A Palestinian man reads the headlines of a local newspaper at a shop in the occupied-West Bank city of Hebron, 2 November 2022. Image: Hazem Bader / AFP

Distorted Media Narratives of Israel’s War on Palestine

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Journalism is expected to uphold unwavering commitment to principles of factual accuracy, independence, transparency, and accountability. Western nations consistently position themselves as champions of journalistic freedom and values, assertively endorsing their universal application. A nuanced appraisal, however, reveals a recurring pattern of exceptions and inconsistencies, particularly when it concerns human rights issues. Western governments have often recurrently exhibited a tendency to selectively overlook transgressions of prescribed norms when perpetrated by their allies. 

An enduring critique also persists to the preferential treatment afforded by Western media outlets towards allies of Western states, even when confronted with substantiated allegations of legal breaches or ethical lapses – often manifesting in the form of favorable coverage. This paradoxical disconnect between professed principles and practices illuminates a systemic challenge within Western journalism. The tendency to prioritize geopolitical alliances over impartial reporting compromises the foundational principles of journalistic integrity. This issue of exceptionalism and partiality is notably salient in Western coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict and the ongoing war in Gaza.

This, therefore, prompts a critical inquiry: Are Western media genuinely reporting with the truthfulness and transparency they espouse? Or are they inadvertently perpetuating the marginalization of Palestinian rights?

To address this inquiry effectively, it is imperative to scrutinize the underlying motivations prompting its formulation. Deconstructing the prevailing Western narrative on Palestine is essential, as dismantling every facet of oppression targeting Palestinians is pivotal for liberation. Central to this deconstruction is an examination of the linguistic framework employed in discussions about Palestine, revealing how Western rhetoric inadvertently perpetuates the oppression and ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Palestinian people.

Terminology

Across the Western media narratives, we can observe the utilization of certain terms that potentially can distort perceptions of the dynamics between Israel and Palestine in a manner that often favors Israel. For instance, several prominent news outlets such as the BBC, CNN, PBS, France24, among others, frequently characterize the situation as a “conflict,” a term that can be inherently misleading. As often argued, the term “conflict” implies that “there is equal footing” and mutual capacity to inflict violence between groups, a characterization that does not accurately reflect the power dynamics between Palestine and Israel.

Currently, Israel is one of the most highly militarized societies (with advanced weaponry) globally and has heaps of international support, especially from the US. On the other hand, Palestine has no army, no navy, no air force, and no international support. They are impoverished and oppressed. Usage of the word ‘conflict’ enables placing blame on Palestinians when they resist Israeli occupation forces. The ‘conflict’ narrative erases the idea of resistance of a weaker group against a stronger opponent. 

This rhetoric is further reinforced by the deployment of terms such as ‘clashes,’ ‘violent escalation,’ and ‘tensions.’ Such language facilitates the misuse of passive voice, directing focus towards the affected party while eluding direct attribution of responsibility to the perpetrator. In these instances, the passive voice is employed in conjunction with obfuscating the identities of Palestinians. An illustrative case can be found in the reporting by France 24 English, the BBC, and Reuters regarding the Israeli military’s incursion into the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, where the military operations were described as “clashes,” and made no distinction to delineate the roles of the parties involved, nor did they contextualize the power differentials between them.

Similar reporting behaviors were often noticed when Israeli settlers attacked Palestinians’ land or homes in the West Bank. Forced expulsions in Sheikh Jarrah have been referred to as evictions or property disputes, to conceal their illegal character. Israel’s attack and siege on Jenin were, according to the New York Times and CNN, an “operation”. Instead, when Palestinians engage in armed resistance against settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing, an active voice is used, and their identity is highlighted. Again, this enables placing blame on the Palestinians, as it removes the incidents from the general context of the situation. The nit-picked terminology of the West constantly softens Israel’s stance and practices in the audience’s eyes. 

Finally, the most striking illustration of the systematic suppression of Palestine’s voice in Western media is the continued prohibition of the term “Palestine” in some international newsrooms today. Mentions of Palestine or any sort of adaptation of a pro-Palestine approach are invalidated. Organizations and individuals involved are discredited.

For instance, in 2014, NBC News, a US-based media outlet, removed its correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin from Gaza, where he was stationed to cover developments in the region. Mohyeldin had witnessed and openly reported on the tragic killing of four Palestinian children by Israeli occupation forces. His abrupt removal from the assignment occurred without any explanation provided. This incident is not an isolated one. In 2022, German broadcaster DW terminated the employment of five employees, all of whom were either Palestinian or Lebanese, on false allegations of anti-Semitism.

In reality, they were dismissed for daring to criticize the actions of Israeli occupying forces. These journalists spoke out against what they termed the “illusion of freedom” in their workplace and across Europe, highlighting instances such as the prohibition on using terms like “colonialism” or “apartheid” in reference to Israel. Eventually, a German court adjudged these dismissals to be “legally unjustified,” underscoring the pervasive censorship prevalent in journalism concerning Palestine.

Thus, the widespread use of particular vocabulary in the West creates the illusion of symmetrical responsibility. This refers to the construction of a narrative whereby the two sides are contesting equally in their claims, both have had equal influence in the developments that have happened, and both are accorded validity. This couches practices of settler-colonialism and ethnic cleansing in an imagined idea of conflict, allowing for armed resistance to the colonial practices to be baptized as terrorism.

The absence of Palestinian voices

In Western media, there exists a consistent bias towards prioritizing and quoting Israeli sources. Pro-Israeli organizations often wield influence, ensuring that media coverage leans favorably towards Israel and suppresses critical voices. Even when Palestinian sources are reluctantly included, Israeli perspectives are typically presented first, marginalizing Palestinian voices and perspectives. In addition, Palestinian sources are questioned about their allegiance to Hamas and asked to condemn the other Palestinians’ ‘violent protests’, thereby demonizing them.

A prominent and recent example of this was a CNN interview with known Palestinian writer Mohammed El-Kurd, whose family faces displacement. El-Kurd was asked by his interviewer if he supports the violent protests of the Palestinian people. In turn, he asked, “Do you support the violent dispossession of me and my family?”. This also goes back to the terminology previously discussed. Often forced dispossessions are presented as ‘evictions’, and the land is described as ‘disputed’ or ‘contested’.

Such framing paints a picture of real estate or landlord-lessee disputes and completely disregards the context of the Palestinians. A people with land, families, heritage, and communities, not short-term leasing arrangements, who are violently expelled from their homes. In other instances, Palestinians are being attacked or mistreated on TV shows for criticizing Israel’s leadership or narrating their own independent analysis. For example, Dr Mustafa Barghouti, the General Secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI), was attacked with racist comments on TalkTv after his criticism of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Additionally, Western media consistently sidesteps crucial contextual details, such as the enduring military occupation and frequent violent raids, when reporting on Israel and Palestine. This omission of vital information serves to bolster Israel’s narrative by absolving it of accountability and shifting blame onto Palestinians, particularly when they resort to armed resistance.

The mainstream press often projects and frames the Israel-Palestine situation as a mere ‘conflict,’ thereby subtly shifting blame onto Palestinians. In this narrative, the Palestinian perspective is marginalized or altogether obscured, while the violence perpetrated by Israeli military forces and settlers against Palestinians is downplayed or distorted. This pervasive misrepresentation results in a glaring absence of authentic Palestinian voices in Western media discourse. The formidable influence wielded by Israel further exacerbates this issue, systematically stifling Palestinian narratives and perpetuating a one-sided portrayal of the conflict.

Consequently, the Western media enables the rhetoric of symmetrical responsibility which promotes the idea that Israel and Palestine are equal counterparts with contesting claims. This view of two competing positions and perspectives is promoted, and serves, to validate colonization. Thus, the structural violence of colonialism that leads the oppressed to resort to violence is dismissed. If the framing shifts from conflict to settler-colonialism this changes how Palestine can make demands on an international level which would in turn shift the whole paradigm beyond the frame. 

We must earnestly consider how to transcend this entrenched narrative and dismantle the structures that perpetuate settler colonialism. Edward Said astutely observed that the West’s continual exclusion of Palestinians stems from the fundamental reliance of (neo)liberalism and Zionism on exclusion for the construction of their identities. Perhaps it is time for the West to embark on a profound reevaluation of its governing order and principles, refraining from reinforcing oppressive regimes and instead fostering a more inclusive and just global order.

Erato Vaitsi

Erato is a third-year student of BSc International Relations and Organizations at Leiden University, specializing in 'Law, Culture and Development’. She is interested in examining how different legal systems are influenced by culture and based on colonial ideologies and tropes. She is currently researching how the War on Terror undermined mainstream positive images of international humanitarian law, for example its portrayal as a tool of justice for the oppressed.

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