Israeli Discourse about Palestinians – When Media do not Mediate

The media has an important role to play in reducing violence, particularly if committed to peace, through a less simplistic or even propagandistic coverage. Analyzing coverage of the 2008-09 and other Israeli military operations against the Gaza Strip highlights the key arguments employed for defending the alleged necessity of war, or for the protection of so-called ‘national interests’.

By Moara Crivelente Originally published at TransConflict, after its presentation in a conference on Communication (“If you Wish Peace, Care for Justice“) in Cyprus, in November 2014.

The mass media have a deeply important role in conflict situations or their resolution; they can determine the rise on violent episodes and on distrust, or the other way around. Mass media are also fundamental in determining people’s perceptions about the conflict or their engagement and confidence in a peace process. If frustrated, actors might return to violence to draw back attention, especially when they feel forgotten or that their cause is being neglected. The media coverage of conflicts and the discourse promoted by political actors when addressing the public are extensively analyzed by various authors. Examples are Professors Xavier Giró, Teun van Dijk, Gadi Wolfsfeld and Johan Galtung, who advocates for an engagement in ‘peace journalism’.

The key arguments – reinvented, though with little novelty, after the 9/11 attacks in the USA – employed for defending the alleged necessity of war, or for the protection of so-called ‘national interests’, are also analyzed. Examples of these arguments are centered on the dichotomies ‘civilized’ and ‘barbarian’, ‘legitimate’ and ‘terrorist’, ‘peace’ and ‘security’. They are applied extensively in the Israeli official discourse transmitted through the media; both are deeply nationalist and dedicate to forging an identity in a context of constant violence. These conditions are very similar in different contexts, such as the role of official ‘advertiser’ that major and commercial mass media end up playing especially during war.

1) Media Analysis in Conflict Coverage

On 27 December 2008, the Israeli Government launched the ‘Operation Cast Lead’, a military offensive led by the Army, named ‘Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF), against the Gaza Strip. It lasted three weeks, and it was poorly covered, in terms of complexity, by the traditional media from all over the world. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a constant, in a superficial or simplistic form, in the international media. Although global attention is certainly an important factor sparking some form and sporadic negotiations, in this case the perpetuation of a peace process is frustrating not only for the victims and the actors directly involved, but also for the audience. Besides the ‘Operation Cast Lead’, which sets the main point of analysis, this paper also looks at other military offensives against the Gaza Strip and the West Bank as well as other circumstances of escalation and the problematic conduction of a innocuous ‘peace process’. The evaluation points at a pattern of distorted or simplistic media coverage and official discourses that contribute to fuel tensions.

Furthermore, the frustration of expectations in an armed and ongoing conflict has serious consequences; it determines the rise on violent episodes and on distrust both between the political actors and in the negotiation process as a whole. Through mass media, the frustration and the distrust are heightened: the initial intense coverage – either positive or negative for the conflict’s resolution – and the gradual fading on attention are also fundamental in determining people’s reactions or engagement, and their confidence in the process.

Examples of studies that take these issues into account are the project Measuring Peace in the Media,which consisted in an analysis carried out by the Institute for Economics & Peace and Media Tenor; and the Israeli media observatory Keshev, which has important works on the national media coverage of Israeli wars. Keshev’s methodology suggestion and many insights its researches gave to this analysis were incorporated or adapted to the works’ aims and theoretical ponder. The analysis is centered only on two important Israeli newspapers’ electronic versions, aiming to analyze the media’s justification of violence and the reproduction of official discourses for that purpose, choosing ‘Cast Lead’ as the main event analyzed, when around 1,400 Palestinians and 67 Israelis died and the Gaza Strip was devastated, an event repeated at least twice in the following five years.

The Yedieot Ahronot’s electronic and translated version Ynet News, and Haaretz were the papers chosen due to their influence, but also for the different approach each has towards the conflict – from critical perspectives to the defense of stances linked to the justification of the war. Still, they represent the media that people directly indirectly involved in the conflict read, and Yediot is the most read paper in Israel, while Haaretz is the oldest, with an editorial line tending to be somewhat critical, though many of the ‘war mode’ narratives were found in their coverage.

2) Discourse analysis

The media coverage of conflicts and the discourse promoted by political actors when addressing the public through mass media are analyzed extensively by various authors. Examples are Professors Xavier Giró, Antoni Castel, Teun van Dijk, Ross Howard, Gadi Wolfsfeld and, in a wider aspect, Professor Johan Galtung, who advocates for the necessity of media and journalists to engage in a positive peace journalism.[1] More specifically pointing at an ideological frame for conveying political discourse, in conflict situations, Professor Giró builds his argument on nationalism and Professor van Dijk sets a theory of an ‘ideological square’, in which actors try to legitimize their actions by maximizing their own virtues and victories and minimizing the other’s, and by minimizing their own losses and wrong-doings, while maximizing the other’s.[2] The construction of national identities through political and mass media discourses is an observation that correlates with the evaluation of the role that the same mass media could play on conflict transformation and peace building.

‘Cast Lead’ brought the UN to respond to the international outcry against the military operation by sending a fact finding mission, under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council. It was headed by the South African and Jewish judge Richard Goldstone and it resulted in a report that concluded: war crimes and possible crimes against humanity were committed.[3] It is also an example of how important a role the media could have played by turning the event into a news frame for the search for accountability, and its failure to respond to the task, mostly for its overall simplistic and ethnocentric coverage. Still, the event was inserted on a time when the Government was lacking support and with elections being planned for a near future, which has fundamental consequences for the political leaders’ positions and their stances in front of the public. The reactions to the UN Human Rights Council were extremely negative and refuted every aspect of the fact finding mission and its conclusions, resorting to the very persecution of Judge Goldstone personally.[4]

On a wider range, conflict resolution and negotiation processes are directly influenced by the media coverage of the peace efforts as well as of the escalation of violence, either generally or in isolated events. Although real negotiations are usually undertaken inside closed doors, political leaders and mediators also use the media to transmit messages, either positive or negative to the overall process. More importantly, it has been argued that the media provide the only channel for communication and negotiation between rival actors during crises, or when diplomatic channels are severed, in what was labeled as media diplomacy.[5] This is another reason why media observers have stressed the importance of journalists having in mind their responsibility towards peace.

However, when the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian question is made by mass or conventional media in general, not only it misrepresents and simplifies the causes of the conflict, but it also furthers disagreements by fueling nationalist sentiments, basically set against the other and based in narratives that insist in portraying this as a religious matter. This sort of oversimplification and the mobilization in that direction postpone the resolution of the conflict mostly by expanding insecurity and enmity, conditions under which the Israelis and the Palestinians have seen themselves for many decades now.

Transmitting ideological and propaganda discourses through mass media is nothing new. Since the beginning of the 20th century the film industry plays a role inflaming nationalist sentiments, to legitimize the war effort – and expenditure. With newspapers, nowadays, it is clearly not different. Professor Teun van Dijk dedicates one of his articles to clarifying the notion of manipulation, which is employed by the specialist in linguistics Noam Chomsky in his writings about propaganda and by various theorists who use the Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) in their work.[6]

The manipulation of identities and, more specifically, of nationalist sentiments, their escalation andinstrumentalization for political purposes are observations very persistent within critical studies. Applying CDA, it is analyzed by authors like Noam Chomsky, van Dijk and Professor Xavier Giró, among many others. Giró argues for the fundamental – though not exclusive – role of the media on the construction of the social reality, ‘particularly when it is conflictive.’[7] On the media’s linkage with mental models, he affirms that ‘if the mental representation we have about the conflicts was co-constructed by the media, it is not difficult to infer that the media – and particularly daily newspapers – co-construct collective identities.’[8]

CDA is crucial in this paper to complete – in a complex and critical way – the ‘framing studies’, present in the suggestions made by Professor Gadi Wolfsfeld, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He develops his analysis on the Israeli media by pointing out four general and problematic values, on which the news production is based: immediacy, drama, simplicity and ethnocentrism.[9]  The last is defined by Wolfsfeld as a cultural barrier that in the case of the Israeli media, as in many others, exists in a strong relationship with sensationalism. He goes further in affirming, when analyzing the media coverage of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), that the ‘Hebrew news media are constructed for Jewish Israelis and are inherently ethnocentric in orientation.’[10] It enables the discourse to be centered on the ‘journalistic defense mechanisms’, favoring a perspective in which ‘we are the victims’ and ‘they are the guilty’, which is different from what he observed when analyzing Northern Ireland’s media addressing all the parties to the conflict, and not only one side.[11]

After describing its response and methods as part of Israel’s reaction against Hamas’ attacks, and as legal under international law – even before concluding investigations on specific situations –, the IDF published its findings for an overall investigation, led exclusively by military colonels. Maintaining the legal vocabulary for the justification of its operation, the IDF concludes that ‘the investigations showed that throughout the fighting in Gaza, the IDF operated in accordance with international law’ and that ‘these unfortunate incidents [the destruction of civilian infrastructure and the death of civilians] were unavoidable and occur in all combat situations, in particular of the type which Hamas forced on the IDF, by choosing to fight from within the civilian population.’[12] In regard to proportionality, the IDF argues that according to international customary law and to principles of IHL, a defender does not have to ‘limit itself to actions that simply repel an attack’ and that ‘a state may use defensive measures necessary to avert ongoing attacks or preserve security against further similar attacks.’[13] It concludes the section of the right to self-defense arguing for the use of force.

The hypotheses confirmed

The paper’s analysis centered on the evaluation of the use of names, context, familiar sources, images and other instruments, or, on the other hand, official sources, graphics, statistics, less images, and less prominence given to the information in the story – by leaving it to the end of the articles, as put by members of the Israeli media monitor Keshev – for instance, and the use of words and adjectives that would de-legitimize victims as such or that would justify their suffering – such as terrorists and Hamas operatives – so the culpability is taken off ‘our’ shoulders and put on the other’s, as also suggested by Professor Giró. Still, the prominence of official and military sources, as put by Wolfsfeld, in detriment of political activists, critics, other specialists, not to mention citizens and witnesses was also observed by this paper as a ‘journalistic defense mechanism’.[14]

For the use of the principles of International Law to legitimate the war, or ‘lawfare’, as put by the US’ General Charles Dunlap, the analysis centered not only on the actual rules in international covenants and other UN instruments, but also on the norms that could invoke such laws, such as the definition, before-hand, of ‘legitimate military targets’, by tying places and persons to Hamas’ activities, even in the case of schools, mosques, hospitals, TV stations, government buildings and many other civilian infrastructure. By identifying international law language in the discourses reproduced by the news stories analyzed and the dismissal of the possibility of war crimes being committed – through the omission and even distortion of facts and of the very international law norms – the analysis can shed some light on the hypotheses suggested. Still on the same path, the refusal of conveying diplomatic alternatives to the escalation of violence and the exclusion of Hamas as a negotiating partner was deeply observed.

The general news stories chosen follow the general pattern, introduced in the beginning of this work, of over-simplification. One example is reducing the variety of actors involved in the conflict to ‘Israel against Hamas’. They rarely mention other smaller groups, other voices contrary to the violence, political activists and think-tanks, mediators or even the UN itself, saved the events in which the UN compound was hit, or when the Palestinian death toll passed 1000, when the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon condemned the violence.

The first hypothesis set for this papers was that the Israeli media manipulate facts and distort actions, either in favor of the Israeli investment in violence, or against Hamas’ and other activists’ mobilization. This hypothesis was confirmed, given a variety of facts and contexts that were almost completely omitted or even distorted in the Ynet and Haaretz’s news stories analyzed. Still, the dominance of official sources was a general norm in both newspapers’ articles in the samples. These sources have completely monopolized the explanation of events and actions, leaving virtually no space for other actors’ explanations.

For instance, when conveying the alleged causes for the escalation of violence, there is virtually no mention to Hamas’ position towards the previous cease-fire, brokered by Egypt. The group’s position is based on the accusations that Israel had broken it first, by invading the Strip; the Israeli Government had admitted it, saying the goal was to destroy tunnels supposedly aimed at smuggling weapons and kidnapping soldiers. The articles limit their stories to the reproduction of Israeli official explanations, which are reduced to a zero-sum game that could only end with a weakened and de-legitimized Hamas. The group is again framed as a terrorist organization, an ‘illegitimate entity’, despite the fact it presents itself as a ‘resistance movement’ against Israeli occupation and it also is an elected political party

In the case of Palestinian sources, who are virtually absent from Ynet and poorly mentioned in Haaretz, when they occur they are limited to the category of ‘Palestinian sources’, ‘Palestinian officials’, ‘Palestinian medical sources’ and, very rarely, to ‘Hamas’ operatives’, who are only quoted when giving threatening declarations. There is almost no mention to names or political positions, for example, and for the witnesses rarely cited, too, no name or political context is given in the news stories analyzed, and they are quite often relinquished to the end of the article. It enables the de-legitimization of Hamas and other groups and individuals as political and primary actors with whom dialogues could be held, since no political voice is given to them.

The second hypothesis affirmed that the official discourse, reproduced by the Israeli media, is based solely on facts and International Law norms that help de-legitimize Hamas and other political activists in Gaza as such and legitimize the Israeli Government’s use of violence. It was confirmed both in the previous describing and in the whole analysis in general. For instance, framing the targets counted in the news stories throughout the wave coverage according to the IHL notion of ‘legitimate military target’ is constant, even if this specific expression is absent of the texts. The principle is constantly stretched to make fit homes, schools, mosques, TV stations, parliament buildings, among other civilian infrastructure and people.

The third hypothesis was also confirmed, since the analysis could verify that besides the manipulation of IHL principles, the ‘justification’ of violence by the official discourse and by the media is made through the ‘journalistic defense mechanisms’ and the ‘ideological square’. For starters, Hamas’ claims are completely absent in the articles analyzed and in its journalists’ perspectives when explaining Israel’s motivations for war. Ynet goes further by not refraining from frequently using the terms ‘terrorism’, ‘terror’, ‘terrorist’. Again, according to an ‘ideological square’, as suggested by van Dijk, and to Wolfsfeld’s ‘journalistic defense mechanisms’, the other’s wrongdoings are exposed at length and ours’ are treated with euphemisms, if treated at all; our victimhood is heightened through adjectives – ‘peaceful’ and ‘innocent civilians’ – and theirs’ is treated as consequence, as their own responsibility – which rests ‘on Hamas’ shoulders’.

Still, by establishing that all Hamas’ members and even their families are terrorists, since they are considered to be aides, it is possible to estimate acceptable numbers for the ‘casualties’ classification, within the international troubling standards – even if the numbers themselves are ephemerons, undefined. No questioning is made in that regard by the articles examined; they follow the pattern when using the mechanisms that can set that base, such as the constant use of ‘terrorist’ as an adjective for Hamas and by saying that the civilian ‘casualties’ were their responsibility. It completes the extensive use of the JDM and the ideological square. Furthermore, the ‘victims frame’, as suggested by Professor Wolfsfeld, is widely employed; when referring to their own victims and suffering, names and context are extensively used and even repeated; when referring to Palestinian victims and damage, numbers, instead of names or classifications, in most cases – civilians or combatants? –, and little context is given for the deaths.

One of the many examples of that and of the diminution of IHL relevance, when it is not supportive of Israel, can be given in the Haaretz article, published on December 28, 2008, entitled ‘Gaza residents breach Egypt border; Israel bombs 40 smuggling tunnels’. It tells the story of the breach in Egypt’s borders by ‘Gaza residents’, who should in fact be called refugees. This kind of recourse is used in the majority of the articles analyzed in this paper, as in the case of a strike in Cast Lead’s first aerial strikes against the police academy, in which 99 policemen graduating and 9 members in the ceremony were killed. Under IHL, the attacks can be considered war crimes if the UN Fact-finding Mission’s report is considered, because it concludes that there was no evidence that the policemen were taking part in any violent activities against Israel and, therefore, could not be considered ‘legitimate military targets’.[15]

The results to this paper’s analysis could be partly framed by a set of suggestions regarding the political environment and its relation with a media environment. The cycle formed by the changing political environment, which influences the media environment and that, again, influences the political environment – the politics-media-politics cycle, suggested by Wolfsfeld – and the control that the government has over events; the ability that the government has in mobilizing political consensus over certain issues, such as war; and the nature of news – based on simplistic and ethnocentric perspectives – enable governments to mobilize media in support of wars much easier than to mobilize them in support of peace options.[16] This paper’s analysis has not only confirmed the hypotheses suggested, it has also reaffirmed previous claims that the media do not engage in peace efforts that frequently even though there are alternatives. For starters: making an honest effort to give more complexity and diversity of voices to conflict analysis in news stories; refraining from accepting dependency on official sources and setting aside ethnocentric approaches to a situation that is shared by many; avoiding simplifications such as a religious narrative to a deeply political conflict – a simplification that only serves to mobilize people for more violence – and the normalization, through discourse, of brutal power relations and asymmetries that perpetuate conflict, prevents accountability and maintain status quo, as seen for the past six decades.


Footnotes

1) Johan Galtung, ‘High road, Low road: Charting the course for peace journalism’, Track Two, vol.7, n.4 (December 1998).

2) See: Xavier Giró, ‘Enfoques analíticos críticos sobre el discurso de la cobertura informativa de conflictos’, eds. Tiziano Telleschi, Eduardo Andrés Sandoval Ferrero, Espacio y tiempo en la Globalización: Una visión de la transparencia en la información (Culiacán, México: Comisión Estatal para el Acceso a la Información Pública del Estado de Sinaloa, 2007); and Teun Van Dijk, ‘Discourse and manipulation’, inDiscourse and Society, vol. 17 (2) (London: Sage Publications, 2006), 359-383.

3) UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights in Palestine and other UN Occupied Arab Territories: Report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza conflict, (A/HRC/12/48, 15 September 2009).

4) ‘Barak: Goldstone report “false, distorted and irresponsible”’, in Haaretz, (28 January 2010). Viewed March 10, 2012.

5) Eytan Gilboa, ‘Media diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli Conflict’, in ed. Eytan Gilboa, Media and Conflict: Framing issues, Making policy, shaping opinions. (Ardsley, New York: Transnational Publishers, 2002), 193-211.

6) According to Ruth Wodak, CDA ‘aims to investigate critically social inequality as it is expressed, signaled, constituted, legitimized and so on by language use (or in discourse).’ See: Ruth Wodak, ‘What CDA is about: A summary of its history, important concepts and its developments, in eds. Ruth Wodak and Micahel Meyer, Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (London: Sage Publications, 2001), 2.

7) Xavier Giró, ‘Periódicos y construcciones nacionales’, in ZER, Nº 12, (May 2012), 79-97.

8) Ibid, 81.

9) Gadi Wolfsfeld, Media and the path to peace (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

10) Ibid, 135.

11) Journalistic defense mechanisms include, for instance, syntactical or lexical tools to diminish the other’s suffering and heightening emotionalism when telling one’s own suffering, such as the prominence of graphics, statistics and military sources, in the first case, or images, sounds, names and familiar contexts, in the second. See: Gadi Wolfsfeld, The news media and peace processes: The Middle East and Northern Ireland (United States Institute of Peace and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2001).

12) Israeli Defence Forces, Conclusions of Investigations into Central Claims and Issues in the Operation Cast Lead, Part 1, (22 April 2009). Viewed 22 May 2012.

13) IDF Military-Strategic Information Section, Operation Cast Lead, 25.

14) Wolfsfeld, The news media and peace processes.

15) UN Human Rights Council, Human Rights in Palestine and other UN Occupied Arab Territories.

16) Wolfsfeld, Media and the path to peace.

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Zartman, I. W. ; and J. Z. Rubin, ‘Symmetry and asymmetry in negotiation’, in eds. I. W. Zartman and J. Z. Rubin, Power and negotiation (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000), 271-293.

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