In light of Israel’s most recent campaign of violence against Palestinians, the world has once again turned its attention towards Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. Given the extremely sensitive nature of the issue, media organizations have attempted to report information in a seemingly neutral manner. However, striving for neutrality is not necessarily always in the public interest; such a stance may fail to accurately depict events and often leads to a sense of “false balance”.
With respect to the events unfolding in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Western media organizations with a global reach, such as CNN, the BBC, the CBC and France24, regularly engage in this type of “objective” reporting. Canadian media is especially guilty of this, yet journalists are increasingly beginning to speak up against this practice. Through this type of reporting, these organizations reinforce an inaccurate perception of events and leave out key elements that are necessary to better grasp the situation.
“It’s a conflict”
While referring to the events that have been unraveling for the past 70 years as a “conflict” seems devoid of any political implications, this depiction obscures key dimensions of Israel’s control over Palestinians’ day-to-day reality. Saying that the continued tensions between Israelis and Palestinians constitute a protracted conflict is not enough: one must also acknowledge that it is an ongoing military occupation.
What this means is that one party is subject to the authority of the other. Since 1967, Israel has de facto ruled over the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. This creates a dynamic that allows the Israeli government to control every aspect of Palestinians’ lives. The Palestinian Authority, which in theory is the Palestinian equivalent of a government in the West Bank, lacks any real authority in practice. To make matters worse, it regularly cooperates with the Israeli government, enabling the latter to maintain its control over Palestinians. Such cooperation is a way for the Palestinian Authority to shore up its crumbling authority.
As for the Gaza strip, since Hamas took power in 2007, Israel has been treating it like an open-air prison. As of 2018, the area had been under an Israeli blockade for 10 years, 70% of its population was classified as internal refugees, 41% of families did not have access to enough food and 45% of Palestinians were denied access to medical treatment outside Gaza.
This level of control allows Israel to impose crippling living conditions on Palestinians, which involve arbitrary detentions, discriminatory bureaucratic restrictions, illegal evictions, and regular harassment by the Israeli Defence Forces. Most of these practices are inconsistent with Israel’s obligations as an occupying power, which are laid out in the 1949 Geneva Convention. These include, but are not limited to, Article 32, which prohibits the use of corporal punishment and torture; Article 33, which prohibits “all measures of intimidation”; and Article 47, which guarantees the inviolability of individual rights.
Saying that the situation is “complicated” is often used as an excuse to adopt an impartial stance, or to avoid providing the details of Israel’s military occupation. While there are definitely intricacies to bear in mind when reporting on the topic, parallels can be drawn with South Africa’s apartheid regime in the 20th century, as pointed out by a recent Human Rights Watch report.
Within Israel’s legally recognized borders, Palestinians are treated as second-class citizens without equality before the law, as evidenced by a 2018 law passed by the Netanyahu government that explicitly defines Israel as a Jewish nation-state. This reality is also reflected in a variety of policies and institutional practices, such as discriminatory land practices, structural disadvantages, and legal rights exclusive to the Jewish population.
In addition to apartheid, Israel is overseeing a vast project of settler colonialism in the West Bank, which lies outside its legally recognized borders. Israel is building settlements on Palestinian land, an illegal practice according to international law, and is limiting the freedom of movement for Palestinians while Israeli settlers are free to move unimpeded. When disputes arise, Israeli settlers benefit from treatment under civil law, whereas military law is applied to Palestinians.
When the United Nations or powerful countries such as the United States comment on the rising violence between Palestinians and Israelis, public statements usually include calls for “both sides” to de-escalate the tension. These calls for two-sided de-escalation are relayed to the international public by the media, but lack context; they fail to acknowledge the existing asymmetry between the two sides and the disproportionate use of force employed by one against the other.
Since the latest bout of violence erupted on May 10th, when Hamas and the Israeli military began exchanging rocket fire over Gaza, the burden of destruction and casualties has been borne disproportionately by Palestinian civilians. On one hand, Israeli citizens have the Iron Dome to protect them from incoming projectiles, one of the most advanced defence systems in the world, which intercepted up to 90% of the home-made rockets fired by Hamas. On the other hand, while Palestinians are sometimes warned to evacuate buildings in advance, they are largely left at the mercy of Israeli bombardments. So far, the total damage to infrastructure in Gaza amounts to $322.3m.
As of May 19th, the death toll for Palestinians stood at 219, including 63 children, with nearly 1,500 wounded. On the Israeli side, 12 people died, including two children, and 300 were wounded. This asymmetry in the number of casualties is representative of a broader pattern: according to the United Nations, there were 23 Palestinian casulties for each Israeli casualty between 2008 and 2021.
The Israeli military’s disproportionate use of force when responding to attacks by Hamas often takes place under the guise of “self-defense.” What reinforces this perception is the fact that media reporting on the issue focuses largely on the Palestinian reaction. While states do have the right to defend themselves, Israel is often the one responsible for escalating the tensions, which casts serious doubt on its claim of self-defense. In fact, Israel’s pretense of self-defense is often used as an excuse to cover up its oppression of Palestinians.
In the case of recent events, intensive media coverage began on May 10th, when Hamas fired rockets at Israeli cities. What received less attention, however, was the Israeli government’s eviction of Palestinian families in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah and the beating of worshippers at the Al-Aqsa Mosque by Israeli security forces, both of which occurred days before.
The Sheikh Jarrah evictions have been framed as a private real-estate dispute between Palestinian tenants and Israeli landowners taking place in Israeli courts. However, the evictions are illegal under international law as Israeli courts technically do not have jurisdiction over East Jerusalem. In fact, Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem is not recognized by most countries.
The Al-Aqsa incident saw Israeli security forces storm the Jerusalem compound on May 7th, using stun grenades, tear gas, and rubber-coated steel bullets to disperse thousands of worshippers gathering for the last Friday of Ramadan. The incident left over 200 people injured and led to Hamas issuing an ultimatum for Israel to withdraw its security forces, which was ignored.
According to Hamas, these two events within the Gaza strip warranted the need to launch an attack against Israel. While launching a military offensive against civilians is never justified, the context for Hamas’ actions lay largely in the events leading up to May 10th. A state will always respond forcefully to attacks on its territory, but this crisis is of the Israeli government’s own making.
Why is this important?
The continued use of inaccurate and vague language designed to appear neutral will only maintain the status quo and contribute, in the long run, to perpetual feelings of anxiety and tension between Israel and Palestine. Perpetuating a false state of neutrality will not help either party. It will continue to obscure Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, fueling the perceived legitimacy of groups like Hamas on the ground, leading to more open military confrontations. It will also actively benefit Netayanhu’s right-wing agenda by downplaying the violence his government has been willing to engage in to quash Palestinian dissent.
Properly deconstructing the media narrative around the Israeli-Palestinian “conflict” and replacing it with more contextual language can lead to more appropriate and less anti-semitic criticism of Israel’s actions. This will benefit both Israelis and Palestinians by forcing the state of Israel to change its behaviour, ensuring better security for the former and more dignified living conditions for the latter.
Better treatment of Palestinians would improve Israel’s overall wellbeing too, as exemplified by Israeli cities, such as Haifa, that have remained relatively more peaceful than the rest of the country in recent weeks. By providing more equal rights and access to opportunities rather than misery and discrimination to Palestinians, Israel can simultaneously address the scathing criticism it receives for its actions and secure a better future for Israelis. To achieve this, false balance in media coverage has to go.