Almost always those visitors felt afterwards that what they saw did not correspond with the image of Palestine they had before. Somehow the impact and scope of occupation were never really understood except after experiencing it first hand.

Why? Lots of causes are at play here, but perhaps none is so important as the influence of the media. I think three main factors have to be considered to understand the impact of the western media on the popular image of occupied Palestine (the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip):

  • The work situation and cultural background of Western journalists working in Palestine and Israel
  • The presentation of the news about the region, and
  • The boundaries of the debate within the media.

A journalist's job

It is a journalist's job to collect facts and interpretations. In the case of the occupied West Bank and Gaza, it is regrettable to note that from the first days of the occupation in 1967 few western journalists had the will or opportunity to live for a prolonged time in a Palestinian town such as Ram Allah or Gaza.

The large majority of local correspondents preferred to stay in Israel, West Jerusalem and sometimes in Arab East Jerusalem as their base for work, limiting their direct coverage of Palestinian affairs to brief outings to the central West Bank. They thus developed a rather fragmentary knowledge of Palestinian society under occupation and little understanding of the various social and political contexts in which Palestinians tried to pursue their lives despite the oppression.

This situation has not changed. During the second Intifada (from September 2000) it became impossible for almost all Israelis, including the great majority of Israeli journalists, to travel or stay in the West Bank and Gaza. Foreign TV crews became dependent upon Palestinian support staff who were often unable to travel freely in the occupied territories, while international crews had to acquire work permits.

Dangerous assignments

Moreover, it became quite dangerous to visit areas of tension, especially after the Israeli army increasingly harassed and shot at journalists, Palestinian and international alike. Further, the Israeli army began to systematically close off areas to foreigners and journalists, such as during the prolonged curfews of the Palestinian cities in 2002-2003.

"Israel's lies are much cleverer, more sophisticated. When an Israeli government official provides information, it seems to come from a think tank that has decided to offer its own brand of media 'spin'."

A French Channel 2 journalist

Nevertheless, despite these limiting circumstances, it still remains, in principle, possible for foreign journalists to travel and live in the Palestinian areas, a choice only a shrinking number has made. So their access to the ongoing events of the Intifada and to the Palestinian interpretations of the contexts in which the present-day events occur, remains limited.

To take one example: Western journalists are more quickly on the scene when a Palestinian attack against Israelis happens in the streets of Jerusalem than when Palestinians are killed in a clash in Hebron. Consequently, the reporting on Palestinian victims lacks the salience, immediacy, drama and contextualisation characteristic for the reporting of attacks on Israelis.

Apart from issues of access and presence, one also has to take into account the cultural background of the western journalists, who are often more familiar with modern Israeli life (including the Hebrew language, in the case of the Israeli or Jewish journalists who report for international media), than with the Palestinian or Arab way of life.

Stereotypical reports

It is hard to imagine that this does not have an influence upon the subjects and ways of reporting. On an analytic level, it is not uncommon to see that journalists resort to well-known and stereotypical labels such as "fanaticism", "fundamentalism", "tribalism", and "Islam" as all-encompassing explanation schemes for ongoing violent events on the Palestinian side, and neglect the detailed influences of occupation, domination, history, and local or personal context they would have better known when living there.

"When the Palestinians exaggerate or lie, it is apparent almost immediately"

A French Channel 2 journalist

It is also safe to say that journalists take interpretations of the Israeli government and army more seriously - although not at face value - than official or unofficial Palestinian comments.

A French Channel 2 journalist observed: "When the Palestinians exaggerate or lie, it is apparent almost immediately. The lie is raw and it is basic. Israel's lies are much cleverer, more sophisticated. When an Israeli government official provides information, it seems to come from a think tank that has decided to offer its own brand of media 'spin'." [Palestine-Israel Journal, Vol. 10, no. 2, pp.19-20].

The official Israeli PR is also logistically better equipped and better staffed in terms of checking out or following up stories than the Palestinian PR, which has only recently become more helpful, and then primarily at the NGO level (compare the increasing professionalism of media services such as the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center and the Palestine Monitor).

Moreover, Arab newspapers appear only in Arabic while some major Israeli newspapers (Jerusalem Post, Haaretz) appear in English, thus allowing for a daily stream of Israeli-oriented reports and analyses easily accessible through the internet.

In fact, most western journalists are more familiar with the realities of occupation through the critical accounts of the Israeli Haaretz journalists Amira Hass and Gideon Levi than through accounts from the Palestinian or Arab press.

The final edit

The journalists in the field are only partially responsible for how their accounts appear in the press or on the screen. The final, edited accounts tend to further filter out elements that challenge the expectations of western readers, advertisers and political elites.

There have been several pieces of research by organisations such as FAIR, the International Press Institute and the Electronic Intifada about selectivity and bias in western (especially American) media reports of violence by Israelis and Palestinians. Palestinian victims are less (and less prominently) reported than Israeli victims. (Compare the tendency in the western media to report about a period of "calm" when there are no Israeli victims while there may at the same time be scores of Palestinian victims.)

Israeli actions of violence are more often described in terms of a neutral or routine operation of a state army and also as a response to Palestinian violence ("retaliation" and the use of the Israeli term "Israeli Defence Forces" or "security forces" instead of, for instance, "Israeli army").

The vehicle in a US diplomatic
convoy blown up in the Gaza Strip

Palestinian violence is dramatised and looks somehow aggressive by nature. On the other hand, the structural violence and illegitimacy of the occupation is less emphasised in most western accounts. Mainstream news media refer to the settlements which are part of "greater Jerusalem" as "neighbourhoods", while - importantly - most accounts, especially in the US, employ terms such as "disputed territories" or "the [Palestinian] territories" rather than "the occupied [Palestinian] territories" or "occupied Palestine" when referring to the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Such linguistic representations of the conflict steer the reader's or viewer's attributions of blame and cause-effect relationships, in other words their interpretations and viewpoints of the conflict.

Viewpoints

The media also provide space to more elaborate viewpoints through their op-ed pages, background interviews, or in solicited comments from experts, spokespersons, or the public.

What range of viewpoints is allowed for? There seem to be three major paradigms that appear in the opinion pages or programmes of the western media with regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict:

a) Israelis have the right to security and Palestinian violence against Israel is illegitimate;
b) the conflict represents a vicious circle of violence that has to be broken down through negotiations and mediation;
c) the conflict is essentially one between an unlawful occupation and an occupied, unprotected people.

Most western opinion, I suspect, can be placed, with fluctuations, within the continuum between a and b, whereas opinions on the continuum between b and c are less available, especially in the US.

This limitation has to do with the familiar causes that in general prevent an open democratic debate: the closeness of the mainstream American media to political elites, the concern for the acquisition of adverts, and the impact of a celebratory group of conservative opinion-leaders within the prestigious media.

In the case of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, an influential role in the opinion business is also played by Israeli hasbara (state propaganda).

Camp David coverage

Yasir Arafat, portrayed by
Israeli TV as a conspirator

For instance, after the breakdown of the negotiations at Camp David in summer 2000, and the beginning of the subsequent Intifada, Israeli media specialists undertook a concerted effort to disseminate a narrative which foregrounded on the one hand Israeli generosity in the negotiations (on Jerusalem especially) and on the other hand the supposed betrayal by Arafat who was presented as a conspirator whipping up an armed insurrection.

Significantly, the story undermined the Palestinian narrative in so far as that the Palestinian demands were presented as unreasonable (rather than justified by international law) while the reason for rebellion was considered not to be located in the difficult circumstances of occupation but in the dictatorial powers of one person. The same applies to the identification of Arafat with Saddam Hussein by many opinion leaders in the media.

So the general conclusion must be that the mainstream western media, even more so in the US, do not provide an empathetic, coherent, insightful, factual, contextualised and detailed account of the Palestinian narrative as rooted in the daily life under occupation and arising out of a collective longing and striving for freedom in a national state.

Obviously, the power of the media is such that an underdeveloped representation of the Palestinian story influences politics. Having international law and a worldwide consensus about the need for a Palestinian state on one's side is not enough when the main influential political actors and their audiences do not fully understand one's basic narrative.

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Dr Toine van Teeffelen received his PhD in discourse analysis from the University of Amsterdam on the subject of images of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in western popular literature. He presently is an educational consultant as well as a representative of peace movements in Palestine. His letters from Bethlehem are distributed by, among others, the Electronic Intifada.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.