Paul Alster
Israel-based print and broadcast journalist

Good guys, bad guys

“Why are Israeli soldiers killing Palestinians who are taking part in a peaceful protest?” CNN’s Rosemary Church rhetorically asked earlier today, before going on to say the Palestinians trying to breach the border were doing no real harm other than burning a few tires.

Like so many other media outlets, CNN’s channel policy is seemingly designed to confirm and not challenge the assumptions made by most of their particular viewing audience – assumptions often based on misinformation and a willingness to paint every situation black and white. Good guys, bad guys.

Fox News, in reverse, are sometimes just as guilty. So too SKY News, the BBC, and many others. More nuance than that and it gets complicated, so just keep it simple. Good guys, bad guys.

“Dumb it down” an editor once told me, after I’d filed a story from here, trying to explain and appreciate both sides of a complicated dispute.

(The Times of Israel)

Until recently I used to be a regular contributor to a number of major media outlets reporting on news events from this region. It’s a very challenging role, especially if you genuinely try to be objective and understand the consequences of events, the actions and subsequent reactions on both sides. When you live here, when your children are growing up in this land, you appreciate how incendiary words can be and what long-term effects they can have.

Most people on both sides of the argument — in fact, there are three sides to the argument; one side, the other side, and the truth that lies somewhere in that grey area in between — just want to live in peace and get on with life as best they can. It’s hard enough getting by here on a day-to-day basis without making life more difficult than it has to be.

Such appreciation is often lost on some correspondents parachuted in by their TV or newspaper to this region for a few weeks or months. The may have limited language skills and are forced to rely on skewed translations. They sometimes have only a passing, simplistic understanding of the many deep-rooted issues that lie behind a very, very complex situation. They file ill-informed reports, stir up more resentment from the watching audience, then return from whence they came to their comfortable lives in a far less challenging environment.

It’s those who are left behind who are left to deal with the consequences.

Genuine context, the reasons behind the actions being taken in the current outbreak of violence on the Israel-Gaza border, for example, an explanation of who are pulling the strings and encouraging the uprising, what they might have to gain from the turmoil, and why Israel is defending itself as it is, are rarely, if ever explored.

Trying to get close to the route of the problem or the genuine motivation behind actions on both sides would take time, lots of time. It could be controversial. It might not sit comfortably with many of the viewers. And, most importantly, it wouldn’t fit into a three-minute time slot, so just keep it simple. Good guys, bad guys.

One of the most poignant appeals for appreciation of the complexities of the Arab-Israel/Palestinian-Israeli conflict came from a truly remarkable woman I interviewed a few years ago, an Israeli woman who has spent her life dedicated to helping both Jews and Arabs as a clinical social worker in her hometown, despite having been the central victim of one of the most heious of all terrorist acts in Israeli history.

Smadar Haran Kaiser was a young mother of two living in Naharia in the north of Israel in 1979 when Palestinian terrorists who had breached the sea border in an inflatable boat, burst into her apartment. She hid in a loft space with her two-year-old daughter, Yael, as her husband, Danny, and four-year-old daughter, Einat, were dragged away to the nearby beach by the notorious Palestinian terrorist, Samir Kuntar.

Kuntar shot Danny in front of the little girl, then beat Einat to death on a rock on the beachfront before being captured. The final tragedy was that in trying to silence Yael’s cries so they wouldn’t be discovered in the loft, Smadar had accidentally smothered her to death. She ended that awful night losing her husband and both children.

When four years ago the New York Metropolitan opera produced ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’, an opera glorifying the Palestinian terrorists that had captured a cruise ship called the Achille Lauro in 1985 on which they killed an old, disabled Jewish man, Leon Klinghoffer, it caused uproar among the New York and international Jewish community. There were demonstrations outside the opera house etc.

No one connected to the production sought to explain why the terrorists had captured the boat in the first place. The writers in no way presented the context and background to the shocking events as part of the plot of the opera — if they had, it might have undermined the premise of their story.

The hijacking was perpetrated with the specific intent of releasing Samir Kuntar, the man who carried out the brutal murders on that beach in Israel six years earlier. He would later be controversially released by Israel then went on to command a Hezbollah terrorist unit in Syria before being killed there in 2015.

Samir Kuntar’s funeral in Lebanon, 2015 (Times of Israel)

I sought out Smadar Haran Kaiser who was pleased that someone had finally remembered the background to the events that inspired the hugely controversial opera. She was puzzled why there was such sympathy for the killers. In a calm, understated way, she summed up the problems with reporting and attempting to represent events in this tiny, troubled land:

“These days I see that everybody is trying to simplify everything without making people have to think too much,” she said. “They take anything that is controversial, or that will grab attention, and portray everything as black and white … like in the news coverage connected to the very complicated issue between us [Israelis] and the people around us, including the Palestinians.

“I just don’t know,” she concluded, “but it might be that the bigger picture might have ruined their story.”

About the Author
Paul Alster is an Israel-based broadcast journalist with a special interest in the Israel/Palestinian conflict and Middle East politics. He is a regular contributor to a variety of international news websites including The Jerusalem Report, and was formerly's main Middle East correspondent. He can be followed on Twitter @paul_alster or at