By Shireen Abu Akleh / Institute for Palestine Studies
This text was written by Shireen Abu Akleh in 2016 for Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyyah. In it, she discusses the role of media coverage in Palestinian uprisings, specifically the “Popular Rebellion” of late 2015 and early 2016, which began as a response to Israeli raids on the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem. The article discusses the complex ways in which news media and social media interact with Palestinian resistance and opposition to the occupation. The Institute for Palestine Studies is translating it and republishing it to commemorate the work of a brave and reflective journalist who was shot in cold blood by the Israeli military in the course of reporting on the latest Israeli assault on Palestinians under occupation. The text is all the more poignant because it discusses Israeli attacks on the news media, the readiness of the Israeli military to use lethal force against unarmed civilians without provocation, and the ways in which Israel attempts to deny culpability for crimes committed against Palestinians under occupation. It also reflects on the fact that Palestinian martyrs killed by the Israeli military are often portrayed as heroes and role models by local Palestinian media, whether or not they want to be seen as such.
Although some months have already passed since the recent rebellion, a great deal of research and analysis are still needed to determine the causes that led to its inception, not to mention the specific course that it took and its consequences. There is even considerable debate about how to label it. While some named it the “Al-Aqsa Uprising,” others preferred to call it the “Uprising of Individuals,” since it was characterized mainly by individual actions. Yet others called it the “Jerusalem Uprising.” But the most common expression used to denote it among Palestinians was the “Popular Rebellion” (al-habba al-sha’biyyah), on the grounds that it didn’t rise to the level of an uprising (intifada). Yet the “rebellion” (habbah) shed its popular character a few weeks after its inception, a fact that some attributed to the absence of a political will to transform it into a third uprising, whether on the part of the Palestinian leadership or the political factions.
The rebellion was not just distinguished by its individualism but also by its youth. According to a report published by the Israeli internal security services Shin Bet in February 2016, around half of those who participated in the operations that began in October 2015 were young people under twenty. A large number also came from stable family backgrounds. These data are worth analyzing further.
The media, including social media, played an active role in reporting the successive events in the rebellion. The clearest evidence of this role is the fact that many of those who participated in militant operations posted statements on their social media accounts before undertaking them. They were clearly strongly influenced by the images that they saw and events they read about in the West Bank, including Jerusalem.
The martyr Muhannad Halabi posted a number of messages on his Facebook account that clearly demonstrated that the situation at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which directly preceded the rebellion, had a direct impact on him. He was especially moved by the suppression of the women keeping vigil at the compound (al-murabitat), which was widely covered in the news media.
Other martyrs were also influenced by the images of operations carried out by young Palestinians. The martyr Ra’id Jaradat was clearly moved by the martyrdom of Dania Rashid, a young woman who was killed near the Ibrahimi Mosque in al-Khalil (Hebron) and whose photograph was published in the media. The last thing he posted on his Facebook page was her bloodstained image with the comment: “Imagine if this were your sister.”
That brings to mind a scene that I heard about first-hand. The mother of the martyr Sa’d al-Atrash told me that she and her son were eating together while watching the news when he suddenly stopped eating. She asked him: “Why have you stopped?” He answered: “How can I eat when there are such images in the news?” Then he went to his room to pray, left his phone behind, and went out. Soon afterwards, she heard the news of his martyrdom on television.
The martyr Amjad al-Sukkari, who was a sergeant in the Palestinian security forces, was also moved by coverage of Israeli killing in the media and wrote on his Facebook page: “Upon this land is that which deserves life,” (a line from the poet Mahmud Darwish), adding, “But unfortunately, I don’t see anything deserving of life as long as the occupation is stifling our breath and killing our sisters and brothers.” He concluded by addressing the martyrs directly: “You have preceded us and we will follow you.”
The last will of the martyr Baha’ ‘Alyan was widely circulated on social media, especially on Facebook and Twitter. It sheds light on the ideas and thought processes of the young people who initiated the rebellion, and it also had a massive impact on other people of his generation. It read, in part: “I call on the political factions not to embrace my martyrdom. My death was for the nation, not for them. I don’t want my picture on posters or T-shirts. My memory won’t be reduced to a mere poster hung on a wall. I call on you not to burden my mother with your questions, which are just designed to play on the emotions of your audience. Don’t plant hatred in the heart of my son, let him discover his homeland, and let him die for the sake of his nation, not to avenge the death of his father.”
How Did the Media Contribute to the Rebellion?
Palestinian media undoubtedly played a vital role in reporting on events in the West Bank and conveying the news to local and global public opinion. The widespread presence of modern means of communication, smartphones, social media, and local satellite stations contributed to the rapid dissemination of news, even when the events transpired in remote areas far from the urban centers.
But in addition to reporting on the news, the media managed to secure some limited achievements for Palestinians, notably in bolstering the popular movement advocating the return of the bodies of martyrs, which were held by Israel throughout the first three months of the rebellion. On October 27, 2015, around 20,000 Palestinians in al-Khalil (Hebron) participated in a protest that called for the restoration of the bodies of martyrs, especially the two women, Bayan ‘Asayla and Dania Rashid. Several days later, Israel began the process of returning all the bodies.
As a clear sign of the influence of the media, Israel placed a number of conditions on returning the martyrs’ bodies, especially in the Jerusalem area, which is under complete Israeli control. Among these conditions was limiting the numbers of those participating in the funeral and prohibiting media presence. This was justified by the occupation forces as a means of avoiding disseminating scenes of bidding farewell to martyrs as heroes, images that had previously been circulated by the media.
The media was sometimes even a source of information for the families of martyrs. On several occasions when I was covering events for Al Jazeera, I would ask the family of a martyr: “How did you find out about your son’s martyrdom?” And the reply was often: “From the media.”
Some might say that the media was inappropriately quick to report the names of victims, and there is some truth to that. But it is also a reflection of the absence of any official Palestinian body whose responsibility it is to inform the families of martyrs, as is the case in many countries, including Israel, where the names of victims cannot be published until the family has been informed.
It’s not surprising that Israel regards the media as an agitator against the occupation and takes extreme measures against the news media, such as shutting down three radio stations in al-Khalil (Hebron) and confiscating all their equipment. Those stations were Manbar al-Hurriya (Freedom Forum), Idha’at al-Khalil (al-Khalil Broadcasting), Idha’at Dream (Dream Broadcasting). It also threatened to shut down Radio Nas (People Radio) in Jenin, and Radio One FM in al-Khalil. Dozens of journalists have been injured by Israel with live ammunition and rubber-coated bullets in the course of their reporting. And at least 19 have been arrested in the most recent assault, including: Muhammad Qaddumi, ‘Ali al-‘Awaywi, Usama Shahin, Mujahid al-Sa’di. Most prominent among those incarcerated is Muhammad al-Qayq, who refused to be held in administrative detention and undertook a hunger strike that lasted 94 days, which ended with his administrative detention being suspended, but only after his health deteriorated and his life was under threat.
The War of Images
In the most recent rebellion, the media was at least able to undermine the Israeli narrative – if not refute it entirely – when it came to the martyrdom of many young men and women, notably in cases where there were no Israeli casualties. It became clear during the recent rebellion that Israeli soldiers would not hesitate to pull the trigger on Palestinians on the barest suspicion of their intention to carry out an operation. The media also succeeded in raising questions about Israel’s killing of suspects, many of whom were minors, when there was no need to do so. Images clearly showed numerous instances in which Palestinians were executed even though they posed no threat to soldiers’ lives. One of these was the execution of the young martyr Hadil ‘Awwad, who was just 14 years old, in the city of Jerusalem, by an Israeli security officer, even after she had been wounded and had fallen to the ground.
On October 14, 2015, Israeli soldiers opened fire on a young man, Basil Sidr, at Bab al-‘Amud (Damascus Gate) in occupied Jerusalem, on the pretext that he had tried to stab Israeli soldiers. Media sources analyzed the images of the martyr, one of which showed him holding a knife in his hand. Some claimed that the image had been doctored by Israel, since another photograph of him circulated by the media didn’t show a knife. If nothing else, this raised doubts about the Israeli narrative.
Israel also tried to use the news media to propagate its narrative, since many operations occurred near military checkpoints equipped with cameras. The media broadcast photographs of the two cousins, Hasan Manasra (15 years old) and Ahmad Manasra (13 years old), who were accused of a stabbing operation in the settlement of Pisgat Ze’ev near Jerusalem. Israel tried to prove that one of them was carrying a knife, after videos taken by eyewitnesses were circulated showing one of them, Ahmad, on the ground, having been run over at the scene by a car. His body was lying on the ground and in the background, one could hear curses in Hebrew and calls for him to die. Meanwhile, Israeli security forces could be seen preventing paramedics from approaching him. These images generated widespread outrage among Palestinians and had an effect on broader public opinion. A few days later, the Israeli authorities published images of the boy being fed in an Israeli hospital, in an attempt to control some of the damage caused to Israel’s image internationally after the circulation of his image when he lay wounded. It later emerged that the person feeding him in hospital was his lawyer.
The Factions and the Leadership
It’s hard to discuss the recent rebellion without at least mentioning the role of the political leadership and the Palestinian political factions. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say: without mentioning their absence. After years of political impasse and the ongoing division between the two parts of the nation, and in light of the inability of the political factions to effect any change on the political scene, a general sense of alienation has arisen between the younger generation and the political leadership.
When it comes to the role of the younger generation, a particularly memorable initiative was one carried out by activists from the Popular Resistance in December 2012 and January 2013, which consisted in establishing the “Bab al-Shams” (Gate of the Sun) village on a stretch of land that was threatened with expropriation for Israeli settlement activity. The village was an embodiment of the celebrated novel, Bab al-Shams, by Lebanese writer Elias Khoury. It was a testament to the creativity of the younger generation and their drive to resist the occupation, and it was later adopted by the factions and leadership. Bab al-Shams was a model of what could be accomplished by young people and it generated wide interest among the general public and in the media. Days after it was established, Israel destroyed the village and violently prevented all similar attempts, and the young men and women weren’t able to build on that pioneering experiment.
Since that time, the alienation between the political leadership and young Palestinians has grown. Meanwhile, the level of oppression practiced on a daily basis by the occupation authorities has also increased. The image of the martyr as hero and role model filled the vacuum experienced by the youth. And the media certainly played a role in reinforcing that image and disseminating it.
The Image of the Martyr in the Media
The local news media generally propagate the image of the martyr as a role model and hero. The families of martyrs are often enlisted to glorify martyrdom, irrespective of their actual feelings. On October 27, 2015, I was covering the funeral of Iyad Jaradat, who was martyred in the town of Sa’ir northeast of al-Khalil (Hebron), when he was shot with a bullet to the head during confrontations with the Israeli occupation forces. Approaching his mother before the arrival of the body, I wondered what I could possibly ask her. As soon as I asked permission to interview her, relatives who were standing beside her began repeating the stock phrases used in the aftermath of martyrdom. “Tell them that he died for the sake of al-Aqsa, the nation, Palestine, and Jerusalem.” So I reformulated my question: “Is it any consolation to you that your son died for the sake of al-Aqsa?” She raised a finger to indicate negation and said: “No, nothing can be a consolation.”
Despite the crucial role that the media played in emphasizing the human side of martyrs and their personal stories, which ensured that many of them were not just names to be added to the list of martyrs, the stereotypical image is still present.
Mistakes in Coverage
Some Palestinian satellite television channels carried continuous coverage of the recent events. Despite the fact that they played a vital role in covering events, they have also fallen prey to a number of mistakes, notably an interest in delivering news scoops even at the expense of accuracy. Competition with social media may have put pressure on some news media sources to broadcast information before confirming its accuracy.
One of the most prominent examples of such a mistake on the part of the news media, as well as social media channels, was the premature publication of the name of the person who carried out the Naqab operation of mid-October 2015. Before confirming the accuracy of the information, they claimed that Sam al-A’raj, a young man from Jerusalem, had carried out the operation. But it later turned out that the man who had actually carried out the operation was from Naqab (Negev) and had died a martyr. Before this was widely known, Sam turned himself in to the occupation authorities to demonstrate that he had not participated in the operation. The Israeli authorities nevertheless went on to subject him to a harsh interrogation and brought charges against him, including one for throwing stones.
Finally, it’s impossible to ignore the political factors that have led some local media sources to fall into the trap of exaggerating some events, overstatement, and sloganeering, reflecting the editorial lines of their media outlets. By contrast, the official Palestinian media has focused on routine news coverage and has never broadcast live around-the-clock coverage.
The media frequently go beyond merely transmitting the news, and attempt to influence public opinion. But it’s important to bear in mind that this is a weapon that your opponent has too, and that any mistakes made in this regard can backfire. There is an ongoing debate about some of the disturbing images of Palestinian martyrs that are regularly shown in the media. By contrast, I don’t remember having seen similar pictures of dead Israelis. The Arab news media in particular has not given enough attention to privacy considerations when publishing the pictures of martyrs, even children, and this is something that they can be criticized for. Some may claim that it’s the duty of the media to expose the savage practices of the occupation, but the concern remains that viewers may become habituated to such images and that they may lose their impact, which is already happening.