Sometimes events and encounters serve to validate your point of point of view or reassure you that persevering against all odds is worthwhile. At a Cambridge University Conference, we did not need to hear from Yonatan Mendel* what we already knew for us to feel validated in our conviction that a fair and just peace would be possible one day in the Middle East. The mere fact we were hearing a balanced political discussion at all outside the usual animosity that separates Arabs and Israelis on this issue was enough.
As one of the speakers, he went on to talk about how language had been used and abused by the Israeli media to market its side of the story both within Israel and in the West. The following article in the London Review of Books (6th March 2008) revisits this same theme.
"A year ago I applied for the job of Occupied Territories correspondent at Ma'ariv, an Israeli newspaper. I speak Arabic and have taught in Palestinian schools and taken part in many joint Jewish-Palestinian projects. At my interview the boss asked how I could possibly be objective. I had spent too much time with Palestinians; I was bound to be biased in their favour. I didn't get the job. My next interview was with Walla, Israel's most popular website. This time I did get the job and I became Walla's Middle East correspondent. I soon understood what Tamar Liebes, the director of the Smart Institute of Communication at the Hebrew University, meant when she said: 'Journalists and publishers see themselves as actors within the Zionist movement, not as critical outsiders.'
This is not to say that Israeli journalism is not professional. Corruption, social decay and dishonesty are pursued with commendable determination by newspapers, TV and radio. That Israelis heard exactly what former President Katsav did or didn't do with his secretaries proves that the media are performing their watchdog role, even at the risk of causing national and international embarrassment. Ehud Olmert's shady apartment deal, the business of Ariel Sharon's mysterious Greek island, Binyamin Netanyahu's secret love affair, Yitzhak Rabin's secret American bank account: all of these are freely discussed by the Israeli media.
When it comes to 'security' there is no such freedom. It's 'us' and 'them', the IDF and the 'enemy'; military discourse, which is the only discourse allowed, trumps any other possible narrative. It's not that Israeli journalists are following orders, or a written code: just that they'd rather think well of their security forces.
In most of the articles on the conflict two sides battle it out: the Israel Defence Forces, on the one hand, and the Palestinians, on the other. When a violent incident is reported, the IDF confirms or the army says but the Palestinians claim: 'The Palestinians claimed that a baby was severely injured in IDF shootings.' Is this a fib? 'The Palestinians claim that Israeli settlers threatened them': but who are the Palestinians? Did the entire Palestinian people, citizens of Israel, inhabitants of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, people living in refugee camps in neighbouring Arab states and those living in the diaspora make the claim? Why is it that a serious article is reporting a claim made by the Palestinians? Why is there so rarely a name, a desk, an organisation or a source of this information? Could it be because that would make it seem more reliable?
When the Palestinians aren't making claims, their viewpoint is simply not heard. Keshev, the Centre for the Protection of Democracy in Israel, studied the way Israel's leading television channels and newspapers covered Palestinian casualties in a given month - December 2005. They found 48 items covering the deaths of 22 Palestinians. However, in only eight of those accounts was the IDF version followed by a Palestinian reaction; in the other 40 instances the event was reported only from the point of view of the Israeli military.
Another example: in June 2006, four days after the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped from the Israeli side of the Gazan security fence, Israel, according to the Israeli media, arrested some sixty members of Hamas, of whom 30 were elected members of parliament and eight ministers in the Palestinian government. In a well-planned operation Israel captured and jailed the Palestinian minister for Jerusalem, the ministers of finance, education, religious affairs, strategic affairs, domestic affairs, housing and prisons, as well as the mayors of Bethlehem, Jenin and Qalqilya, the head of the Palestinian parliament and one quarter of its members. That these officials were taken from their beds late at night and transferred to Israeli territory probably to serve (like Gilad Shalit) as future bargaining-chips did not make this operation a kidnapping. Israel never kidnaps: it arrests.
The Israeli army never intentionally kills anyone, let alone murders them - a state of affairs any other armed organisation would be envious of. Even when a one-ton bomb is dropped onto a dense residential area in Gaza, killing one gunman and 14 innocent civilians, including nine children, it's still not an intentional killing or murder: it is a targeted assassination. An Israeli journalist can say that IDF soldiers hit Palestinians, or killed them, or killed them by mistake, and that Palestinians were hit, or were killed or even found their death (as if they were looking for it), but murder is out of the question. The consequence, whatever words are used, has been the death at the hands of the Israeli security forces since the outbreak of the second intifada of 2087 Palestinians who had nothing to do with armed struggle.
The IDF, as depicted by the Israeli media, has another strange ability: it never initiates, decides to attack or launches an operation. The IDF simply responds. It responds to the Qassam rockets, responds to terror attacks, responds to Palestinian violence. This makes everything so much more sensible and civilised: the IDF is forced to fight, to destroy houses, to shoot Palestinians and to kill 4485 of them in seven years, but none of these events is the responsibility of the soldiers. They are facing a nasty enemy, and they respond dutifully. The fact that their actions - curfews, arrests, naval sieges, shootings and killings - are the main cause of the Palestinian reaction does not seem to interest the media. Because Palestinians cannot respond, Israeli journalists choose another verb from the lexicon that includes revenge, provoke, attack, incite, throw stones or fire Qassams.
Interviewing Abu-Qusay, the spokesman of Al-Aqsa Brigades in Gaza, in June 2007, I asked him about the rationale for firing Qassam missiles at the Israeli town of Sderot. 'The army might respond,' I said, not realising that I was already biased. 'But we are responding here,' Abu-Qusay said. 'We are not terrorists, we do not want to kill . . . we are resisting Israel's continual incursions into the West Bank, its attacks, its siege on our waters and its closure on our lands.' Abu-Qusay's words were translated into Hebrew, but Israel continued to enter the West Bank every night and Israelis did not find any harm in it. After all it was only a response.
At a time when there were many Israeli raids on Gaza I asked my colleagues the following question: 'If an armed Palestinian crosses the border, enters Israel, drives to Tel Aviv and shoots people in the streets, he will be the terrorist and we will be the victims, right? However, if the IDF crosses the border, drives miles into Gaza, and starts shooting their gunmen, who is the terrorist and who is the defender? How come the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories can never be engaged in self-defence, while the Israeli army is always the defender?' My friend Shay from the graphics department clarified matters for me: 'If you go to the Gaza Strip and shoot people, you will be a terrorist. But when the army does it that is an operation to make Israel safer. It's the implementation of a government decision!'
Another interesting distinction between us and them came up when Hamas demanded the release of 450 of its prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit. Israel announced that it would release prisoners but not those with blood on their hands. It is always the Palestinians - never the Israelis - who have blood on their hands. This is not to say that Jews cannot kill Arabs but they will not have blood on their hands, and if they are arrested they will be released after a few years, not to mention those with blood on their hands who've gone on to become prime minister. And we are not only more innocent when we kill but also more susceptible when we are hurt. A regular description of a Qassam missile that hits Sderot will generally look like this: 'A Qassam fell next to a residential house, three Israelis had slight injuries, and ten others suffered from shock.' One should not make light of these injuries: a missile hitting a house in the middle of the night could indeed cause great shock. However, one should also remember that shock is for Jews only. Palestinians are apparently a very tough people.
The IDF, again the envy of all other armies, kills only the most important people. 'A high-ranking member of Hamas was killed' is almost a chorus in the Israel media. Low-ranking members of Hamas have either never been found or never been killed. Shlomi Eldar, a TV correspondent in the Gaza Strip, bravely wrote about this phenomenon in his book Eyeless in Gaza (2005). When Riyad Abu Zaid was assassinated in 2003, the Israeli press echoed the IDF announcement that the man was the head of the military wing of Hamas in Gaza. Eldar, one of Israel's few investigative journalists, discovered that the man was merely a secretary in the movement's prisoner club. 'It was one of many occasions in which Israel "upgraded" a Palestinian activist,' Eldar wrote. 'After every assassination any minor activist is "promoted" to a major one.'
This phenomenon, in which IDF statements are directly translated into media reports - there are no checkpoints between the army and the media - is the result both of a lack of access to information and of the unwillingness of journalists to prove the army wrong or to portray soldiers as criminals. 'The IDF is acting in Gaza' (or in Jenin, or in Tulkarm, or in Hebron) is the expression given out by the army and embraced by the media. Why make the listeners' lives harder? Why tell them what the soldiers do, describing the fear they create, the fact that they come with heavy vehicles and weapons and crush a city's life, creating a greater hatred, sorrow and a desire for revenge?
Last month, as a measure against Qassam militants, Israel decided to stop Gaza's electricity for a few hours a day. Despite the fact that this means, for instance, that electricity will fail to reach hospitals, it was said that 'the Israeli government decided to approve this step, as another non-lethal weapon.' Another thing the soldiers do is clearing - khisuf. In regular Hebrew, khisuf means to expose something that is hidden, but as used by the IDF it means to clear an area of potential hiding places for Palestinian gunmen. During the last intifada, Israeli D9 bulldozers destroyed thousands of Palestinian houses, uprooted thousands of trees and left behind thousands of smashed greenhouses. It is better to know that the army cleared the place than to face the reality that the army destroys Palestinians' possessions, pride and hope.
Another useful word is crowning (keter), a euphemism for a siege in which anyone who leaves his house risks being shot at. War zones are places where Palestinians can be killed even if they are children who don't know they've entered a war zone. Palestinian children, by the way, tend to be upgraded to Palestinian teenagers, especially when they are accidentally killed. More examples: isolated Israeli outposts in the West Bank are called illegal outposts, perhaps in contrast to Israeli settlements that are apparently legal. Administrative detention means jailing people who haven't been put on trial or even formally charged (in April 2003 there were 1119 Palestinians in this situation). The PLO (Ashaf) is always referred to by its acronym and never by its full name: Palestine is a word that is almost never used - there is a Palestinian president but no president of Palestine.
'A society in crisis forges a new vocabulary for itself,' David Grossman wrote in The Yellow Wind, 'and gradually, a new language emerges whose words . . . no longer describe reality, but attempt, instead, to conceal it.' This 'new language' was adopted voluntarily by the media, but if one needs an official set of guidelines it can be found in the Nakdi Report, a paper drafted by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority. First set down in 1972 and since updated three times, the report aimed to 'clarify some of the professional rules that govern the work of a newsperson'. The prohibition of the term East Jerusalem was one of them.
The restrictions aren't confined to geography. On 20 May 2006, Israel's most popular television channel, Channel 2, reported 'another targeted assassination in Gaza, an assassination that might ease the firing of Qassams' (up to 376 people have died in targeted assassinations, 150 of them civilians who were not the target of assassinations). Ehud Ya'ari, a well-known Israeli correspondent on Arab affairs, sat in the studio and said: 'The man who was killed is Muhammad Dahdouh, from Islamic Jihad . . . this is part of the other war, a war to shrink the volume of Qassam activists.' Neither Ya'ari nor the IDF spokesman bothered to report that four innocent Palestinian civilians were also killed in the operation, and three more severely injured, one a five-year-old girl called Maria, who will remain paralysed from the neck down. This 'oversight', revealed by the Israeli journalist Orly Vilnai, only exposed how much we do not know about what we think we know.
Interestingly, since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip one of the new 'boo' words in the Israeli media is Hamastan, a word that appears in the 'hard' news section, the allegedly sacred part of newspapers that is supposed to give the facts, free from editorialising. The same applies to movements such as Hamas or Hizbullah, which are described in Hebrew as organisations and not as political movements or parties. Intifada is never given its Arabic meaning of 'revolt'; and Al-Quds, which when used by Palestinian politicians refers only to 'the holy places in East Jerusalem' or 'East Jerusalem', is always taken by Israeli correspondents to mean Jerusalem, which is effectively to imply a Palestinian determination to take over the entire capital city.
It was curious to watch the newspapers' responses to the assassination of Imad Moughniyeh in Syria two weeks ago. Everyone tried to outdo everyone else over what to call him: arch-terrorist, master terrorist or the greatest terrorist on earth. It took the Israeli press a few days to stop celebrating Moughniyeh's assassins and start doing what it should have done in the first place: ask questions about the consequences of the killing. The journalist Gideon Levy thinks it is an Israeli trend: 'The chain of "terrorist chieftains" liquidated by Israel, from Ali Salameh and Abu Jihad through Abbas Musawi and Yihyeh Ayash to Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi (all "operations" that we celebrated with great pomp and circumstance for one sweet and intoxicating moment), have thus far brought only harsh and painful revenge attacks against Israel and Jews throughout the world.'
Israeli correspondents on Arab affairs must of course speak Arabic - many of them indeed studied it in the security establishment's schools - and they need to know the history and politics of the Middle East. And they have to be Jews. Strikingly, the Israeli-Jewish media prefer to hire journalists with average Arabic rather than native speakers, since they would be Palestinian citizens of Israel. Apparently, Jewish journalists are better equipped than Arab Israelis to explain 'what Arabs think', 'Arab aims' or 'what Arabs say'. Maybe this is because the editors know what their audience wants to hear. Or, even more important, what the Israeli audience would rather not hear.
If the words occupation, apartheid and racism (not to mention Palestinian citizens of Israel, bantustans, ethnic cleansing and Nakba) are absent from Israeli discourse, Israeli citizens can spend their whole lives without knowing what they have been living with. Take racism (Giz'anut in Hebrew). If the Israeli parliament legislates that 13 per cent of the country's lands can be sold only to Jews, then it is a racist parliament. If in 60 years the country has had only one Arab minister, then Israel has had racist governments. If in 60 years of demonstrations rubber bullets and live ammunition have been used only on Arab demonstrators, then Israel has a racist police. If 75 per cent of Israelis admit that they would refuse to have an Arab neighbour, then it is a racist society. By not acknowledging that Israel is a place where racism shapes relations between Jews and Arabs, Israeli Jews render themselves unable to deal with the problem or even with the reality of their own lives.
The same denial of reality is reflected in the avoidance of the term apartheid. Because of its association with white South Africa, Israelis find it very hard to use the word. This is not to say that the exact same kind of regime prevails in the Occupied Territories today, but a country needn't have benches 'for whites only' in order to be an apartheid state. Apartheid, after all, means 'separation', and if in the Occupied Territories the settlers have one road and Palestinians need to use alternative roads or tunnels, then it is an apartheid road system. If the separation wall built on thousands of dunams of confiscated West Bank land separates people (including Palestinians on opposite sides of the wall), then it is an apartheid wall. If in the Occupied Territories there are two judicial systems, one for Jewish settlers and the other for Palestinians, then it is an apartheid justice.
And then there are the Occupied Territories themselves. Remarkably, there are no Occupied Territories in Israel. The term is occasionally used by a leftist politician or columnist, but in the hard news section it doesn't exist. In the past they were called the Administered Territories in order to conceal the actual fact of occupation; they were then called Judea and Samaria; but in Israel's mass media today they're called the Territories (Ha-Shtachim). The term helps preserve the notion that the Jews are the victims, the people who act only in self-defence, the moral half of the equation, and the Palestinians are the attackers, the bad guys, the people who fight for no reason. The simplest example explains it: 'a citizen of the Territories was caught smuggling illegal weapons.' It might make sense for citizens of an occupied territory to try to resist the occupier, but it doesn't make sense if they are just from the Territories.
Israeli journalists are not embedded with the security establishment; and they haven't been asked to make their audience feel good about Israel's military policy. The restrictions they observe are observed voluntarily, almost unconsciously - which makes their practice all the more dangerous. Yet a majority of Israelis feel that their media are too left-wing, insufficiently patriotic, not on Israel's side. And the foreign media are worse. During the last intifada, Avraham Hirschson, then the minister of finance, demanded that CNN's broadcasts from Israel be closed down on the grounds of 'biased broadcasting and tendentious programmes that are nothing but a campaign of incitement against Israel'. Israeli demonstrators called for an end to 'CNN's unreliable and terror-provoking coverage' in favour of Fox News. Israeli men up to the age of 50 are obliged to do one month's reserve service every year. 'The civilian,' Yigael Yadin, an early Israeli chief of staff, said, 'is a soldier on 11 months' annual leave.' For the Israeli media there is no leave."
* Yonatan Mendel was a correspondent for the Israeli news agency Walla. He is currently at Queens' College, Cambridge working on a PhD that studies the connection between the Arabic language and security in Israel.