Palestinians Offered Space in ‘Opinion,’ Israeli Talking Points Dominate ‘News’
June 24, 2021

Editor's Note: This article is part of the Press on Palestine series, an initiative by Palestine Square. It covers the month of May 2021. Press on Palestine highlights bias in mainstream American reporting on Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The protests against illegal expulsions in Jerusalem and Israel’s brutal 11-day bombing campaign in Gaza have led to some unprecedented developments in mainstream American print media. Palestinians, typically silenced in the media, have been granted more space than ever to have their voices heard.

Laila Al-Arian, a Palestinian-American journalist, whose grandfather’s home in Gaza was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on May 15, shared her family history in The New York Times (NYT), which included her grandmother’s forced participation in the Lydda Death March of 1948. On top of sharing her family’s Nakba story, Palestinian-Canadian writer Diana Buttu was given space on the Times opinion page to debunk the myth of equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel. Perhaps most surprisingly, Gaza-based writer Refaat Alareer gave a first-hand account in the Times about how his family dealt with the Israeli airstrikes of May 11-12.

The publication of these kinds of op-eds should not be seen as an indication that the media has suddenly woken up to the Palestine issue, nor that it is interested in framing the issue in the proper context. A recent study showed that the five most widely-circulated American newspapers have run 343 articles this century with some variation of the phrase “Israel’s right to defend itself,” compared with just two articles mentioning such a right for Palestinians. A few more Palestinian-penned op-eds in NYT is not going to move the needle on this gross imbalance. Rather, recent developments in the media landscape are a response to relentless work by activists, independent media, and Palestinians on the ground, who have for years worked on shifting popular perceptions.

Corporate media knows that consumers now have direct access to people like Mohammed and Muna El-Kurd through social media. People are clamoring to hear the Palestinian perspective directly. Therefore, mainstream media’s goal is to allow a few Palestinian voices to be heard in order to absolve them of charges of pro-Israel bias.

 This month’s edition of the “Press on Palestine” series will focus on the two primary elements of bias to look for when reading NYT, Washington Post or Wall Street Journal: doublespeak and uncritical regurgitation of Israeli talking points.


Euphemisms and Doublespeak

  1. The New York Times - May 10, 2021

After Raid on Aqsa Mosque, Rockets From Gaza and Israeli Airstrikes by Patrick Kingsley and Isabel Kershner

The New York Times had been paying only cursory attention to what was going on in Sheikh Jarrah, but once Palestinian factions started firing rockets from Gaza, wall-to-wall coverage began. In sharing May 10’s article, which focused on the deaths of 20 Palestinians - including nine children - from Israeli airstrikes, NYT used the term “sudden crescendo of violence” on Twitter to describe the massacre of Gaza residents. Had the Times actually been covering the months-long settler and state violence against Palestinians in Jerusalem, perhaps they would not have seen the airstrikes as so “sudden”—but the paper only showed interest in what was going on once Hamas got involved. “Crescendo of violence,” meanwhile, is the latest in a long list of euphemisms used by the Times to describe a murderous assault on civilian populations.

This article also contains one of the most egregious examples of the Times’ self-correction. A Twitter account that tracks changes in Times articles noted that the original abstract for this piece, “The police entered the compound and fired rubber-tipped bullets. Anger was already building in response to the looming expulsion of families from their homes in the city,” was at some point changed to: “Gaza militants fired rockets towards Jerusalem and the Israeli police fought with Palestinian protestors in an escalation of violence after a week of increasing tensions.” Editors fixing up already-published articles in an effort to step up the pro-Israel propaganda is an all too common occurrence in this paper.

The following day’s Times article began with this abstract: “Hamas fires rockets at Israeli cities. Israel hits Gaza with airstrikes.” No matter the details surrounding the events, and no matter the historical context, NYT is consistent in its stance that violence always starts with Palestinian militants, whereas Israel merely responds to it.

Uncritical Regurgitation of Israeli Talking Points

  1. Washington Post - May 18, 2021

Israel says it will step up strikes on Hamas tunnels despite cease-fire calls as clashes erupt in the West Bank by Loveday Morris, Miriam Berger, Hazem Balousha and Erin Cunningham

  1. The New York Time - May 17, 2021

Israel is targeting Hamas naval forces. So what can Hamas do by sea? by Dan Bilefsky

  1. The New York Times - May 26, 2021

The Daily Podcast: Why Hamas Keeps Fighting, and Losing

Israel justifies its policies of ethnic cleansing in the Gaza Strip by claiming that every Gaza resident is a likely terrorist and every building bombed by Israel has some connection with Hamas. As ridiculous as this may sound, these false claims regularly go unchecked in the media.

A Washington Post article from May 18 reported on Israel’s decision to step up attacks on “Hamas tunnels” despite calls for a ceasefire. The world had watched bookstores, health centers, orphanages, and other civilian infrastructure be destroyed by Israeli airstrikes, yet the Post did not bother to question whether Israel’s claims of solely targeting Hamas tunnels were accurate. Instead, nearly every paragraph featured some variation of the term “Israel said,” “the Israeli military claimed,” etc. NYT engaged in a similar effort one day prior, reporting on alleged “Hamas naval forces,” with the sourcing coming exclusively from Israeli officials.

It is the duty of media outlets to not repeat claims made by a government uncritically. On May 11, an Israeli government official tweeted a video that purportedly showed a barrage of rockets fired by Hamas. The video was actually 2018 footage from Syria. The diffusion of this kind of propaganda is not new; the tactic has been used regularly by Israeli officials and online supporters going back as far as 2014.

In another remarkable bit of service to the Israeli state, NYT Beirut bureau chief Ben Hubbard commented on a May 26 Times podcast that “mowing the lawn”—Israel’s preferred euphemism for its periodic mass killings in Gaza—is something that Israel “has to do now and then.”

Don’t be fooled by those who say that a true sea change is happening in media coverage of Palestine. While more pro-Palestine op-eds might be appearing here and there, the day-to-day coverage found in the mainstream media remains one of Israel’s most effective assets. Furthermore, the Times, the Post and the Journal are all continuing to allow some of the most shameless pro-Israel propagandists to step up their genocidal rhetoric through their op-ed pages. Public opinion on the issue is certainly shifting—but the credit for this victory is owed to Palestinians on the ground, activists, and independent media outlets.

About The Author: 

Eli Powelson is an American historian based in Beirut and Los Angeles. He holds a BA in History from San Francisco State University, an MA in Arab and Middle Eastern History from the American University of Beirut, and will soon begin a PhD program in Middle East History. His research has focused on Palestine in the early British Mandate era with a special concentration on media analysis.

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