complex relationship that defines the content of mainstream media today with respect to the factors that affect the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that dominates our news coverage of international issues. Given that this news coverage is world’s main source of information, it becomes important to examine the story the news media are telling us and to ask the question; does this news coverage reflect the reality on the ground?
NEW ERA WARFARE: A PUBLIC RELATIONS STUNT
World relies on the mainstream media for information of events occurring around the world. News, especially television news exerts powerful influence on people’s perceptions, telling them which events are important and shaping their understanding of the issues. Given the central role played by the US in the Middle East conflict, in fact the wider role played by American voter, in influencing the US media coverage of the conflict is crucial. Controlling the images and words used to explain the conflict has become an important extension of the struggle.
Israel is really fighting the war on two fronts, the first is the military campaign being waged in the occupied territories against the Palestinian people and the second is the Public Relations (PR) Campaign being waged in the US through the American media to ensure continuous support for Israel’s military occupation. In addition to the military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, Israel is also involved in an attempt to ideologically occupy the world media. This is evident from what Alon Pinks, former Consul General for Israel in NY said a few years earlier, “We are currently in a conflict with the Palestinians and engaging in a successful PR campaign is a part of winning the conflict.”
After the PR disaster of Lebanon in 1982 with respect to Sabra and Shatila massacre, Israel decided to set up a permanent institutional structure to control how the world would think about the Middle East and devised Hasbara Project in 1983 that involved training information officers to present Israel’s case to Press and TV anchormen around the world. They trained press officers in Israeli consulates in US to ensure that the journalist would write in favour of Israel, it was a kind of ‘joint formulation of ideas’. This practice goes on to the present day. The Israeli press office is spitting out press releases, statements, information and reports all the time. So you could sit in your bureau in Jerusalem or Dubai and file stories all the time without having to have spent time or energy to dive in to the ground reality.
The propaganda machine is even more effective in US than in Israel. Mainstream news coverage is influenced by a complex set of institutional relationships; these influences can be said as the part of a complex series of filters through which the news must travel before it merges with the voices of news anchors. To understand how mainstream news media report on Middle East conflict, we need to understand how to these institutional filters operate. Among the most important of these filters are the business interests of the cooperation’s that own the mass media, interests that extend beyond the US and across the globe to the middle east.
The economic interests of the media owners are shared by political elites, politicians and policy makers who form the second filter. These political elites have the power to access and influence the mainstream media and are themselves a part of system dominated by corporate money and interests. The strategic importance of the Middle East to these two groups is reflected in the media coverage of the region and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The third filter, Israel’s own PR efforts further affects the coverage. The government of Israel employs some of the largest American PR firms as image consultants to coordinate its political and media campaigns. Nine Israeli consulates in US help implement this PR campaigns by developing relationships with journalist and monitoring media outlets. Scores of private American organisation, both Christian and Jewish, reiterate the official line and organize grass root opposition to any coverage deemed unfavourable to Israel. The most important of these is AIPAC, the most powerful highly influential foreign lobby in Washington.
These institutional frame works of American business and political interest in combination with Israeli PR shape media coverage of the Middle East. At the same time progressive organisations opposing Israeli government policies such as Jews Against the Occupation and Americans for Peace Now, let alone scores of Muslim organisations, that strive to bring out the ground reality rarely make it through these filters.
Finally if any news stories critical of Israeli policy do surface, there are hosts of media watch dog groups that monitor and pressure journalists and media outlets and most important of which is CAMERA. There are active pro Israeli organisations that very effectively monitor (read harass) journalist and their editors and try to make sure that the coverage is objective, by which they mean is pro-Israel. There are even pressure groups to write campaigns and letters to editors and news outlets asking to boycott certain news agencies, demanding the stories to be changed or the reporter to be fired. This becomes so twisted, that the dearth of reporting, the absence of images, lack of analysis, the void of voices of describing the experience of Palestinians under occupation is so vast that the people has no idea that the occupation is going on.
Thus the media don’t show the suffering that the Palestinians are undergoing through occupation, or really understand how bad the occupation is for them, no empathy, no sympathy, no sight of a women unable to reach hospital to give birth, children dying at the check point because they are aren’t let through or denied medical attention. If you don’t see that, your heart cant skip a bee and say something is wrong with the occupation.
THE INVISIBLE TRUTH IN NEWS BROADCAST
One thing to bear in mind regarding media reports on Israeli Palestinian conflict is not only understanding what is there in the story, but more importantly, what is not there. In that sense absence is as vital as presence in terms of how people make sense of the story. Context is everything. The context that is often missing from the current reporting is that the Palestinian uprising is the result of 42 years of brutal occupation. When the occupation is not there in the story, then the story really does not make any sense and the occupation is frequently missing. Even a bird eyed view on the mainstream news broadcast will prove this and that’s why most westerners don’t understand the history of the conflict. The violence and stone throwing that you see on daily basis on TV comfortably ignores the fact that the Palestinians are fighting in their homeland against an Israeli occupation that has been proved illegitimate by the UN and majority of its member nations.
The lack of context is so dramatic as only 4% of the news coverage on the occupied West Bank and Gaza strip mentions the fact that they are occupied territories. Israel sent its military troops to the occupied territories to defend them and when the Palestinian population there resists this, Israel is being presented as being under attack. Israel’s pasture is anything about self defence. Israel is the only country in the world right now that in contravention to UN security council resolutions maintains tens of thousands of heavily armed troops outside its borders, in some body else’s country for the sole purpose of taking their land away from them and in the process forcing them to live under the worst form tyranny like any foreign dictatorship. This context is always missing. Even if Israel is busy killing civilians in cold blood, the whole issue is depicted as self defence. Its always the monotony of Palestinian attack and Israeli retaliation.
LINGUISTIC MEDDLING: PLAYING WITH WORDS
Israel’s goal is eventual annexation of the occupied territories and the settlements being the means to attaining that goal. But they would appear to be threatening colonies if they were presented in their true light and hence all efforts are made to hide their identity by sanitizing the language that describes them.
CNN sent out a memorandum to their staff in the middle east few years ago citing that in future Gilo is to be called a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem and not to refer it any more as a settlement. This seem to be subtle, but there is a great deal of difference between a colony and a neighbourhood. By pressuring journalist into change in the use of words and making them alter their lexicon by linguistically changing the analysis story, not only are the journalist kept in line but it also successfully takes away them from one side of the dispute-the Palestinian side.
The insertion of a large Israeli population in certain areas gives the Israeli govt a rationalisation for refusing to relinquish control and to give Israel an argument that this part of the occupied territory has become so Israeli and having so many Jews living in it that it simply has to annexed to the state of Israel.
If you watch mainstream media coverage, Israel’s home demolition of Palestinian homes is simply presented as enforcement of laws, but we could see this law unequally applied to steal Palestinian land. Israel carry out its home demolitions in the pretext that it is illegal and don’t have permits, when in reality this the way of clearing the Palestinians off their land making it impossible for them to live there pushing more and more of them off in order to claim the land for Israel.
But there is absolutely no understanding on the part of mainstream media and hence on the part of the population educated by that media about what created that circumstance. In contrast to the reality, in the mainstream media there is a reversal in the cause and effect and by that the occupation is pictured as a response to suicide bombings. In reality Israelis do feel insecure and they have good legitimate reason to be threatened about their security. But overwhelmingly reporters will see the source of the insecurity they feel as the Palestinian hatred over Israelis all the time and label this conflict as not motivated by struggle over power, land and territory, but simply by Palestinian hatred.
THE ART OF SELF DEFENCE
Defence in Israel means murder, and people stop thinking the moment they hear the word from the media and Israel takes advantage of this void in thinking and all too often anything can be called defence and then justified. Israel always casts itself and always cast by the media as “Reactive”–as simply responding to Palestinian aggression. Since Sept 11, Israel’s PR strategy has reframed all Palestinian actions, violent or not as terrorism, and to do that they have repackaged the illegal military occupation as a part of America’s war on terror.
Israel has made American empathize with its position by linking itself emotionally to Americans 9/11 experience making a connection when there really isn’t one. It’s been breath taking how American journalists had allowed themselves to be manipulated to this extend.
DEFINING WHO IS NEWS WORTHY
Yet when many civilians are killed on both sides, not all are considered news worthy in the mainstream media. There have been periods when almost no Israelis have been killed and large number of Palestinians has been killed. Those periods have been referred to routinely by the mainstream media (press and TV) as ‘periods of relative calm’. What that means is it’s relatively calm only if the Arabs are dying.
You get the fullness of his humanity for each Israeli soldier killed in the Palestinian land and yet you have hundreds and thousands of Palestinian civilians or children killed and you never get to know their name, you never get to see their funeral, you never get to see the grief of the relatives, as is the case with the Israeli soldier. The Palestinian child might have been killed in their home or their backyards or on their way to school, it doesn’t matter, they all become the pat of the abstraction, 400 Palestinians killed, it’s just a number. This normalisation of horror and exclusion of human dimension has become the part of the policy. This cleaned up antiseptic language does not show the human reality of the substance and the inherent injustice in the situation.
Israeli PR works not only by controlling the content of the media reports but also makes sure that some voices are never meant to be heard. The marginalisation of Israel peace movement in the American media is an example of how this works. Israeli PR machine knows that if the views and voices of Jews who disagree with its policies become public, it would be impossible to maintain the lie that any criticism against Israel is by definition Ant-Semitic. In fact the accusation of Anti-Semitism has been Israel’s most effective strategy in silencing the dissent and journalists in particular has been the target of this tactics. This remains the constant weapon that is used to make deafening chorus of accusations and slanders against such journalists.
Trying to scare people into silence by conflating any criticism of Israeli policies as Anti-Semitism in fact detracts from the very real threats that Anti-Semitism does pose and if this trend continues, the word Anti-Semitism will begin to become unrespectable.
MYTHS OF AMERICAN NEUTRALITY
It is indeed a cruel joke to call America as a neutral broker between Israel and Palestinians, yet this is followed through out the world. The US has exercised its veto power many times in the UN Security Council, but more devastating than that is, it provides billions of US tax dollars of aid to Israel, a lot of it as military aid and a major chunk of it in the most lethal possible form. The total aid by US to Israel for the period of 1949-2000 comes to over $100 billion making Israel, a country the size of New Jersey, the fourth most powerful military in the world in possession of largest fleet of F-16 fighter planes outside the US.
US journalists are being meshed in symbiotic relationship with the powerful instead of being independent and critical. They are typically being dependent on policy makers and are unwilling to raise the crucial critical questions. Rather than monitoring the game of power the journalists are simply part of the game.
A sense of historical amnesia has crippled the whole world from remembering the truth that there existed a country named Palestine and a population of 6 million almost 62 years ago that has been systematically wiped out and the land being annexed to what is called Israel in the present day. This is not an issue that should be seen through the narrow mind and fixed views of ones religion. Palestine is a cry of humanity. Those who claim neutrality amidst this catastrophe must realise that neutrality does not exist at the phase of bulldozed houses, bullet ridden infants and white phosphorus bombs. Doing nothing to prevent it is, in fact, choosing.
The author would like to acknowledge Bathsheba Ratzkoff and Sut Jhally of Media Education Foundation from which strategic information for this article has been taken under the Fair Use Clause of the US Copyright Act of 1976.
Ershad Abubacker is a Research Analyst based in Chennai. He can be reached at email@example.com.