Saturday, November 1, 2014

It's time for better media coverage of Palestinian politics

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the result of years of complicated, multifaceted, and often unproductive friction and conflict between the two sides. I do not intend to rehash the back and forth narrative of this conflict here, but I would suggest that although wars and diplomatic maneuvering are important to take into account when trying to gain a better understanding of what fuels this conflict, that there is an argument to be made that people who really want to understand why peace seems an unattainable goal should spend some time learning about the domestic political landscape on both sides of this issue.

Clearly, it is easier for those of us in the English speaking world to learn about Israeli politics and civil society - we may not always agree with how Israeli leaders act or speak, but their words and actions are at least somewhat visible and accessible: First of all there are many English-language sources of news on Israeli politics and second of all, the Israeli press is hardly shy when it comes to exposing the perceived foibles and failings of their elected officials. Having this combination of transparency and easy access allows a window into Israeli society, providing an opportunity for the world to see what Israelis are saying and thinking about a whole range of issue, including the conflict.

In contrast, when it comes to trying to get a clear picture of what's happening in Palestinian politics, things are significantly more challenging. Both Israeli and mainstream international outlets report on some of the activities of the Palestinian Authority and its nominal leader, President Mahmoud Abbas, but I've yet to find a reliable, independent, trustworthy source of Palestinian political coverage coming out of the West Bank (maybe it exists, and if so, I would love to check it out) or from Gaza. In fact, as we saw during the war this past summer between Hamas and Israel, the former actively threatens and seeks to control journalists, and I would be willing to wager that this manipulative attitude toward the media was not unique to this particular war, but an extension of the normal policies of Hamas when it comes to the press.

Having a reliable, independent news source reporting on the internal politics of the Palestinian governing class would make a difference, and might go a long way toward providing insight and context for better understanding how and why the Palestinian Authority takes the actions it does.The activities and motivations of Hamas, on the other hand, are not particularly difficult to understand, but if there were a way, for example, for families in Gaza whose homes have been demolished by Hamas to build mosques, to have their voices heard, I think a different picture of life under this terrorist regime would emerge. Would those of us who support Israel like everything we heard through such a channel ? Likely not, but it would begin to let a little sunlight in to some places that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have been trying to keep out of the public eye for years.

I think that a large part of what fuels the vitriolic reaction in Europe and the US to events like the war this past summer arise not entirely out of the events themselves, but are fueled by the kind of media  coverage they attract. Let me be clear, I'm not laying all of the blame at the doorstep of the media, and I'm not saying that there were not things that happened that people have a right to be outraged about - rather, I am suggesting that if the world were not solely dependent on correspondents from major media outlets, who were themselves dependent upon the goodwill of Hamas to be able to not only report from Gaza, but do so safely, to find out what was happening in Gaza, perhaps the intense anger which led to street riots and anti-Semitic attacks would not have boiled over quite so violently.

Perhaps if a credible press outlet in Gaza could have shown the world the ways that Hamas was using civilian infrastructure for not only command and control centers, but to launch actual attacks, maybe there would have been a little more sympathy for what Israel was facing. Similarly, if there were independent reporting from inside the Palestinian Authority and community today, maybe it would be clear that one major obstacle to peace is the level of corruption and dysfunction found throughout the Palestinian leadership structure.

I realize this is asking a lot - in a complicated part of the world where the media is often manipulated and journalists coerced, Israel stands out at as an exception to this norm. Maybe it is time, though, for the Palestinian people to look not to the treatment of the press in places like Egypt and Syria for guidance on the role of the media in a healthy civil society, but instead to the country with which they must one day come to terms and create peace, which is, of course, Israel. Such a move will not instantly cause peace to break out or Hamas to abandon its murderous ways, but it just might move Palestinian society a little closer to taking an honest look in the mirror, and help present a better, more accurate picture to the broader world.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2014.

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