The Media’s Middle East Rules of Engagement

The media plays a crucial role in fashioning Americans’ attitudes toward the Middle East.

That role: to maintain a consensus supporting Israel.

And to keep Americans in the dark. According to a recent poll by the University of Maryland’s Program on International Policy Attitudes, only one quarter of Americans know that a majority of countries are more sympathetic to the Palestinian position than to Israel’s, and only one in three are aware that more Palestinians than Israelis have died in the conflict.[1]

What are the rules that American mainstream media follow in order to produce these dramatic results?

Rule 1: See the Middle East through Israeli eyes.

This is crucial. Slavishly following Israeli terminological dictates, the March 29 Israeli invasion of the West Bank–although devastating Palestinian civil infrastructure, demolishing whole swathes of cities and leaving 200 dead–was merely an “incursion.” Israeli killings of Palestinian militants are “targeted killings” rather than assassinations, or, more accurate still, the work of death squads.

A smaller-scale military operation is described as a “concentrated campaign against terrorism,”[2] a “rolling police action,”[3] or in any other fashion that cleaves to the Israeli perspective.

To maintain the fiction of the Palestinians as the aggressors, only Israel “retaliates.”

Rule 2: Treat American and Israeli governmental statements as hard news.

When Ariel Sharon blames Yasser Arafat for a suicide bombing for the eighty-seventh time, don’t bother to observe that Arafat lacks the means to intervene.

After all, if the world’s fifth-largest military power, in control of 82% of the West Bank, cannot stop suicide bombers, how can Arafat, in nominal control of the remaining 18% and with a security force that Israel has intentionally obliterated over the last 20 months, be expected to do so?

This is not a question that interests the media.

Rule 3: Ignore the historical context.

The Palestinians have been subject to 54 years of dispossession–since Israel booted them out upon its birth in 1948–and 35 years of occupation, since the June 1967 war. These facts are basic to understanding the Palestinian position, yet they are almost never communicated.

The anger born of this decades-long repression is natural and legitimate (even when the manner of its expression is not), yet the American media, at its most despicable, locates the basis of Palestinian resentment only in racial hatred. The San Francisco Chronicle tells readers that a suicide bomber’s goal is “to kill Jews,”[4] while the Detroit Free Press finds in bombers “a hatred of Israel so powerful that they see Jews only as enemies who must die.”[5]

Rule 4: Avoid the fundamental legal and moral issues posed by the Israeli occupation.

A half-dozen recent articles on Israeli settlements have appeared in mainstream media. None stated the undeniable fact that the settlements violate international law. All the stories focused on the settlers, portraying them as plucky pioneers, much like the mythology of the American West. The Palestinians play the role of Native Americans, crazed and ruthless killers from whom the settlers must protect themselves at all times.[6]

Rule 5: Suppress or minimize news unfavorable to the Israelis.

On May 1, Israeli forces killed eight Palestinians, including a baby and two small boys. The American media’s reaction: total silence.[7]

Eight Israeli deaths would have been front-page news.

If Palestinian deaths aren’t wholly suppressed, they are treated as mere background noise. Thus, in typical coverage, the AP reports that “in new fighting, a 7-year-old Palestinian boy, an armed militiaman and an Israeli Arab woman riding in a taxi were killed by Israeli army fire in three separate incidents.”[8]

In other news, two northbound lanes of the interstate are closed for repairs.

And, if an Israeli atrocity must be admitted, pretend that no one really knows what happened. After five Palestinian policemen were found executed in Ramallah in the early days of the recent Israeli invasion, the Washington Post could only guess that “something nasty happened.”[9]

The Observer in London made the facts clear: “Five men were put to death by the Israelis, each with a single coup de grace administered to the head or throat.”[10]

If necessary, invent excuses for the Israelis. After an Israeli sniper killed the deaf bellringer at the Church of the Nativity, the Los Angeles Times reported that the soldier “killed him for fear he was a suicide bomber,” although there’s no such evidence, and Israel initially denied shooting him.[11]

This rule applies even when Americans are harmed. One of the first victims of the Israeli invasion was a young American mother, 21-year-old Suraida Saleh. She and her husband were trying to drive to safety at her father’s house in Ramallah. She had her 9-month-old baby in her lap when Israeli soldiers shot her in the head.[12]

The media refused to report this.

Of course, there’s total media silence when it comes to remembering the June 8, 1967, Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty that killed 34 American sailors.

Rule 6: Muddy the waters when necessary.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other organizations dedicated to monitoring human rights have no difficulty discerning widespread Israeli violations.

Time magazine, though, tells readers that “principles can be elusive,”[13] and the New York Times assures us that the “letter of the law does not spell ‘clarity.'”[14]

Rule 7: Credit all Israeli claims, even if wholly unfounded.

During the siege of the Church of the Nativity, the media consistently reported Israeli allegations that the civilians inside were hostages, although there was no supporting evidence. The media accepted Israeli claims that each of the eight men killed inside or near the compound was a “militant,” although there was no way for Israel to know that. In fact, the dead included Khaled Syam, a 23-year-old policeman, and 40-year-old Palestinian security force member Khalaf Najazeh. One of those wounded was an Armenian monk whom the Israelis said “looked” armed.

And the media repeated Israeli proclamations that they were not preventing the delivery of food, even as Israeli snipers shot and killed people trying to pull leaves off trees in the inner courtyard in order to eat.

Rule 8: Doubt all Palestinian assertions, no matter how self-evident

Everything a Palestinian says is labeled a “claim,” never acknowledged as a fact. Palestinian merely “say,” for instance, that Israel obstructs medical care, even as human rights groups document the ambulances turned back and the wounded who bleed to death yards from a hospital.

It’s only a Palestinian “belief” that Washington is biased toward Israel, though the matter could hardly be clearer.

Palestinians merely “charge” that the intent of the settlers is to prevent the formation of a viable Palestinian state, though the settlers’ goal is openly stated.

In a stunning example of this principle in action, Daniel Williams, reporting from Nablus for the Washington Post, tells readers that the Palestinians “say” civilians died in the Israeli assault on that city, even while the bodies of eight members of the Shobi family lay in that city’s morgue, all killed when Israeli bulldozers collapsed their house.[15]

Rule 9: Condemn only Palestinian violence.

Words invoking moral condemnation may be employed when describing Palestinian violence. Thus, the New York Times can speak of Palestinian “atrocities,”[16] while the St. Petersburg Times labels a suicide bomber a “murderer.”[17] Yet in the American media Israeli settlers who purposely kill Palestinians are “vigilantes,” “militants” or “extremists,” but never “terrorists.”

And when Israeli soldiers slaughter Palestinians, readers are informed that “civilians have been killed, as tragically happens in all wars,” as Washington Post writer Howard Kurtz puts it.[18]

Rule 10: Disparage the international consensus supporting Palestinian rights.

Occasionally, the American media feels the need to explain why the rest of the world views the Mideast conflict so differently. That’s easy: Germany is possessed of an “almost hysterical anti-Israel sentiment,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle,[19] while Howard Kurtz (again) opines that “some of the British press reports seethe with anger toward Israel.”[20]

Americans can safely conclude that the rest of the world is gripped by anti-Semitism.

Reading the mainstream media on a consistent basis, it’s not hard to discern its guiding principles.

What is difficult to understand is how the writers and their editors can be so comfortable in their charade of a free press.


[1] “Americans on the Israel-Palestinian Conflict” (May 8, 2002)”

[2] “Rebuilding on W. Bank Rubble to Be Costly, Report Says” (Mark Magnier; Los Angles Times; May 16, 2002).

[3] “Bethlehem Invaded Again, as Israelis Extend Control” (James Bennet; New York Times; May 27, 2002)

[4] “Gaza City Glorifies Its Dead; Palestinian Parents Mark Children’s Final Sacrifice in the Fight against Israel” (Anna Badkhen; San Francisco Chronicle; April 21, 2002) (“To kill Jews, Ahmat Omar Abu Selmia hung several hand grenades from his belt and hooked them up to an explosive device.”)

[5] “Mission of Suicide Bombers Is Martyrdom, Retribution” (Joyce M. Davis; Detroit Free Press; April 8, 2002) (“They nurture a hatred of Israel so powerful that they see Jews only as enemies who must die.”)

[6] See:

“Middle East: The Sky’s the Limit” (Dan Ephron; Newsweek; May 27, 2002)

“A Settler Stakes Claim for Himself, for Israel” (Peter Hermann; Baltimore Sun; May 22, 2002)

“How the Settler Suburbs Grew” (David Newman; New York Times; May 21, 2002)

“No Blueprint for Peace Seen in West Bank Map” (Davan Maharaj; Los Angeles Times; May 14, 2002)

“Israeli Settlers a Key Question in West Bank” (Michael Matza; Philadelphia Inquirer; May 13, 2002)

“Settlers Are Defiant Island in Sea of Hostility” (Paul Wiseman; USA Today; May 1, 2002)

[7] “3 Children among 8 Palestinians Killed by IDF” (Amos Harel and Amira Hass; Ha’aretz; May 2, 2002)

[8] “Israel Hunts for Militants in Jenin” (AP; May 17, 2002).

[9] “Killings Raise Questions About Israeli Tactics” (Daniel Williams; Washington Post; March 31, 2002)

[10] “Without Mercy: Israelis Execute Arafat’s Elite Guards” (Peter Beaumont; The Guardian/Observer; March 31, 2002)

[11] “Palestinians Inside Church Torn Between Loyalty, Fear” (T. Christian Miller; Los Angeles Times; May 2, 2002).

[12] See:

“Israeli Soldiers Shoot and Kill a US Citizen as She Holds Her 9-Month-Old Baby in Her Lap” (Democracy Now!; April 3, 2002)

“Details Emerge About American Woman Shot Dead By Israeli Soldiers” (Raeed N. Tayeh; American Muslims for Global Peace and Justice; April 1, 2002)

[13] “Law in the Fog of War: On Urban Battlefields, Principles Can Be Elusive” (Ruth Wedgwood; Time; May 13, 2002)

[14] “When Letter of the Law Does Not Spell ‘Clarity'” (Adam Liptak; New York Times; May 1, 2002)

[15] “From Under Rubble, a Tale of Survival” (Daniel Williams; Washington Post; April 15, 2002)

[16] “Atrocities Against Israelis Seem Also Aimed at Arafat” (Steve Erlanger; New York Times; May 10, 2002)

[17] “Israel Cheers Palestinian Killer’s Death” (St. Petersburg Times; Jan. 15, 2002)

[18] “Media Drawn Into West Bank Propaganda War (Howard Kurtz; Washington Post; April 18, 2002)

[19] “Israel Rapidly Losing Friends in Germany” (Eric Geiger, San Francisco Chronicle; May 2, 2002)

[20] See footnote 18.