On Palestine, the media is allergic to the truth

Palestinians observe the site after Israeli air strikes collapsed a Palestinian fourteen story building in Gaza City (Mustafa Hassona -Anadulo Agency).

Branko Marcetic

Jacobin  /  May 12, 2021

Once again, the media are trying to depict the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians as a round of meaningless violence from “both sides” of an equally matched contest — the reality on the ground be damned.

There are two ways you could report on the bloody conflict unfolding right now in Israel and Palestine.

One would be to put every new headline and story, whether that’s about Hamas’s rocket attacks or Israel’s wildly disproportionate airstrikes, in context.

That would mean explaining that the rockets came in the wake of a series of outrageous and criminal Israeli provocations in occupied East Jerusalem: a series of violent police raids on Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the third holiest site in Islam during its holiest month, that have damaged the sacred structure and injured hundreds, including worshippers; that Israeli forces were attacking Palestinians who were occupying Al-Aqsa both to pray and to protect it from bands of far-right Israeli extremists who have been marching through East Jerusalem, attacking Palestinians, and trying to break into the compound; and that all of this sits in the shadow of protests against Israel’s most recent attempt to steal land from Palestinians in the city, and the ramping up of Israel’s theft of Palestinian land more broadly under Trump.

While you’re at it, you might at least make clear that the Israeli attacks on Gaza have been far more vicious and deadly than the rockets they’re supposedly “retaliating” against, having killed forty-three people so far, including thirteen children, and levelled an entire residential building. You might make clear that Hamas’s rockets are, owing to their own cheapness and Israel’s Iron Dome defense system, at this point closer to the lashing-out-in-impotent-frustration part of the spectrum (which, of course, is not to say they don’t do damage or occasionally take lives — they’ve killed six Israelis thus far). All of this would help people understand why what they’re seeing unfold on their screens is happening, and what might be done to stop it.

Or there’s the more traditional way of reporting on the Israel-Palestine conflict in Western media. That way involves boiling systemic injustice down to nondescript “rising tensions,” describing state violence and resistance to it as nebulous “clashes,” subtly presenting Israeli and Palestinian violence as roughly equivalent in scale and moral propriety, and generally making it impossible for casual consumers of news to do anything but throw their hands up in frustration and ask: “When will they learn to live together in peace?”

At the time of this writing, the second option is, yet again, the approach most mainstream US media has taken to reporting on the latest litany of Israeli government crimes and the Palestinian response to them. Back is the ever-present and much derided overreliance on “clash” to describe the violence, helpfully clouding some of those basic details reporters are, in theory, supposed to illuminate for readers: who did what to whom, for instance, and how it all started.

As media critics have pointed out for years, if you came in with little to no idea of what was going on and simply surveyed the headlines from the past few days about “clashes” between Israeli forces and Palestinians, you’d never know Palestinians were protesting an Israeli land grab. Nor would you know the “clashes” were happening because Israeli police had decided to attack Palestinian worshippers in one of Islam’s holiest sites. In fact, in one particularly egregious case, you might have been completely misled in the opposite direction, with the New York Post attributing to Hamas the killings Israel had carried out on Palestinians, who were in turn recast as Israelis (the Post later corrected the headline).

While the Post’s error here was a unique low point, news headlines consistently failed to provide readers with context for what was going on, and even actively obscured it. “Hamas fires rockets into Israel as tensions in Jerusalem boil over,” was a typical headline, from NBC. “Jerusalem violence leads to rockets, air strikes,” went another from Reuters. Such headlines not only strip the events of human agency and present Israeli state repression as more akin to a natural disaster — whose “violence”? “Tensions” from what? — but also present the vastly lopsided attacks from Israeli forces and Hamas as equal and proportionate.

This latter point was a theme of numerous headlines, for many people the only part of these stories they’ll actually read and absorb. “Israel Hits Gaza With Airstrike After Hamas Rocket Attacks,” went one Yahoo! News headline. “Gaza militants, Israel trade new rocket fire and airstrikes,” went a different Associated Press one, using a widely adopted construction. “Israel, Hamas escalate heavy fighting with no end in sight,” ABC told its readers. “Israel to ramp up deadly airstrikes on Gaza as rockets rain down and deaths mount on both sides,” went the CBS attempt.

It’s impossible to single any party out for blame here — after all, these appear to be simply two evenly matched foes trading blows, though for what reason, no one can say. Sometimes, it’s not even possible to work out who was responsible for which deaths or how many, as in this Axios headline (“Dozens dead as Israel and Hamas intensify aerial bombardments”), or this NBC one (“33 killed in Israeli airstrikes, Hamas rocket attacks as unrest spreads beyond Jerusalem”).

What might a good headline look like? You could do worse than this example from the Havana Times, an online magazine written by Cuban contributors and edited from Nicaragua: “Israeli Forces Attack Palestinians Protesting Expulsions” — six words that accurately sum up and put in context the events mainstream reporting tends to hazily describe as “clashes” and “tensions,” albeit at the price of abandoning the shrugging attempt at neutrality mainstream news is abiding by.

Sometimes a lamentable headline has been balanced out by the body of the report itself. Such was the case with the Financial Times’ “Hamas rocket attacks provoke Israeli retaliation in Gaza,” which, upon clicking through that headline, nonetheless did a decent job putting the fighting in context and explaining its causes without equivocating. But often, the flaws in the headlines have carried over into the reporting proper.

In its report, for instance, ABC only mentions the thirty-five Palestinians that Israel killed in its blitz on Gaza last, well after leading with Israel’s claim of “killing at least three militants,” and after first noting the Israeli death toll of five. We don’t learn the cause of the current conflict until halfway through, when we’re briskly informed that “critics say [emphasis mine] heavy-handed Israeli police measures in and around Jerusalem’s Old City helped stoke nightly unrest,” as well as about the attempt to evict Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem.

Over at NBC, the lead — meant to sum up the report for the reader by condensing it to its most important points — tells us that “Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip fired rockets toward Jerusalem on Monday in a major escalation after hundreds of Palestinians were hurt during earlier clashes with Israeli forces.” In other words, Hamas militants fired rockets in what was a major escalation; but Palestinians were hurt in clashes (How and by who? Perhaps they all tripped), in an act that presumably wasn’t a major escalation, despite it involving sacrilegious police attacks that arguably constitute a war crime.

Particularly comical was the lead in this CNN piece: “Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians have escalated further on Tuesday as Palestinian militants in Gaza fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, which in turn ramped up airstrikes on the coastal enclave.” Besides the vague reference to “tensions,” notice that the rocket attacks are both attributed to someone (Hamas) and quantified (hundreds), while Israel’s airstrikes are neither. Notice, too, that Israel’s airstrikes are cast as almost natural phenomena, “ramped up” — or in other words, caused — by the Palestinians themselves.

Special mention has to be made of the paper of record. One New York Times piece on the police raids on Al-Aqsa compound had its abstract serially edited, which at one point morphed from

“The police entered the compound and fired rubber-tipped bullets. Anger was already building in response to the looming expulsion of several Palestinians from their homes in the city…”

to the substantially worse and misleading

Gaza militants fired rockets toward Jerusalem and the Israeli police fought with Palestinian protesters in an escalation of violence after a week of increasing tensions.

A later, separate piece on the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza was substantially edited after the fact, some of the changes positive, some less so. (The original version doesn’t appear to have been archived anywhere, but was copied and pasted here).

Gone are the two paragraphs noting that the “immediate trigger” for the fighting was the police raid on Al-Aqsa compound, but added in is a reference to the attempt to evict Palestinian families from East Jerusalem. Less advisedly, so is a paragraph clarifying that “Israeli airstrikes aim for strategic targets” in contrast to Hamas’s deliberate targeting of population centers, a highly dubious assertion. And while a paragraph describing the Israeli police raids is gone, three paragraphs describing how “Palestinians rampaged” in Israeli cities have been left in.

This is just a small sampling. One could spend dozens of hours and thousands of words going through the various reports produced on these same events and find countless more similar examples.

By bending over backward to appear fair and neutral, or at least not too critical of Israel, mainstream news is forced to serially violate some of the most basic no-no’s of journalistic writing and structure. The result is that its audience is delivered a confusing and even misleading picture of the Israel-Palestine conflict that reinforces what many of them already feel after years of being bombarded with similarly framed mainstream reporting: it’s all too complicated for a normal person to get their head around, so why bother?

But the reality is not all that complicated. Hamas’s rockets and Palestinians protesting, throwing rocks, or even rioting: these are all desperate responses to sustained, systematic, and brutal repression and land theft by Israel that has been going on for decades, and has sharply escalated over the last decade in particular. It is the “language of the unheard,” as Martin Luther King called the African-American riots of the 1960s, which, like their counterparts last year and in the decades between, are a similar howl of frustration from those who have been relentlessly dispossessed and brutalized with seemingly no recourse.

There are ways of putting an end to such things, whether rocket attacks or property destruction from rioters. But to do that requires first accurately describing the injustices that drive them.

Branko Marcetic is a Jacobin staff writer and the author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden; he lives in Toronto, Canada.