How to write about Palestine like an objective western journalist

OPINION / 11 APRIL 2018, 10:55AM / AZAD ESSA – AT WORLD’S END

Palestinian protesters during clashes with Israeli troops near the border with Israel in the east of Jabaliya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip last week. Picture: Mohammed Saber/EPA
Over the last two weeks, Palestinians have come out in thousands in Gaza to protest for their right to return to the land they were forcibly displaced from by Zionist militias in 1948. Israeli forces have responded brutally by firing live ammunition and rubber-coated bullets.

At least 32 have been killed, another 2700 injured since the six-week protest began on March 30. The protests will continue until May 15, or Nakba Day, in which a mass demonstration is planned to commemorate the expulsion of Palestinians.
True to form, the great legion of Western media – be that the New York Times, Associated Press, Reuters, BBC, or the Washington Post – have covered the protests with impeccable sensitivity and rigor.
The reportage has also been surprisingly objective: both sides have been treated equally (in journalism it doesn’t matter who the oppressor/oppressed might be; journalists are not allowed to take sides no matter how clear the brutality might be).

So stellar has the coverage been, that I felt compelled to put a guide together to preserve for later generations.
First: The facts
Each time Palestinians protest and Israelis open fire, you should describe it as “clashes” or something similar, devoid of contextualisation. Take Bloomberg for instance (“Palestinians Clash With Israeli Troops for second week in Gaza”) or BBC’s (“Deadly unrest on Gaza-Israel border as Palestinians resume protests”). Here, the facts don’t matter: There were no clashes; just Israeli forces opening fire on unarmed protesters – who were either rolling tyres to burn near the fences or border, or praying, or running, or chanting. Take CNN’s “Fresh violence erupts along Gaza-Israel border as Palestinians march again”. Here the violence erupts the same way a volcano erupts for no particular reason.

Second: The context
To understand why Israelis opened fire, quoting spokespersons is quite enough. Using your eyes is a complete no-no. For instance, the BBC used a quote from the Israeli army’s account to present their side: “Protesters threw stones and firebombs at troops deployed on berms on the Israeli side of the frontier, the Israeli military said, and multiple attempts were made to break through the border fence”.
How many of the 32 killed tried to “infiltrate” the fence? How many threw firebombs? The BBC doesn’t say. It’s also not important to state that around 70% of those living in Gaza live in refugee camps; they are barely a few kilometres away from their homes across the fence.

Third: Shifting the blame
It is very necessary to lead your readers towards the source of the problem. Being functionally objective is crucial. Do not take sides. It’s all about the hints. So, take these two lines from the New York Times. “But the death toll was significant, despite a pledge by Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, that the protest would be peaceful, and by Israel that it had learned from last week and would use live fire judiciously.”
This is an important example. For starters, it doesn’t matter here that Hamas is not actually leading the protests (they have endorsed the protests but are not the organisers). Moreover, It doesn’t matter that the majority of protesters are regular civilians of all ages, sitting in tents, singing, chanting, calling for justice. It doesn’t matter that Israelis killed unarmed protesters, a child, and a journalist wearing a jacket marked with the word “Press”.

What matters is, despite Hamas promising that the protests will be non-violent, there were deaths.
As Reuters put it: “Israel said it is doing what is necessary to stop violent protesters from damaging or breaching its fence with the blockaded enclave.”
The Israelis blame Hamas, a militant organisation, for the protests. Therefore as journalists, you must insinuate the same.

Fourth: Nuance
I am a huge fan of nuance. And I am immensely fascinated to read pieces that dig into the centre, into the grey, if you will.
As the protests build up and the Israeli violence on unarmed protests continues to spill Palestinian blood, you must search for a way to demonstrate the complexity of this battle. Make sure you do not mention the 11-year Israeli-Egyptian siege that has asphyxiated the Gaza Strip’s 2 million population. It is wise to avoid referring back to the multiple Israeli offensives on the Strip over the past decade, where whole neighbourhoods and areas like Shujayea were carpet-bombed.

Instead, follow the lead of Newsweek, which chose to use the headline “Gaza violence is latest salvo in war of narratives” – a commendable attempt to complicate a rather straightforward story.
Israeli security forces are shooting unarmed Palestinian protesters and they are getting away with it. That’s about it. But here, Newsweek has been able to write a piece to make you ponder at how difficult it can be to understand the truth.

Fifth: Culture
The Palestine-Israel conflict has been going on for the past 70 years. It’s easy to forget what happened back then. Zionist militia basically pushed Palestinians off their land; hundreds of thousands are permanently exiled, without ability to travel or settle.
Each awaiting their chance to return. Understanding why Palestinians haven’t tired of protesting or fighting for their dignity, or in other words, haven’t come round to accepting life as a subjugated people, is a taxing prospect for readers who have grown accustomed to occupying other people’s land themselves.
To help these readers, it is important to posit Palestinians as people who value life and death differently to “us”.
So take this headline from the NYT, “Although deadly, Gaza protests draw attention and enthusiasm”. It is also important to infantilise the protesters.

The story goes on to say: “So for Gazans, even a tentative experiment with non- violent protest is a significant step.” That protesters are human beings with aspirations, beliefs, careers, ideas, frustrations is not important. Palestinians are ready to fight and die, have their children die because they are obsessed with martyrdom.
And if you are a journalist with a Western mainstream news outlet, that is the commendable way to cover a popular unarmed protest against one of the strongest armies in the world.
* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also co-founder of The Daily Vox.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media

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