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Palestinians are not liars: confronting the violence of media delegitimisation

January 23, 2023 at 2:00 pm

Palestinian journalists protest against attacks on their colleagues in the annexed east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, on May 28, 2021. [AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP via Getty Images]

During one of its frequent raids in the occupied West Bank on 19 January, the Israeli military arrested Palestinian journalist Abdul Muhsen Shalaldeh near the town of Al-Khalil (Hebron). This was just the latest of a staggering number of violations against Palestinian journalists and freedom of expression.

A few days earlier, the head of the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate (PJS), Naser Abu Baker, shared some tragic statistics during a press conference in Ramallah. “Fifty-five reporters have been killed, either by Israeli fire or bombardment, since 2000,” he pointed out. Hundreds more were wounded, arrested or detained. Although shocking, much of this reality is censored in the mainstream media.

The murder by Israeli occupation soldiers of veteran Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh on 11 May last year was an exception, partly due to the global influence of her employer, Al Jazeera Network. Nevertheless, Israel and its allies laboured to bury the news, resorting to the usual tactic of smearing those who defy the Israeli narrative.

Palestinian journalists pay a heavy price for carrying out their mission to spread the truth about the ongoing Israeli oppression of Palestinians. Their work is not only critical to good and balanced media coverage, but also to the very cause of justice and freedom in Palestine.

In a report on 17 January, the PJS detailed some of the harrowing experiences of Palestinian journalists. “Dozens of journalists were targeted by the occupation forces and settlers during the last year, which [recorded] the highest number of serious attacks against Palestinian journalists.”

However, the harm inflicted on Palestinian journalists is not only physical and material. They are also constantly exposed to a very subtle, but equally dangerous, threat: the constant delegitimisation of their work.

The violence of delegitimisation

One of the writers of this piece, Romana Rubeo, attended a closed meeting of over 100 Italian journalists on 18 January which aimed at advising them on how to report accurately on Palestine. Rubeo did her best to convey some of the facts discussed in this article, which she does daily as the Managing Editor of the Palestine Chronicle.

However, a veteran Israeli journalist, often touted for her courageous reporting on Palestine, dropped a bombshell when she suggested that, although the truth is on the Palestinians’ side, they cannot be totally trusted about the little details. The Israelis, she said, are more reliable on the little things, but they lie about the big picture.

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As outrageous — indeed, Orientalist — as such thinking may appear, it is dwarfed by the state-operated hasbara (propaganda) machine of the Israeli government.

Is it true that Palestinians cannot be trusted with the little details? When Abu Akleh was killed, she was not the only journalist targeted in Jenin. Her companion, another Palestinian journalist, Ali Al-Samoudi, was there and was also shot and wounded in the back by an Israeli bullet.

Al-Samoudi was the main eyewitness to what took place on that day. He told journalists from his hospital bed that there was no fighting in the area; that he and Shireen were wearing clearly marked press vests; that they were targeted intentionally by Israeli soldiers; and that Palestinian fighters were nowhere near the range from which they were shot.

All of this was dismissed by Israel and, in turn, by mainstream media in the West. Palestinians, remember, “cannot be trusted with the little details.”

However, investigations by international human rights groups and, eventually, a bashful Israeli admission of possible guilt, proved that Al-Samoudi’s account was the most honest telling of what happened on that fateful day. Similar episodes have been repeated hundreds of times over the years with, from the outset, Palestinian views dismissed as untrue or exaggerated and the Israeli narrative embraced as the only possible truth, only for this “truth” to be exposed, eventually, as a lie, thus authenticating the Palestinian narrative every time. Quite often, the facts are revealed too little, too late.

The murder of 12-year-old Palestinian Mohammed Al-Durrah in 2000 remains to this day the most shameful episode of Western media bias. The boy was killed by Israeli occupation troops in Gaza while his father tried to shield him. This was in full view of the media. His killing was basically blamed on Palestinians, before the narrative of the murder was rewritten to suggest that he was killed in “crossfire”. That version of the story eventually changed to the reluctant acceptance of the Palestinian reporting of the incident. However, the story didn’t end there, as Zionist hasbara continued to push its narrative, smearing those who adopted the Palestinian version as being anti-Israel or even “anti-Semitic”.

(No) permission to narrate

Palestinian journalism has proved its effectiveness in recent years — with coverage of Israel’s military offensives against Gaza being a prime example — thanks to the power of social media and its ability to disseminate information directly to news consumers. Even so, the challenges remain great.

Nearly four decades after the publishing of Edward Said’s essay “Permission to Narrate”, and over ten years after Rafeef Ziadah’s seminal poem “We Teach Life, Sir”, it seems that, on some media platforms and in some political environments, Palestinians still need to acquire permission to narrate. In part, this is because of the anti-Palestinian racism that continues to prevail, as well as, according to the judgment of a supposedly pro-Palestinian journalist, Palestinians cannot be trusted with the little details.

However, there is some hope in this story. There is a new, empowered and courageous generation of Palestinian activists — authors, writers, journalists, bloggers, filmmakers and artists — who are more than qualified to represent Palestinians and to present a cohesive, non-factional and universal political discourse on Palestine.

Israel will not investigate killing of Palestinian journalist - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Israel will not investigate killing of Palestinian journalist – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

A new generation’s search for the truth

The times have indeed changed, and Palestinians are no longer requiring filters, as in those speaking on their behalf because Palestinians are supposedly inherently incapable of doing so.

We interviewed two representatives of this new generation of Palestinian journalists recently; two strong voices who advocate authentic Palestinian presence in international media: journalists and editors Ahmed Alnaouq and Fahya Shalash.

Shalash is a West Bank-based reporter, who discussed media coverage based on Palestinian priorities, providing many examples of important stories that often go unreported. “We Palestinian women have a lot of obstacles in our life and they are [all] related to the Israeli occupation because it’s very dangerous to work as a journalist,” she explained. “The whole world saw what happened to Shireen Abu Akleh for reporting the truth on Palestine.”

She understands that being a Palestinian reporting on Palestine is not just a professional occupation, but also an emotional and personal experience. “When I work and I am on the phone with the families of Palestinian prisoners or martyrs, sometimes I break into tears.”

Stories about the abuse and targeting of Palestinian women by Israeli soldiers are hardly a media topic. “Israel puts on the democracy mask, pretending to care for women’s rights, but this is not at all what happens here,” the Palestinian journalist pointed out. “Israeli security forces hit female Palestinian journalists because they are physically weaker; and they curse them with very inappropriate language. I was detained for interrogation by Israeli forces. This affected my work. They threatened me, saying that if I continued to depict them as criminals in my work, they would stop me from being a journalist.”

This is not reflected in the Western media, added Shalash. “They keep talking about women’s rights and gender equality, but we [Palestinians under Israeli occupation] don’t have rights at all. We do not live like any other country.”

Alnaouq is the head of the Palestine-based organisation We Are Not Numbers. He explained how mainstream media never allow Palestinian voices to be present in their coverage. Even pieces written by Palestinians are “heavily” edited. “It is also the editors’ fault. Sometimes they make big mistakes. When a Palestinian is killed in Gaza or in the West Bank, the editors should say who the perpetrator is, but these publications often omit this information. They do not mention Israel as the perpetrator. They have some kind of agenda that they want to impose.”

When asked how he would change the coverage of Palestine if he worked as an editor in a mainstream Western publication, Alnaouq said: “I would just tell the truth. And this is what we want as Palestinians. We want the truth. We don’t want Western media to be biased toward us and attack Israel, we just want them to tell the truth as it should be.”

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Prioritising Palestine

Only Palestinian voices can convey the emotions of highly charged stories about Palestine, stories that never make it into mainstream media coverage. Even when such stories do get through, they are often missing context, prioritise Israeli views — if not outright lies — and, at times, omit the Palestinians altogether. However, as the work of Abu Akleh, Al-Samoudi, Alnaouq, Shalash and hundreds of others continues to demonstrate, Palestinians are qualified to produce high-quality journalism, with integrity and professionalism.

It is essential that the Palestinians are at the core of the Palestinian narrative in all of its manifestations. It is time to break away from the old way of thinking that saw the Palestinian as incapable of narrating, or of being a liability to his/her own story; of being secondary characters who can be replaced or substituted by those who are deemed more credible and truthful. Anything less than this can be mistaken, rightfully, for Orientalist thinking of a bygone era; or worse.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.