Gaza in the U.S. Media: A Conversation with Omar Baddar

by the Palestine Center Interns

The Palestine Center ended its 2015 Summer Intern Lecture Series last week with a panel entitled “Operation Protective Edge: Representation in the U.S. Media.” Panelists Dr. Edmund Ghareeb, professor of Global Kurdish Studies at American University, and Omar Baddar, political analyst, digital producer, and human rights advocate, gave their perspective on American coverage of the 2014 Gaza war across different media outlets. Our interns sat with Omar Baddar after the lecture to probe further into how U.S. media has shaped American understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

What were the difficulties that American sources faced when reporting in war zones, such as Gaza in the summer of 2014? Which American media outlets, if any, do you think offered laudable coverage of the war?

Omar Baddar: In terms of the restrictions that media outlets face, war zones are places where virtually nobody is allowed in. That is always a problem. For example, throughout the clashes that happened during the second intifada it was very difficult for media outlets to gain access. There were cases of journalists actually being shot, including Western journalists, and not just Palestinian ones, by Israeli occupation forces. It is very unsafe, and it is understandable that the media would be somewhat reluctant to cover a war zone. You end up with Al Jazeera effectively being one of the few outlets that cover what is happening. They get very direct footage of the unfolding destruction.

In terms of what outlets have laudable coverage, it is hard to say, because it is a really comparative thing: sometimes the level of improvement that a certain outlet had is more laudable than another outlet that has always had good coverage and just maintained it. If you look at Democracy Now’s coverage it was obviously fantastic, but that is what you expect from Democracy Now; they are going to be really good on an issue like this. Yet, in terms of improvement, what was noteworthy was MSNBC’s coverage. The presence of Chris Hayes on the network and the kind of perspective he brings, the openness he has for having different points of view and different backgrounds of guests being presented is really noteworthy. It might be hard to imagine a show where Yousef Munayyer and Noura Erakat together speaking on a major U.S. network, but Chris Hayes’ show is where that sort of thing happens.

How did the media’s portrayal of this last Gaza War compare to more general depictions of the Arab world, Middle East, and Palestine in American media?

The most relevant comparison would be to earlier episodes in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I started paying attention to media coverage during the second intifada when the narrative was extremely one sided. It was very much that Israel was the victim of Palestinian violence and it had to protect itself. When you compare that coverage with this latest round of violence, you see that there was an improvement of sorts. Suddenly, the war was portrayed as one between two equal parties. Even though that is an improvement it remains deeply problematic. You are talking about a false moral equivalence because ultimately you are dealing with an occupier and an oppressor fighting against an occupied and an oppressed population. In terms of balance of power there is also a problem because Israel is the most sophisticated military force in the entire region, certainly one of the most sophisticated in the entire world, and the Palestinians are effectively a defenseless population with no military capabilities apart from some guns and makeshift rockets that hardly do any damage. Even though one can say that there is improvement over previous coverage, it remains extremely biased in many ways.

How has the American media’s coverage of Gaza shaped or influenced Americans’ understanding of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?

There are subtle biases that are hard to detect. There was an acceptance of Israel’s narrative that the starting point of this round of violence was the kidnapping of three Israeli settlers and their subsequent killing. Yet, just the day before that there was a Palestinian man and his ten-year-old child killed by an Israeli strike. It doesn’t occur to anyone to consider this as the starting point of the conflict because people in the United States are just reflexively used to the idea that Palestinians initiate violence and Israel responds. More broadly, there is very little mention of the fact that Palestinians are living under an illegal occupation, and that this is really what stokes the conflict. Criticism of Israel’s position in these subjects focuses on the disproportionate nature of Israeli attacks. Some Americans come away with the sense that Israel is responding disproportionately and causing much suffering to the Palestinians and that is terrible. Ultimately, though, they are under the false impression that Israel is only responding to violence disproportionately as opposed to initiating it and perpetuating this conflict.

Do you think that the growing power and pervasiveness of social media, “Gaza snapchat” for instance, is a key tool in the reformation of major news outlets and how they cover events on the ground in Palestine?

I think this sort of thing is actually very useful and very important. I know there are some criticisms by people who say, “Oh well, snapchat featuring the West Bank doesn’t really make up for Tel Aviv featuring on the eve of the war,” but the fact that you got something out of it is still something. Even though you don’t get everything out of it, you still get something. The more people engage in these types of things, the more active they are on social media in general, then the more buzz they create around certain communities. Even if you are talking about life in Palestine in a very non-political fashion, that still counts for something.

I think there is this mindset that whenever you mention the word Palestine, you immediately get images of conflict, and I think reminding people that there is still a Palestinian society beyond that is really important. That is one thing that really suffered the most damage because of Israeli policies in Palestine. When Palestine becomes free, and I am very hopeful that one day it will be, the biggest challenge will be to rebuild Palestinian society. Whatever society that you end up with after enduring so many years of exile and occupation is going to be different from the society that your parents or grandparents might remember. I think that any attempts to keep Palestinian society alive in people’s consciousness, through social media, have a positive impact in the long run. And in the short run, any buzz you create around it is positive as well.

What impact has social media and the media in general had on the successes and failures of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement? What potential help can social media give to BDS to allow it to grow?

The BDS movement has been a really invaluable tool in the struggle to achieve Palestinian rights. At a time when there is complete political stagnation and media blackout, the fact that people had a way to fight back through BDS is crucial. It has a major impact in spite of the lack of mainstream coverage of it. We have gotten to the point where there have been so many major victories that even Israeli politicians are openly talking about BDS as a threat, in many cases exaggerating it and distorting the aims of the movement. Nonetheless, the way they are reacting to it and trying to de-legitimize it tells you something about just how effective it has been.

It has been very effective. I don’t think mainstream media outlets have been helpful at all. There was a congressional briefing about BDS not long ago that did not have a single Palestinian on the panel, and not a single person fully supportive of the broader BDS campaign was there to speak. So the way BDS is being dealt with through official channels is still extremely problematic, but I think that we can take some satisfaction in knowing that it is actually having an impact and that the Israeli political establishment is reacting to it in really negative ways. It is only a matter of time before mainstream outlets have to accept the fact that it is a broad movement that is gaining significant momentum. It is interesting that BDS is supported by the overwhelming majority of Palestinians in a way that no other political idea, party or ideology is.

How does media coverage of BDS movement compare to coverage of the divestment movement in South Africa during apartheid?

We are definitely not there yet. Hopefully, we will get there one day. The divestment movement took so many years in South Africa to get to the point of mass support, and of having a significant impact on U.S. foreign policy. We are still years away from that, but I think that so long as we keep doing what we are doing, then we will get there one day.

The views expressed by speakers, writers and others do not necessarily reflect those of the Palestine Center or The Jerusalem Fund.

The Palestine Center is a non-political, educational forum and does not take positions on issues.