Kill the Messenger

Why Palestine radio and TV studios are fair targets in the Palestine/Israeli war.

To date, most of the Israeli attacks on Palestinian Authority targets have struck me as utterly pointless. I understand their logic, as far as it goes. The Israelis are tired of Arafat. They want him to destroy the radicals and militants inside and outside his movement. If he won’t, they are perfectly prepared to see him destroyed instead, and they attack his buildings and other targets in order to threaten him.

But whether you approve of this argument or not, it is easy to see that Palestine is not Afghanistan or Iraq, a place littered with lots of legitimate military targets. The destruction of airstrips in Gaza simply means that the European Union or the United Nations will once again have to come up with the money to rebuild them. The destruction of Arafat’s “air force”—a couple of helicopters—simply means that someone else will have to buy him or his successor new ones. Whether they want to call it an independent state or not, the Israelis are going to have to live with Palestine in some form or another, and there isn’t much point in making it even poorer than it is. Why destroy its pathetic airports and its administrative buildings?

Last weekend’s destruction of the Voice of Palestine broadcasting center, however, belongs in a different category. Although, again, I can’t quite see the point of destroying the building—the radio went off the air for a few hours but began broadcasting again from another set of studios—the official Palestinian media is the right place for Israel to focus its ire. In fact, in the reporting of the Middle East conflict, which almost always focuses on yesterday’s violence and today’s body count, the crucial role of the Voice of Palestine—the official broadcasting arm of the Palestinian Authority—has often been overlooked. Nor is the problem just radio and television. If you want to understand why the Oslo peace process failed, or where suicide martyrs come from, it is worth taking a closer look at all the Palestinian Authority’s official media.

For one, they are subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, anti-American. A recent cartoon in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, the Palestinian Authority official daily, showed a blindfolded George Bush aiming missiles indiscriminately at a dartboard covered with the names of Arab states. One of his darts had hit the bull’s eye marked “Afghanistan.” Another had gone astray and hit an Arab man in the back. The caption read, “The war in Afghanistan is only the beginning.” While there is plenty of other anti-Americanism in other Palestinian media, and indeed in Arab media everywhere, this is the voice of the Palestinian Authority, the government of Yasser Arafat, a frequent visitor to the White House.            

More important, from the Israeli point of view, the PA’s official media also express tacit approval for terrorism in general and for terrorist “martyrs” in particular. When two Palestinian gunmen were killed in a raid on Israeli civilians, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida published a death notice on its front page commemorating “the heroic martyr Yusuf Muhammed Alsweiti” and “the heroic martyr Nidal Taiseer Aljabali.” The notice asked Allah to “treat them with mercy and to house them in Paradise with the martyrs, the righteous prophets.”

Television is no better. At times of high tension, it has repeatedly broadcast scenes of rioting and violence, carefully cut to make it seem as if the Israeli soldiers are doing all the shooting. According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli military intelligence believes there is a direct correlation between the frequency with which such clips are shown and the frequency of Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

Worst of all are the TV programs for children. I was shown some of these when in Israel a few years ago and can testify to their creepiness: I distinctly remember groups of little girls chanting, “Death to Israel” while smiling adults looked on with approval. Even when they don’t advocate violence, children’s television does persistently broadcast the message that all of Israel is really Palestine, and that all of Israel therefore belongs to the Arabs. A report on children’s education in Palestine, written a year ago, quoted from a children’s program called The Birds’ Garden, which is shown on official Palestinian TV. At one point, the presenter showed a group of small children a map of Israel and the Palestinian territories. “Today I chose a really nice drawing for you of the map of Palestine”:

Let’s look at it together. A drawing of Palestine. It’s so beautiful. There is Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Tiberias [all Israeli cities]. Palestine is so beautiful! Our country is so beautiful. … And to all of our loved ones who are on the map, whether they are from Acre, Haifa, Jaffa, Nazareth, Jerusalem [all Israeli cities again] we bid everyone a welcome.

Readers should be aware, of course, of the background. Alongside the actual conflict in the Middle East, there has always raged an equally persistent “bias battle”: Israelis argue that the world’s media are biased against them, Palestinians argue that the New York Times is biased in Israel’s favor, numerous organizations exist with the sole purpose of quoting and requoting from the world’s press, trying to establish the correctness of their own version of events. Yet the quotes above—which come from an Israeli monitoring organization—belong in a special category. The Palestinian Authority is an organization that officially accepts the existence of Israel. For a part of the explanation as to why so many Palestinians do not, look no further than programs like The Birds’ Garden.

One could also argue that the anti-Americanism and advocacy of terror are a lot lighter in the Palestinian media than they are in other parts of the Arab press. But that’s Palestine’s fate: Because it is next to Israel, it will always be held to higher standards; it will always be watched by nosier watchdogs, just as Israel is more carefully watched than, say, Jordan or Syria. Establishing a credible media will be, for the Palestinians, part of what it takes to establish a credible state. Until then, the Voice of Palestine will remain what it has become: a combatant—and therefore a legitimate target—in a painful, never-ending, low-intensity war.