Western mainstream media’s view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

As a journalist who follows, reports and analyzes world events for Turkish readers, I was asked by NewsLabTurkey to write an article on how the Western media has covered the ongoing violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories since October 7.

For many years now – increasingly since the first Intifada – Western mainstream media outlets have largely reported in line with the official ideology and propaganda of the state of Israel (and the US, which supports it unconditionally). There are countless academic studies on this subject. In this article, I will limit myself to citing examples from the British broadcaster BBC, where I worked (between 1997-99) and was trained in the ethics of the profession.

First of all, I should share a basic criterion that I hope readers and viewers can use as a kind of litmus paper, not only for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but for any conflict with a political and social context, anywhere in the world: Dear readers, you will agree with me that in war, conflict or any kind of violence, people do not “die”, they are “killed”. In other words, every kind of violence, murder, massacre and crime has a perpetrator. If the perpetrator is hidden, you should know that there is either censorship or – most likely unconscious, often conscious – self-censorship and a biased attitude associated with it. Such is the case of the BBC’s October 9th post below, which I have chosen as an example:

“More than 500 people have been killed in Gaza following retaliatory Israeli airstrikes, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. More than 700 people have been killed in Israel since Hamas launched its attacks on Saturday.”

I will give other examples of the organization’s pro-Israel stance in a moment, but on the 10th day of the events, the BBC announced that it had received around 1500 complaints from the public, half of which accused the organization of taking a pro-Israel stance and half of which accused it of taking an anti-Israel stance. Even in responding to these criticisms, the corporation seems to struggle to find a balance and only points to Hamas as the clear perpetrator:

“BBC News has provided our global audience with news and first-hand accounts of Hamas atrocities and suffering in Gaza [Who is the perpetrator?] We made clear the devastating human cost to civilians in Israel and Gaza and the unprecedented nature of what is happening. The massive civilian casualties on both sides make this a shocking and difficult story to cover. We have reported on the atrocities committed by Hamas in its attacks on Israel, and have heard many stories from survivors and family members of victims that reflect the trauma they have endured. Our teams in Gaza have reported on the rising death toll from Israeli airstrikes [Why not the number of Palestinians killed? ] and the humanitarian crisis [spontaneous?] caused by rockets destroying buildings, cutting off electricity and water supplies, and thousands of people trying to get out of harm’s way [Why dangerous? Is it because the Israeli army is preparing for a ground offensive?”]

On the BBC and all the other Western channels I could watch, the anchors always asked Palestinians, Palestinian civilians, academics, politicians, representatives of the Palestinian Authority, not Hamas, whether they condemned Hamas as their first question. Yet no Israeli who appeared on the air was asked, “Will you condemn Benjamin Netanyahu’s siege and mass punishment of the civilian population of Gaza?” Of course, such a question is legitimate and can be asked: Do you condemn the killing of women and children, regardless of race, religion or which side they are on? But even with such a formulation, it is doubtful that Israelis and Palestinians who appear on the air will be treated equally.

Behind this double-standard approach is a false equalization or “equidistance” logic that hides the huge power asymmetry between the state of Israel and the Palestinian people. But they are not equal. And the Western media is obsessed with blaming the victim, the occupied, the colonized, the besieged. While Palestinians are asked to condemn alleged crimes committed by other Palestinians, not even a politician who is a member of Israel’s ruling party is asked to condemn alleged crimes committed by the Israeli government. In this context, you can watch or read here how Husam Zomlot, the Palestinian Authority’s (not Hamas, the Fatah representative) Ambassador to Britain, challenged BBC presenter Lewis Vaughan Jones and the channel’s double standards when he questioned him from Israel’s point of view and insisted on condemning Hamas.

On October 7, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson stated that the United States “unequivocally condemns the ‘unprovoked’ attacks by Hamas terrorists against Israeli civilians.” The killing of civilians, Israeli, Palestinian or otherwise, should of course always be condemned. But Watson’s use of the word “unprovoked” is a smokescreen and no coincidence. As far as I can see, the BBC and most other Western media outlets report from the comfort of this word choice. “What is provocation?” is not questioned. Apparently, the action of the large number of settlers (some put the number at 800) who stormed the Al-Aqsa Mosque on October 5 is not considered a provocation. The killing of 248 Palestinians by Israeli security forces and settlers between January 1 and October 4 of this year apparently does not count as provocation either. And the decades-long denial of Palestinians’ human rights, not to mention their expulsion from their land, certainly does not qualify. Zomlot’s response to the BBC presenter is also important in this context:

“You only invite us here when Israelis are killed. Did you invite me when more than 200 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank in the last two months? Did you invite me when there were Israeli provocations in Jerusalem or elsewhere? We started by saying that what the Israelis have experienced in the last 48 hours is tragic. This is what Palestinians have been going through every day for the last 50 years. You know the situation in Gaza, the world’s largest open-air prison. 2 million people living there have been held hostage by Israel for 16 years. So, Lewis, maybe it’s time to stop framing the issue in this way, to abandon this dangerous rhetoric and to tell people the ugly truth.”

This rhetoric, which shifts the blame for the violence onto the Palestinians, while obscuring the fact that Israel has ultimate control over the lives of 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, is, yes, dangerous, because it legitimizes the use of openly racist and discriminatory language that, unless challenged, can lead to genocide. This is partly why Israeli President Isaac Herzog was able to say: “It is a whole people that is responsible (for the massacre of Israeli civilians on October 7). This narrative that the civilians were not aware, that they were not involved, is not true. It is absolutely not true.”

International humanitarian law prohibits punishing people for acts they did not commit. Herzog says that civilians will also be punished for the actions of Hamas. Almost half of the people in Gaza are children, so it is they who will be punished for the actions of adult combatants. International law is very clear on this. Collective punishment is against the law. It becomes normal for a government, Israel, its Prime Minister Netanyahu or its Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, to claim that they are fighting “against animal people” and to ask for support to leave no stone unturned in Gaza to “destroy everything”, partly to cover up their own fatal mistakes and shame, by inflicting unprecedented violence on a largely defenseless and imprisoned population, in this context committing war crimes. Let us underline, these are not just words; they are the words of decision-makers, and they determine policies and actions. (Could it be that they do not know how close they are to the language used by the Nazi regime to demonize Jews in preparation for the Holocaust?) Such language, which is merely quoted by journalists without being challenged or questioned, opens the door to crimes against humanity and serves to legitimize genocide. For Washington and other Western capitals to ignore the policy impact of this kind of rhetoric is to give Israel license to do whatever it wants. BBC radio’s Mishal Husain did his journalistic duty well when, at the cost of breaking with the institution’s general line, he held the UK Defense Secretary to account for giving Israel a carte blanche:

Of course, militants in Gaza, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, are clearly committing war crimes as they indiscriminately fire rockets into Israeli towns and cities. It is not difficult to understand and explain that these are war crimes because they directly target civilians. But the Israeli government, with the help of the media, uses a lot of obfuscation. One of them is to warn the civilian population to evacuate, in accordance with the laws of war. But here, too, journalists need to be vigilant and well-equipped. For a warning to be effective, the timing of the warning and the ability of civilians to leave the area must be taken into account. So if you don’t give them enough time, the warning is not legally effective. Also, civilians who cannot or choose not to leave the area do not automatically become legitimate targets. They still need to be protected under international humanitarian law. Therefore, even after the warnings have been issued, the Israeli army must take all possible measures to protect civilians and their property in northern Gaza, the so-called evacuation zone. I have not seen this kind of information reported on the BBC or other Western media outlets, nor have I seen any questioning of the authorities’ decisions in the light of this information.

Another concept that has been used to cover up war crimes is the “right of self-defence”, which the Palestinians have been denied. Former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy’s response to the presenter who argued that Israel was exercising its “right of self-defence” against terrorists by depriving 2,000,000 people in Gaza of their basic needs and by continuously bombarding a narrow area where it is almost impossible to distinguish between civilians and non-civilians is instructive:

“Do you really say this without blushing? Do you really think that it is possible to eradicate a terrorist organisation that is embedded in a population deprived of its most basic rights by military action? Has such a thing ever been seen in history? Is it possible to credibly say that the leaders of a country cut off food, electricity, water, all the necessities of the civilian population and thereby target militants? Sorry, but such lies cannot go unanswered. And telling this lie to yourself leads to wrong policies. If someone had told me that what the militants did over the weekend was a legitimate reaction to years of occupation, I would have said no, you are wrong. You are out of touch with humanity and reality. And if someone were to tell me that what Israel is doing in Gaza today is a legitimate reaction to what happened over the weekend, my reaction would be exactly the same.”

Al Jazeera commentator Marwan Bishara criticises the double standards of US and European leaders on the “right of self-defence”:

“In the eyes of the West, Israel seems to have the ‘right’ to defend its own people, but the Palestinians have no right to defend themselves, as if they were the people of a lesser god! Even Israel seems to have the right to defend and even expand its occupation and apartheid regime, but the Palestinians have no right to express their frustrations or fight for freedom and justice after seventy years of dispossession, oppression and siege. According to Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, ‘Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure, especially electricity, are war crimes. Cutting off water and electricity to men, women and children… is an act of terrorism.’ But for Israel to do the same against the Palestinians in Gaza is self-defence! This is the epitome of hypocrisy and double standards.”

Bishara makes another important warning that I have not yet heard from commentators on BBC broadcasts:

“The hysterical comparisons between Hamas’ Saturday attacks and 9/11 are reckless and extremely dangerous because they serve to lay the groundwork for a wider war, as we witnessed before the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq under false pretences. Such comparisons help to demonise Palestinian leaders and dehumanise the Palestinian people, paving the way for a genocidal war that will start from Gaza. Of course demonising political leaders is an ugly policy, but dehumanising an entire people is racism pure and simple.”

Back to the BBC. At the weekend, the BBC described demonstrations across the UK to criticise Israeli government policies and show solidarity and support for the Palestinians as “demonstrations in support of Hamas”. Since Hamas is considered a terrorist organisation by the US, UK and EU, this is a subtle way of criminalising the demonstrations. Fortunately, democracy works well in the UK and people can get results when they criticise an institution set up to broadcast in the public interest with money from their own pockets. The BBC was forced to admit, after receiving rebuttals and complaints, that its portrayal of the demonstrations as “support for Hamas” “did not reflect the truth” and “misled viewers”.

How the BBC and other Western organisations are under pressure to toe the line of the Israeli state is a topic for another article. For those interested, there is a good article here. One of the most important reasons is the fear of being labelled “anti-Semitic”. Representatives, friends and supporters of the state of Israel exert enormous pressure and lobby effectively to prevent open and honest public discussion of its policies. Not only on journalists, but on politicians, academics, businesspeople and almost everyone else. And calling the occupation an occupation, drawing parallels with the apartheid regime in South Africa, criticising Israeli state violence comes at a heavy price in terms of dismissal, exclusion from publications, and being the target of smear campaigns. In Turkey, we are comfortable talking about the Palestinian issue as long as it is in line with the government line. Even in the mainstream media in Turkey, there are plenty of openly anti-Semitic, racist publications that incite anti-Semitism. On the other hand, I must say that I have observed that some of my colleagues who have left the mainstream are incapable of questioning the line of the state of Israel, which may be related to their reaction to Hamas and its ideology, or they may have developed a one-sided perspective because they have travelled to the region as guests of the state of Israel.

While criticizing others, let’s also criticize ourselves a little:

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