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Israel wins war of words

Brian Whitaker on the dangers of sloppy journalism

By Brian Whitaker, Guardian Unlimited, Monday April 9, 2001

A familiar tale from the Middle East: "Palestinians launched three bombs overnight against the Eile Sinai settlement in the far north of the Gaza Strip. Israeli troops responded with tank shells, destroying a Palestinian border post and hitting two houses."

This report, which happens to have come from the BBC, is familiar not only for the events it describes but also for the way it describes them: the Palestinians attack and the Israelis "respond".

Military actions by the Israelis are always a "response" to something, even when they strike first. If they haven't actually been attacked, it's a "response" to a security threat.

"Response" is a very useful word. It provides a ready-made reason for the Israelis' actions and neatly brushes off demands for further explanation. It says: "Don't ask us why we did it, ask the other side."

There's no point in blaming the Israelis for using this device; the question is whether journalists should let it shape their reporting of the conflict.

Portraying the conflict as a series of Palestinian actions and Israeli responses is dangerous, for several reasons.

Firstly, it lends support to the Israeli argument that if only the Palestinians would stop their violence everything would be fine. That might be true for many Israelis, but not for the Palestinians.

Secondly, it builds up - through constant repetition - into a misleading picture of the overall conflict. The violence is not a series of discrete actions and reactions but a cycle (or spiral) in which actions on both sides feed off those on the other.

Thirdly, while Israeli actions are reported as a self-justifying "response", actions by the Palestinians are rarely allowed either a proper context or an understandable motive.

Obviously there is a limit to what can be said in a news story of 300-400 words, and some journalists will argue that their main job is to report the day's events, not to explain the background.

But I am not suggesting they should turn it into a history lecture; merely that they should at least hint at a broader picture and acknowledge that the Palestinians might have some genuine grievances.

To do this is neither difficult nor unduly word-consuming. Some news agency reports, for instance, routinely work into their stories a five-word reference to the "Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation".

The Israeli occupation lies at the root of the conflict - and yet, more often than not, journalists fail to remind their readers of it.

The Guardian's electronic newspaper archive contains all the British national dailies, plus the London Evening Standard. A search of this reveals 1,669 stories published during the last 12 months that mentioned the West Bank.

Of these, 49 contained the phrase "occupied West Bank". A further 513 included the word "occupied" or "occupation" elsewhere in the text. That leaves 1,107 stories - 66% of the total - which managed to talk about the West Bank without mentioning one of the key facts.

Some journalists - particularly Americans - seem reluctant to treat occupation as an established fact and instead treat it as an opinion which should be attributed to someone. Last October, for example, CCN's Jerusalem bureau chief told viewers that Palestinians were angry at "what they regard as the Israeli occupation".

Others resort to euphemisms: the West Bank is "disputed" or "administrated by Israel". Some adopt the practice of Israeli officials by shortening "the Occupied Territories" to "the Territories".

Journalists are also rather timid on the question of Jewish settlers, usually portraying them as a target of violence but more rarely as one of the major causes (which they plainly are). Some of the recent stories about the killing of a 10-month-old Jewish baby, Shalhevet Pass, in Hebron made clear that the settlers there are a tiny and particularly fanatical bunch - though many did not.

One report described Hebron as a "divided city", when in fact 99.8% of the inhabitants are Arabs. (Jerusalem, on the other hand - with two-thirds of the population Jewish and one-third Arab - is constantly described by Israelis as "undivided".)

Over the last 12 months, 394 stories in the archive mentioned Jewish settlers. Of these, seven included the phrase "extremist settler" and eight "extremist Jewish settler". The word "extremist" did occur in 44 of the stories, though not necessarily applied to settlers. Some stories juxtaposed settlers characterised simply as "Jewish" with Palestinians characterised as "extremist".

The illegality of the settlements under international law also often escapes mention. The phrase "illegal settlement", used in an Israeli-Palestinian context, appeared only eight times during the last 12 months - and three of those were in readers' letters to the editor.

During the early stages of the intifada newspapers were accused of "dehumanising" Palestinians by publishing numbers but not names of those killed. This was contrasted with the wealth of personal information, helpfully provided by the Israeli authorities, about Jewish casualties.

The lack of Palestinian names was certainly not due to a conscious policy on the part of journalists and, although there are sometimes difficulties in getting the names, efforts have been made to remedy it.

However, last week's search of the archive highlighted another practice which has a similar effect: Jews mainly live in "communities" but Palestinians live in "areas".

Palestinian "areas" scored 109 mentions over the last 12 months; "neighbourhoods" scored 15 and "communities" only three (one each in the Guardian, Observer and Independent).

In the case of Jews, the positions were reversed: "communities" scored 87, "neighbourhoods" 30 and "areas" 21.

This is clearly not intentional and it may be partly due to the way we speak of Jewish communities in the diaspora. But the overall pattern does suggest a perception - perhaps an unconscious one - that Palestinians are less civilised. Another factor is that "neighbourhood" and, to a lesser extent, "community" are used as euphemisms for settlements. Israeli spokesmen regularly describe the settlement at Gilo as a "neighbourhood" of Jerusalem because it has been unilaterally annexed.

A recent report in the Times, following in the tradition of CNN, said that "Palestinians regard" Gilo as an illegal settlement. Indeed they do, but then so does international law.

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