Commentary Magazine


When the Media Cares About Incitement

After several weeks out of the headlines, Israelis and Palestinians are regrettably back at the forefront of Middle East news once again. But during that brief ISIS-led interim the international media didn’t forget its line on Israel, and when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank reporters quickly became preoccupied with bemoaning Israeli heavy-handedness during the search operation. It was, however, only once confirmation came that the three victims had been murdered that the gloves really came off and a narrative emerged that aggressively condemned all potential Israeli responses, rather than reflecting upon those who kidnap and kill Israelis in the first place, or upon wider Palestinian attitudes that celebrated these acts.

Yesterday the New York Times devoted an entire piece to the apparently small minority of Israelis who have been making anti-Arab postings over social media; we live in strange times when such things constitute news. Only at the very bottom of the page was there any mention of the Tag Meir coexistence rally that Israelis had organized in Jerusalem. And as the British media watchdog CIF Watch noted, the British media gave universal coverage to the perhaps 200 or so Israelis involved in the scuffles with police in Jerusalem following the funerals of the three teenagers, while remaining completely silent about the 1,000 who turned out for the Tag Meir rally the following day. The mood at that gathering was one of total condemnation of the recent killing of an Arab teenager in East Jerusalem, in what has been widely interpreted as a revenge attack. And this sentiment would appear to be far more reflective of the Israeli mainstream. Still, it also seems fair to ask if it is conceivable that a similar rally condemning the killing of the three Israeli teens could ever have been held in Ramallah? Indeed, had the Times cared to look for it, they would have found ample material showing Palestinians celebrating the kidnapping of the Israelis.

Yet even before the anti-Arab disturbances in Jerusalem or the ill-judged Facebook postings by young Israelis responding to news about the murders, parts of the press were already condemning Israel in advance. The unforgiving attitude was particularly palpable at the BBC where, in the same breath that commentators expressed disapproval at the killings, they quickly moved onto speculating about what kind of terrible and disproportionate revenge the Israeli government would inflict on the Palestinians next. The focus was less about the coldblooded murder of three Israeli boys and more concerned with criticising Israel for a wild policy of retaliation that hadn’t even happened yet. Indeed, a paralyzed Israeli cabinet still hasn’t made any firm statement on what the response will be, something which has clearly stoked anger among those sections of the Israeli public already incited by the murders.

When the news about the discovery of the bodies first broke, large numbers began spontaneously gathering at solemn candlelit vigils in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. From what I could see it was pictures of these gatherings, not calls for Arab blood, that were dominating Israeli social media sites. So I was surprised when a BBC correspondent reporting from the field where the bodies had just been found spoke not of the vigils but instead about a small “angry right-wing” protest reportedly taking place nearby.

But that was only the start. Just a few hours later during a BBC newspaper review show Israel was already on trial for the terrible crimes of vengeance that the IDF was allegedly about to perpetrate at any moment. The Guardian’s Owen Jones was dropping mention of “collective punishment” and “illegal occupation” faster than you can say BDS, while the Times of London’s Eleanor Mills was at pains to question the plausibility of the notion that Hamas could possibly have been involved in the killings. And when it was suggested that there needed to be a judicial response, Mills—in her characteristic eloquence—was quick to assert “but that, but that’s never what happens in Israel. You get, you get a kind of, a kind of tribal kind of, kind of setting up against each other, don’t you. And it’s in a place which is already, where tensions are incredibly inflamed because it’s in the occupied territories so it’s already disputed.”

Perhaps the BBC reporting reached its lowest point when Middle East correspondent Yolande Knell, while reporting live from the funeral, took the opportunity to discuss the expansion of “illegal” Israeli settlements, all the while with the ceremony still visible over her shoulder. And throughout her reporting Knell has been repeating the phrase “Hamas and Israel, sworn enemies.” The message in all of this has been a subtle but persistent one. At best it portrays Israelis and Palestinians as harboring equal degrees of animosity toward each other, although the reality of extensive anti-Israeli incitement among Palestinians is generally kept off television screens. But ultimately, Israel is presented as by far the more guilty party. Not only is its population driven by a lust for revenge but its government perpetuates a “cycle of violence” through “disproportionate responses” and, most importantly of all, occupation and settlements.

To be fair to the Times, part of the focus on Israeli social media habits was driven by the fact that Justice Minister Tzipi Livni decided to turn this into an issue of national—and now international—concern. Perhaps she will be successful in these efforts to ensure Israelis only use social media for politically correct purposes from now on. Just so long as no one thinks that the next time Israelis are kidnapped or killed, there won’t still be rejoicing on the Facebook pages and Twitter feeds of the other side.

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