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Israel losing battle for global opinion



The recent Israel-Palestine outburst of violence was in many ways a media and public-relations war: a battle for the global, regional, and local support which is so critical to both parties in this conflict.

Both sides had limited goals, so both were able – with at least some credibility – to claim victory in the media after last week’s ceasefire. Hamas was able to assert its militant credentials and instil fear in Israeli citizens with thousands of rockets raining down on them; Israel exacted a severe toll against the people of Gaza for Hamas’ actions, and set back Hamas’ military capacity, maybe (maybe!) earning a few years of comparative quiet.

That Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was able to strengthen his precarious position in internal Israeli politics probably served the purposes of both him and more militant Palestinians.

When looking at the media, one can point to many instances of partial, biased, unfair, one-sided coverage, leaning both in Palestine and Israel’s favour – as might be expected in a longstanding and brutal conflict which raises strong emotions everywhere.

To dwell on this is useful in understanding the role of the media and coaching journalists about bias and fairness, but it detracts from the major shift that has happened.

What we saw reflected in the media was a tidal change in global sentiment towards Palestine and Israel. If we don’t take this on board, we won’t understand how much things have changed and how futile it is to argue the minutae of bias or the fairness of coverage.

For many years, Israel has been able to rely on the support of most global and particularly Western media, reflecting its relationship with Washington, London, Berlin, and other capitals. There was media criticism of some of Israel’s actions, but the overriding sentiment in most coverage in the dominant mainstream outlets was sympathetic to Israel.

Not this time. What we witnessed was a rising global awareness of and sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians and a horror of Israel’s use of its military power and dominance. We can argue about whether this is fair and just, but more important is to understand why it is the case and what it means for the future.

A few things account for this shift. One is the rise of social media, which has broken down the mainstream media’s capacity to be the gatekeeper of international coverage and set the agenda. Social media has given voice to ordinary Palestinians in a way that did not happen before, and allowed the widespread dissemination of horrific images from ordinary citizens on the ground. Some of these are fake, unverified, or partial, but many aren’t.

The second is that Israel did some things in the past few weeks that infuriated even sympathetic media. It bombed the building of two of the very few international outlets based in Gaza trying to report from there, Associated Press and Al Jazeera. While it said Hamas was using the building for military purposes, it provided no evidence to the public (though it said it had given evidence to the United States administration) and wanted us to take it on its word. But journalists are less likely to do that after it emerged that the Israeli military misled the media a few days earlier when it said it had begun a ground invasion of Gaza. A number of international outlets reported it, only to be embarrassed when Israel withdrew its statement. Israeli media said this had been a deliberate ploy to draw out Hamas soldiers.

And the third important shift is that in the United States and elsewhere, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has heightened awareness, particularly among young people, of issues of prejudice, bias, and discrimination, and the unfettered use of power to defend it. In other words, the cry of the Palestinians that they suffer the daily humiliation of apartheid resonated in places it hadn’t done before. For the first time, there were impassioned speeches in the United States Congress on behalf of the Palestinians. President Joe Biden, who was trying to stay away from the fray, came under strong pressure to shift his position.

During the conflict, both sides were vying to portray themselves as the victims. Israel pointed to Hamas’ rockets, fired both from and into civilian areas. But it’s hard to be the victim when you clearly have massive military supremacy and high levels of control over Palestinian territory. Never mind the issue of the treatment of Israeli Arabs, who joined the battle in the streets of Israel.

We can contest the comparison with apartheid, and we can argue about the treatment of Israeli Arabs. We can compare Israel’s behaviour with other countries in the region. We can point to instances of biased coverage. We can express outrage that the world overlooks the nature and history of Hamas. We can write selective and partial histories.

But we should be aware that the signs are that Israel is losing this battle for global opinion, even in capitals where its position had been assured. Even Israel’s friends are having increasing difficulty defending aspects of Israeli policy and conduct. And this tide will continue until these core issues – such as occupation, the treatment of Palestinians, and illegal settlements in occupied territories – are faced up to squarely and dealt with fully.

Israel cannot depend any longer on the leniency of the media.

  • Anton Harber is Caxton professor of journalism at the University of the Witwatersrand and author of the recent book, “So for the Record: Behind the Headlines in an Era of State Capture” (Jonathan Ball, 2020).

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