Israel blames the messenger as West Bank burns

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Since last October, Israel and Palestine have been consumed by a stream of violence. Palestinians attacked Israeli civilians and soldiers in the occupied West Bank, Jerusalem and central Israel, while the Israeli military has carried out mass arrests, closed major cities on the West Bank and accelerated its de facto annexation of West Bank land.

This wave of violence lacks structure and coordination, so it is too early to say that this is the start of the third intifada. Israel has failed to devise a strategy to adequately defend itself or curb the attacks. Unable to address the root causes of the violence – including the continued military occupation of the West Bank – Tel Aviv is trying to shoot the messenger by going after the media.

In early February, the Israeli parliament conveyed a special session on the foreign media’s coverage of the recent wave of attacks. The catalyst for the session was a headline by the Associated Press, carried by the CBS News website: 3 Palestinians killed as daily violence grinds on. The headline was attacked by parliament members who argued that it downplayed the fact that the Palestinians had attempted to carry out stabbing attacks and were subsequently killed by Israeli security forces.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most saturated areas of international media coverage, and has been for decades. In recent months, international wire services have filed thousands of stories from the ground covering all aspects of the current violence. While this specific headline might have been an oversight, in the eyes of the AP it was one professional mistake out of thousands of headlines and it was quickly corrected. Tel Aviv, however, believed it was evidence of bias and went on the offensive.

Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, and current Israeli parliament member, Michael Oren said the foreign press “takes an active, one-sided and tendentious stance in covering the conflict, and therefore, it is part of the game”.

Mr Oren went on to argue that journalists orchestrate events to cover in Palestine. Days after these comments were made, the Washington Post bureau chief, William Booth, was briefly detained in Jerusalem after some Israelis told police that he was paying Palestinians to attack soldiers.

This hysteria has led the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem to release a sharply worded statement noting that the Israeli government has “engaged in sweeping allegations of media bias”.

Israelis have long taken a dim view of foreign coverage of their country, and believe they are unfairly cast as aggressors instead of victims. This is partly because Israelis believe their own propaganda. Israel has cast the conflict in purely security terms. The battle over land is understood as being fought by two relative equals and peace can only be realised once both parties’ security goals are achieved.

This is dangerous thinking. It completely absolves Israel for depriving Palestinians of their human and civil rights. Israeli politicians can even say with a straight face that the occupation as we know it is a myth. Deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely told a Haaretz reporter last week that “the occupation is not an occupation”.

Given the suspension of reality in Israeli society, it is easier to understand the complaints about the press, because it is impossible to cover the recent violence without explaining the desperation of Palestinian youth and the continued absence of rights on the West Bank.

Promoting a rights-based narrative of the conflict is one of the driving facets of the global boycott, divestment and sanction (BDS) campaign against Israel. Since 2005, when the initial BDS call went out from parts of Palestinian civil society, Israel has steadily increased its attacks on the movement.

At first, Tel Aviv dismissed BDS as marginal, but now the country is attacking the movement with its full weight. The Associated Press reported last week that the Israeli government recently allocated $26 million (Dh95.5m) to combat BDS activists online. The campaign is an admission by Israel of the risks posed by BDS.

The attacks on the foreign press and on the BDS movement are two sides of the same coin. Israel’s control over the conflict narrative is slipping, and the leadership is taking extreme measures to restore that control. The Israeli military’s new censor, Ariella Ben Avraham, has told journalists that their posts on Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media platforms are subject to military approval.

If local journalists or media organisations fail to obtain clearance from the military, they can face serious punishment. In a twist worthy of George Orwell, local media organisations can tell their readers which articles have been sent to the censor but are not allowed to inform them if the articles have, in fact, been censored.

A rights-based narrative about the conflict is gaining traction in the West. This is because of conversations started by BDS activism and coverage of the violence on the ground that provides an insight to life under Israeli military control.

Tel Aviv is fighting a losing battle, and it knows it. The question is how long Israel will continue to pull the wool over its own eyes.

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