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Critics: US media often omit context of Israeli-Palestinian violence

Some chastise news outlets for staying silent on settlements and occupation, others for downplaying Palestinian violence

As violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories returns to the headlines, critics are complaining that many prominent U.S. news outlets often omit or misrepresent contextual information vital to understanding the conflict. And perhaps predictably, partisans on both sides are targeting media coverage for different reasons. 

A common complaint among some critics concerns some major U.S. media outlets’ characterization of neighborhoods and the legal and political context of the Israeli presence in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. “The biggest problem … is total lack of context in reporting in which all of this is taking place,” said Yousef Munayyer, the executive director of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. He and others point to the frequent omission of references to settlements and the occupation when describing East Jerusalem and the West Bank and of how Palestinians’ daily lives are affected by Israel’s occupation of those territories.

As an example, he and others called out a New York Times article published Monday, in which Pisgat Ze'ev — where two Palestinian teens were shot (one was killed, and one was seriously injured) after stabbing a 13-year-old Jewish boy — was referred to as a “section” and “a Jewish area” of East Jerusalem. Pisgat Ze'ev is an Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, which, like the rest of the West Bank, is internationally regarded as occupied territory. Israel’s claim to have annexed East Jerusalem after capturing it the war of June 1967 is not recognized by any other countries, including the United States. And all settlement of Israeli civilians in areas occupied since 1967 is deemed by the United Nations Security Council a violation of international law.

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Blogger Phillip Weiss, writing on his Mondoweiss site, pointed out a segment on Monday from NPR’s Morning Edition titled “Wave of violence hits Israel and Palestinian territories,” noting that when referring to incidents in those territories, it failed to draw listeners’ attention to the fact that those territories are occupied. But the current violence is difficult to understand without noting the impact of life under occupation on ordinary Palestinians, who have effectively been ruled for 48 years by a state that denies them any of the rights of citizenship. 

The expansion of settlements has been a major point of contention for Palestinians, because it results in loss of land and an expansion of checkpoints, military outposts and settlement-only roads that break up the continuity of Palestinian territories.

Munayyer said that news outlets that fail to disclose “the conditions that Palestinians live under that is really fueling the resentment and the anger that is leading so many of these young Palestinians to take actions themselves in these way — in stabbings, in protests” are not providing their audiences with information vital to making sense of tragic events.

He cautioned against the tendency to present the conflict as if it involved two states or evenly matched rivals rather than one of the world’s most powerful militaries and a people living under occupation. There are, of course, armed Palestinian security forces under Palestinian Authority (PA) control in the West Bank, but they operate in close coordination with Israel, and their function is to restrain Palestinians from challenging Israelis rather than defend their own community from Israeli soldiers or settlers. Palestinian armed groups are operating openly in Gaza, where they maintain significant arsenals of unguided missiles. The territory’s Hamas rulers currently enforce the cease-fire with Israel concluded at the close of Israel’s military campaign there last year. In the West Bank, PA security forces are believed — even by their Israeli counterparts — to have largely prevented such groups from staging operations.

U.S. media have also come under criticism from pro-Israel groups, which accuse outlets of giving an unacceptable pass to Palestinian violence. The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a pro-Israel media watchdog, highlights what it says is the media habit of focusing on Israeli violence but failing to adequately report the Palestinian crimes for which such violence is in retaliation, according to the group.

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“There’s been a downplay in language and in headlines and in reports of explicit and straightforward reference to actual attacks by Palestinians,” said Gilead Ini, a senior CAMERA research analyst.

One example cited by his organization's web site refers to an Oct. 4 headline from The Washington Post that read, “Palestinian is killed after fatal attack.” CAMERA noted that the headline failed to mention that the Palestinian’s victims were two Israelis.

Ini added that reports regarding an uptick in violence usually fail to mention “incitement from certain Palestinians,” citing Hamas’ call for Palestinians to increase stabbing attacks.

U.S. coverage of Israel and the Palestinian territories has often been the subject of debate throughout the decades-long conflict. Ini said said that "news outlets have consistently, and for some time, gone out of their way to relay and promote the Palestinian narrative at the expense of the Israeli narrative." But Munnayer said a greater willingness by U.S. outlets to tell the Palestinians’ side of the story was a more recent development, crediting it to social media.

“The credibility of news outlets who are printing [Israel’s official] narratives comes into question when you see video or imagery or eyewitness accounts … challenge those narratives,” Munayyer said.

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