ISRAELI MEDIA COVERAGE OF THE TENSE CEASEFIRE BETWEEN ISRAEL AND THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY FOLLOWING THE SHARM E-SHEIKH UNDERSTANDINGS
On February 8, 2005, at the Sharm e-Sheikh summit, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) declared a ceasefire after more than four years of Intifada. Since the summit, the two sides have exchanged mutual recriminations on intentional and unintentional violations of the understandings that were reached. This report examines how the major Israeli media outlets covered the ceasefire, how they interpreted the actions (both positive and negative) of both sides, and how they dealt with each side’s pronouncements concerning violations of the ceasefire by the other side.
The report focuses on a period of 32 days, between April 9 and May 10, 2005, and examines patterns of coverage in six major Israeli media outlets: The newspapers Ha’aretz, Yedioth Ahronoth and Ma’ariv, and the nightly television news broadcasts on Channels 1, 2 and 10.
In a long and difficult conflict like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, periods of ceasefire and relative calm—like the one examined in this report—are no less important than more violent periods. The two sides arrive at a ceasefire when they are exhausted, injured and distrustful. Almost naturally, both sides tend to overlook cases in which they themselves violate the agreements that led to the ceasefire and to see in the other side’s violations proof that it intends to resume the circle of violence. Each side tends to see its violations as unintentional and the other side’s violations as the direct result of policy. Moreover, in situations like these, decision makers (in our case, Israeli decision makers) are likely to issue declarations that are not meant to strengthen the ceasefire, but rather, to prepare the ground for blaming the other side in the event that the ceasefire ends.
This is why it is important that media outlets, which provide their consumers with information on this unstable state of affairs, provide balanced, reliable and checked information that attempts to independently examine events in the field and critically interpret official pronouncements. As this report shows, the media outlets examined in this report did not perform their duty in this regard.
The first part of the report (Sections 2 - 5) concerns coverage of Israel’s actions and failures to act; the second part concerns coverage of the Palestinian Authority’s actions and failures to act. In both parts, this report does not attempt to determine to what extent each side fulfilled its commitments, nor how “justified” its accusations were against the other side. The report, rather, seeks to examine news coverage of these questions and to scrutinize to what extent the media outlets provided their consumers with information that was checked, investigated and complete on the complex reality of the fragile ceasefire—information that can enable media consumers to attain an informed outlook on the current stage of the conflict.
How was violence by the IDF against Palestinians covered?
During the period covered by this investigation, 9 Palestinians were killed by soldiers’ fire in six separate incidents and more than 100 Palestinians were injured. In the media outlets that were examined, there appeared 42 items about these incidents. The reports were relatively minor and were minimized by various editorial techniques. Incidents in which Palestinians were injured by IDF soldiers’ fire were almost never reported, even when they resulted in serious injuries.
The report examines two main incidents in depth: The killing of two Palestinian youths in Beit Liqiya, on May 4, 2005, and the killing of three Palestinian youths in the Philadelphi corridor, on April 9, 2005—to which the Palestinians responded by firing mortars. The initial reports on these incidents were all based on the official IDF version of events and they lacked critical examination of this version. After the IDF published its own investigations of the incidents, their most severe findings were played down by all of the media outlets except for Ha’aretz. Independent critical perspectives appeared only in opinion columns and in one investigative report that appeared far away from the news pages. None of the media outlets devoted news space to significant questions that arose from these incidents—such as IDF policy on opening fire in the midst of a ceasefire.
How were Palestinian reactions to these incidents covered?
In coverage of these incidents, the Palestinians’ reactions were suppressed or played down by all of the media outlets. Channel 2, Yedioth Ahronoth and Ma’ariv simply ignored most of the reactions. Channel 1 and Ha’aretz gave a little more space to the reactions. Where they were reported, Palestinian reactions appeared in the body of news items and were not mentioned in the headlines. This lack of balance is especially pronounced when it is compared to coverage of Israeli reactions to Palestinian actions. For example, Abu Mazen’s criticism of Israel after the killing of the three youths appeared only in minor form, within the body of news items. By comparison, the Minister of Defense, Shaul Mofaz’s, criticism of the Palestinian firing of mortars in response, appeared in the front page headlines of all of the newspapers and was prominently covered in the television news broadcasts.
How was international criticism of Israel covered?
In the weeks after the Sharm e-Sheikh understandings were reached, various international actors criticized Israel and claimed that it was not fulfilling its commitments. Such criticism pointed out that Israel was avoiding cooperating with Abu Mazen, that it was not releasing prisoners, and especially, that it was continuing to build in the settlements. Criticism on the latter subject was voiced by the United States President, George W. Bush. This criticism was played down by most of the media outlets and its significance was minimized: Israel and the United States, it was suggested, simply agree to disagree between themselves on the matter of construction in the settlements.
How was intra-Israeli criticism covered? \
Criticisms of government policy by senior politicians and security officials were similarly confined to the margins. During the period examined, 28 items containing such criticisms appeared, 19 of them in Ha’aretz. In the items in Ha’aretz, as well as the few critical items that appeared in the other media outlets, the critiques were minimized through various editorial techniques.
How were the Palestinian Authority’s actions and failures to act covered?
How were Palestinian violations of the Sharm e-Sheikh understandings covered?
In most cases where Israeli officials accused the Palestinian Authority of not abiding by its commitments, the media outlets accepted these criticisms without investigating the allegations on their own. In most cases, the media outlets did not enable Palestinian sources to respond to the charges against them. Channel 10 was exceptional in this regard because it regularly aired Palestinian responses. All of the media outlets, including Channel 10, emphasized Palestinian violations in the headlines and confined Palestinian responses to the body of the news items.
How were Palestinian actions in keeping with the Sharm e-Sheikh understandings covered?
During the period examined, there were mentions of measures taken by the Palestinian Authority in the spirit of the understandings: Implementation of administrative and security reforms, unification of the security apparatuses, strengthening of the rule of law, disarming of armed organizations, and renewal of security coordination. These items were played down in the newspapers and confined to the margins of the television news broadcasts and more than once they appeared under headlines that emphasized Palestinian violations of the understandings. In addition, these reports sometimes appeared alongside analyses by Israeli security officials that consistently diminished the significance of the actions taken by the Palestinians.
During the period examined, the Israeli media played down Israeli violations of the Sharm e-Sheikh understandings and highlighted Palestinian violations. Criticism of Israel, by Palestinian, Israeli and international actors, appeared infrequently and always on the margins of the news. Criticism of Palestinians, by contrast, was covered profusely. In general, policy questions concerning Israeli violations of the ceasefire received secondary attention, as the media coverage mainly focused on the disengagement plan.
These patterns of coverage and editing, which broadly covered each Palestinian attack on Israelis, provided media consumers with a clear and unequivocal situation report: Israel is abiding by its commitments and in the vast majority of cases it is not endangering the ceasefire. The Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, is consistently breaking its commitments and its leader, Abu Mazen, does not want or cannot keep the ceasefire for any length of time. The ceasefire is therefore bound to collapse—and the Palestinians bear exclusive responsibility for this. In this sense, the Israeli media continues to operate according to the prevailing established point of view, according to which the Palestinian Authority is not a “partner”. This perspective also forms the basis for the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip.
To download the full report (PDF - in Hebrew) click here.