Media codewords – by an Israeli former journalist

These excerpts are from an excellent article by former Israeli journalist Yonatan Mendel, published in the London Review of Books:

“Interviewing Abu-Qusay, the spokesman of Al-Aqsa Brigades in Gaza, in June 2007, I asked him about the rationale for firing Qassam missiles at the Israeli town of Sderot. ‘The army might respond’, I said, not realising that I was already biased. ‘But we are responding here’, Abu-Qusay said. ‘We are not terrorists, we do not want to kill . . . we are resisting Israel’s continual incursions into the West Bank, its attacks, its siege on our waters and its closure on our lands.’ Abu-Qusay’s words were translated into Hebrew, but Israel continued to enter the West Bank every night and Israelis did not find any harm in it. After all it was only a response.

“At a time when there were many Israeli raids on Gaza I asked my colleagues the following question: ‘If an armed Palestinian crosses the border, enters Israel, drives to Tel Aviv and shoots people in the streets, he will be the terrorist and we will be the victims, right? However, if the IDF crosses the border, drives miles into Gaza, and starts shooting their gunmen, who is the terrorist and who is the defender? How come the Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories can never be engaged in self-defence, while the Israeli army is always the defender?’ My friend Shay from the graphics department clarified matters for me: ‘If you go to the Gaza Strip and shoot people, you will be a terrorist. But when the army does it that is an operation to make Israel safer. It’s the implementation of a government decision!’

“Another interesting distinction between us and them came up when Hamas demanded the release of 450 of its prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit. Israel announced that it would release prisoners but not those with blood on their hands. It is always the Palestinians – never the Israelis – who have blood on their hands. This is not to say that Jews cannot kill Arabs but they will not have blood on their hands, and if they are arrested they will be released after a few years, not to mention those with blood on their hands who’ve gone on to become prime minister. And we are not only more innocent when we kill but also more susceptible when we are hurt. A regular description of a Qassam missile that hits Sderot will generally look like this: ‘A Qassam fell next to a residential house, three Israelis had slight injuries, and ten others suffered from shock.’ One should not make light of these injuries: a missile hitting a house in the middle of the night could indeed cause great shock. However, one should also remember that shock is for Jews only. Palestinians are apparently a very tough people.

“The IDF, again the envy of all other armies, kills only the most important people. ‘A high-ranking member of Hamas was killed’ is almost a chorus in the Israel media. Low-ranking members of Hamas have either never been found or never been killed. Shlomi Eldar, a TV correspondent in the Gaza Strip, bravely wrote about this phenomenon in his book Eyeless in Gaza (2005). When Riyad Abu Zaid was assassinated in 2003, the Israeli press echoed the IDF announcement that the man was the head of the military wing of Hamas in Gaza. Eldar, one of Israel’s few investigative journalists, discovered that the man was merely a secretary in the movement’s prisoner club. ‘It was one of many occasions in which Israel “upgraded” a Palestinian activist,’ Eldar wrote. ‘After every assassination any minor activist is “promoted” to a major one.’

“This phenomenon, in which IDF statements are directly translated into media reports – there are no checkpoints between the army and the media – is the result both of a lack of access to information and of the unwillingness of journalists to prove the army wrong or to portray soldiers as criminals. ‘The IDF is acting in Gaza’ (or in Jenin, or in Tulkarm, or in Hebron) is the expression given out by the army and embraced by the media. Why make the listeners’ lives harder? Why tell them what the soldiers do, describing the fear they create, the fact that they come with heavy vehicles and weapons and crush a city’s life, creating a greater hatred, sorrow and a desire for revenge?

“Last month, as a measure against Qassam militants, Israel decided to stop Gaza’s electricity for a few hours a day. Despite the fact that this means, for instance, that electricity will fail to reach hospitals, it was said that ‘the Israeli government decided to approve this step, as another non-lethal weapon.’ Another thing the soldiers do is clearing – khisuf. In regular Hebrew, khisuf means to expose something that is hidden, but as used by the IDF it means to clear an area of potential hiding places for Palestinian gunmen. During the last intifada, Israeli D9 bulldozers destroyed thousands of Palestinian houses, uprooted thousands of trees and left behind thousands of smashed greenhouses. It is better to know that the army cleared the place than to face the reality that the army destroys Palestinians’ possessions, pride and hope.

“Another useful word is crowning (keter), a euphemism for a siege in which anyone who leaves his house risks being shot at. War zones are places where Palestinians can be killed even if they are children who don’t know they’ve entered a war zone. Palestinian children, by the way, tend to be upgraded to Palestinian teenagers, especially when they are accidentally killed. More examples: isolated Israeli outposts in the West Bank are called illegal outposts, perhaps in contrast to Israeli settlements that are apparently legal. Administrative detention means jailing people who haven’t been put on trial or even formally charged (in April 2003 there were 1119 Palestinians in this situation). The PLO (Ashaf) is always referred to by its acronym and never by its full name: Palestine is a word that is almost never used – there is a Palestinian president but no president of Palestine.

” ‘A society in crisis forges a new vocabulary for itself,’ David Grossman wrote in The Yellow Wind, ‘and gradually, a new language emerges whose words . . . no longer describe reality, but attempt, instead, to conceal it.’ This ‘new language’ was adopted voluntarily by the media, but if one needs an official set of guidelines it can be found in the Nakdi Report, a paper drafted by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority. First set down in 1972 and since updated three times, the report aimed to ‘clarify some of the professional rules that govern the work of a newsperson’. The prohibition of the term East Jerusalem was one of them.

“The restrictions aren’t confined to geography. On 20 May 2006, Israel’s most popular television channel, Channel 2, reported ‘another targeted assassination in Gaza, an assassination that might ease the firing of Qassams’ (up to 376 people have died in targeted assassinations, 150 of them civilians who were not the target of assassinations). Ehud Ya’ari, a well-known Israeli correspondent on Arab affairs, sat in the studio and said: ‘The man who was killed is Muhammad Dahdouh, from Islamic Jihad . . . this is part of the other war, a war to shrink the volume of Qassam activists.’ Neither Ya’ari nor the IDF spokesman bothered to report that four innocent Palestinian civilians were also killed in the operation, and three more severely injured, one a five-year-old girl called Maria, who will remain paralysed from the neck down. This ‘oversight’, revealed by the Israeli journalist Orly Vilnai, only exposed how much we do not know about what we think we know.

“Interestingly, since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip one of the new ‘boo’ words in the Israeli media is Hamastan, a word that appears in the ‘hard’ news section, the allegedly sacred part of newspapers that is supposed to give the facts, free from editorialising. The same applies to movements such as Hamas or Hizbullah, which are described in Hebrew as organisations and not as political movements or parties. Intifada is never given its Arabic meaning of ‘revolt’; and Al-Quds, which when used by Palestinian politicians refers only to ‘the holy places in East Jerusalem’ or ‘East Jerusalem’, is always taken by Israeli correspondents to mean Jerusalem, which is effectively to imply a Palestinian determination to take over the entire capital city” … This excellent article can be read in full here.

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