Squaring a Circle: How the International Media Unwittingly Perpetuates Palestinian Violence

Violence once again wracks Israel’s streets. Tensions fed by rumors of Israeli intentions regarding the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa, anti-Semitic incitement, and frustration over the lack of political hope boiled over as young Palestinians armed with knives, cars, stones and guns, target Israeli civilians and angry mobs clash with security forces.

Predictably, the Palestinian leadership has employed what is now a successful strategy to hurt Israel. This combines vilification of Israel and propaganda blended with manipulation of the international media, who often serve as unwitting allies.

The results encourage the Palestinians to make bolder use of this strategy and perpetuate the violence and radicalism.

Anatomy of a strategy

Step 1 – Radicalized Palestinians conduct a terror attack or react violently to perceived Israeli aggressions;

Step 2 – Israeli security forces respond directly or by increasing pressure to prevent future attacks;

Step 3 – The Palestinians deny blame or responsibility, and edit the narrative and photos to portray the attacker as a victim of ‘Israeli aggression’ on Palestinian, international and social media;

The example of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and his spokesman, Saeb Erekat claiming that Israel “executed an innocent Palestinian boy” when he in fact was caught and filmed stabbing an Israeli boy, and was alive and well recovering in an Israeli hospital, perhaps illustrates this point best.

Step 4 – The international media covers incidents in a manner that gives credence to Palestinian revisionism. Often it is not always clear who is the victim and who the aggressor. Examples abound, such as a CNN “ticker” reporting a “Palestinian shot boarding kids’ bus” when in fact he was brandishing a knife; a BBC headline that read, “Palestinian shot after Jerusalem attack kills two”, later corrected to “Jerusalem: Palestinian kills two Israelis in Old City” only after readers complained and so forth.

Step 5 – The US and European governments, informed by this muddled coverage, dole out “equal blame”, invoke the “cycle of violence” mantra, and anemically call for restraint from both sides. Meanwhile, public sentiment in these countries is gradually shaped by these misleading headlines, and Israel’s image, and thus the public’s support for it, are damaged.

The traveling habits of lies and truths

This is significant because the international community, both on the government and private level, increasingly feels it has to pressure Israel to restore calm and cease violence, and make concessions to the Palestinians in the process. These often amount to short-term, Band-Aid solutions to problems far deeper and more complex, and often based on this alternative narrative of events as told by the Palestinians and thus reported abroad. At the same time, it asks very little from the Palestinian leadership, and certainly never calls them out for their manipulation of the media, or demands concessions or positive initiatives of them.

As Israelis learned the hard way during the suicide attacks of the Second Intifada (2000-2005) and “rounds” of rocket fire from Hamas in Gaza (2006, 2008, 2012, 2014) perceptions matter; a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth even has a chance to put on its shoes. The Palestinians realized this, and thus crafted such a strategy based on damaging Israel’s international standing.

The inner thoughts of news editors are not public and certainly not monolithic, so completely understanding the root of this recurring pattern in reporting on Israel is difficult. Is it a bias in favor the Palestinians (perhaps unconscious, perhaps swayed by these very headlines)? Or is it the journalists’ quest for objectivity that leads to this strained attempt to give balance where there simply might not be any, forcefully trying to “square a circle.”

Unregulated social media plays a bigger role today than before, especially in influencing the younger generation of Palestinians and granting a stage to hard-core extremists. To this end, the Israeli government would be wise to establish both offensive and defensive cyber-intelligence and legal capabilities to deal with this challenge, something found curiously lacking at this time.

Clearly, the outbreak of violence is not the fault of the international media. Imagine, however, a reality in which the foreign press were to report the facts objectively, in context, and employ greater scrutiny over misleading headlines. Imagine if they were to call out Abbas or Erekat regarding inflammatory claims of Israel changing the “status quo” on the Temple Mount, or the execution of innocent Palestinians on Israel’s streets – which they know to be false. This would take away one of the key weapons the Palestinians have today: not their knives but their free pass to manipulate the media in order to demonize and delegitimize Israel, further enflaming the “Arab street” and perpetuating violence.

The Palestinians know they cannot defeat Israel with violence. Theirs is the weapon of the weak – fabricate the truth, inflame the masses and exploit the foreign media to increase pressure on Israel and thus avoid the need to ever make concessions of their own. Without this weapon, the Palestinians might be more likely to cease resorting to violence and return to the table of diplomacy. Until then, better the mainstream media start calling a circle a circle and a spade a spade.

About the Author
Dan Feferman is director of Communications and Global Affairs at Sharaka, an NGO that promotes people-to-people peace between Israel and the Arab and Muslim world. He is also a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute.