By Khaled Diab
Although the Israeli-Palestinian media battlefield is bitter and deeply entrenched, journalists have a responsibility to venture into the no man’s land between the two sides, even if it means getting caught in the crossfire.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most protracted and bitter in the world. The acrimony and polarisation associated with the conflict has transformed the media itself into a veritable battlefield. In fact, the question of bias itself has become its own theatre in the media wars, with one camp accusing the media of possessing an anti-Israeli slant, while the other alleges an anti-Palestinian bias. The exchange of fire over this issue became particularly heated during the recent war in Gaza.
Faced with such hostility, even the most well-intentioned and balanced journalist can get caught in the crossfire. Nevertheless, it is crucial that more journalists, particularly Israeli and Palestinian ones, abandon the narrow “us and them” dichotomy and pursue a line that is fair to both sides.
While the power of the media should not be overstated, it has the potential either to fuel the conflict by entrenching and confirming negative stereotypes, perpetuating hostility and beating the drums of war, or to advance the quest for peace by challenging and changing people’s perceptions, building understanding and mending fences.
So, what can the media do to be more constructive?
The media should highlight positives and not just fixate on negatives. In Western media it often seems that the Middle East produces little other than violence. We all know that violence makes headlines, but non-violence and grassroots peace efforts should also be given prominent coverage. The Palestinian, Arab and Israeli media all need to dedicate more coverage to positive stories from the other side and not always view the other through the prism of the conflict. They also need to dedicate more space to building a deeper understanding of the cultural and social make-up of the other side.
The media should be a channel for creative and novel approaches to the conflict, as well as a conduit for debate. Online forums and social networking sites are playing a crucial role in this respect by enabling Arabs and Israelis to cross geographical and political divides and communicate directly.
Opinion writers and columnists can also exercise significant influence. Column writing is about opinion and opinion is essentially subjective. But subjectivity, if coupled with balance, can be extremely helpful.
Personally, I try to use my Guardian column as a platform to humanise both sides of the conflict, uphold consistent values when judging actions, challenge perceptions, think outside the box, and reflect the complex human, social and cultural reality of the two peoples in order to give space to those who dare to cross “enemy lines”. In one series of articles I tackled head-on the stereotypes and misperceptions Arabs and Israelis have about each other. I have also explored alternative routes to peace, such as non-violence and civil rights movements.
More creatively, I once wrote a column where I imagined a fictional and peaceful future in 2048, which led one reader to point-out an essay-writing contest (sponsored by the non-profit organisation One Voice and distributed by the Common Ground News Service) in which Israeli and Palestinian kids imagined their own peaceful futures. I was so moved by their visions that I used another column to urge adults to “let the children take over the peace process and bring to it the sensibility and competence of childhood”.
My approach has come under fire from both pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians, often in reaction to the same text. Despite the entrenched hostility, such an approach does pay dividends. It is heartening to see that reaching common ground is possible. As one reader pointed out: “One-sided historical narratives are toxic. In attempting a unified narrative, you’re doing good work.” Another wrote: “Thanks for this encouraging article that can positively challenge everybody’s perceptions of this conflict.”
I am often pleasantly surprised by the maturity of the debate that develops between readers of my articles. It is truly inspiring to see how constructive the voices of the “silent majority” can be when brought into the debate. That is why a more balanced media is essential if we want to see a positive outcome to this conflict.
This article was first published by the Common Ground News Service on 14 April 2009.