Why Israel Is Losing the American Media War

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July 21 2014 3:44 PM

“Telegenically Dead Palestinians”

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No pretty pictures

Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/Getty Images

This article originally appeared in Daily Intelligencer.

In many ways, the story of this month’s eruption of violence in Israel and Palestine has been depressingly familiar. But in one interesting way it has been a little bit different from the beginning: American audiences are seeing the story of the conflict, perhaps more than ever before, through Palestinian eyes.
That this is the case is probably something of an accident. But after Israeli extremists kidnapped and murdered a Palestinian kid named Mohammed Abu Khdeir, apparently in retribution for the earlier murder of three Israeli teenagers, police detained and beat up his cousin, Tariq Abu Khdeir, a 15-year-old Palestinian-American from Tampa, vacationing with his family. It is common for television news broadcasts to carry sympathetic stories of a local American kid tragically caught up in Middle Eastern violence. It is not so common for that kid to be Palestinian. Soon the networks were broadcasting sympathetic interviews with Tariq Abu Khdeir's angry mother. “The Palestinians live like this every day,” Suha Abu Khdeir told ABC. “They kind of say, OK, we'll deal with it. But us, as Americans, it’s just, it’s not human.”

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It’s been a little more than two weeks since Abu Khdeir’s kidnapping, and the violence in Gaza has escalated from retribution murders into a military campaign. But in the American press, the human story of the Israel–Palestine conflict—in which more than 400 Palestinians have been killed, and fewer than 20 Israeli soldiers—has stayed, unusually, on the Palestinian side. As the first Israeli mortars began to fall on Gaza, the most arresting and memorable event was the death of four Palestinian preteens killed by fire from Israeli gunboats; moments earlier, the boys had been playing soccer with journalists on the beach. “It looked as if the shells were chasing” the children, one witness told NBC News.
By this weekend, with Israeli troops moving through Gaza, the story’s setting had moved, grimly, to Shifa Hospital. There were “lakes of blood,” a Norwegian doctor working there told Channel 4 News in the U.K. NBC broadcasted from the bedside of a man who had lost 20 members of his family. The AP documented the impossibility of medical care under siege; the doctor overseeing Shifa’s three ICU beds had “made a special wire for cardiac pacing from a spliced Ethernet cable.” On social media, images circulated: the dead body of a reporter, the large-print word PRESS on his chest covered with bloodstains, a father carrying his dead daughter’s body, a guided missile slamming into a residential area. “I’ve seen some truly shocking scenes this morning,” tweeted the Guardian's man in Gaza, Peter Beaumont, on Saturday. “A man putting the remains of his two year old son into a garbage bag.” 3,000 people retweeted that.

Earlier this month, the IDF’s Twitter feed had been full of images of besieged Israelis. But by this weekend Israel was so clearly losing the public relations war that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu complained to reporters, tersely, that Hamas uses “telegenically dead Palestinians for their cause.”
If Netanyahu is so bothered by how dead Palestinians look on television then he should stop killing so many of them. But his complaint is in itself a concession. The story of the conflict between Israel and Palestine looks a little bit different this time around. Social media have helped allow us to see more deeply inside war zones—in this case, inside Gaza—and allowed viewers much fuller access to the terror that grips a population under military attack. America’s changing demographics (the country’s Muslim population has skyrocketed in the past decade and is now as much as half the size of the U.S. Jewish population) have meant both a more receptive audience for sympathetic stories about Palestinians and more Americans like Abu Khdeir, with connections back to Palestine. The sheer imbalance in the human toll, in the numbers of dead, has been impossible to elide or ignore.
None of this is likely to change the politics of America’s relationship with Israel. The U.S.’s support for Israel wasn't arrived at arbitrarily, and it has withstood some similarly ugly episodes in the past. Palestine is still ruled by ugly politics. But more subtly, I think the way the last two weeks have unfolded in the Western media has made it more difficult for Americans not personally invested in the conflict to simply assume that the Israelis are necessarily right. There is a reason that apolitical celebrities like Dwight Howard and Rihanna were tweeting out messages of support for Palestine. They, like the rest of us, are seeing the Palestinians a little bit less as demagogues and terrorists and a little bit more as they see themselves, as ordinary people living in often impossible circumstances.

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