Journalists aren't asking tough questions to Palestinians or Israelis

Aspects of the media coverage of both sides have been disappointing

Journalists react during Israeli aerial bombardment in Gaza City on August 6, 2022. AFP
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While there are exceptions, too often both the Israeli and Arab press fail when it comes to reporting on violent acts in the Palestine-Israel conflict. Already this year, there have been dozens of deadly assaults by Israeli forces into Palestinian populated areas, as well as deadly Palestinian attacks against Israelis. Aspects of the coverage of both have been particularly upsetting.

For example, on January 26 Israeli undercover units (arriving in milk trucks) entered Jenin. When they emerged from their vehicles, heavily armed and firing their weapons, Palestinians responded with gunfire. In the end, 10 Palestinians lay dead. Dutifully following the lead of the statement put out by the Israeli military, the press reported that the targets of the Israeli assault were “terrorists” or a “ticking bomb” preparing an attack on Israelis. And that was how it was reported. Israeli (and American) journalists asked no questions, and the case was deemed closed.

But questions should have been asked. What was the evidence for this charge? Could means other than a deadly assault putting civilian lives at risk been deployed to apprehend the alleged “terrorists”? Instead, the journalists accepted that the only evidence needed – the judge, jury, and executioner – were the words and bullets of the Israelis.

There is an especially upsetting subtext to stories like this. Israel is currently holding more than 800 Palestinians as “administrative detainees”, or ADs – the highest number since the occupation began. An AD is a Palestinian imprisoned without charge, evidence or the right to a trial or a defence. Some of these detainees have been held in this legal limbo for more than four years. What follows from this Kafkaesque scenario is that if Israel arrests a Palestinian, they can be held without any due process, but is still referred to as a “suspected terrorist”. And when a Palestinian is killed, then readers of many publications must also believe and report that the evidence was certain enough to confirm that the victim was indeed a terrorist. That’s not journalism.

Just as Israel’s use of excessive violence hasn’t ended Palestinian resistance, neither has the Palestinians’ use of violence served to end the occupation

Nor is it journalism when the Israeli and American media simply report on the Israeli military’s arrest of dozens of family members or the demolition of the home of an accused terror suspect, as if these criminal acts of collective punishment are normal and justifiable behaviour. They are not.

Arab reporting can be equally galling. When on the heels of the deadly Jenin raid, a Palestinian shot and killed seven Israelis walking on the streets of Neve Yaakov, a settlement east of Jerusalem, it was deeply upsetting that some Arab (and American “left”) media referred to the murders as “an operation” or a “successful attack”. The same terms were used after a deranged Palestinian rammed his car into a group of Israelis waiting at a bus stop, or when, in the following days, two 13-year-old boys attacked Israelis.

The same language was used when Hamas sent desperate young men into restaurants and other public places with bombs strapped to their bodies with the intention of killing themselves and as many Israelis as possible. These acts were described by some media accounts as “heroic” and termed “successful operations”. They were neither.

Instead of celebrating these senseless acts as if they were “military actions” that were part of a strategy to liberate Palestinians, journalists, especially those sympathetic to Palestinian suffering, should have asked what would have led a young person to such anger and despair that they were driven to suicidal behaviour that took the lives of innocent Israelis who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Journalists who accept and use the terms “heroic” and “successful” to describe these senseless acts of murder are no better than their Israeli (and American) counterparts who blindly echo the Israeli military “ticking bomb” line to justify undercover murderous assaults or who fail to question the legality and morality of acts of collective punishment.

I can already hear critics from both sides taking issue with this column.

Supporters of Israel will ask: how else can Israel deal with the threat emanating from terrorists? But they will ignore the very real problems posed by extrajudicial killings and collective punishment – the absence of any transparent due process to justify the charges of “terrorist” or “ticking bomb", the lack of any basis in law for the wanton violence used in the assault, and the bitterness and desire for revenge that is the inevitable result.

Similarly, there will be apologists on the Arab side who will seek to justify the apparently random attacks on any Israelis by arguing that their very presence in Israel or especially in settlements makes them legitimate targets. Or they will ask: how else can Palestinians make Israel pay for its crimes? These arguments, like those made by Israel’s apologists, make no moral, legal, or political sense.

The fact is that just as Israel’s use of excessive violence hasn’t ended Palestinian resistance to their cruel occupation, neither has the Palestinians’ use of violence served to end the occupation. If anything, the behaviours of both have only served to intensify both Israeli repression and Palestinian bitterness and rage at those who oppress them.

While we can’t expect an article to alter a brutish culture within the Israeli military or act as a salve to heal the psychological wounds of an angry 13-year-old with a knife, we can at least ask those who report on their actions to use the right language and ask the right questions when they cover the tragic and deplorable deeds they do.

Published: February 22, 2023, 2:00 PM