Photo Credit: Jorge Novominsky/Flash 90
Foreign journalists in Israel. Jan 06, 2009.

Have you ever wondered why the international media is drawn to Israel?

Arab/Israeli Conflict Offers a Compelling War Story

The late Tamar Liebes, a professor of communication at the Hebrew University, opined that the Israeli-Arab conflict offers a compelling war story in which the front lines are frequently shifting, the front and rear boundaries are not clearly defined, they cannot be excluded, there is often no clear winner, and the media’s focus is on “the unexpected within the expected.” The ongoing nature of the war has created a longstanding infrastructure of foreign correspondents, facilitating the opportunity for other reporters to file stories once they arrive on the scene.

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The best method to evaluate the significance of a story to a news organization is to count the number of staff assigned to the country asserts Israeli Journalist Matti Friedman. When Friedman was a correspondent at the Associated Press, the agency hired more than 40 staffers to cover Israel, Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. This was considerably more than the AP employed in China, Russia, India, or in all the 50 countries of sub-Saharan Africa combined. It was even greater than the entire number in the nations where the “Arab Spring” ultimately broke out.

According to the Foreign Press Association in Israel, there are currently 380 members representing TV, radio, photojournalists, print and web media from 32 countries in the country. Journalist Stephanie Gutmann said this comparatively large number of permanently assigned journalists, which at times included a hundred or more free-lance journalists, writers, photographers, and film makers who were in search of a new angle on the conflict or an exposé.

Danny Seaman, who for approximately 10 years served as director of the Israel Government Press Office (GPO), which is part of the Office of the Prime Minister and responsible for the foreign media in Israel, is concerned that the large number of reporters come to Israel instead of other countries where there is a conflict, because Israel makes it very easy for them.  Israel is a modern, open, democratic state and in terms of size quite manageable. Though there are no new approaches to understanding the Arab/Israeli conflict, this does not stop the reporters from trying to find new ones in the hope of winning a Pulitzer Prize.  It is “like there’s nothing else going on in the world,” Seaman said.

He is also disturbed they come to Israel without the slightest notion of what is happening in the country. They meet Arabs and Israelis from the same socio-economic background, and the journalists “live off” what they learn from their colleagues and Haaretz, Israel’s oldest, most influential daily newspaper and the newspaper most critical of Israeli government policies.

Israel No Longer “Enjoys the Benefit of the Doubt”

Zev Chafets, a former director of the Israel Government Press Office (GPO) and a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, said there was a period in the Middle East, when American journalists and editorial writers favored Israel over the Arab states because Israel is an open society. Once reassessing Israel’s policies became in vogue, many editors and correspondents adopted a “neutral” and an “even handed” approach in their reporting. Israel no longer enjoyed “the benefit of the doubt.” those with “little or no ideological bent” relished in debunking “myths” about the Jewish state. In their quest for a new slant on the conflict, they found one. “Arabs biting Jews had long ceased to be news; but Jews biting Arabs—that was a story.”

Systematic Effort to Manipulate The Media

The demand for effective, simple, and moving visual footage by the media produces highly emotional and striking images evoking empathy that offers little or no political and historical context and perspective Liebes explained. Digital cameras, satellite transmission and the internet enable journalist’s pronouncements to appear more authoritative about areas that were once remote, though what they say might still be as preconceived, erroneous or biased as in the previous era without such highly specialized technology. In other words, technological advances have not made finding the truth any easier than before according to Gutmann.

Journalist Bret Stephens, who served as editor-chief of The Jerusalem Post from 2002 and 2004, observed this phenomena first hand.  In an article entitled “Silence of the Lambs,” written during the second Intifada, Stephens said, “the norm tends to be one of strict factual accuracy and routine contextual dishonesty. Little history is given. The sequence of events gets confused. Normal moral judgments are eschewed to ensure the supposed balance of reports. Words like ‘violence” are used constantly to befog distinctions between murdering civilians and killing terrorists.  Most seriously, key details are routinely and inexplicably omitted from stories, to slant reports in ways that all but the best-informed readers are bound to miss.”

Part of the reason is that the people commenting on the news are not Middle East experts or they have limited additional resources to verify mainstream news media reports. “So who else are they going to believe?” Stephens asks. Will this situation change? He does not think so: “As long as media accounts contain few overt errors of fact, as long as they maintain the veneer of ‘balance’ – demonstrated by the fact that they are disliked by Palestinians and Israelis equally – and as long as they furnish evidence that the liberal instincts that go into supporting the peace camp are sound, they will continue to believe what they already read.”

The Use of Arab Fixers

Another reason for this distortion Guttman points out, is the use of native Arabs who serve as English translators and drive reporters around Judea, Samaria, and Gaza. These “fixers” as they are called, introduce reporters to functionaries of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Palestinian Authority (PA) ensuring they meet only persons whom they want them to meet and visit only areas they choose them to see. For the most part, the fixers are white-collar individuals who are a very well-educated group. Many have refined their skills at the Media Institute in Birzeit University in Ramallah. Others receive instruction at seminars and conferences conducted at an NGO sponsored institution called the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA) in Jerusalem funded by the U.S. Aid for International Development. Israelis could provide the same functions as Palestinian fixers, though the fixers are known to have special relationships with Arab leaders. No one questions how extensive these connections are or what compromises must be made to maintain this access.

Use of local Arabs became even more critical when the IDF closed areas to the media noted psychological warfare expert Ron Schleifer. Networks circumvented this policy, which proved virtually impossible to enforce in rural areas in any event, by providing stringers and locals with home video cameras. The Arabs pursued every opportunity to document photo opportunities and then peddled the film for money.  Although cash was a prime motivator, the desire to advance the Palestinian cause helped shape what was reported and the nature of the presentation.

Chafets quotes NBC’s former Tel Aviv bureau Chief Martin Fletcher, who admitted that during the first Intifada he knew the Palestinian Arabs were manipulating the media by portraying themselves as “David” against the Israeli “Goliath,” an image he exploited in a 1988 report. “The whole uprising was media-oriented,” he acknowledged, “and, without a doubt, kept going because of the media.” Fletcher confessed to accepting offers from young Palestinian Arabs to film violent attacks against Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria.

According to investigative journalist Edwin Black, there is a systematic, almost daily, campaign by local Arab or left-wing Israeli activist’s to physically harass and taunt deployed Israeli soldiers to goad them into reacting against in-your-face insults so they can be recorded. The response to these provocations is used by the media to disparage the IDF and prosecute individual soldiers. The films are edited to eliminate the baiting so that only the reaction is seen.

Gaza War of 2021

During the 2021 Gaza War, the New York Times published ten articles and feature stories from Gaza written and photographed by local Gazan stringers, photographers, and “fixers” declared Lenny Ben-David, who served as a senior Israeli diplomat in Washington. “Since Gaza is controlled by Hamas,” he said, “No one can report on, or photograph Hamas’s rocket launchers located in civilian neighborhoods or the extensive and expensive Hamas tunnels with weaponry stored inside.”

In fact, most foreign news organizations rely on these Gazans Ben-David confirmed. When he asked, “if he would trust Gazan fixers today, a respected Arab reporter who reported on Gaza for decades, responded, ‘Never.’” He continued, “They will report what Hamas wants them to write; photograph the pictures Hamas seeks. They cannot write or film anything that will hurt Hamas’ image. But I don’t blame the fixers,” he continued. “I blame the news producers sitting in London or New York assigning stories when they know the fixers’ restrictions.”

The conclusion should be quite evident Ben-David believes: “No one in Gaza today can report on or photograph Hamas’s rocket launchers located in civilian neighborhoods or the extensive and expensive Hamas tunnels systems or show the weaponry stored inside the Metro.’”

A Final Point

The failure of the media to provide an unbiased account of the Arab/ Israeli conflict has affects all of us, for as Matti Friedman contends “the Western press has become less an observer of this conflict than an actor in it, a role with consequences for the millions of people trying to comprehend current events, including policymakers who depend on journalistic accounts to understand a region where they consistently seek, and fail, to productively intervene.”

Liebes is convinced the centrality of Israel for Jews and Christians guarantees the continuing significance of the story, and once it becomes an international headline, the report will probably remain an issue for some time.  The relationship Muslim terrorists have made between the US and Israel probably is also a factor for keeping the account in the news.

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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.