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A Force of Distortion: Effects of Media Bias on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

About the Author: Shachar Gannot

I am a Government & Politics / History double major and Philosophy minor. Throughout my life, I moved back-and-forth between the United States and Israel, graduating from the American International School in Israel in June 2009. Following my graduation, I was drafted into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in April 2010 and spent two years serving in the Air Force. While I am interested in many social issues, I am most passionate about women’s rights and animal welfare.


Audience Analysis: My argument that the Israeli and Palestinian media are fueling the conflict is directed at academic scholars who do not believe the media has a significant effect on Israelis and Palestinians. As such, my audience will be educated with a basic working knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This educated audience is likely to disagree with my argument because they believe that the conflict is much bigger than the media. They will argue that those involved in the conflict already have set opinions about the other side and that the media could not possibly change these opinions. Moreover, I will appeal to my audience’s ethos by citing scholars of the media who my audience will recognize as experts in the field and whose voices are worth listening to. My audience will, however, agree with me in our shared desire to lessen the hostilities.

A Force for Evil

By Shachar Gannot | Position Paper

The Israeli-Palestine conflict has been a topic of great debate for many decades. I myself have been personally involved in this conflict to a certain extent, not only as an Israeli citizen but as a former soldier of the Israeli Defense Forces. Serving in the Air Force for two years of my life and spending up to ten years in the country before my service, I have seen the effects on Israeli citizens of stereotypical media depictions of Palestinians and the choice of a specific type of narrative. I believe that, at the heart of the struggle, there are two fundamentally different narratives of two peoples that play out in their respective media. While conflicts of this nature are undeniably complex and cannot be attributed to any single factor, I believe the media to be one agent that has had a great influence on the parties involved. Whether through unintentional bias or intentional manipulation, the Israeli and Palestinian media play a major role in fueling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Clashes between these two peoples date back to the first yishuv, or settlement, of Jews in Palestine at the end of the 19th century, but the organized warfare of today was first witnessed in the spring of 1948, following Israel’s declaration of independence when a coalition of Arab forces fought against the newly established state of Israel (Geddes 285). Every year on the anniversary of this monumental declaration, Israelis take to the streets in celebration of their Independence Day, while Palestinians mourn the anniversary of Al Nakba, or the Catastrophe. Since Israel’s declaration of independence, the region has been marked by hostilities and violence. In the past year alone the international media followed Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation. During the eight day operation, Hamas militants fired hundreds of missiles into Israeli territory while the Israeli military dropped hundreds of bombs into the Gaza strip. Even though the majority of those involved in both regions disagree with their nation’s militant tactics, the Israeli and Palestinian media create a hostile environment in which such violence can continue to flourish.

Since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so complex, in this essay I will clarify the role of the media in exacerbating the conflict. I will emphasize the implications of presenting a narrative of victimization, as well as reveal the interests of the Israeli and Palestinian journalists as agents of the media in steering away from objectivity. Moreover, with the understanding that difficulties arise when attempting to analyze ongoing hostilities, I will present a past conflict which was heavily influenced by the media. I will describe the effects of the media on constituents’ behavior when being confronted with the other, and will then note various psychological phenomena that take place in reaction to exposure to different views in the media. Following the presentation of specific examples of media manipulation, I will urge my audience to contemplate the positive influence the media could have if it is consciously used for calming hostilities rather than aggravating the violence.

Palestinian and Israeli media present a one-sided narrative that allows their respective consumers to view themselves as victims. By depicting the other side as the aggressors, everything their own nation does is a justifiable reaction to the violence first perpetrated by their aggressors (Rinnawi 155). According to this logic, Palestinians and Israelis view themselves as victims and, as such, can never act unjustly since they each believe themselves to be the wronged party. Therefore, the Palestinians do not view their rock-throwing and missile-launching as wrong since they are the oppressed; the Israelis, too, do not view their blockade of Gaza and their military’s airstrikes as wrong because they endure constant mortar attacks aimed at their Southern villages and the occasional suicide bombing in their major cities.

Israeli and Palestinian journalists who endure the same terrors and generally uphold the same values as their constituents reinforce this narrative of victimization in their respective media outlets. Palestinian journalists, for example, believe that they are obliged to play an active role in fulfilling the dream of creating a Palestinian state (Liebes 3). This sentiment alone is enough to deter many Palestinian journalists from including the wrongdoings of their own people in their reports. Accepting the faults of their nation might lead the Palestinian people to further compromise land during peace negotiations.

The Israeli side is equally biased as a result of the mandatory military service for all Jewish Israelis. Spending several years of one’s life in the military is bound to influence any Israeli’s opinion of their country. Such was the case in the article “State Institutions and Social Identity,” in which Professors Stephen Gibson and Susan Condor interview British soldiers and civilians in order to seek a better understanding of how British subjects define nationhood in terms of military service (313). In one of the interviews, a British soldier explains how the national element in identity emerges during military operations (Gibson and Condor 324).  While civilians can experience this sense of nationalism, too, the engagement of soldiers in military affairs creates a deeper connection between the state and the individual.

Israeli soldiers feel a similar connection, and their sense of belonging to the military as well as to the state overpowers any professional responsibilities they may have after their release. For instance, in 1991, Ido Dissenchik (then editor of one of Israel’s daily newspapers) declared, “I am first of all an Israeli and an [Israeli Defense Forces] reserve officer, and only then a newspaper editor” (qtd. in Peri 87). After wearing a country’s military uniform and taking part in carrying out the government’s military affairs, the concept of the state materializes into something very concrete and real, and an individual may find it difficult to objectively criticize his country later in life after having spent at least two years in service. Ultimately, then, both the Israeli and Palestinian journalists serve their own national goals. This national identification is one of the factors resulting in the bias present in the Israeli and Palestinian media.

In order to fully comprehend the key role of the press in fueling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to national identification, it may be helpful to look at the press’ role in the Rwandan conflict. In her Pulitzer winning book “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, Harvard Human Rights Professor Samantha Power explores the media’s role in the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in Rwanda. Power argues that following the publication of the “Ten Commandments of the Hutu” in the Hutu paper Kangura – which declared that any Hutu who associates with the enemy Tutsi is a traitor – the Hutu-dominated media called for the extermination of the Tutsi (Power 339-340). While hostilities existed prior to these publications, this anti-Tutsi propaganda united the Hutu against the Tutsi minority further, driving some Hutu to believe murdering Tutsi was not only acceptable but necessary.

Although the Israeli and Palestinian media have not called for the extermination of either nation involved, they have resorted to a similar “us versus them” reporting style. The Israeli media constantly show images of Palestinians throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers patrolling the borders, perpetuating the stereotype of violent Palestinians. One such example is the Israeli coverage of the Palestinian commemoration of Al Nakba in May of 2011. I was in my squadron when I passed the television room, noticing a group of soldiers watching Israel’s Channel Ten that was showing footage of several Palestinians throwing rocks across the fence. “What brutes!” a senior reserve officer noted, shaking his head. Similarly, children in Gaza and the West Bank are subject to negative depictions of Israeli soldiers in their morning cartoons – one example portrays IDF soldiers shooting and killing Palestinian children, attempting to prevent them from reaching the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem (Victor 186).

These negative depictions, then, set up Israelis and Palestinians to expect certain behaviors when they encounter the other. Communications Professor Tamar Liebes interviewed several Israeli soldiers who took part in the invasion of Gaza about their views of the Palestinians. After internalizing the image of the other through the outlook of their peers and the images on their television screens, the majority of these soldiers aligned what they saw in Gaza with their expectations (Liebes 118). The Palestinian children, meanwhile, were expecting the same violent behavior from these armed men as they saw in their cartoons and some retaliated by throwing stones, behavior the Israelis were expecting from the Palestinians. Some of the Israeli soldiers threatened to shoot those who were throwing rocks and aimed their guns at them (Liebes 122). Both Palestinian and Israeli actions were unsurprising under the circumstances, but they failed to realize that this situation and the presence of the other was what perpetuated this behavior, rather than a deeply rooted desire to kill, as their respective media suggested.

Dr. Cees J. Hamelink, a professor of International Communication at the University of Amsterdam, argues that once people have a negative perception of others, they tend to be selective in the information they are willing to receive about them (21). This phenomenon is referred to as confirmation bias, which describes our tendency to consume information that reaffirms our preconceived beliefs. In the United States this type of bias can clearly be seen through partisan news stations that draw in specific target audiences, as is the case with Fox News, which draws a largely Republican audience. By the same token, Israelis and Palestinians are prone to consume media that aligns with their own views of the conflict. According to a TGI survey conducted in 2009 that measured the readership of multiple Israeli newspapers, the circulation of Yedioth Aharonot, a right-wing leaning newspaper, was 34% of the Israeli population, while Haaretz, a newspaper that prides itself on showing the Palestinian perspective no matter the security situation, was only read by 7.1% of the Israeli public (Bar-Zohar). By choosing not to be exposed to media that portrays the other perspective, people are constantly receiving a one-sided narrative of the conflict. Exposure to such narratives provides consumers with more negative depictions of the other while neglecting to shed light on their own nation’s wrongdoings. If these consumers do not accept responsibility and are unaware of their country’s offenses, taking more extreme action against the other nation will seem justified.

However, even exposure to media that showcases the other perspective does not necessarily make people more open-minded – it could even have the opposite effect. In a study conducted at Stanford University in 1979 about the concept, two groups were selected with opposing views on capital punishment and were shown fictitious research that either supported or opposed the deterrent effect of the death penalty on crime. When their attitudes were measured after exposure to both research findings, they were asked to answer two questions measuring their attitude change. Exposure to both confirming and disconfirming studies ultimately led to more extreme views of their original attitudes (Lord et al 2100-1).

During Operation Pillar of Defense, I underwent this same psychological phenomenon of attitude polarization. More than the constant bombs that were fired into Israel, with the exception of the ones that sent my family running to the bomb shelter, what angered me most was the international coverage of the conflict, which I felt was heavily biased against Israel. I screamed at my car’s radio at six in the morning as the BBC interviewed several Palestinians affected by the Israeli airstrikes and I made sarcastic comments while passing the television screen tuned to CNN at my workplace. I felt that the international media focused on arousing sympathy towards the Palestinian people while disregarding the effects of Hamas’ missile-launching on Israeli citizens. My reaction to the media made me more right-wing in my opinions of the conflict, while before exposure to this media I considered myself at the center of the political spectrum. Looking back, I can only attribute the sudden polarization of my beliefs to the bias I now believe was present in the international media.

My case is not exceptional and can be extended to others who are directly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, discussed the international news media’s perceived bias during this same operation. Oren argued that “In reporting Palestinian deaths, media routinely failed to note that roughly half were terrorists and that such a ratio is exceedingly low by modern military standards – much lower, for example, than the NATO campaign in the Balkans” (Oren). Oren vehemently defends the country he previously represented, despite exposure to pro-Palestinian coverage, and even says that in showing footage of the Palestinian casualties “the [international] media perpetuated Hamas propaganda” (Oren). While we cannot show whether his views were more extreme than usual, the fact that he took to The Washington Post to express his frustrations showcases the polarizing effects the media can have.

The media, then, clearly has a great influence in swaying and shaping Palestinians’ and Israelis’ opinions about each other. The media use this power to their advantage by constructing a narrative that satisfies the national interest. One of the major forms of media manipulation is through omission, when vital details and perspectives are excluded (Parenti 121). This manipulation results in consumers acquiring a skewed view of the situation. In the Israeli media, TV reporters do not show the negative behaviors of the Israelis, such as the actions of the military and the settlers, nor do the media report the effects of these actions on the Palestinians (Peri 98). By omitting such crucial elements from the conflict’s narrative, Israeli consumers cannot understand what provokes Palestinians to act in the brutal way the Israeli media depicts. This belief that Palestinians erupt in unprovoked violence against Israelis is bound to result in support for hawkish governmental policies to continue the blockade in Gaza.

The media’s natural inclination towards the sensational journalism of violence also perpetuates the idea that there is reason to engage in militaristic attacks in self-defense. In his article, “Effects of the Conflict on the Palestinian Media,” Associated Press reporter Mohammed Daraghmeh speculates that the brutality of the Israeli occupation allows Palestinian journalists to write articles that border on extremism and often exaggerate the Israeli military’s actions (14). Such reporting leads the Palestinian people to seek revenge against their cruel Israeli occupiers. The Israeli media also use this tactic following terrorist attacks by presenting the gruesome scene of a bombing and emphasizing the suffering of the victims’ families (Qeimari 24). In the second Intifada, the images of bloodshed and interviews with victims’ families were commonplace. “They would constantly talk about the bombings,” my uncle, who is also a professor at Bar Ilan University, told me in reference to the Israeli radio and television stations. “They had to fill up the twenty-four hours on air somehow. But these endless conversations with experts and analysts only created more anxiety than the already strained situation.”  The coverage of these events, which are allocated excessive time, arouse feelings of fear and revenge in Israeli and Palestinian media consumers who are inclined to believe that the only way to retaliate against this violence is through more violence or further oppression.

This sensationalism is further exaggerated through the use of biased language. During Operation Pillar of Defense, Palestinians and Israelis followed news sources such as Qatar-based Al Jazeera and Y-Net, Yediot Ahronot’s online newspaper, whose journalists’ use of rhetoric was consistent with their national narrative. Israeli journalist Omri Efraim published an article on November 17th in Y-Net in which he states that sixty rockets were launched towards Israel after the Israeli Air Force “leveled” a Hamas building and praises the Israeli military for attacking over two hundred “terror targets” after “Gaza terrorists” fired over seven hundred rockets towards Israel . Efraim’s language amplifies the Palestinian’s violence while downplaying the Israeli reaction, creating the impression that the heroic Israeli Air Force only retaliates against the militaristic Hamas in the name of Israel’s self-defense. On the same day, Dorothy Parvaz published an article in Al Jazeera that stressed the narrative of victimization of the Palestinians, whose number of casualties was overwhelming hospitals that were short on supplies; Parvaz blamed the “imbalance in military power” between Israel and Hamas for the number of Palestinian casualties in Gaza compared to that in Israel. By comparing the death toll, Parvaz portrays the Palestinians as the victims who have once again been wronged by their oppressors.  An Israeli expects to see these negative depictions of his country in Palestinian media, while a Palestinian anticipates such representations of his people in the Israeli press.

Due to the media’s influence, the Israelis and Palestinians’ negative perceptions of one another are constantly reinforced. When our only encounter with each other is through violent means, and the only depiction we see of our neighbors on our television screens dehumanizes them, we are left thinking that although we dream of peace, we will never be able to achieve it because we do not have a partner to negotiate with. If the media’s power is used for lessening hostilities rather than fueling them, Israelis and Palestinians alike may be influenced to act on their desires for a violence-free region. If we want to stop these hostilities, we must use all means available to us to reach this outcome, and the media is one of the first factors we will need to change.



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