June 24, 2006

Israel's war with Palestine - Asymmetry in Action

It's a good listing of the major points of Israel's propaganda disadvantage, as well as the characteristics of the propaganda operators both in Palestine as well as the global media. With a dash and dollop of human psycology of course.

In the media war, Israel has three disadvantages. The first is an open society, which allows reporters (and filmmakers and activists and human-rights observers) the freedom to roam, record, and interview in first-world comfort. This has saddled Israel with what may be the world’s highest per capita concentration of reporters. Jerusalem is host to 350 permanent foreign news bureaus, as many as New York, London, or Moscow; the volume of reportage on Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank is 75 times greater than on any other area of comparable population. This obsessive attention necessarily distorts, by casting the Israel-Palestinian war in a theatric, world-historical light.

In the last decade, around 4,500 Israeli and Palestinian lives have been lost to the fighting. The Russo-Chechen war has killed 50,000 (11 times as many), the Darfur crisis has killed 180,000 (40 times as many), and the Congolese civil war has killed 3.5 million (778 times as many). But very few Americans can call to mind images of the ghastly violence in Chechnya, Sudan, or Congo—or even identify the warring parties—because these are places so dangerous that the New York Times simply cannot responsibly send a reporter there, much less a bureau.


Then there are the reporters themselves.

How do these reporters or photographers, on a quest for dramatic stories and footage, know where the “spontaneous” violence is to “erupt”? One or another foot soldier in their “small army of Palestinian fixers” is tipped off by the attackers. The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Press (which together supply 80% of news images to the world media) require the assistance of natives who speak the local language, know who’s who, and can get things done. These hired locals, in turn, make decisions about where to drive and what to translate (or leave un-translated).


The Al Dura episode.

On September 30, 2000, film footage became available to the world showing a Palestinian boy, Mohammed al-Dura, who, cradled in his father’s arms, is shot by Israeli soldiers. Or so it seemed. Subsequent analysis, based especially on firing angles and ballistics examinations, called the story into doubt. Israel, in fact, was probably not responsible for the shooting. But by the time the Israeli army released the findings about its unlikely guilt, the Pietà-like image had zipped around the world, eventually appearing on a Belgian postage stamp, inspiring renamed streets and squares across the Arab world, and co-starring in the propaganda film extolling the execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

On October 12, 2000, less than two weeks after the al-Dura incident, two Israeli reservists took a wrong turn while driving home and were arrested by Palestinian police, taken to the local station, and lynched by a mob. One photographer happened onto the scene:

Within moments [the crowd was] in front of me and, to my horror, I saw that it was a body, a man they were dragging by the feet. The lower part of his body was on fire and the upper part had been shot at, and the head beaten so badly that it was a pulp, like red jelly…. My God, I thought, they’ve killed this guy. He was dead, he must have been dead, but they were still beating him, madly, kicking his head. They were like animals.


The crowd tore the photographer’s camera from him and smashed it. But a colleague managed to capture the infamous image of one of the murderers holding up his bloody hands for a cheering crowd.

The two scenes provided visual scripture from which reporters sermonized about symmetry, suffering on both sides, and cycles of violence. But Gutmann discerns the tragedy, for Israel, precisely in the asymmetry:

The images were frequently paired—by the news media. But it was a forced symmetry, created by the media for its convenience and because it was more soothing and less complicated to represent the situations as the same. Consider just the two pieces of videotape by themselves, which was all anyone had to work with at this time: In ‘Ramallah’ we actually see perpetrators at work—men hoisting a body to a window ledge, then shoving it off the ledge to a crowd below, whom we then see all too clearly stomping and stabbing it. In ‘al-Dura,’ however, we see a boy collapsing, apparently shot. That is all. In one story, most of the who, what, where and why is answered. But in ‘al-Dura,’ virtually everything, except that two people were shot at in front of a wall, is essentially a mystery.


Less of a mystery is that the “al-Dura” cameraman became a minor celebrity, treated to interviews at European media conferences. The “Ramallah” cameraman, on the other hand, remains unknown, while death threats forced his bureau chief to flee the region.

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