The Gaza War, Theater and the Big Interview
The first phase of Israel’s media strategy could be counted a success on its own terms, with its citizens “remaining broadly enthusiastic about a war mostly portrayed in admiring terms” (Ibid.). This was not surprising. “Our media is systematically covering up the suffering in Gaza, and there’s only one opinion present in the TV studios – the army’s,” reported a liberal columnist for Haaretz, Gordon Levy, to the German magazine, Der Spiegel (Pintak). The same sanitized view of war was presented by each of the mainstream, US-based television networks. The locale might have been Afghanistan or Iraq, or Lebanon for that matter. Statistics measuring the number of dead were quoted against wide-angle visuals of bombs exploding – and occasional fleeting images of bodies wrapped in burial shrouds (Ibid.). It has been observed that in times of war, mainstream media has a tendency to tailor their coverage so that it conforms to the preconceived ideological notions of their target national or larger regional audiences (el-Nawawy and Powers, 2008, 14). This proposition held with mainstream media coverage in the United States. The process may not have been a deliberate decision on the part of people who work for large-scale media organizations, but it was the end-result that was important. And the result was that many of these same powerful media organizations were able to seamlessly transfer a Cold War mentality to militant Islam. The concept of a “Clash of Civilizations” between Islam and other civilizations offered a simple and straightforward framework of “us versus them” (see Seib, 2004, 71-86). Hence the support in the United States for Israel’s position. On January 3, 2009, the U.S. government blocked the U.N. Security Council from issuing a statement calling for a stop to the military action. The U.S. government took this course of action on the grounds that Hamas would not stop attacking Israel. But this was not all. On January 9 the U.S. House of Representatives voted for a bill which declared “unwavering support” for Israel by a margin of 390 to 5 (Economist, 2009, 48). Parenthetically, it should be noted that the only mystery was how “the other side” found the five votes.
The Geopolitics of Network Coverage
On the other side of the chasm, Arab television was less monolithic, marked as it was by bitter geopolitical rivalries between Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. The former was accused of being pro-Hamas, and the latter of being pro-Fatah. Al Arabiya, owned by Saudi interests with close links to the Saudi royal family, chose to avoid more graphic footage than its Doha-headquartered competitor, and in general, took a more measured tone in its coverage. During the war, both Egypt and Saudi Arabia sought to prevent Hamas from scoring political points. Qatar, by contrast, actively headed a group of Gulf states that equated support for Hamas with support for the Palestinian people in general (Pintak, 2009). “Our coverage was closer to the people,” Al Jazeera’s news chief, Ahmed Sheikh, claimed, while his counterpart, Al Arabiya news chief Nabil Khatib, argued that, “We belong to two different schools of news television in the Arab world. There is the school that believes that news media should have an agenda and should work on that agenda for political and ideological reasons, which is Al Jazeera’s.” “We are in the school,” he continued, “that believes you need to guarantee knowledge with the flow of news without being biased and by being as much as possible balanced” (Ibid.). Early in the conflict, the leader of Hizbullah, Hassan Nasrallah, called Al Arabiya “Al Ibriya”, Arabic for The Hebrew One.
Al Jazeera was for the Gaza war what CNN was for the first Gulf War – which is to say the media organization that everyone else goes to for their images and commentary. At the time of the Gaza war, it was said that CNN reported the launch of a missile, but Al Jazeera reported on what happened after it landed.
Al Jazeera’s strength lies in the fact that it is trying to turn the world on its head. Too much of the news, it argues, is dominated by the northern half of the world (meaning, essentially, North America and western Europe). It is time that the “Global South”, as they call it, are allowed to speak in their own voice. Al Jazeera’s sister agency, Al Jazeera English, has created a market for itself in a way that makes its rivals look staid and old-school. As one journalist, Robert Kaplan, has written, “Outlets such as CNN and the BBC don’t cover foreign news so much as they cover the foreign extensions of Washington’s or London’s collective obsessions” (Kaplan, 2009, 56). Kaplan cited – with evident approval – Al Jazeera’s ability to hustle, giving the channel an outlook, or a world-view, which he described as “breezy, pacifist-trending internationalism”. This brand of internationalism seemed to work on a subconscious level. The “subliminal message”, he wrote, “appears to be that compromise should be the order of the day” (Ibid.). And what compromise might this be? Kaplan further elaborated, arguing that “the politically weak, merely by being so, are automatically in the right” because Al Jazeera is, in its deepest instincts, pro-Palestinian. He explained it thus: “a certain moral equivalency is Al Jazeera’s lifeblood” – in other words, the “history of human suffering seemingly begins and ends with that of Palestinians under Israeli occupation and that of Iraqis under erstwhile American occupation” (Ibid.).
Finding Non-Traditional ways to explain the Dynamics of War
Television coverage alone has not been enough. Activists who tried to reach a politically engaged public turned to an older form of media: theater. Consider the case of Caryl Churchill. Churchill wrote a 10-minute play entitled Seven Jewish Children – a play about Gaza in 2009. The Royal Court Theatre in London produced it as a thirteen-run show. The Royal Court has a reputation for producing iconoclastic and anti-establishment pieces. Churchill, who was born in 1938 and had her first play produced in 1958, is widely acknowledged to be one of the major playwrights of her time. She is also a committed partisan. She is a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a long-standing critic of the Israeli government. In order to support the cause, she insisted that the play be performed for free, with a collection to be taken up for Medical Aid for the Palestinians. The play was published online for free download and use – again with the proviso that any monies go to the Palestinians. The play was taut and compressed. It was structured into seven scenes, with unnamed characters instructing their children – in a number of contradictory ways – on how to respond to the violent events around them. No child actors were involved in the production – a point of emphasis, presumably, for the playwright. After it was published, another playwright, Robbie Gingras, an artist in residence at Makom, a Jewish Agency for Israel, wrote a play from the opposite point of view. Gingras’s play was entitled The Eighth Child, and was meant to serve as an additional chapter to Churchill’s work. Other playwrights, in turn, presented their own variations on Churchill’s theme.