Study: Israel “retaliates” to Palestinian “provocation” in UK press

British press more often than not describe Israel as retaliating to Palestinian attacks. (Mohamed Al-Zanon/MaanImages)

A new study by Arab Media Watch demonstrates a strong tendency in the British press to represent Israel as “retaliating” in coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The study, the first to investigate this aspect of British press coverage of the conflict, examined a period from January to June 2008. It found that when the British press represents a party as retaliating or responding in the conflict, that party is Israel 72 percent of the time. The tabloid press showed a particularly marked bias, representing Israel as retaliating in 100 percent of all representations of “retaliation.”

Among broadsheets, The Independent portrays Israel as retaliating in the highest proportion at 80 percent, followed by the Times at 68 percent, the Daily Telegraph at 67 percent, and the Guardian at 59 percent. Not a single newspaper, and only 20 percent of reporters and columnists, portrays the retaliating party as the Palestinians more often than Israel.

Among reporters and commentators, only 20 percent portray the retaliating party as the Palestinians more often than Israel. Of those reporters and commentators who write frequently on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and who represented a party as “retaliating” at least five times in the period under study, only Rory McCarthy in the Guardian portrays the Palestinians as retaliating more often than Israel (71 percent of representations). The others portray Israel as retaliating more often: Toni O’Loughlin (Guardian and Observer) 86 percent, Donald Macintyre (The Independent) 75 percent, James Hider (Times) 70 percent, and Tim Butcher (Telegraph) 58 percent.

The study also provides a graphical and statistical representation of the types of actions portrayed as “retaliatory” and reveals that the British press gives short shrift to the idea that Palestinian violence might itself be “retaliatory.” Israeli actions of a military or otherwise violent nature are framed as retaliation in 50 instances in the period under study, compared with only 21 instances of Palestinian violence.

Similarly, the British press rarely portray Israeli violence as a “provocation” or as provoking “retaliation.” Instead, Israeli violence tended to be portrayed as “retaliation” three times more often than it was portrayed as “provocation.” Israel’s February to March 2008 Gaza offensive was portrayed as retaliatory in 19 instances, but was portrayed as provoking the Palestinians in only six instances. Apart from the Gaza offensive, Israeli military or violent action was represented as retaliatory in 31 instances, but was represented as provoking Palestinians in only 10 instances.

The blockade of Gaza, described by UN special rapporteur Richard Falk as a “crime against humanity,” was given comparatively little coverage as a “provocation” to Palestinians. However, Palestinian rocket attacks were portrayed as a provocation to Israel over five times more often than the blockade was represented as a provocation to Palestinians. Forty-one years of occupation were portrayed as a provocation to Palestinians on only one occasion, and settlement building on two.

The discrepancy is most apparent in representations of rocket attacks by the Palestinians. Israel is represented as retaliating to, or being provoked by, rocket attacks in 52 instances, comprising 63 percent of all Israeli retaliations and 45 percent of all retaliation representations. This is four times the 13 instances in which rocket attacks are represented as retaliations.

This study demonstrates that the British press rejects a narrative of “occupation and resistance” in covering the conflict, but also largely rejects a “cycle of violence” narrative in which both sides are portrayed equally as initiators. Rather, the British press has adopted the Israeli narrative in which Palestinian violence constitutes “aggression” to which Israel “reacts.”

This underlying framework for understanding the conflict remains unquestioned, even where large numbers of Palestinian civilians are killed by Israeli “retaliation,” and it causes debate and potential criticism revolves around the “proportionality” of Israeli action.

This pattern of reporting tends to place the blame for even “disproportionate retaliation” on the Palestinians, because it allows Israel a “defense of provocation.” Indeed, the study revealed that there was even an instance in which the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians was portrayed as a “policy option” open to Israel “in response” to provocation.

These trends were very much apparent in the coverage of Israel’s most recent invasion of Gaza. Blinded by the media blockade on Gaza, the British media nevertheless continued to perpetuate a narrative in which the Israeli operation, which killed more than 1,300 Palestinians, was a “response” to rocket attacks.

Consistent with the findings of the Arab Media Watch study, rocket attacks were the focus of the coverage, while the 18-month blockade was given comparatively little coverage, both as a violation of the cease-fire and as a factor in provoking rocket attacks.

Similarly, the Israeli raid of 4 November 2008, which killed six Hamas militants, was rarely mentioned or identified as the reason behind the renewal of rocket attacks, which had almost completely ceased by October 2008 (when only one mortar and one rocket were fired).

The results of the study also confirm similar tendencies in newspaper coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to those found by the Glasgow University Media Group in its study of BBC and ITV television coverage of the second intifada. That study found that Israel is shown as retaliating three to six times more often than the Palestinians.

A similar study of US network news coverage by the organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting found that the nightly news shows of ABC, CBS, and NBC represented Israel as “retaliating” in 79 percent of instances, while Palestinians were represented as retaliating in only nine percent of instances.

Download the full report [PDF]

Shipra Dingare is an adviser to Arab Media Watch and is the author of the group’s new study entitled “The British Media & ‘Retaliation’ in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”