In weakness there is strength

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, wrote the Economist’s Max Rodenbeck in 2002, is "an epic struggle of the weak against the strong". This template, in which the Palestinians play David to Israel’s Goliath, has shaped much of the western coverage of the area. News organizations, at least American ones, proclaim codes of conduct requiring balance and objectivity, but reporters also like to feel that it is their calling to afflict the mighty and redress the grievances of the helpless. In the contest between big and little, they have trouble suppressing their ! natural sympathy for the latter.

Even though the United States government is closer to Israel than to the Palestinians, US press coverage more often tilts in the other direction. Perhaps this will sound surprising to those who live where the news media tend to mirror government positions, but for American journalists to stand at odds with their government is their most comfortable posture.

The American news organization that has most clearly exhibited its sympathies in the current intifada has been ABC. On the second day of the intifada–September 29, 2000–ABC correspondent Gillian Findlay delivered a report from the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif that invoked the motif of strong versus weak: "Israeli police and soldiers rarely come here. This is the second day in a row they have flexed their muscles here, and Palestinians are furious." Findlay’s expression suggested a gratuitous show of strength. But the Israeli action was not unprovoked. Worshipers in Al-Aqsa Mosque that Friday afternoon had heard Sheikh Hayan al-Idrisi warn that the Jews were plotting to replace the mosque with a temple; he had exhorted them to "eradicate the Jews from Palestine". Pouring forth from the services, some had rioted, besieging a lightly-manned Israeli police post and hurling stones and bottles down on Jewish worshipers at the Wailing Wall below. Israeli security forces stormed ! up the mount to disperse them.

Other US networks had shown the rioters assaulting the Jewish worshipers as well as the Israeli response. ABC showed only the response, giving a misleading visual image that matched Findlay’s misleading words. Neither ABC nor any other network mentioned al-Idrisi’s incendiary sermon which was, however, reported days later in the newspapers. Probably, word of the sermon was delayed in reaching American reporters. One of the inherent weaknesses of television news is that it will rarely report such after-the-fact information that completes an earlier story.

CNN was the other American network that exhibited a marked bias in favor of the Palestinians. Other news outlets, however, even while striving for objectivity, sometimes fell prey to the sharp disparity in the news environments between the two sides.

Like other democracies, Israel’s free press relishes exposing misdeeds by its own country’s leaders. Naturally, some of these stories get picked up by the foreign news media. The Palestinian press, however, at least under the rule of Yasser Arafat, had no freedom to report any misdoings by the Palestinian Authority. This made it less likely that foreigners would learn of Palestinian foibles. Also, threats of violence were used to discourage reporting of episodes embarrassing to the Palestinian position such as the celebrations that broke out in response to the attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001 or the lynching of two lost Israeli reservists in Ramallah in October 2000. When Italian news footage brought this episode to light, a correspondent for RAI hastened to write a terrified letter to the PA assuring it that it was not RAI but another Italian group that had had the temerity to defy PA censorship.

And, too, the PA’s intimidation tactics and its top-down structure made it possible to engage in a certain amount of news management. During the early months of the intifada almost every US news organization carried a story with the theme "Arafat cannot stop this". The claim could only be tested if in fact Arafat were trying to stop it, which the media had no way of knowing. But reporters apparently heard this refrain so often from Palestinian "sources" that they accepted it. Probably the frequent repetitions reflected a deliberately promulgated party line.

When the Israelis intercepted the Karine-A in January 2002, categorical denials of PA involvement came not only from Arafat but also from Yasser Abed Rabbo, Nabil Shaath, Ziad Abu Zayyad, Nabil Abu Rudeinah, and Ahmed Qurei, all of whom were contradicted when the ship’s captain told interviewers that he was on a mission for the PA. Similarly, repeated Palestinian claims that Israel had carried out a "massacre" in Jenin in April 2002 won global credence until a UN investigation showed them to be baseless.

The pro-Palestinian slant of some US news organizations is surpassed by many European ones whose antipathy to Israel has in some cases grown so intense that it has metastasized into outright anti-Semitism, leading for example to a recent French judicial finding against Le Monde. In Europe, the David versus Goliath image melds with residual Marxist categories and is reinforced by a hostility toward Jews that is rare in America. European reportage exhibits a partisanship and a coarseness that would not pass muster in the US. But on both sides of the Atlantic, for the Palestinian cause in the media weakness is a source of strength.