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Edition 23 Volume 5 - June 14, 2024

Arab-Israel media interaction
A constant and necessary interaction  - Safwat Kahlout
To understand each other is to understand how to deal with each other.

Arab journalists boycott Israel  - Smadar Perry
The thirst and curiosity in the Arab world to know our situation in Israel is insatiable.

Talking at each other  - Charmaine Seitz
The creeping influence of separation is difficult to ignore.

It started with satellite TV  - an interview withEhud Yaari
Sound-bites in Arabic that our TV network runs have grown 600 percent in five years.

Please, something different for a change  - Michael Young
I have no great illusions about the benefits of a dialogue through media across the Palestinian-Israeli divide.

A constant and necessary interaction
 Safwat Kahlout

It is often forgotten that Palestinians and Israelis interact not only in their political and military struggle, but in all walks of life--commercial, educational and, not least, the media.

The Israeli media is very important to Palestinians. While the opposite also applies, it is less true. In both cases, the one side likes to follow the media of the other because, like in any place in the world, the media usually has ways of opening doors to political backrooms otherwise unseen. But with no Palestinian journalists allowed into Israel or granted Israeli press accreditation, the Hebrew press by default becomes more important to Palestinians than the Palestinian press to Israelis.

Palestinians and Israelis are in real conflict. As such, Palestinians in general and journalists in particular follow the Israeli media not just to learn the news but to understand the mentality of the other. To understand each other is to understand how to deal with each other. The media is an important tool in this. As a Palestinian journalist, understanding Israel is paramount.

More Palestinians read and understand Hebrew than there are Israelis that read and understand Arabic. For that reason, while some Palestinian media cover Israeli affairs by translating the Hebrew news, the three main dailies only cover Israeli news when it is directly related to Palestinian concerns. They are well aware that Palestinians often read, watch and listen to Israeli media already.

In addition, in the unique environment of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the Israeli media is sometimes granted access that I or other local journalists are not. Palestinian officials may want to shape or send a particular message directly to Israelis. As such, the Israeli media is an important tool to these officials and an important source to me. Following the Israeli media can in some cases gives me insight into Palestinian thinking that I otherwise would not have had.

There are other more direct areas of interaction. For more than a year now, Israeli journalists have not been allowed to enter the Gaza Strip for security reasons. It has thus become extremely important for them to have contact with Palestinian journalists for daily coverage. Recently, I was asked by one large Israeli daily to cover the daily news in Gaza. Even before Israeli journalists were prevented from entering the Strip, I used to help arrange interviews for many of them.

Some years back, I was asked by an Israeli journalist to arrange an interview with a top Hamas leader. The journalist had tried himself and failed because the Hamas leader in question was reluctant. When I contacted the leader to ask for the interview we ended up in a discussion about the rationale for granting interviews with the Israeli media that, after all, is part of the society of the occupiers. The leader finally agreed and the interview went ahead.

Today, such discussions are rare. Palestinian officials from both main factions, Fateh and Hamas, regularly give interviews to the Israeli media, from President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh down.

Nevertheless, to some, such interaction is ethically problematic. Once I thought the same. To work with the Israeli media was shameful, almost treasonous. But I have come to the conclusion that Palestinians and Israelis are irrevocably, however reluctantly, connected. The two societies, even if they are linked by conflict, must learn to tolerate each other. The media plays an important role and it is better to have accuracy than myth.

It is therefore extremely unfortunate that Palestinian journalists are forbidden access to Israel. Unlike either Israeli or foreign journalists, Palestinian professionals are not allowed Israeli press accreditation. Of all the journalists that should be granted such access, surely Palestinian media professionals are the most important. There is, furthermore, no reason--Israel offers the usual security nonsense--other than that we are Palestinian. In the meantime, we must make do with the Hebrew press rather than the evidence of our own eyes, evidence irreplaceable to a journalist.-Published 14/6/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Safwat Kahlout is a Gaza-based journalist.

Arab journalists boycott Israel
 Smadar Perry

Of the dozens of professional associations throughout the Arab world, each comprising hundreds of experts in a particular field, the journalists' unions are considered to be militant, strong and influential. The professional associations for journalists all over the Arab world stay in close touch with one another, and all are united in maintaining a sweeping boycott of their Israeli colleagues.

Never has an Israeli journalist been allowed entry to the offices of journalists' associations in those Arab countries that are committed to peace treaties with Israel. Members of the unions are strongly advised to avoid visiting Israel. An interview by an Arab journalist, despite the boycott, with an Israeli political personality or public figure is greeted at best with disdain. A journalist from the Arab world who comes to Israel in a professional capacity is likely to be invited to explain himself back home at the union. If he cannot produce a convincing excuse, he could face a tribunal of fellow journalists. In the worst case--and this has happened a number of times--the outcome is expulsion in disgrace from the union, with unbearable professional and personal ramifications: anyone expelled after having been found "guilty" of "normalization with the enemy" will have difficulty finding work that suits his professional abilities and is liable to be ostracized socially.

From the Israeli standpoint this is strange. After all both sides--the journalist from an Arab country and the Israeli journalist--cover exactly the same areas, accompany the same processes and report on the same events. Frequently, the Israeli and the Arab journalist criticize some political figure at the center of a news event in nearly the same language. What could be better than to join hands in collegial cooperation? Such exchanges of information would nurture and enrich the article or report published the next day in the Israeli or Arab media.

I recall one instance in which a senior colleague from Cairo asked me to assist in getting her an interview with the prime minister of Israel. The exclusive interview was published as the lead story in the Egyptian paper and the colleague won praise for the achievement. Two days later, upon my arrival in Cairo, the colleague invited me to a festive luncheon at her home. The tables were laden with good food and the entire family gathered round to meet the guest, who hastened to apologize for the trouble the host had gone to. Then, like in the story of the emperor's new clothes, a young boy from the family revealed the sad side of the narrative: We really wanted, he said, to invite you to a fancy restaurant. But we feared that our appearance together with you in a public place would hurt the career of our relative. We knew that rumors would fly, and she would be invited to explain herself to the journalists union where she could be severely punished.

At another time I was again invited to a family event at the home of a colleague from the Arab world. When it ended we both hurried to a press conference with many participants. We left the colleague's home together, but were careful to drive to the same destination in separate taxis, lest we be caught having met. In yet another instance, I dared phone the editor of a popular Arab paper to request his comment on a scoop he had published. He terminated the conversation angrily, and the next day I read in his paper a prominent report on my "cheek" in having tried to contact the editor-in-chief.

This professional boycott, which is totally unacceptable from the Israeli standpoint, dictates a phenomenon of virtual cooperation within a closed circle. A group of Israeli journalists confronts a bigger group of Arab journalists, most of them veterans with professional reputations. Everyone knows everyone; everyone knows his colleague's professional capabilities. Every morning the work day begins with a meeting on the computer screen, with side A reading the publications of colleagues from side B. Long years' experience dealing with the region's political processes has taught side A, the Israeli, who on side B are the leading journalists with access to the decision-makers, those who get the scoops and exclusive reports. Of course on side B a mirror-image process takes place. Thus Ibrahim Hmeidi, who heads the al-Hayat desk in Damascus, is read by us eagerly. So are Fahed al-Fanek in Amman and the sensational reports by the editor of al-Usbua in Cairo.

One of my colleagues in the Arab world, with whom I have met at international conferences two or three times a years for many years, explained to me: "We serve a cause; we cannot cooperate professionally as long as the Arab conflict with Israel continues." On second thought he added that he also had to think about his professional future. If he were caught having contact with Israeli journalists he was liable to lose his senior position and permanent source of livelihood, along with the opportunity to cover events in Arab states that have no links with Israel. Tell me, he inquired, what would you do in my place?

Thus, for long years we have been quoting in the Israeli media our energetic colleagues from Cairo, Amman, Riyadh and Damascus, while they, for their part, gather information, articles, commentary and expert testimony from the Israeli media. To this day, the media throughout the Arab world devotes much more space to publications, translations, quotations and reports on events in Israel than its Israeli counterpart devotes to Arab issues. The thirst and curiosity in the Arab world to know our situation in Israel is insatiable.

I'm ready to swear that if you wake up one of our Arab colleagues in the middle of the night, he will rattle off without hesitation the names of 20 Israeli journalists on whose reports he relies with eyes closed. But when that same journalist runs into an Israeli colleague, he will make sure to turn his back and keep a safe distance.- Published 14/6/2007 bitterlemons-international.org

Smadar Perry is Middle East editor of the daily Yediot Aharonot.

Talking at each other
 Charmaine Seitz

The media, by nature, is limited by both language and its relationship to power. These confines do not by any means apply solely to the media of this region. But examining them here is another window into how Hebrew-speakers and Arabs view the world.

The day Pope John Paul II passed away, the popular Hebrew daily Maariv blared "The Pope died" and in smaller letters: "The Christian world cries". Another front-page headline announced that the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem was considering naming the church leader one of the Righteous among the Nations. The article was a navel-gazing report on how the pope had altered the Catholic church's relationship to Israel. Despite being written from the Vatican, it did little to illuminate the pope's wider role in the context of church history. Further, the language used seemed to lump all Christian denominations together. The article was about the pope, but it said a lot more about Israel.

In the Hebrew media, so many Israelis are actors in a specific Israeli drama: Arab citizens are renamed the "minority"; Ethiopian Israelis are shown most often as criminals and unpolished new immigrants; Russians are mobsters and so on. The press's analysis about Palestinians is nearly always siphoned through security sources or translated media clips rather than real live contact.

There is a reason for this. Many of the Israeli journalists who report on Palestinian affairs come from a security background where they have learned Arabic. Once they become journalists, the "way things work" seems to restrict these reporters to cultivating sources either among security personnel or with average Palestinians--the system and personal views don't appear to allow both at the same time. The result is that even within the media, military rationale and Palestinian voices are rarely juxtaposed against one another.

Studies show that Palestinian citizens of Israel, many of them fluent in both Hebrew and Arabic, resoundingly choose self-produced Arabic media as their source for news. They choose the press in which they are present, and have a role other than the "minority".

Why then, do Palestinians in the occupied territories comment that Israel Radio's Arabic news service is more trustworthy than their own media? The Israeli media is perceived as more likely than locally-run Arabic radio stations to know how many Palestinians were arrested in nightly raids, for example. One suspects this is a function of both language and power: when an announcer offers information in Arabic that originates close to the web of controls that govern Palestinian life, that is seen as trustworthy media.

That belief is visible in the press, too. Last week, the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds led its front page with a near-translation from Haaretz describing Israeli settlement policies in Jerusalem's Old City. In few other contexts can one imagine a daily newspaper reprinting a story, maps and all, from another daily published only kilometers away.

In a very real way, as the international Arabic media has expanded, the Palestinian media has grown more meager. The new satellite stations have plucked the best Palestinian reporters and editors for their widely-watched programming. Print journalists reporting daily events to international employers easily make two or three times the salary they would writing their own stories in the local press.

This brain drain has an impact. Copy editors at Palestinian dailies complain that reporters often leave out the usual "who, what, where and when", forcing them to become the true but unnamed authors. Palestinian newspapers are filled with near-press releases, a problem that was starkly illustrated when a Palestinian English daily tried to employ the same techniques. Without the elegance of Arabic to hide behind, articles were stripped down to simple context-less announcements by officials. And who are these officials? Despite the formal entrance of Hamas into the government, the various "bodies" that issue news statements on the political situation remain dominated by Fateh and the factions of the PLO.

One sees how the Palestinian press is also limited by language and its proximity to power. The establishment this year by Hamas of the daily newspaper Filistin is a break with the past, as the movement trains its own journalists and mainstreams sympathetic voices.

Very seldom do the Hebrew and Arabic medias engage each other. Maan in Bethlehem publishes a Hebrew edition of its news website. The news agency believes the service is mostly used by journalists. Periodically, Israeli anchors host Hebrew-speaking Palestinian journalists on their shows. I do not recall ever seeing or hearing a Jewish Israeli reporter on a Palestinian news program; Arabic satellite TV is a stark contrast, however.

But the creeping influence of separation is difficult to ignore. Very few Palestinian journalists in the West Bank and Gaza are given permits allowing access to Israel. For long periods at a time Israeli journalists, including Arab-Israelis, have been blocked by the state from entering the Gaza Strip. And all this week, Israel's Hebrew-language satellite channels have been scrambled in the West Bank--likely from interference from Israel's hovering spy drones.

The vastness of the gap is even audible in a third language. 93.6 Ram FM, an English radio station sponsored by a South African, has offices in Ramallah and Jerusalem and has hired both Palestinian and Israeli reporters. The station has struggled to draft a style guide that isn't a touchstone of controversy ("barrier", "militants", "occupation forces"--any journalist or translator working here knows these challenges well). One of the South African DJs appears often to be wrestling with the boundaries of what is too raunchy for this conservative region, or how to discuss Israeli holidays in a manner that isn't insensitive to Palestinian listeners. When experiences are so different, it is really hard to have a common conversation.-Published 14/6/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Charmaine Seitz is former administrative editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications and writes frequently on politics and religion.

It started with satellite TV
an interview with Ehud Yaari

BI: How do you define Arab-Israel media interaction?

Yaari: I think what we have is an amazing phenomenon in which the media world has been united in many ways and we can speak of a regional media, forgetting about distinctions drawn from the Arab-Israel conflict. Media in the region, especially television but also the internet and print press, have learned how to use one another, rely on one another, copy, eavesdrop and commit literary piracy with one another. In 99 percent of the cases no one complains, either. Everyone is aware that whatever he writes will be republished across the fence. Often you come out of the TV studio after a broadcast and as you walk toward your office, you see yourself on the Hizballah station or al-Jazeera.

This unification is instant and very powerful, in the sense that despite some distortions and censorship, what is said in Israel is generally accessible to Arab viewers all over the region and vice versa.

BI: Since when? When did this revolution begin?

Yaari: The revolution started with satellite TV all over the Middle East. That was the end of government control over the flow of information. The appearance of al-Jazeera and those satellite stations that followed means that nobody is able, certainly not in government, to control the flow of information. State-run TV networks have been downgraded to a position of insignificance.

For example, historically Egypt used to enjoy a sort of cultural predominance in the Arabic-speaking media world. But it has lost all its influence in the region because those responsible for the media in the Egyptian government did not want or were unable to understand that the lay of the land is changing. So we get to a situation today, 10-15 years later, in which Egypt is investing in numerous TV channels that nobody watches; the same goes for other Arab governments.

BI: Is this media revolution symmetrical between Israel and the Arabs?

Yaari: I cannot say it's entirely symmetrical. Whereas almost every Arabic language satellite station, including those of Iran, broadcasts from Israel, it's impossible for the Israeli media to operate from Arab countries, including those that have peace with us. This is compensated for through the art of literary piracy, meaning all Israeli media--TV, radio, print and internet--maintain sophisticated monitoring outfits that follow 24/7 whatever is printed and broadcast in the Arab world and prepare instant Hebrew translations. For example, on the three different news channels in Israel about 60 percent of the footage concerning the Arab world is intercepted, taped and reedited from the Arab stations.

BI: Iran broadcasts in Arabic from Israel?

Yaari: During last summer's Lebanon war, a young Palestinian journalist was recruited by al-Alam, Iran's Arabic TV station, to broadcast from Mount Carmel in Haifa, describing live where the rockets were hitting the city. This was beamed to Iran, which meant it was also immediately picked up by al-Manar, Hizballah's station. All this was done through the services of an Israeli company that provided the uplink; none of the Israeli technicians, all patriotic Israelis, felt there was anything strange about this.

BI: How does all this actually influence the respective publics?

Yaari: This new phenomenon contributes to a situation in which Arab audiences, despite whatever editing is done by their stations, are becoming more aware of the Israeli viewpoint. For example, when al-Manar, al-Jazeera or al-Arabiya use intercepted footage from Israeli TV, this is bound to give the Arab viewer a better sense of what the other side is saying without the intervention of an interpreter. This is certainly true for the Israeli audience. The Jewish audience in Israel has been exposed in recent years to a wealth of information about the Arab world that is not like the edited versions offered by Israeli commentators or interpreters.

I recently saw statistics in my network regarding the volume of sound-bites in Arabic that we run, when Israelis hear Arabs speaking with Hebrew subtitles: it has grown 600 percent in five years. Remember, an average sound-bite here is close to 15 seconds, compared to eight seconds in the US. In the Arab world, talking heads are far more acceptable, so often we see on Arab stations segments of 5-10 minutes of discussions in an Israeli TV studio with simultaneous translation. People in Israel are not aware that many events and speeches in Israel are carried live by Arab stations: for example, Wednesday's election of Shimon Peres as president of Israel.

BI: Most Israelis would cite the example of last summer's war with Lebanon, when Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah had better ratings on Israel TV than PM Ehud Olmert.

Yaari: Last summer, Israelis were listening to Nasrallah because he was the enemy explaining his strategy, but mainly because our TV stations had to fill 18-20 hours of broadcasts a day about the war and Nasrallah's speeches were easy for the news desks, saving programming and editorial effort, etc.

BI: Arabic speakers are subtitled on Israeli TV. Are Israelis equipped linguistically to appear credibly on Arab television?

Yaari: There is one Israeli government minister, Avi Dichter, who speaks Palestinian Arabic very well, with a Gazan accent. He was invited to al-Jazeera for a live interview, which he gladly accepted. But his Arabic was too good for them; he managed to control the interview. Since then the word is out to suffice with a sound-bite from him. So there is enormous progress with transparency, but still some control is exercised; this is what we learned from Dichter's interview to al-Jazeera. The Arab stations like young Israelis speaking Arabic acquired from school or the army who, because of their limited vocabulary, give very short, basic answers. Our own Foreign Ministry in Israel, instead of getting more experienced Arabic speakers, uses the cadets of the ministry to speak to the Arab media in Arabic. I think this doesn't work and Arab TV viewers know it.- Published 14/6/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ehud Yaari is Middle East commentator of Israel TV channel 2.

Please, something different for a change
 Michael Young

I confess to a grave shortcoming as editor of an opinion page that deals mainly with Middle Eastern affairs. I often find it difficult to interest myself in commentaries on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It's not that the subject doesn't grab me; how can it not do so for anyone following the region's tribulations? It's just that most of the time contributors have nothing new to say outside the restricted confines of a calcified debate. You almost never hear something you haven't heard before.

Immediately obvious to any editor is how polarized political debate is when it comes to matters of the Middle East. Often, it seems, an editor just cannot win. Readers will mistakenly assume that by running a piece, a newspaper approves of its arguments. They will time and again interpret a page's direction selectively, ideologically, inaccurately. For example, I have often heard people call the Daily Star op-ed page a "neocon" platform, on the basis of a handful of articles sympathetic to the Bush administration, and my own declared support for the war in Iraq--which never had anything to do with sympathy for American neo-conservatives. Readers will ignore that in any given month there are many more articles written from a perspective similar to their own, which can safely be described as generally critical of US policy in the Middle East.

I like to think that such claims of bias may also be reassuring--if paradoxically so. It could mean that readers are as reluctant as I am to read pieces that don't offer them something new. So what do they do? They might ignore what they agree with and, instead, go on to authors they loathe, before blaming the editor for making those authors' odious views available. Is this unfortunate? Not at all. I believe the op-ed pages that readers come back to are the ones they either love or hate. And since no one will cut through the ambient polarization today, you might as well profit from it by pushing the readers' most sensitive buttons.

In this context, I've sometimes found it more useful to publish unadulterated opinions from political actors themselves than the analysis of more sober observers. Because Lebanese newspapers are not allowed to deal directly with Israeli contributors, the bitterlemons publications have been an indispensable source for me when it comes to Israeli voices. My preference has been to run the more hard-line commentators commissioned by bitterlemons--for example Israeli settler representatives on the one side, or Hamas spokesmen on the other. This can cause consternation among readers, some of whom will, again, see this as an endorsement.

Rather, the hard-liners on both sides, for all the antipathy they stir up, tend to scorn the rhetoric of consensus pervading so much of the discourse on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. And since the conflict has been propelled forward by its extremes, rather than by the bien-pensant liberals in the middle, the extremists, alas, may bring readers closer to the truth of what lies ahead. The point is not for readers to agree with the writers, but to be exposed to views they would otherwise never hear.

All this doesn't mean that the language of consensus must be abandoned. In fact, against a background of polarization, offering a consensus view can be courageous. In times of crisis it's always the middle-ground liberals who lose out first, as they find themselves squeezed by the more assertive on either side of the fault line. There is much that can seem Pollyannaish in the texts the Daily Star publishes by, let's say, Search for Common Ground or the American Task Force on Palestine, who always try to detect a faint light in the very dark tunnel of Palestinian-Israeli relations. But their dogged quest for practical openings is more valuable than hearing divisive arguments regurgitated for the umpteenth time.

The interaction between Arab media and the Israeli political scene has metastasized in the past decade. There is a tradition in Lebanon's Arabic-language media to highlight the writings of Israelis. For example, two leading newspapers, Al-Safir and Al-Nahar, publish translated Israeli articles on a weekly basis. Al-Manar, Hizballah's television station, has a great appetite for what the Israeli media are saying--particularly about Hizballah. In justifying this attention, Lebanese media outlets will frequently use the proverbial argument: it's best to know your enemy.

However, there is more to it than that. In an age of electronic media, simple curiosity can be satisfied simply, regardless of one's political persuasion. It's a fact, and a healthy one, that people at war commonly wonder what is happening on "the other side". Ready access to Israeli media through the internet makes this familiarity all the easier, as does the willingness of many Arab satellite television stations to have correspondents in Israel (often Arab-Israelis) and interview Israeli analysts and officials. Even a station like Lebanon's LBC, through its network of correspondents from the London-based Al-Hayat, can broadcast from Israel. During the summer 2024 war, Lebanese could watch in real time as Hizballah's rockets landed in Haifa, even as people in Haifa could watch in real time as Israeli aircraft bombarded Lebanon.

I have no great illusions about the benefits of a dialogue through media across the Palestinian-Israeli divide. At best, media mirror a wider reality. From my very narrow vantage point, I think that if most op-ed articles offer nothing new on the conflict, then this confirms there are few new ideas out there. If so, then perhaps we must accept that the conditions for a resolution simply don't exist today. This conclusion may be brutal, but for all the concern to see the Palestinians finally afforded justice in the context of a final settlement with Israel, from a journalistic perspective the selfish tendency of editors is to look for more fruitful topics.- Published 14/6/2007 © bitterlemons-international.org

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon, and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.

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