Over the last few weeks, media in this region was filled with images of people from all over the Western world holding up Palestinian flags and chanting “Free Palestine.” We’ve heard from the likes of Americans, like prize-winning author Alice Walker and former CIA official Ray McGovern (both passengers on the US boat to Gaza) about the importance of standing up for Palestinians in Gaza; we’ve heard about hunger strikes by Spanish and American citizens stuck in Greece after their boats were not allowed to sail; and we’ve seen videos of activists landing in Ben Gurion airport, declaring their intention to visit the occupied West Bank, being accosted by an Israeli mob and then detained and deported, all while chanting “Free Palestine.”
All these events have enormous significance as symbolic acts. They demonstrate to the world, through mass-coordinated events, the de facto command Israel has over the entire territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea and all its points of access, whether by land, air or sea. They also demonstrate the lengths to which Israel will go to maintain its control and the hysteria it generates on the home front in order to disguise its own political calculations as matters of security.
But amid all the sensational scenes of confrontation between Israeli authorities and Western “pro-Palestinian” activists (including Israelis), what became apparent was that Palestinians themselves could not be seen or heard. Even though the “Welcome to Palestine” campaign was organized by Palestinian civil society organizations that invited foreigners to come, the media spectacle was focused on the Western activists and their confrontation with Israel. The Palestinians were largely unseen.
Mazin Qumsiyeh, professor at Bethlehem University, author of a book on popular resistance, and the international coordinator of the Palestine Justice Network, is one of the leading organizers of the campaign. Why did the mainstream media outlets not interview him about the campaign? The only place one could find his views was here on The Electronic Intifada, an independent news site that focuses on Palestine.
Moving the focus of media spectacles away from Palestinians to Westerners is a smart strategy. Seeing images of people from France, Belgium and the US being detained at Israel’s national airport makes much more of an international media storm than any Palestinian account of suffering, whether it be Jawaher Abu Rahmah dying from tear gas inhalation in Bilin or a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem being shot and killed by a private Israeli security guard in Silwan.
Even tragic stories about Americans in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, like the story of Rachel Corrie (an American activist killed in Gaza in 2003 by an Israeli military bulldozer whose death seemed to draw little sympathy from many who believe she imprudently entered a war zone), does not get as much media attention and sympathy as seeing Israel in hysterics over middle-aged Europeans wanting to visit Palestinians in the West Bank. Activists know this and are using it to their advantage.
Making the media effort to expose Israel more focused on how its policies affect foreigners, not Palestinians, highlights an increasingly popular trend where images of Westerners getting a taste of what Palestinians suffer by experiencing political discrimination and restriction on freedom of movement are enthusiastically displayed in front of the world’s cameras.
While this approach is clearly effective, as evident from the volume of media invested in the stories and the plethora of images released, it is also reflective of a “colonialist,” patronizing perspective espoused by the media, whereby the subject itself, the Palestinians, are no longer even needed in the story. Instead, it is sufficient for a bunch of unknown Westerners to show solidarity with the Palestinian struggle in order to make it to the headlines.
Considering how effective a media strategy this is, regardless of what it says about how global media treats the Palestinians, we can expect this trend to only increase and become more popular, as activists continue to seek ways to expose Israeli wrongdoings in the face of immutable policies.
Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli-American independent journalist based in Tel Aviv and writer and editor for 972mag.com.