Bad News from Israel


TV news is the main source of information for about 80 per cent of the population. Yet the quality of what they see and hear is so confused and partial that it is impossible to have a sensible public debate about the reasons for the conflict or how it might be resolved. This is the conclusion of a major new study by the Glasgow University Media Group which for the first time brought journalists, academics and ordinary viewers together in research groups to study the influence of news on public understanding. Over 800 people were interviewed and questioned and the researchers examined around 200 news programmes. Senior journalists told researchers that they were instructed not to give explanations- the focus was to be on hot live action. As Paul Adams, the BBC defence correspondent, put it ‘it’s a constant procession of grief, its covered as if it’s a very large blood feud, and unless there’s a large amount of blood, it’s not covered.’ George Alagiah stressed the problem of ratings and the current belief in the BBC that the attention span of viewers is about twenty seconds:  


In-depth it takes a long time but we’re constantly being told that the attention span of our average viewer is about twenty seconds and if we don’t grab people- and we’ve looked the figures- the number of people who shift channels around in my programme now at six o’clock, there’s a movement of about three million people in that first minute coming in and out.


The result of this approach is that there is almost nothing on the news about the history or origins of the conflict and viewers are extraordinarily confused about this. Many believed that the Palestinians were occupying the occupied territories or that it was basically a border dispute between two countries who were trying to grab a piece of land which separated them. The great bulk of those we interviewed had no idea where the Palestinian refugees had come from and some suggested Afghanistan, Iraq or Kossovo. We also interviewed media and journalism students from the USA and less than a third of these knew that the Israelis were occupying the occupied territories and that the settlers were Israeli.


The history of the Palestinian refugees is contested but some prominent Israeli historians such as Professor Avi Shlaim have given documented accounts of how the Palestinians lost their homes and land. He argues that from April 1948 the military forces of what was to become Israel had embarked on a new offensive strategy which involved destroying Arab villages and the forced removal of civilians.  The intention was to clear the interior of the future Israeli state of what were seen as potentially hostile ‘Arab elements’.  As he writes:


The novelty and audacity of the plan lay in the orders to capture Arab villages and cities, something [they] had never attempted before… Palestinian society disintegrated under the impact of the Jewish military offensive that got underway in April, and the exodus of the Palestinians was set in motion…by ordering the capture of Arab cities and the destruction of villages, it both permitted and justified the forcible expulsion of Arab civilians. (Shlaim, 2000: 30)


He also notes how the displacement of the Palestinians and its consequences were clearly acknowledged by Moshe Dayan, one of the most prominent of Israel’s military leaders and politicians.  Speaking in 1955 at the funeral of an Israeli, killed by Arab insurgents, Dayan commented:


What cause have we to complain about their fierce hatred for us?  For eight years now they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their eyes we turn into our homestead the land and villages in which they and their forefathers have lived. (quoted in Shlaim, 2000: 101)


The Palestinian view was indeed that they had been forced from their land and homes in 1948.  They had then to live as refugees in countries such as Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and on the West Bank (of the Jordan River) and the Gaza Strip.  There followed a series of conflicts and at times, outright war between Israel and its Arab neighbours.  The most significant of these conflicts was perhaps the 1967 (Six Day) War.  In this, Israel occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem (which had been under the control of Jordan), the Gaza Strip (which had been under the control of Egypt) and the Golan Heights (which were Syrian).  This occupation brought many Palestinian refugees under Israeli military control and was bitterly contested.  Jerusalem as a religious centre for both Muslims and Jews became a major point of conflict. 


The Israelis also built settlements in the newly occupied areas of Gaza and the West Bank and they exploited natural resources, in particular taking control of the vital resource of water. This is an interesting topic for media analysis since it clearly has an extraordinary visual impact on the areas in which Palestinians and Israelis live. This is described in a report by Suzanne Goldenberg in The Guardian.  She notes of the Gaza Strip that it is the most densely populated place on Earth.  As she writes:


One point one million Palestinians live in a mere two–thirds of Gaza’s three hundred and sixty square kilometres, penned into wretched refugee camps or blocks of flats…all are hemmed into the claustrophobic Strip by an electric fence on one side and the settlements on the other.  Meanwhile six thousand Jewish settlers and army installations occupy the rest – a full one-third of Gaza.  That includes a fair chunk of the coastline and the underground aquifers in an area that is mostly sand dune and hard scrabble.
            
She then describes the visual difference that control of the water brings:


The contrast between the communities could not be crueller.  Inside the Jewish settlements, residents live in red-roofed bungalows, surrounded by well watered land. There are community centres, swimming pools and hot houses producing cherry tomatoes and lettuce. The Palestinian world outside is bone-dry and dusty, narrow lanes crammed with donkey-carts, children and push-carts.  (The Guardian, 16 June 2001)


If a print journalist can describe a scene so vividly, then how did the ultimate visual medium of television portray it?  In practice we found it was virtually absent from the coverage.  Although TV journalists often went to settlements there were no comparisons made as above, linking the disparity of resources to the Israeli occupation.  The issue of water was in fact barely mentioned.  On ITV, there was a brief reference to it in this account of the issues that were frustrating a peace settlement:


And there are other seemingly mundane issues like access to water which are so important in the Middle East and that are still eluding negotiators. (ITV early evening News, 2 October 2000 – our emphasis)


It is not surprising then, that in our audience research groups over 90% of the people in them had no idea that this was an important issue. The perception which audiences had of Israeli settlers in the occupied territories was also significant.  On the news as we have seen, the settlers were presented as vulnerable and under attack.  Yet the settlements have a key role in the occupation.  As the Israeli historian Avi Shlaim put it, they were part of a policy of exerting strategic and military control, which for example involved ‘surrounding the huge Greater Jerusalem area with two concentric circles of settlements with access roads and military positions’ (Shlaim, 2000: 582)   Many were built on hilltops to give them a commanding position with the explicit encouragement of Ariel Sharon.  Established settlements were strongly fortified and their occupants were often heavily armed.  One of the very few people in the focus groups who knew this actually wrote that: ‘the word settler is a euphemism’ (male teacher, Paisley).  But it was more common to see the issue in the terms adopted by the news.  The ‘occupied territories’ were not seen as having been subject to military occupation and the settlements were not understood as being part of this.  The army was there simply to keep the Palestinians back:


Moderator: Do you get the impression watching the news that it is a military occupation by Israel?


Male Speaker: A military occupation?  No, it’s to give the Israelis land to work on, to live on and the army backs them up and keeps back the Palestinians in my opinion.  (Middle-class male group, Glasgow)


Another participant described his impression of TV news:


I think you sometimes get the impression from the news that these are people who happen to want to live there…and the military backup is in pursuit of their peaceful wish to just go and live there, and I think that’s the impression I get from the news, rather than that it is a military occupation. (Teachers’ group, Paisley)


With this perception of the conflict it is not hard to see how the Palestinians appear as the aggressors. As a Glasgow student put it:


I had no idea why they were fighting, I just thought it was the Palestinians trying to claim more land.  I didn’t know it was kind of like back [had a history]. I knew it was disputed but I didn’t know the Israelis had taken land.


Two other students from Glasgow described the influence on their beliefs of seeing a documentary by John Pilger, which showed the power and reach of the settlements:
  
First Speaker  (Male): The all-Jewish roads, I’d not seen that before.


Second Speaker (Female):It made it look much more like an invasion and not just a bunch of poor benighted people trying to find somewhere to live.


Even people who were sympathetic to the Palestinians had absorbed the message of the settlers as small embattled communities.  A middle-class male from Glasgow described his surprise when he heard that the settlements controlled over 40 per cent of the West Bank:  


I had absolutely no idea it was that percentage – I was gob-smacked when I heard it.  I saw them as small, embattled and surrounded by hostile Palestinians – that’s entirely thanks to watching the television news.


Without history or context, news reports tend to focus on day to day events and in reporting these, there is a strong emphasis on Israeli perspectives. The research found that Israelis were interviewed or reported over twice as much as Palestinians. There were also a large number of statements from US politicians who tend to support Israel. They were interviewed twice as much as even politicians from Britain. The language of the ‘war on terror’ is frequently featured and journalists sometimes endorse it in their own speech as in this example: ‘that attack [by a Palestinian] only reinforced Israeli determination to drive further into the towns and camps where Palestinians live – ripping up roads around Bethlehem as part of the ongoing fight against terror.’ (ITV, early evening news 8/3/2002). This report also illustrates a familiar theme in news coverage whereby the Palestinians are seen to initiate the trouble or violence and the Israelis are then presented as ‘responding’ or ‘retaliating’.


There are very distinct and different perspectives on this conflict which should be represented on the news. The Israeli authorities and much of the Israeli population see the issue in terms of their security and indeed the survival of the state in the face of threats from terrorists and hostile neighbours. They present their own actions as a response or retaliation to attacks. In contrast, the Palestinians see themselves as resisting or responding to a brutal military occupation by people who have taken their land, water and homes and who are denying them the possibility of their own state. The analysis of news content suggests that the first of these perspectives tends to dominate news reporting. Between October and December 2001 for example, on BBC 1 and ITV news, Israelis were said to be ‘retaliating’ or in some way responding to what had been done to them about six times as often as the Palestinians. Phrases such as ‘Israel’s retribution’, ‘Israel responded’, ‘Israel has hit back’, and ‘Israel’s payback’ were commonly used. This pattern of reporting clearly influenced how some viewers understood the conflict. As one young woman put it: ‘you always think of the Palestinians as being really aggressive because of the stories you hear on the news…I always think the Israelis are fighting back against the bombings that have been done to them’. Another wrote ‘the Palestinians trigger every incident which makes the Israelis retaliate’. It is interesting how closely this language parallels that of the news:


Palestinian suicide attacks trigger more Israeli raids (BBC 1, late news 5/1/2002)


The trigger for the Israeli offensive was a massacre on the West Bank (ITV early evening news, 13/12/2001)


There were other differences in the language used on the news to describe the two sides. The word ‘terrorist’ was used to describe Palestinians, but when an Israeli group was reported as trying to bomb a Palestinian school, they were referred to as ‘extremists’ or ‘vigilantes’ (ITV main news and BBC 1 lunchtime news, 5/3/2002). There were also differences in the language used for the casualties of both sides. Words such as ‘mass murder’, ‘atrocity’, ‘brutal murder’, ‘lynching’, and ‘savage cold blooded killing’ were used only to describe the deaths of Israelis but not Palestinians. The study shows these differences in the use of language though detailed comparisons of press and television news coverage of specific events. For example, between the 8th and 11th October 2000, there were a series of reports in the press and on television of attacks on Israeli Arabs by Jewish Israelis, in Tel Aviv, Tiberius, Jaffa and Nazareth.  Israeli Arabs make up 20 per cent of the population of Israel.  Many believe that they are treated as second class citizens within Israel and in the early days of the intifada they had been reported as protesting / rioting in ‘support for their Palestinian cousins’ (BBC1 early evening News, 1 October 2000).  On the 10th October 2000, the Guardian reported an attack on the Arab community in Nazareth as follows:


In Nazareth, in the heart of Israel, hundreds of Jewish extremists attacked an Israeli/Arab neighbourhood overnight. When the police arrived they fired rubber bullets at the local Arabs – not their assailants, killing two men. (The Guardian, 10 October 2000)


On the same day, the Independent reported attacks in Tel Aviv and Jaffa: ‘in the seaside community of Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv, two Israeli Arabs were stabbed.’  They also reported that ‘in nearby Jaffa, three Arab-owned apartments were burned’ and that some Jews were chanting ‘death to the Arabs’ (The Independent, 10 October 2000).  On the following day the Guardian reported that: ‘mosques and Arab businesses in Tel Aviv were besieged by Jewish mobs in a night of mayhem’, and that ‘on two consecutive nights this week, Jewish mobs attacked the two hundred-year-old Hassan Bek mosque in central Tel Aviv’ and that those who did it were screaming ‘death to Arabs’ (The Guardian 11 October 2000). On the same day the Independent reported that:


A Jewish mob wrecked one of Israel’s most famous restaurants and tried to kill its Arab waiters by blocking them inside and torching the place…outside a young man gazed happily at the mess. “We want to cut all the Arabs throats; we want to kill them all” he said. (The Independent 11 October 2000)


In all, thirteen Israeli/Arabs were reported to have been killed in these events.  The Guardian reported that the clashes in Nazareth had been described as a pogrom by an Israeli peace group:


…what is happening in Nazareth today is a pogrom, bearing all the hallmarks which were well known to Jews in tsarist Russia, that is collusion between the racist attackers and police. (The Guardian, 10  October 2000).


The television news reporting of these events was rather muted by comparison. The following references were made within our sample:


Some Israeli civilians are taking matters into their own hands.  Last night a Jewish mob attacked a mosque in the city of Tiberius.  It seemed to be an act of revenge, following a Palestinian assault on a Jewish holy shrine on the West Bank. (BBC1 early evening News, 8  October 2000)


Some Israelis are taking it upon themselves to respond. In Tiberius on Saturday night a Jewish mob attacked a mosque and beat up Arabs. It seemed to be an act of revenge following a Palestinian assault on a Jewish shrine on the West Bank. Tonight Jews are again attacking Arabs, in the northern city of Nazareth. (BBC1 main News, 8 October 2000)


Inside Israel itself Jews have taken to the streets to show their anger. This is a mosque being attacked in Tiberius last night. (ITV main News, 8 October 2000)


A second Israeli Arab was killed in Nazareth and a Jewish settler died near Nablus in the West Bank. (BBC1 lunchtime News, 9 October 2000)


As the national mood in Israel darkens, these were the rare scenes in Tel Aviv, it may be far removed from the West Bank but even here the conflict is spilling out onto the streets.  Two Israeli/Arabs were stabbed and Arab homes were set alight as Jews staged running battles with the police. (ITV lunchtime News, 10 October 2000)


Passions on all sides are still running high. Even in Tel Aviv violence has now hit the streets.  These were angry Jews last night looking for Arab victims. (ITV early evening News, 10 October 2000)


Overnight violence flared again inside Israel. In Acre, Israeli/Arabs clashed with the police. (BBC1 lunchtime News, 11 October 2000)


On the following day, two Israeli soldiers were reported on TV news to have been killed by a crowd of Palestinians.  According to these reports, four Israeli soldiers in a civilian car were arrested by Palestinian police in Ramallah.  The Israelis stated that, they were simply reservists who had taken a wrong turning into the town. The Palestinians believed them to be part of the Israeli undercover units. A crowd gathered outside the police station where they were being held.  Some of these Palestinians gained access to the station, where two of the soldiers were then killed and the body of one of these was thrown from a window.  The other two soldiers who had survived were later handed over to the Israeli authorities. There are three points to be made about the TV news coverage of these events. The first is that the deaths of the two Israeli soldiers receive over five times as much coverage as that of the thirteen Arabs who had been killed in ‘mob’ violence.  Second, the deaths of the Israeli soldiers are highlighted in the coverage, receiving headlines such as ‘Swift retaliation after Israeli soldiers are lynched.’ (ITV early evening News, 12 October 2000, quoted above).  Third, there is a very clear different in the language used to describe the two sets of events.  For example the headline, ‘lynch-mob’ is not used in relation to the Arab deaths.  We can see these very sharp differences in the structure and tone of coverage if we consider the following accounts from our sample, of the deaths of the Israeli soldiers. In this BBC News from the 12th October 2000, a ‘frenzied mob’ is reported as ‘baying for their blood’:


A frenzied mob of Palestinians besieging the police station in Ramallah.  It was here that several Israeli soldiers had been arrested by Palestinian police and the mob were baying for their blood.  Eventually they burst into the police station surging through the gates and clambering into the windows.  Israel says the soldiers inside were just reservists who lost their way. The Palestinians insist they were members of a plain-clothes undercover unit. Whatever the truth, two of them were about to die.  With cameras filming from the outside, young Palestinians could be seen in this window savagely beating and stabbing soldiers to death. Victory signs to indicate the deed had been done. The frenzied crowd could hardly contain their glee, especially when one of the bodies was thrown down to them from the window.  Israel was outraged and promised vengeance.  It was almost immediate.  Just after noon prayers, Israeli helicopter gun-ships swarmed over Ramallah.  People ran for their lives for they knew what was coming.  They had incurred the wrath of Israel. From a nearby rooftop we watched wave after wave of rockets rain down on Ramallah.  First target the police station where the soldiers had been so barbarically killed.  (BBC1 main News, 12 October 2000 – our emphasis)


There are a number of words which were used specifically to describe the deaths of the Israeli soldiers, such as ‘atrocity’, ‘murder’, and as we have seen ‘lynch-mob’ and ‘barbarically killed’.  None of these were used in our samples for Arab/Palestinian deaths.  The following examples are all from the first day on which the deaths of the two soldiers were reported:


The [Israeli] attack is precise and repeated. Rocket after rocket slams intothe police station destroying the very rooms where the murders took place… Israel said it would take drastic action and it has, for the brutal murder of its soldiers this morning it has now traded a direct assault on the heart of the Palestinian city… The Israelis are saying these are symbolic, if you like, pinprick attacks against, first of all the scene of this morning’s atrocity.(BBC1 early evening News, 12 October 2000 – our emphasis)


Palestinian police seized four Israeli soldiers and took them to a police station, but two were apparently lynched by a mob. (ITV lunchtime News 12  October 2000 – our emphasis)


This was the trigger [for Israeli attacks]. The murder of two Israeli soldiers inside a Palestinian police station in Ramallah.  The Palestinian security forces could not keep a lynch-mob of their own people at bay.  In a first floor room the soldiers were beaten and stabbed to death.  Their bodies were later dumped out of this window. (ITV early evening News, 12 October 2000 – our emphasis)


There is also some discussion of the implications of the killings and a journalist refers to the Israeli view that they are a justification to ‘abandon restraint’:


On Monday night Ehud Barak had withdrawn his ultimatum and threat of a crackdown but clearly he felt that the brutal killing of  the two soldiers here was a step too far – justification for abandoning restraint. (ITV early evening New, 12 October 2000 – our emphasis)


Some might question the uncritical use of the word ‘restraint’ – since as the previous bulletin had noted ‘the violence has left about one hundred people, mainly Palestinians dead’ (ITV lunchtime News, 12 October 2000).  It is also noteworthy that while the Israeli attacks after the killing of the soldiers are consistently referred to as a ‘retaliation’ and ‘a response’, the same links are not made to Palestinian actions. In other words, the killing of the soldiers is not routinely described as a response to the large number of Palestinian deaths. In analysing such points we are not seeking to justify or legitimize any killings in the conflict.  But as we will see, such linkages in the structure of coverage are very important in how viewers understand the origins and causes of violence.


The language of ‘lynching’, ‘brutal murder’, and ‘slaughter’ continues over the days which follow:


This is the Ramallah police station where two Israeli soldiers were brutally murdered. (BBC1 lunchtime News, 13 October 2000 – our emphasis)


Today they buried one of the Israeli soldiers who was beaten and stabbed to death by a mob of Palestinians and whose murder triggered a wave of Israeli reprisals. (BBC1 late News, 13 October 2000 – our emphasis)


On this BBC bulletin we are then given details of the personal and tragic circumstances of the victim. We are told that ‘he married his sweetheart only last week.  She is expecting his baby.’ The Palestinians are then said to ‘show no sign or remorse’:


In Ramallah Palestinians have been marching past the police station where the two soldiers died such horrific deaths.  It has now been reduced to a pile of rubble by Israeli gun-ships.  But these Palestinians show no sign of remorse.  Instead they chant Islamic revolutionary slogans and protest about the Israeli attacks on their town. (BBC1 late News, 13 October 2000)


On the same day ITV news describes the deaths of the soldiers using words such as ‘brutal slaying’ and ‘slaughter’ (ITV lunchtime News, 13 October 2000).  A later bulletin also notes that:


It was here yesterday with the mob violence that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict reached its lowest moment, exposing a raw and brutal enmity. (ITV late News, 13 October 2000)


It is perhaps significant that the ‘lowest moment’ in the conflict is seen as with the mob violence which killed Israeli soldiers rather than with the killings of Israeli Arabs or with other Palestinian deaths.  People on both sides of the conflict suffered terrible fates, but there were some clear differences in the manner in which these were described on the news.


The emphasis on the deaths of Israelis was very marked in the coverage. In March 2002, when the BBC had noted that the Palestinians had suffered the highest number of casualties in any single week since the beginning of the intifada there was actually more coverage on the news of Israeli deaths. This again apparently had a strong influence on the understanding of viewers and only a minority questioned in these samples knew that Palestinians had substantially higher casualties than the Israelis. This viewer believed that the Israelis had suffered around five times as many casualties as the Palestinians:


Well basically on the news coverage they do always seem to make the Palestinians out to be the ones who are the suicide bombers, so its like, I would imagine its going to be more casualties on the Israeli side, but its purely from television, that’s where I’m getting my info from, that’s how its been portrayed to me on television.


These differences in the consequences of the conflict for both sides and the actions and rationale of those involved can have measurable influences on public understanding. The ‘gaps’ in public knowledge closely parallel those in the news. The Palestinian perspective that they have lost their homes and land and were living under a military occupation was effectively absent. It is perhaps not surprising then that some viewers believed that they were simply ‘around’ the area, being aggressive and trying to take land from the Israelis. As one put it:


The impression I got was that the Palestinians had lived around that area and now they were trying to come back and get some more land for themselves…I didn’t realise they had been driven out of places in wars previously.


In another focus group, a speaker commented:


I just thought it was disputed land, I wasn’t under the impression that the Israeli borders had changed or that they had taken land from other people. I just had the impression it was a nice piece of land, that both, to put it simplistically, that they were fighting over and I thought it was more a Palestinian aggression than it was an Israeli aggression.


Moderator: Did anybody else see it this way? (Five out of ten people in this group assented)


One of the difficulties in giving historical background and context is simply that the area is contested and extremely controversial. Journalists spoke to us of the pressures that they were under and of the amount of hate mail and abuse that they received particularly if their reports were deemed to be critical of Israel. Lindsey Hilsum spoke of the difficulties of reporting in such a contested area:


With a conflict like this nearly every single fact is disputed…I think , ‘Oh God, the Palestinians say this and the Israelis say that’…I know it’s a question of interpretation so I have to say what both sides think and I think sometimes that stops us from giving the background we should be giving.


Another problem is the number of false and polemical claims that are made about the supposed content of media and the beliefs of audiences. Whilst criticising our work in the London Evening Standard (23/6/2004), Andrew Neil alleged that the population will ‘naturally’ sympathise with the Palestinians because they are using stones against tanks. If he had time to read the book, as well as to review it, he would have seen that this issue was discussed in the focus groups and the obvious point was made that in Northern Ireland, people with stones fought troops, but not everyone immediately sided with the stone throwers. In another group there was strong support for the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be resolved if the parents kept their children in, and stopped them going out and throwing stones. It all depends on how the conflict is explained and understood. There are more polemical claims about media coverage made in the Jewish Chronicle (25/6/2004) in Britain from Alex Brummer. ‘Palestinian speakers’ he says, ‘have been brilliant at hammering home the message of Israeli occupation’, which suggests a rather time challenged reading of our results. He also attacks Arab descriptions of ‘massacres’ in Jenin in 2002 and claims that ‘almost as many Israeli troops perished as Palestinians’. For a city editor of the Daily Mail, he has a strange grasp of numbers. The UN report of 1 August 2002 stated that there were 52 confirmed Palestinian deaths. The number of Israelis was 23. In the Guardian in September 2002, Stephen Pollard claimed that the BBC had ‘faithfully reported Palestinian claims of a massacre as fact’ (repeated again in the New Statesman (28/06/2004) by Simon Sebag Montifiore and attributed to ‘British news organisations’). Yet we found that the BBC had quoted the Palestinian claims alongside counter-claims of the Israelis. They didn’t endorse the use of the word ‘massacre’ about Palestinians, but Israeli views were sometimes endorsed. For example while ITN referred to a Palestinian as coming from the ‘beleaguered town of Jenin’, the BBC referred to her as from ‘Jenin, the target of Israel’s most determined efforts to root out potential terrorists’. (12/4/2002). On the following day a suicide bomber who killed nine people was described on the BBC as a ‘mass murderer’.


TV journalists are caught in a maelstrom of competing accounts, but they cannot turn away from their duty to inform and explain. There are serious issues raised by a news service which in the end leaves so many people confused and ill informed. The research shows that viewers simply turn away in despair from an endless sequence of violent images and this has the very damaging effect of limiting any serious public debate about how the conflict might eventually be resolved.     


Bad News from Israel by Greg Philo and Mike Berry, Pluto Press (2004).

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