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New media and the changing narrative on Palestine

May 6, 2014 at 2:18 pm

The new activism of a young generation in the US has largely come out of the multiplicity and consistency of a new media narrative confidently mushrooming from a new generation of educated Palestinians.

I want to dedicate this paper
to the great journalist and writer on the Middle East, Patrick Seale, who died
last week – for decades he set an example of writing counter-narrative, and
generously gave help and encouragement to others trying to do so.

First I want to mention
the great strategic importance placed on media by Israel’s government and its

Second I discuss
what I call the intellectual guerrilla war of new media in the Anglophone world.

Third I
illustrate this war with some examples of the challenges to the iconic and powerful
New York Times in this new struggle.

Fourth I examine
the rising tide of activism on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions in US campuses
and the role of the new media’s fearless and professional Palestinian writers
in creating this new moment of global popular struggle.

1. The western press’
long-standing compliant relationship with the official Israeli version of
progressive dispossession of the Palestinian people over more than 60 years has
been exhaustively explored in countless excellent books – and new work on this
subject comes out all the time. (Nothing is better however than the seminal 1983 book by Professor
Noam Chomsky, The
Fateful Triangle, the United States, Israel and the Palestinians,
which, like his Manufacturing
Consent with Edward Herman published five years later, goes to the
heart of the power relations behind the media’s historic compliance.)

Thirty years on from these books Israeli leaders and their western
allies and media associates are having to work much harder and spend very large
sums of money in the fight to maintain their dominance of the narrative. The
Israeli government and its friends are certainly doing that spending at home as
well as abroad – with mixed results.

Only last month, for instance, the US billionaire Sheldon
Adelson, who strongly backs Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, spent $5m to buy
a small right wing religious paper in Israel, Makor Risho, adding to his overwhelming media strength inside
Israel with the successful free paper Israel Hayom. (Within Israel this has
been harshly criticised from both right and left.)

And, to reach the outside world, for more than a decade the Israeli
government has systematically organised students and others in semi-military
mode to flood the Internet with hasbara
material, as anyone who has ever written anything critical of Israel’s
government knows. Union of Israeli Students “covert units” within
Israel’s seven universities have engaged in online public diplomacy and been
part of the Prime Minister’s public diplomacy arsenal.

Meanwhile, Brand Israel was conceived and launched with a
multi-million dollar budget and top international PR companies to promote an
image of Israel via culture and tourism (including maps where Palestine did not
exist) in Europe and the US. The map mistake brought them a great deal of
criticism, while the heavy handed attempts to frame Operation Cast Lead in Gaza
or the attacks on the Mavi Marmara peace flotilla as justified, largely
backfired internationally. But still the basic Israeli political narrative has
dominated in the west. And one illustration of the
lengths the government and its allies go to control that narrative emerged some
years ago in an Electronic Intifada report on systematic
amending of Wikipedia entries on Israel.

2. Against this
powerful current in recent years a modestly-financed series of initiatives in
new media has begun a kind of guerrilla intellectual war challenging the old

Dents in the old master-narrative of Israel as the only
democracy in the Middle East, and with no interlocutor among the Palestinians,
who threaten its existence, are visible in many areas. Here are just three
recent examples and their effects.

One was the BDS movement’s adroit seizing on a movie star’s
promotion of a product made in an illegal West Bank settlement, with a
web-based campaign that went viral. Significantly, the company – SodaStream –
saw a 14% slip in its share price in the first quarter of 2014 after its PR
debacle with the movie star Scarlett Johansson. Business will have taken note:
working in settlements = toxic for share price.

Another is the feverish series of public rows in
universities in the US over academic boycotts of Israeli universities, and
peaceful student protests about house demolitions, the apartheid Wall, and
other injustices faced by Palestinians.

Third was the NYT decision
earlier this year to publish an
article on its prestigious op-ed page by the prominent Palestinian BDS activist
Omar Barghouti. The NYT, because of
its iconic status in US journalism and politics, is a particular focus of the
intellectual war I look at below.

The SodaStream factory in Ma’ale Adumim illegal settlement
had been there 20 years before it became a world-wide story and Johansson had
to pull out of her support for the British charity Oxfam when she chose to
continue supporting SodaStream despite the controversy. And the Palestinian
civil society call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions was ten years old
before it reached the current stage of involving university governors and state
legislators in the recent attempts to silence student opinion and action. Barghouti’s
book on BDS was published in 2010 and had been mainly ignored by mainstream

Where did this change in attitudes and actions come from?
Not from any Palestinian political leaders, but the effect of many foreign visitors
to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and a multitude of grass roots media
initiatives, mainly by younger Palestinian academics, journalists, writers, film-makers,
and lawyers. They have been unified by the BDS campaign launched in 2005, and
have now created a moment of a popular street struggle based on morality,
legitimacy, and justice.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Campaign has
shifted the dynamics of power away from empty diplomacy and moved the battle
for Palestine into the realm of global awareness and public participation in a
struggle for liberation. The US
rapper Jasiri X at Qalandya checkpoint reflects just this.

Everywhere the Internet has shifted the balance
of power in journalism as compared to, say, 20 or 30 years ago. It is simply no
longer necessary to work for a large media organization in order to have a
decent-sized readership or a voice that will be heard. There are journalists,
commentators and activists from around the world who have never been employed
by a large media organization who have amassed thousands, or tens of thousands,
or even more Twitter followers – more than many if not most of the full-time
reporters and columnists for those established media organizations.

In a world where media organizations are
financially struggling and are desperate for online buzz and traffic, these
independent journalists and activists can have real leverage. Large media
organizations need them.

In the last decade or so, the Internet has of course made
available a vast amount of information on almost every corner of the world.
This is true of Palestine like everywhere else. But what is different about the
Palestine case is that a number of websites and blogs, mostly written in
English by a young generation of highly educated Palestinians, now produce a
consistent and fearless body of reporting and analysis which is reaching new
audiences – as in the SodaStream case – and, with the help of YouTube, nurturing
the new readiness of US students to face harsh sanctions for protest action.

I’ll mention just a few of the new media initiatives whose
work I think is creating this consistent counter-narrative around Palestinian
issues, particularly in the US and UK: Al
Shabbaka, Electronic Intifada, Yousef
Munayer’s Jerusalem Fund/Palestine Centre,
Jadaliyya, The Palestine Chronicle by Ramzy Baroud. The blogs of Omar Barghouti
on BDS, and of the Nazareth-based British journalist Jonathan Cook, are part of
this same mosaic, as are The Real News
and Al Monitor. Mondoweiss,
Israeli-based 972, and Tikun reach in particular a significant
US Jewish audience, which is one of the areas where whole new debates are under
way and old certainties in attitudes to Israel are eroding. Other independent leftist media outlets that frequently
write about Palestine, such as Counterpunch,
and Al Jazeera are part of this
shifting picture, which is also beginning within US major media outlets.

3. One strand of
this is a tireless scrutiny of the New
York Times. The paper’s bureau chiefs and reporters on Israel/Palestine are
invariably based in West Jerusalem and some have had personal connections with
Israel (for example: former bureau chief Ethan Bronner’s son served in
IDF ). The Washington DC-based Jerusalem
Fund/Palestine Centre, the Electronic
Intifada and Mondoweiss systematically
launch detailed challenges to the NYT
reporting. They take on the NYT
professionalism – making dents in the credibility of the key US paper of
record, and having these critiques amplified by an incalculable number of new
media links.

Here are three recent examples of this scrutiny, among many

First: The passing of the new law that allows Israel to
detain African migrants without trial for a year was reported like this:

Here is Reuters’
headline, Israel approves detention without charges for African migrants

Here is Haaretz’s
headline, Knesset
Okays Dentention of Migrants without Trial

Here is the LA
Times’ headline, Israel passes law aimed at deterring African migrants

Here is the AFP’s
headline, Israel passes law to detain illegal African migrants

Here is the NY
Times’ headline, Israel: Law Reduces Migrant Detention

Second, in the combative tone of the EI:

“It will not be news to regular readers
of The Electronic Intifada that The New York Times
systematically excludes all except token Palestinian voices from its coverage. But
under the regime of Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi
Rudoren, the silencing of Palestinians has plumbed new lows.

On 29 November, the Times published a story by Isabel Kershner about a Jerusalem photo exhibit put on by UNRWA, the UN
agency for Palestine refugees.

The exhibit showcases some of UNRWA’s unique
archive of photographs of Palestinian refugees since the Nakba. In the Times
article, as Adam Horowitz noted on Mondoweiss, Kershner
does not quote a single Palestinian. Instead, as Horowitz writes: “For some
reason Isabel Kershner gives more space to Israeli Foreign Ministry
spokesperson Yigal Palmor to denounce the exhibit than to UNWRA staffers
to explain it. And, of course, the article ignores actual Palestinian refugees

Third, on the massive displacement of Bedouins and the
demolishing of their villages in the Negev, the EI’s Ali Abunimah was in action again on December 1, 2013 :

“The Times published what appears to be its first ever story about the Prawer

On 30 November, protests all over historic Palestine
against the plan, were met with Israeli police brutality and, according to
eyewitnesses, unprovoked police violence (including on a 14 year old child), as I reported in a post earlier today.

But Kershner presents what happened as being the fault
of protesters:

“In scenes reminiscent of the Palestinian uprisings in
the West Bank, protesters hurled stones at police forces, burned tires and
blocked a main road for hours near the Bedouin town of Hura in the Negev. The
police used water cannons, tear gas and sound grenades to disperse the

It’s hardly surprising that Kershner follows a purely
official Israeli narrative, because she only quotes Israeli officials: police
spokesman Micky Rosenfeld, justice minister and war crimes suspect Tzipi
Livni and the Israeli prime minister’s office.

In this – the only article published by the Times
on the Prawer Plan – Kershner cannot find a single Bedouin who will be directly
affected to speak to.”

Abunimah’s entertaining
anecdote about his chance encounter with the NYT’s former Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner – a sideline in a
long interview about his important new book (The Battle for Justice in Palestine, Haymarket, Chicago) – neatly
illustrates what a raw nerve EI’s
reporting has hit at the NYT,
although it is never acknowledged.

But things are changing in parts of the NYT that are not the Jerusalem bureau.

Last month (ie April),
Mondoweiss revealed that the NYT went along with an Israeli gagging
order on the arrest and incommunicado detention in a windowless cell without a
bed, of Palestinian journalist Majid Keyyal on his return from a conference in
Lebanon. For the NYT Jerusalem bureau
chief going along with the gag was “analogous to abiding by
traffic rules.” However the NYT public
editor, Margaret Sullivan did not see it quite like that and wrote an article
about the gag that said, “I find it troubling that The Times is in the position of waiting for government clearance
before deciding to publish.” And giving credit to EI, which broke the gagging order several times, Sullivan made it
clear that she, if not the bureau chief, understood how important a story this
was for Palestinians.

Earlier this year
Jonathan Cook wrote an account of his experience of how the tide at the NYT has changed in a decade. A
commentary he wrote back then for the International
Herald Tribune (now the International
New York Times) argued that Israel’s wall that was then just starting to be
built in the West Bank was really a land grab.

“The paper then received
the “largest postage in our history”, as an editor told me – possibly not
surprising as the US Anti-Defamation League had urged its followers to complain
and had even published a template letter of condemnation on its website to help
them. The result: the paper published a whole page of letters attacking me and
dropped me as a writer.”

Cook noted a more recent avalanche of letters following three articles on BDS in both the NYT and INYT in late January 2014: one was the Omar Barghouti article already referred to and the other two were by NYT staff Jodi Rudoren and Roger Cohen attacking BDS, the former implicitly and the latter explicitly.

As Cook put it,

so different this time is that the INYT’s
letters page is dominated by readers backing Barghouti and attacking Rudoren
and Cohen. Not only that, but the arguments used to support BDS are intelligent
and well-informed, while the few letters attacking BDS sound tired and

The fact that the NYT has allowed the BDS debate into its
pages is a triumph for the cause. That its international sister publication
(and the NYT website) has then
allowed its letters page to be dominated by BDS supporters is another small

In fact the NYT has also had some
strong anti-settlement editorials. It seems that as the Israeli government becomes even more extreme in
its racism and settlement expansion policies – so vivid in the unending
pictures of the Wall – the NYT has
been more open to criticizing government policies – even as it continues to
shut out Palestinian perspectives in its reporting. The Sunday Magazine also went against the general news line by
publishing a
long, good piece on popular resistance at Nabi Saleh.

The new media websites I’ve mentioned also publish the
kind of exclusives which come from extremely good sources and which used to be
the preserve and pride of powerful western media like the NYT. For instance, the recent very important story
by NY based Professor Joseph Massad on the Abbas/Dahlan rivalry and its corrupt
Egyptian links, which appeared on Al
Jazeera’s website for a few hours before being summarily removed, was
promptly re-published by the Electronic
Intifada with a commentary by Professor Massad explaining the exchanges
with Al Jazeera. It went viral.

4. There is a
wide impact from new media’s leading writers in these overlapping networks making
appearances as authoritative commentators on US TV, as well as in academic
conferences and meetings such as those hosted by The Palestine Fund in
Washington, and available live-streamed across the world. Where once there was
a clean sweep in discussing Israel/Palestine for familiar US government-line
faces, like Dennis Ross or Aaron David Miller (who are still of course fixtures
in these debates), now you see, among others, academic lawyer Noura Erakat, an
Al Shabaka adviser, or Nadia Hijab, one of its founders, or Ali Abunimah, founder
of the Electronic Intifada, prolific
author of books and articles, or Omar Barghouti, or the novelist and poet Susan
Abulhawa, (see her on YouTube with
Alan Dershowitz, and unforgettably
demolishing Israeli judge Itamar Marcus. This too went viral.)

This new strand of narrative has not, of course,
much affected the business-as-usual official western government and mainstream
media narrative of “two-state solution” and “peace process” etc. And recently,
when the NYT reported “Israeli settlement
plan derails peace talks, Kerry says,” in a straight news piece quoting Kerry’s
Senate testimony, it did not take many phone calls of complaint to have the
headline transformed into, “Mideast Frustration, the sequel”. The rewritten
version of the piece that then appeared had a soft historical intro, and also contained
a new quote from Aaron David Miller lamenting Kerry’s statement as no good for
peace. Mondoweiss had both versions
of that piece, and some trenchant commentary on the web, very rapidly. In
addition it gave a link to the long NYT
piece detailing both Israel’s sharp rejection of Kerry’s point, and a State
Department comment rowing back from the Secretary of State’s criticism of

These torrents of debate and information are running through
US college campuses as never before since the Vietnam years. The official
responses have become even more extreme than the cancelled lectures, lost jobs,
and ruined careers, which openly pro-Palestinian US-based academics have sometimes
suffered. (And behind those are the shadows of the far heavier prices paid in the
iconic US court cases of prominent
Palestinian/Americans such as Professor Sami El Arian, and the board of the
charity Holy Land Foundation. One of
these extreme cases ended with an indefinite house arrest, the other with
prison sentences between 15 and 65 years.)

In recent months the responses to student and faculty peaceful
pro-Palestinian campus activities, from North-Eastern in Boston, to Michigan, Florida,
California, and Colombia (to name but some), or to the open support for BDS
from academic institutions such as the American Studies Association and the
Association for Asian American Studies have had an air of panic and hysteria.
For leafleting or peaceful protests Students for Justice in Palestine groups have
been suspended, some interviewed by police, some placed on academic probation, some
facing disciplinary charges and others obliged to attend re-education training
led by university administrators.

Israel’s response has been twofold. As Israeli journalists have noted, they
have employed the tried and tested tactic of negotiations for “interim
agreements,” into which Secretary of State John Kerry was most recently lured. According
to a Haaretz
report, in addition to “advancing the peace process with the Palestinians
[to] stave off a large portion of the boycott threats,” other tactics include
“a massive PR campaign against pro-boycott organizations,” filing “legal suits
in European and North American courts against organizations that are proponents
of the BDS movement,” lobbying for the creation of new laws under which more
people can be prosecuted for boycotting Israel, and finally stepping up surveillance of BDS supporters,
which would involve operations by the Mossad and Shin Bet.

Perhaps the official over-reacting is not so surprising
given that ASA added 700 new academic members after its boycott call, and new academic
names penned opinion pieces in numerous US media outlets supporting ASA’s vote.

Meanwhile, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support
has reported 100 cases of legal threats, intimidation and suspected
surveillance of activists on campus. Efforts to legislate against academic
boycotts have been tried in seven states and the US Congress, including bills
in Illinois and New York. All but one has failed, and the one failure,
Maryland, was a very watered down initiative.

As I said earlier, this new activism of a young
generation in the US has largely come out of the multiplicity and consistency
of a new media narrative confidently mushrooming from a new generation of
educated Palestinians.

In parallel, and feeding off this Palestinian
narrative, young US Jewish communities too are producing dissident writing, on
websites I have referred to earlier, and books of extraordinary reporting like
Max Blumenthal’s Goliath or a mea culpa like Noam Chayut’s The Girl who stole my Holocaust.

All of this begins to change the terms of
debates on these issues far beyond what we can see on campuses these days. Washington
and Tel Aviv have not yet changed any policies as a result of this intellectual
struggle, and the NYT is still largely
stuck in its old self-referential certainties. But the moment reminds me of
many such media seminars and conferences in the years when apartheid began to crack.
They contributed to media change. The powerful media that had supported the white
regime in South Africa began to realize that they were telling losers’
stories and missing the analysis of the future. Palestinian new media writers
today show the world a different future.

A short version of this paper was given at the
Palestine International Forum for Media and Communication, Istanbul, April 23,
2014. This article was first published on