The Electronic Intifada on KPFK Pacifica

The following transcript is of a 2 May 2001 interview with two of The Electronic Intifada’s founders, Nigel Parry and Laurie King-Irani, on Don Bustany’s “Middle East In Focus” programme, which can be heard on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. PST on KPFK Radio in Los Angeles. Minor edits, for the purpose of clarity, have been made to the text.

Don Bustany’s Middle East In Focus programme, KPFK, 2 May 2001

Don Bustany: So, what is this Electronic Intifada? Jump in.

Nigel Parry: I think Laurie should jump in because she wrote a good article expressing what that was all about a while ago.

Laurie King-Irani: Well first of all I think it’s something very new and it’s also something that was very needed among all of the activists on this issue. Just to back up a little bit to maybe about a year and a half ago, the conference that was held in Boston about the right of return sponsored and organised by the Trans Arab Research Institute…

Don: Right of return meaning what?

Laurie: The right of return for Palestinian refugees.

Don: To return to?

Laurie: …their homes, because that’s part of international legal precident and the Geneva Conventions which say you have the right to return to where you’re from and having anybody chase you away or block your return militarily is not legal under international law.

So a movement had started around that and one of the spin-offs was that a lot of activism began on the topic of media. Most of the people who were trying to be media activists really didn’t have a lot of context or background or knowledge or skills, and also we have to note that a lot of these people were not native to the United States and didn’t really understand the politics or the logistics of how the American media world works and what will be accepted for media, what won’t, and the whys and wherefores of that.

So, first and foremost, The Electronic Intifada is filling a need and it came along, I believe, at the right time.

Secondly, if we just look at what the word “intifada” means. In Arabic, it means “to shake off” which means to say “Enough of this, we need to change.” We need to make a change on a conceptual level, on a practical level, on a political level. It’s really a breaking with past processes.

It doesn’t really mean “uprising” in the way that we usually translate it into English, it really has more of a philosophical or cognitive or even a personal dimension to it. And what we’ve tried to do with The Electronic Intifada is to shake off traditional and conventional ways of viewing this conflict.

In this country I think there’s just not a lot of context to people’s understanding of what’s going on over there. Here in the United States we think that anything that happened before five years ago is ancient history, and if you want to talk to people about Palestinian issues, Palestinian rights, the situation of refugees we have to go back to 1948 and even earlier, and most Americans will just start to look at you like, “Gee, this is just too complicated.”

What we want to do is short-circuit the thinking and the perceptions and therefore the actions surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Palestinian rights, as they are perceived and approached in this country and I would say that is the basic purpose of The Electronic Intifada as well as to provide advice, guidance, and technical assistance for people who really want to do serious media activism.

Don: Okay, let me ask your associate there, Nigel Parry, whether the four of you running The Electronic Intifada find that our news media distort events in Palestine/Israel.

Nigel: I think it happens in a number of ways. For us, the most shocking is the fact that there’s a military occupation over there, which is rarely mentioned in reports. There will be reference to events happening in the West Bank and Gaza without noting that they are actually occupied areas, which for us is a bit like talking about South Africa in the 80’s without mentioning Apartheid.

It’s a very critical piece of contextual information that’s not generally given in reports. In some cases — for example, CNN does this a lot — they tend present the occupation as a Palestinian point of view which is thoroughly at odds with the international view of the conflict as a very clear case of military occupation.

Don: Is your perception similar to mine, that the Palestinian spokespeople kind of defensively respond to descriptions of the conflict by the Israelis without clearly painting the picture that they, the Palestinian, are an occupied people?

Nigel: I think that’s very true and I’d even go beyond there and say that in general you don’t really get the impression from the Palestinian Authority that they really understand media issues or public relations issues to anywhere near the level that the Israelis clearly do.

They’ve never really invested any effort in being very pro-active with journalists and presenting their case and they tend, as you say, to mainly react to events without really thinking about how that’s going to be framed, which is [laughs] one of the reasons that we’re around I guess.

Laurie: I think sometimes that makes the Palestinian leadership and the spokespersons, as you mentioned Don, their own worst enemies. But if you look at it from an emotional or psychological view, they’re really living these events, and they’ve lost a lot. In many cases people have lost their land, their homes, their families, they live without citizenship.

They’re disenfranchised therefore from many things that we take for granted in a modern world where the nation state is our basic unit of belonging and allocation of resources, etcetera, and if you don’t have a nation state behind you, you’re pretty well screwed.

They really live that and I think that there’s a lot of anger and bitterness and exasperation among Palestinians as a result, because they’re so deeply into that and don’t take time to think, “Okay, if I was someone in Iowa, who didn’t know anything about this, what would be the best way for me to begin to get my mind around the enormity of this situation? The roots of it and the implications and the repercussions on people’s lives?”

They really don’t make that effort and I’ve had so many arguments with Palestinian friends and colleagues over the years about the real need to improve and upgrade their ability to reach out to American audiences and that’s one of the real things that The Electronic Intifada can do.

Don: Nigel and Laurie, can each of you give us some examples of what you consider the most serious distortions in the news reporting?

Nigel: I think the main one beyond the whole issue of not mentioning the occupation is presenting the conflict as one between equals.

Often you’ll see in reports, “Palestinian gunmen and Israeli troops exchanged fire,” as if you weren’t dealing with on one side, a Palestinian police force without that much training, lightly armed, or — in the case of demonstrators — armed with stones and the odd molotov cocktail, versus the strongest army in the Middle East.

With that constantly reinforced, you get the impression that it’s a conflict like any other cross-border conflict where you have two armies fighting each other.

Don: That’s certainly major. Laurie, do you have one to toss in?

Laurie: [laughs] There’s so many! For me, what always gets my goat the most is the dehuminisation of Palestinians in American media reports, which you see in very basic things that, if you think about it, really are shocking.

For instance, when anyone is killed, whether it’s a Jew or an Arab, a Christian, Muslim, whatever, it’s a very sad moment because it’s a tragedy for many people when one person is killed.

But when you hear news reports, they give you a lot of background information in detail about Jewish people who are killed — their names, where they lived, what they did for a living, how many children they had — as if we’re to really feel so much more sympathy with them, whereas if it’s a Palestinian who was killed, it’s a collection of Palestinians. “18 Palestinians were killed today” versus “a settler from this settlement who is a doctor, who had five children, was also killed today.”

It makes you think, “Well why are there not similar reports given about all the victims on the Palestinian side who have been the majority of victims killed over the last 6 or 7 months?” We have on The Electronic Intifada website an updated daily count of how many people have died which we try to keep accurate but it’s the dehumanisation that really upsets me the most.

Don: Even though it may have an obvious answer, I would really like to hear the two of you give your views as to why there is this apparent media bias towards Israel.

Nigel: I used to work in the public relations office of Birzeit, and Birzeit was always a center for foreign journalists.

Don: Birzeit being the Palestinian university?

Nigel: Yes, just north of Jerusalem. And we used to have to deal with journalists all the time. And [laughs] one of the things that was very interesting about them, and I’d always suspected this before I’d seen any statistics about it, was that pretty much all of the journalists lived in Israeli-controlled areas.

In November last year, a communications lecturer at one of the Israeli universities called Dr. Joel Cohen did a study into the foreign correspondents and found that the vast majority of them came from Western Europe, many of them — a fairly large proportion, he said — were Jewish, many have lived in Israel for ten years, some are married to Israelis, and again, all of them [laughs] live in Israeli-controlled areas.

So, when they come into — if they come into — this is one of the other issues, that often they’re using wire services because of the sheer pressure of deadlines, they don’t necessarily actually go into the West Bank and Gaza.

As a result, when they do go in it’s an alien culture, if they speak a language of the region it’s probably Hebrew, and they’ll go in and they don’t really understand the society because they’re not living in it, so they’re reporting from a sense of a lot of distance and reinforced by the perceptions of the society they do live in which is the Israeli society.

Don: Nigel, does the name Linda Gradstein ring a bell?

Nigel: It does indeed.

Laurie: [laughs]

Nigel: [laughs] Our favourite NPR reporter.

Don: Linda Gradstein is a correspondent, a regular reporter for National Public Radio, heard every morning and sometimes in the afternoon on All Things Considered and and various of the NPR news shows, and in my opinion, I have to very honestly label her not as an objective reporter but as a propagandist for Israel, because she fits the description you just gave of the reporters who don’t know the Palestinians, don’t get names, numbers, weights, whatever, whereas it’s totally opposite for Jewish victims of the violence.

Now, do you also recognise the name Amira Hass?

Nigel: Of course.

Laurie: Oh yes.

Don: Amira Hass is the opposite number, right? Tell us about her.

Nigel: Amira Hass is actually completely a freak as far as Israeli journalists go, in that during the first Intifada, which lasted from 1987-1992…

Don: Now Amira is a Jewish Israeli?

Laurie: She is, a journalist for Ha’aretz.

Nigel: …she actually lived in Gaza during the first Intifada with Palestinians, which was unheard of, and since the beginning of the Oslo process she’s been living in Ramallah. I met her on several occasions.

What distinguishes her writing from pretty much all of the other Israeli journalists is that she is writing from a basis of knowing that there is such a thing as Joe or Jane Normal Palestinian.

Often when journalists go in to report an event, they’re dealing with people who’ve maybe had a house demolished or something like that. They’re not dealing with people shopping or watching the Superbowl, so they get a very strange view of what normality in Palestinian culture is.

But Amira lives there all the time, and she’s learned the most important lesson of journalism or foreign correspondents which is essentially that people everywhere are ultimately the same. There’s not a big difference. As a result, she’s completely overcome the barrier of dehumanisation which tends to be the default.

[Don breaks for KPFK station and programme identification]

Don: We’ve named one certainly American-raised reporter now reporting in Israel, Linda Gradstein, who speaks unaccented standard American English, and Amira Hass who is Jewish, Israel-born, and whose accent is clearly Israel, who has been on this programme before and will be again. Laurie King-Irani and Nigel Parry, what other Jewish Israeli journalists do you find are reporting accurately, honestly, objectively?

Laurie: I think Gideon Levy…

Nigel: Yes

Laurie: …who also writes for Ha’aretz is quite good. And another, who is really more of an academic but he also writes journalistically as well, is Tom Segev. He does more of a historical analysis.

A point I was wanting to make when you were discussing Amira Hass was that, unlike Linda Gradstein, she not only has the background of having lived next to Palestinians for many years and seeing them as human beings, and understanding their concerns, hopes and fears, she also understands the history of the region very intimately and she also has a good grasp of international law.

What I find with a lot of the American, and even some of the British journalists on the BBC, is that they will make gaffes in their discussions of the conflict there or developments on the ground that clearly indicate that they don’t know some basic realities of international law, that they don’t know the basic framework of the Geneva Conventions which specify what should be the behaviour of an Occupying Power in a situation like we have now in Israel and Palestine.

Dan: Does either one of you recall the title of Amira’s book which was published about a year ago?

Laurie: Drinking the Sea at Gaza.

Don: Drinking the Sea at Gaza. Author Amira Hass. It’s well worth reading [“Drinking the Sea at Gaza : Days and Nights in a Land Under Siege,” by Amira Hass, Owl Books, paperback, 2000.]

So here we have a situation where we have a number of Israeli journalists who report the conflict between the Arabs and Jews of the territories of Israel and Palestine, honestly, accurately, with sensitivity toward all participants there and we have a host of non-Arab, non-Jewish journalists here in the States, some of who serve duty in the Middle East, not being nearly as forthcoming and as — balance is not the word — but as comprehensive and sensitive as the writers you’ve been talking about. Why? What’s going on here in the States that the quality, the level of our journalism is not up to where it ought to be?

Nigel: I think fear is one of the big things.

Don: Fear?

Nigel: This country has the most powerful pro-Israeli lobby in the world. For example CNN, whose reporting I would say is generally balanced. They get faxes every day from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs and from the various Jewish groups in the US complaining that their coverage is biased. In our Introduction to media coverage on the site, we call this the “smoke without fire” approach.

Don: Smoke without fire? [laughs]

Nigel: [laughs] Smoke without fire. When you read the concerns of pro-Israeli groups like CAMERA who look at the media, most of it is nonsense. It’s not very obvious things, they’re picking at specific words, they’re not global issues, to try and demonstrate bias where there isn’t any. And I think a lot of people are basically intimidated by that.

There’s an old saying that the definition of the US media is “material too hawkish to print in the Israeli media.”

Laurie: [laughs]

Nigel: And it’s true, you get much better coverage in the Israeli media than in the American media.

Laurie: That’s true.

Don: Yes, more honest and comprehensive. Laurie?

Laurie: I always look forward to the Ha’aretz being delivered by e-mail. It comes in every night about 11 p.m. Eastern Standard Time and I stop what I’m doing and I look through all the reports, the op-eds, and the letters to the editor, and I find it much more realistic, much more just, much more comprehensive than anything being produced practically anywhere else, with a few exceptions.

One would be the work of Graham Usher, a British journalist on the ground there. And then there’s also Robert Fisk who reports out of Beirut for The Independent of London, but goes periodically to the West Bank and Gaza, and he does a fabulous job as well.

Don: And he’s well known to Pacifica audiences.

Laurie: Right he’s been on your show.

Don: He’s been on my show once but many times with Amy Goodman in the morning.

Laurie: Right. When I was at Middle East Report, we had him over here for a speaking tour, so I spent a lot of time with him in airports and such [laughs]. We had many discussions and he was really very focused on one issue, and that was the lack of historical context in the US media. Robert Fisk, by the way, has a Ph.D. in history.

He did his doctoral dissertation on the Irish-English conflict over a 300-year period and he also did investigative work on that which was more journalistic than academic. He was pointing out to me the lack of historical context.

The other thing he pointed out was that when he was covering the war in Beirut, his American colleagues would come in, and as soon as they would begin to understand what was really going on and speak the local dialect, and have good contacts, they would be shipped out to another place, and he found this amazing.

He, working for The Independent, has been in Beirut now for 26 years. He still has the same apartment there, he got contacts all over the place, he has his own little restaurant he goes to every night [laughs]. He’s been there long enough that he’s really got his finger on the pulse and he can report anything in Lebanon, whether it’s a light-hearted story or a very serious story, and people will take what he says seriously because he really knows his stuff.

He pointed out that the American media is really more like a business. It’s a matter of making money, and that’s the way journalists are looking at it whereas for him journalism should be more of a vocation, something you’re called to do, that’s not just a way of making money.

Don: Laurie, Nigel, talk to us now in the couple of minutes we have left, about the use of the terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” in describing almost every act of resistance by the Palestinians.

Laurie: Nigel, do you want to go first? [laughs]

Nigel: [laughs]

Don: There’s plenty for everybody [laughs].

Nigel: Yes. It’s kind of an old chestnut. In my personal opinion, the word is fair use, if you’re using it to describe attacks on civilian targets or inanimate objects for the purpose of creating fear and intimidation to secure a political viewpoint. As I’m sure you’re aware — and Don, you may even have with you — the US State Department’s definition is very different.

Don: I do have.

Nigel: Maybe you should read that out.

Laurie: Yes, just read that a second.

Don: It would be a good starting point. Okay. The issue of terrorism and the labeling of acts and people as terrorism and terrorists has been with us for some years, and I called the State Department a few years ago to discuss it, and I wrote down verbatum and made sure I had it right before I let the press representative off the phone. Here’s what he told me is the Department of State’s definition of “terrorism”:

“Terrorism is a premeditated, politically-motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents usually intended to influence an audience.”

I guess you both picked up that, by “subnational groups” it excludes being able to apply the definition to governments, such as the governments of the USA or Israel.

Laurie: It lets the imperialists off the hook.

Nigel: Yes.

Don: Yes.

Laurie: It reminds me of Noam Chomsky’s definition of a language, that “a language is a dialect with an army and a navy,” so what’s a subnational group?

Don: [laughs] “Language is a dialect with an army and a navy.”

Laurie: Yes, so a subnational group is an ethnic group that doesn’t have an army and a navy. It has a couple of rocket-propelled grenades. But if you’ve got an army and a navy and kill a mass of civilians, and have a flag and an anthem and everything else, then you’re not a terrorist!

Don: Yes.

Nigel: [laughs]

Laurie: That’s one of the most ridiculous things I’ve heard in my life. Killing innocent civilians is a crime, it’s a sin, no matter who does it, for whatever reason.

Don: Would you like to give The Electronic Intifada website or e-mail address, whatever works for you, before we have to sign off here.

Nigel: Certainly. The website is a great source of information and also we have regular action alerts which people can join in to focus protest in a constructive way towards erring media organisations [laughs].

Don: Our time has run out. The sand has run out. Let me thank Electronic Intifada founders, Laurie King-Irani and Nigel Parry.

Nigel: Thanks a lot, Don.

Don: See you later.

Laurie: Thanks.

Don: This has been another edition of “Middle East in Focus”. Join us next Wednesday at 2.00pm.