Looking at decades of problematic coverage surrounding the conflict.
It’s a strange moment in history for a Matryoshka doll of lies that’s usually re-offered swollen with each flare-up in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
After the bloody weekend attacks by Hamas on Israel, global opinion and the media seem to be divided. While a few Israeli papers, including Haaretz, have placed the blame entirely on Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu, in India – similar to sections of the American and British press – mainstream television news and a few other outlets have decided to hound opposition leaders who have tried to delve into the “fundamental” problem of the long-standing demand of Palestinian statehood or Israeli violations of human rights instead of only attributing the conflict to one outfit.
But more on that later.
Media outlets in any country usually follow their country’s policy on labelling any outlet as “terrorist”. But in the case of Hamas, several prominent outlets in the US and UK have resisted the label. The BBC, for example, put out a statement this week explaining why it will not call the Palestinian group so despite the UK government proscribing the outfit. In the US, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Washington Post have mostly been using the word militant to describe the outfit even though US President Joe Biden has unequivocally blamed the “terrorist” group for the crisis.
However, for a lot of celebrities and Indian news anchors such as Arnab Goswami, Amish Devgan, and Aman Chopra, you are either with Israel or with terrorists.
Meanwhile, as Netanyahu tries to rally support for the Israeli operations, the scale of digital warfare has been unprecedented amid Luddite wailing about social media. This accompanies unverified reports (so far) about “40 babies beheaded” by Palestinian entities – with a U-turn from the US government and a reiteration from Israeli authorities – and those about children being caged.
Misinformation about disinformation
Consider this tweet by an Indian journalist, who says the stomach of a pregnant woman was cut open in southern Israel. But the incident, X claimed, dates back to 1982, when Israel-backed militias had targeted areas in Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon, leaving nearly 500 Syrians and Palestinian refugees dead. It took place after the Palestine Liberation Organisation had withdrawn from Lebanon after assurance from the US and multinational bodies that refugees and civilians would be protected. The UN General Assembly later passed a resolution calling the tragedy “genocide”.
But was mainstream media’s coverage of even that 1982 tragedy accurate?
Far from it, as British journalist and bestselling author Robert Fisk pointed out in his 1990 book Pity The Nation.
“Two weeks after the massacre – when the enormity of what had happened had presumably penetrated its offices in New York – Newsweek was in no doubt about its priorities. The magazine’s cover story was headlined ‘Israel in Torment’ and carried a picture of a dead dove, an olive branch in its peak, its blood staining the Star of David. One of the subsidiary headlines recorded ‘The Anguish of American Jews’ while an inside report dwelt on ‘The Troubled Soul of Israel’.”
According to Newsweek, the Arab question was “festering” while Arab “blood hate” was ultimately to blame for Israel’s sins. For Israel’s moral sense, as the magazine had reminded its readers, was “normally one of the world’s most acute”, Fisk wrote.
The Wall Street Journal was worse, Fisk’s book suggested. A report in the paper observed that the Sabra and Chatila casualties included “only 15 women and 20 children. The rest of the 460 counted victims were males”.
Newspaper cartoons in the West – “even from time to time in the Times – would depict Arabs as hook-nosed, leering and unshaven. Had Israelis been portrayed with these same characteristics, the papers would have been condemned, rightly, as anti-semitic.”
And now, with more than 2,500 dead so far, the media seems to be back to square one.
When Palestine’s de-facto Ambassador to the UK Husam Zomlot called out the “condemnation paradigm” and BBC’s unequal treatment of Israeli and Palestinian representatives on television, it wasn’t his first. On another BBC show last year, when he was repeatedly asked to condemn Hamas attacks, he had pointed out that the anchor only addressed the “symptom” while ignoring the “illness”.
Zomlot wasn’t the only one. Several opposition leaders in the US, UK, European Union, and India were confronted with the same question as they attempted to highlight Israeli actions.
Be it Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, the Indian National Congress at home, or Congress representatives Cori Bush or Rashida Tlaib in the US; they all came under criticism from fellow politicians and sections of the mainstream press for their perceived de-facto support for terror and the taking of hostages by Hamas. This comes after years of sections of the media and pro-Israel voices using the antisemitism line to drown any criticism of the Israeli government.
While the global community has tried to build a rigorous taxonomy of terrorism, there is still room for ambiguity. When it comes to Hamas, the UN, EU, the Organisation of American States, Japan, and Egypt have listed it as a terror outfit even as others, including Norway, Russia, Brazil, Turkey and China are yet to.
Meanwhile, as Indian television chooses to glorify the “haahaakaar” caused by the Israeli military “retaliation”, the economic blockade and suffering in whatever remains of Palestinian territories has been portrayed without nuance as a justified collective punishment for the actions of terrorists.
Days after the PM’s tweet unequivocally supporting Israel, the ministry of external affairs reiterated India’s nuanced position on the conflict and the cause of Palestinian statehood. But Indian television has not bothered to spell out the details, far from even mentioning whether the Israeli “retaliation” has just targeted Hamas or unarmed Palestinians and civic infrastructure as well.
This is reminiscent of the post 9/11 media coverage which drowned out discussion on the human cost of the “collateral damage” of the “War On Terror”. (For scale, Israel has dropped as many bombs in a week as the US dropped on Afghanistan in one year, in a smaller area, said former UN war crimes investigator Marc Garlasco.)
Aman Chopra, on his show on News18 India, meanwhile, declared that “today it is about Israel against terror”. “There is a conflict between Israel and Palestine but we won’t go into it today.”
Most Indian newspapers, on the other hand, have tried to detail the human impact on both sides, with visuals and human interest stories of survivors from both Israel as well as Gaza.
And as the conflict rages on, several Indian TV anchors have left for Israel. It’s yet to be seen if their rare stint with ground reportage will bring more heft to their career.
Few lead reports on settler terrorism
Palestinian violence is more often described as “terrorist” as compared to the actions of radical Jewish settlers, which are more frequently referred to as “rampage” or “attacks”. Be it firebombing or vandalism, Israel has often been accused of sheltering settlers over the years. It was a rare move for the US government to label the murder of a Palestinian, Qusai Jamal Matan, in the West Bank in August this year as a “terrorist” attack.
In June, several leaders of the far-right ruling coalition in Israel threw their weight behind settlers who targeted Palestinian homes and farms in the West Bank. “The attempt to create an equivalency between murderous Arab terror and civilian counter-actions, however serious they may be, is morally wrong and dangerous on a practical level,” said Israel’s finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, the head of the coalition’s far-right Religious Zionism party. Israeli national security minister Ben-Gvir has been convicted of supporting a Jewish terror outfit in 2008.
Each Palestinian plot that is forcibly seized by Israeli authorities is taken over by Israeli settlers, with the tally seeing a steady climb in East Jerusalem and West Bank since the 1967 war.
While little information is available after 2020, the EU and Peace Now report a consistent rise, particularly in East Jerusalem. As of 2021, plans for 14,000 more settler housing units are approved of, to be built in and around Jerusalem. This is double the units compared to 2020.
But it’s not just authorities that support settler action.
Nearly two decades ago, BBC’s Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn had accused the network’s producers of toeing the Israeli embassy line and legitimising the actions of settlers by referring to such plots as “neighbourhoods” and occupation as “claims”.
This was featured in the 2004 book titled Bad News from Israel by academics Greg Philo and Mike Berry, who listed several examples of problematic coverage, pointing to certain patterns of reporting, absence of context, imbalance in sources, playout structure, news themes, and even visuals. For example, Western media outlets frequently aired images of Israeli patrols as peacekeeping rather than as an occupying force.
The ‘disputed’ holy site
Israel occupied East Jerusalem, where Al-Aqsa mosque – Islam’s third holiest site – is located, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. It annexed the city in 1980, a move which is yet to be recognised by the larger international community. While Donald Trump as US president gave it a certain degree of sanction with the recognition of Jerusalem as Israeli capital, a UN general assembly resolution rejected the move.
The mosque and the Dome of the Rock are part of the Temple Mount complex, also known as the al-Haram-al-Sharif, which houses the holiest sites for Judaism, including the Wailing Wall.
Under the long-standing “status quo” arrangement governing the area, only Muslims are allowed to worship in the mosque. But Jewish visitors have often defied these rules and protests have erupted over repeated Israeli restrictions on access to the site for Muslim devotees. Israeli extremists have long threatened to destroy this mosque to build the third Jewish temple; the Waqf department that manages the site claimed that 48,000 settlers stormed the site in separate instances last year.
Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Palestinian territory, this year said that the “well-known desire of Israeli settlers to either destroy the mosque or forcibly convert all or part of the compound into a synagogue, as happened to the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, is a source of deep anxiety among Palestinians”.
But sections of the media often glaze over this context while reporting on the issue.
In April, several Palestinians had decided to stay at the mosque compound to resist Israeli settlers who allegedly tried to sacrifice a goat there amid Ramzan, and were assaulted by the Israeli police. A BBC report was headlined “clashes erupt at contested holy site”. The New York Times blamed Palestinians “who had barricaded themselves inside”.
Most of the reports also did not nuance the power difference between Palestinian protesters and the well-equipped Israeli police.
The pressure of national interest and pro-Israel lobbies
In an open letter in June 2021, nearly 500 American journalists, including those from several prominent media outlets, urged the news industry to make certain changes to its reportage on the conflict. “For decades, our news industry has abandoned those values [professional journalism] in coverage of Israel and Palestine. We have failed our audiences with a narrative that obscures the most fundamental aspects of the story: Israel’s military occupation and its system of apartheid.”
American media outlets, just like the US government, are not without pressure from pro-Israel lobby groups which try to deflect criticism of Israel’s policies. Among these lobby groups are MEMRI, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Media Reporting in America, and Honest Reporting.
After the open letter by 500 journalists in June, CAMERA wrote to the Los Angeles Times about nine journalists linked to the daily being part of the letter pushing a “false” narrative.
Under similar pressure, NBC sacked its Gaza correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin after his report on an Israeli attack which killed four Palestinian children playing on a beach in 2014. After public outrage, he was reinstated. CNN sacked Marc Lamont Hill for a speech in 2018, AP fired Emily Wilder in 2021 for tweets made before she became a journalist, and The Hill sacked Katie Halper for calling Israel an apartheid state.
But what about those who report from Palestinian territory?
In the last two decades, Israeli forces have killed around 35 Palestinian journalists while they were on duty, according to Reporters Without Borders. This is besides the unexplained detentions, assaults, and attacks on press offices. In 2021 as well as this year, Israeli forces targeted areas housing media houses.
Last year, several American outlets concluded that prominent American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by an “Israeli bullet”, but the US government trusted the Israel government’s report that the killing was just an accident.
Far from concrete action, several US states, in fact, have passed laws to combat the Boycott, Divest and Sanction civil movement against Israeli violations – a step activists see as a restriction on free speech.
The situation is nearly the same in the United Kingdom, whose government has thrown its weight behind Israel – just like its colonial legacy in the conflict – in the recent standoff too, choosing to fly the Israeli flag at 10, Downing Street. Meanwhile, the waving of Palestinian flags has been restricted in the UK besides several other European countries.
The major advocacy groups in the UK are the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre and the Zionist Federation.
With Big Tech’s content moderation often aligning itself to centres of power, there is often digital censorhip – its extent such that several Palestinian media bodies and activists have backup accounts on social media platforms in case their original account is suddenly suspended.
Last year, Palestinian users on Instagram documented the aftermath of Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip and reported that Meta took down their posts citing a breach of “community standards”. In contrast, Ukrainian users were allowed to share similar content as it was deemed “newsworthy”.
An external audit in September 2022, commissioned by Meta, concluded that the company’s policies negatively affected Palestinian users’ rights, including freedom of expression, assembly, political participation, and non-discrimination. This impacted Palestinians’ ability to share real-time experiences. Additionally, Meta’s policy, which holds a confidential list of prohibited organisations and individuals, predominantly includes Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian entities, leading to excessive action against Palestinians.
In 2021, Human Rights Watch stated that Facebook had inappropriately deleted and suppressed content related to Palestinians and their supporters, especially during the May 2021 conflicts. Although the company admitted to some mistakes and tried to rectify them, these measures were viewed as inadequate given the extent of the restrictions.
In April 2021, Zoom, Facebook and YouTube blocked the online academic event “Whose Narratives? What Free Speech for Palestine?”, co-sponsored by the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies program at San Francisco State University, the Council of UC Faculty Associations, and the University of California Humanities Research Institute.
An opinion piece in Jerusalem Post this year argued that the media has consistently misrepresented Israel.
“A June 20 Voice of America radio report dealing with ‘Palestinian refugees’ misleadingly informed that ‘almost 900,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank are classified as refugees, meaning they were displaced from their homes in... 1948.’ In truth, as the CAMERA organisation pointed out, perhaps there are maybe 10,000 Palestinians living there who were displaced from their homes in 1948. Numbers aside, do the media ever note the numbers of Jews who were displaced, even ethnically cleansed, from their homes at that time?”
The UNRWA puts the number at over 8,71,000.
In 2020, the BBC reportedly apologised over an uncritical interview of a Palestinian terror convict after a letter by a Tory MP.
Meanwhile, amid the recent flare-up, a Fox News report featured author Ashley Rindberg’s statements on what he alleged was an anti-Israel bias in mainstream media, including the New York Times. Rindberg’s main grouse?
“They have taken babies into Gaza as captives. And if that is not on the front page of The New York Times, if a photo of that baby is not the main image and the sole image in The New York Times, you know that this problem is far gone,” Rindsberg said.
Fox News wrote, “On Monday, the Times continued to keep kidnapped women and children off the front page while focusing on ‘a stunning intelligence failure’ by Israel.”
Children killed or taken as captives is indeed ghastly; the validity of those experiences on both sides can’t be negated through comparisons.
If images of detained and prosecuted Palestinian children could be juxtaposed as well next to pieces put out by newspapers of record each year, perhaps many of them wouldn’t appear later among faces of the dead.