When Israel and Hamas dominated world headlines once again this past summer only two years after the last conflict between Gaza and Israel, the possibility of any travel to this region seemed out of the question. As death tolls continued to increase on both sides and the prospect of peace dimming with every failed ceasefire, it appeared that the onset of a large-scale war was inevitable. To everyone’s relief, however, a ceasefire was signed on August 26 and no large-scale violence has been reported ever since. With every precaution and protocol taken, a group of 12 from Northwestern University, including students, faculty and staff, flew over to Israel with the goals of exploring the state of journalism in Israel and in the larger Middle Eastern context.
The group learned more about how media operates under wartime pressures in its discussion with several publications and media experts, especially with regards to the recent war. The Israel-Gaza War may have officially lasted for 50 days, but tensions between Israel and the Palestinian Occupation Territories have always been on the media radar. Unlike previous wars, however, both domestic and foreign media covered the conflict extensively, with revealing pictures of bombing rockets and shelling of UN shelters. From the news of teenage kidnappings building up to the conflict to the reactions in the aftermath, the Gaza War beamed out via television, news, and social media.
“We are not part of the choir,” said Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of Haaretz, the leading source for Israeli news. Benn discussed war, peace and politics of an Israeli publication when we visited the paper’s headquarters in Tel Aviv. As with all Israeli publications, the Haaretz experienced some difficulty with accessibility given the strict government censorship policy; however, Benn noted this relationship is also advantageous. Since Israel’s military unit reviews every article relating to national security and diplomatic ties, media outlets in Israel are free from any damage and are not responsible for security. On the other hand, some reporters felt restricted because Israeli journalists were prohibited from entering Gaza at any point during the war. Indeed, it is difficult for any publication to report critically and objectively with limited on-site access. The Haaretz does counteract this tip with critical and often controversial pieces, such as the article by Gideon Levy about the morality of Israeli’s elite air force pilots bombing in Gaza. Unlike any other media outlets in the world, Israeli publications must prioritize security first and foremost in reporting, and the Gaza War demonstrated the heightened sensitivity of the government-media relations in times of conflict.
IDI (Israel Democracy Institute)
The Seventh Eye is a digital newspaper founded in 1996 by senior journalists to provide a platform on which professionals in the field can honestly talk about the state of journalism in Israel and related issues. It operates under the jurisdiction of the Israel Democracy Institute. In discussing with Editor Uzi Benziman of the Seventh Eye, he pointed out that people were less informed of the late Gaza War than previous years even with the advancement of technology. It seems a little ironic that one of the most technologically developed nations – Israel, the Startup Nation – has less knowledge of news in a time when a war is ongoing within its borders. The reason for this is unclear, although one could assume Israel’s censorship policy is no doubt a factor in the lack of information about the other side. Benziman also touched on the identity of journalists in reporting about the Gaza War and posed the question of whether one should be a journalist first or an Israeli first. To be critical of Israeli issues would label one as unpatriotic, which puts journalists in a tough spot in terms of balancing the goals of journalism to be objective and to be critical of sensitive issues at the same time.
It is no secret that Al Jazeera is heavily funded by Qatar, and that the same country also supports Hamas. Walid Omary, Jerusalem-based bureau chief of Al Jazeera, said that although the business aspect of journalism does have a significant role, reporting and informing the public of the truth is at the heart of any media outlet, including Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera played an especially key role in the late Gaza War, as Israeli TV stations had limitations and sometimes a narrow scope of viewers due to the lack of Arabic programs. The outlet did need to acquire special permission for entry into Gaza, while access between Israel and the West Bank remains very open. Although some may critique the coverage as pro-Hamas, Omary believes Al Jazeera will be able to maintain its journalistic integrity despite some of these accusations.
Government Press Office/ Foreign Press Association
The Government Press Office and the Foreign Press Association emphasized the need to be open and honest in the media. A spokesman from the GPO showed a video of a Hamas representative critiquing the foreign press and their coverage of the late Gaza War. In the video, the representative asserts that the foreign press only sought after and released videos of Gazan rocket launches, giving a biased view of the conflict. Although this statement was from the other side, this too went against the GPO’s policy of portraying Israel in its full image, as one spokesperson said, “We have nothing to hide. We’re very open.” Similarly, Samer Shalabi, a West Bank Palestinian cameraman for Deutsche TV who doubles as chairman of the Foreign Press Association, had the same view when he talked about the intricacies of reporting on the Gaza War as a Palestinian covering both sides of the conflict. Shalabi said that journalists should simply show reality even if it’s ugly. He added that a background of the culture and language is beneficial to reporting on an area, as was the case for him as he reported in Gaza during the conflict in the summer. Overall, Shalabi encouraged journalists to continue pursuing the field, saying, “Journalism can change reality and create hope.”
The Gaza War may be over, but the media coverage is by no means stopping any time soon. Even now, there are articles examining the effectiveness of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, the loss in many lives as a side effect to the Hannibal Directive, a protocol to prevent Israeli soldiers from being captured, and of course, the catastrophic loss of infrastructure and human lives. Furthermore, tensions between different religious groups within Israel and the larger interactions of the countries ironically continue to pay journalists’ salaries. The media, both domestic and foreign, has a tremendous influence in shaping the way the public perceives a situation, and the Gaza War was no exception. It is with the utmost discretion all media outlets should operate in high-risk situations, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict is perhaps one of the most challenging places to find the right balance.