By Khaled Diab
Despite the ugly war of words between Israelis and Arabs, Israel does also get some good press in the Arab world and has some surprising admirers.
Friday 24 February 2012
There has been widespread outrage in Israel over reports that Palestinian state television had aired a show “glorifying” the two Palestinians who, in 2011, had brutally murdered five members of the Fogel family, including their three children. The aunt of Hakim Awad, the young man who had led the attack on the Israeli settlement, described her nephew as a “hero and a legend.”
In 2011, the Itamar massacre was harshly condemned by Arabs, including the Palestinian Authority, media and many local Palestinian residents, despite their anger at the presence of the settlement, which is not only built on occupied land but also on large tracts of private Palestinian land.
So why did the murderers' relatives, amid such widespread censure, choose to describe the killers as “heroes”?
“This happens in every society. And it is more acute in societies, though, that are in great emotional conflict, like Palestinians and Israelis,” said Ray Hanania, the Palestinian-American stand-up comic and columnist who writes for the Jerusalem Post. “These relatives are no different to the relatives and friends of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered scores of Palestinians praying at a mosque.”
Nor were they very different to the Israeli readers who reacted with gloating and glee to a recent bus accident which claimed the lives of numerous Palestinian schoolchildren.
But it was not just the Awad family that glorified the killers, according to Israeli media reports, the show's host did so too. However, according to Tel Aviv University researcher and historian Ofir Winter, “The TV broadcaster did not praise them, but rather gave their relatives a platform to greet them, which is sad and very problematic, but it's not the same thing as actually praising them.”
The programme in question is called For You and helps the relatives of the 4,000-or-so Palestinians – mostly political prisoners –in Israeli prisons to connect with their loved ones, and circumnavigate the difficulties involved in obtaining the necessary permits.
In the immediate wake of the killings, there were reports of celebrations in some Palestinian communities, including fireworks and the distribution of sweets.
But is this really any different to the thousands of “pilgrims” who have visited Baruch Goldstein's grave, many singing and dancing or even kissing the gravestone, with fans describing him as a “saint” and a “hero of Israel,” despite widespread Israeli revulsion and condemnation of Goldstein's murder of 29 Muslim worshippers?
Despite the brutal murder of civilians, including children, about a third of Palestinians, blinded by their hatred of the Israeli settlement enterprise and the occupation, looked favourably on the Itamar attack, according to one opinion poll.
Likewise, charged up with anger at Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza, 9 out of 10 Israeli Jews, a survey found, supported “Operation Cast Lead”, despite the deaths of up to 1,440 Palestinians, including between 314 and 431 children, and the wholesale destruction of the Strip's infrastructure.
While deriving satisfaction from such misfortune and tragedy is truly perverse, it is a clear indication of how this bitter, protracted conflict has warped people's humanity on both sides, and this is often mirrored in the media.
But that's not the entire story. There is a growing minority of Arab journalists – a similar process is also taking place in Israel – who courageously refuse to fall prey to this simplistic us-and-them dichotomy, despite regular character assassinations. However, Israelis are mostly unaware of this and generally have the impression that the Arab media only demonises Israel and its people.
While this is true of some segments of the media, others strive for balance. “There have been some significant changes in the Arab discourse on Israel since the 1967 war, the peace with Egypt and the Oslo agreements,” says Winter, who is also an accomplished Arabist.
In fact, anger at the occupation notwithstanding, there has been a kind of de facto partial “normalisation” of Israel in the media. Not only is Israel now referred to by name rather than the “Zionist entity” of yesteryear, news coverage often takes a neutral and non-emotive tone. One of the trailblazers in this regard has been al-Jazeera which, despite allegations by the Israeli government of anti-Israel bias, regularly hosts Israeli guests and explores other aspects of Israeli society.
One recent example was a documentary, entitled Jerusalem SOS, which featured Jewish and Arab volunteer paramedics in Jerusalem who cross the geographical and psychological divisions in the city to save lives.
In addition, when Israel is viewed beyond the prism of the conflict, it is often held up as a model to emulate. This may surprise many ordinary Israelis and Arabs alike, but this is what Winter, in collaboration with Uriya Shavit of Tel Aviv University, found by analysing a wide range of content dating back to the 1970s.
In fact, Israel is often used by the opposition to highlight “the failures of Arab regimes,” explains Winter. For example, the recent prisoner exchange involving Gilad Schalit evoked not only joy in Arab quarters but a certain amount of soul-searching regarding the thousand-to-one arithmetic of the swap. “You are lucky in your nation, Gilad,” wrote Iqbal Ahmed in the Kuwaiti daily al-Qabas. “In the Arab world, it is the state that kills, arrests and disappears its sons and daughters.”
Different groups focus on different aspects of the Israeli experience. Some Islamists use Israel's identity as a “Jewish state” to argue that religion can go hand-in-hand with modernity, prosperity and democracy, while certain secularists point to Israel's embrace of “western values,” such as science and technology and gender equality, as part of the secret of its success in contrast to the Arabs' failure.
The Iraqi-German writer Najm Wali, who wrote a book about his travels through Israel, once asked on al-Jazeera: “How did Jews from all over the world manage to build such a dynamic country?” Answering his own question, Wali put it down to Israel's ingrained pluralism.
Fascinatingly, an audio recording uncovered by Winter, apparently of the popular TV theologian Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who some have accused of anti-Semitism, expressed, back in the 1990s, admiration for the achievements of Israeli democracy: “We hope that our countries will become like this country [i.e. Israel].”
Why? “There, it is the people who govern. There, they do not have the ‘four nines' which we know in our countries,” he added, referring to the 99.99 percent of the vote with which Arab dictators often used to “win” elections.
Given all this oft-grudging admiration of Israel's social, scientific and economic achievements, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Arab media reacted positively to last year's tent protests – dubbed the “Israeli Spring” – which were at least partly inspired by the Arab uprisings, with some activists even calling Rothschild Avenue their own “Tahrir Square.”
What all this highlights is that, even if a certain amount of anti-Semitism exists in the Arab world, the majority of Arab hostility and distrust toward Israel stems from to its treatment of the Palestinians.
As Arabs battle to win their freedom from their dictators and Israelis struggle to preserve theirs against the extremists in their midst, it is time for moderates on both sides to find common cause and work together to find a just resolution to the Palestinian question and enable Israel to enter the new Middle Eastern fold as a respected and valued neighbour.
A shorter version of this article appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 22 February 2012.