In this article we will to look into some of the constraints shaping the mainstream mass media with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and assess bias on both sides, as well as a few of the wider implications for media freedom and democracy. We will first examine the media in two of the most powerful countries in the world, namely in the US and Israel, and then turn to the Arabic-language media. Finally, we will look at the structure of propaganda, and compare Israeli and Palestinian efforts.
Palestinian-American intellectual, Edward Said, has described Israeli propaganda during the Al Aqsa Intifada as unprecedented in terms of effectiveness.
"Never have the media been so influential in determining the course of war as during the Al-Aqsa Intifada...Israel has already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into what in Hebrew is called hasbara, or information for the outside world (hence, propaganda). This has included: ...lunches and free trips for influential journalists...bombarding congressmen and -women with invitations and visits; pamphlets and, most important, money for election campaigns; directing (or, as the case requires, harassing) photographers and writers of the current Intifada into producing certain images and not commentators to make frequent references to the Holocaust and Israel's predicament today; many advertisements in the newspapers attacking Arabs and praising Israel... Because so many powerful people in the media and publishing business are strong supporters of Israel, the task is made vastly easier."1

Pro-Israeli Bias in the US Media

Public broadcasters - by law required to be neutral and objective - exhibit some deeply disturbing bias and misinformation about the conflict, especially those in the US. The American media monitoring organization, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), has repeatedly expressed concern about this. For example, a FAIR study of six months of the National Public Radio (NPR) network's coverage found that 81 percent of Israeli conflict-related deaths were reported, but only 34 percent of Palestinian deaths. Strikingly, NPR was even less likely to report the deaths of Palestinian minors killed; only 20 percent of these deaths were reported, as compared to 89 percent of Israeli minors' deaths. While NPR was more apt to cover Israeli civilian deaths than those of Israeli security personnel (84 percent vs. 69 percent), the reverse was true with Palestinians (20 percent vs. 72 percent)2. With the current relative death tolls (around 75 percent of those killed in the Intifada so far were Palestinian, 25 percent Jewish), this bias means that consumers of US public media are likely to believe that nearly 50 percent of the people killed were Jews, and most of the children killed were Jews, too.
The privately owned American media are even more biased. In a separate report, FAIR analyzed the use of the terms, "retaliation", "retaliate", "retaliatory", etc. in nightly news broadcasts from September 28, 2000 through March 17, 2002 by the three main broadcasting networks, NBC, CBS and ABC. The findings indicated that 79 percent of the time the words were used to describe Israeli acts of violence. Palestinian violent acts, however, were only described with these words in 9 percent of the cases. (12 percent were ambiguous or used to describe violent acts by both sides in the conflict). The impression was thus fostered that Israel acts violently in self-defense, in response to violence initiated by their foes, almost nine times more than the Palestinians do. It should not be forgotten in this context that in reality both the first use of firearms, the first five deaths and the first hundreds of gunshot wounds in the Al Aqsa Intifada were all perpetrated by Israeli soldiers and policemen.3
When Israelis are killed by Palestinians, the acts are often referred to by the US media as the end of a "calm" period, as a "flare-up in violence". For example, on September 18 and 19, 2002, six Israelis were killed in the first two Palestinian suicide bomb attacks in six weeks. All major US news outlets referred to the preceding six weeks as "calm". However, during that time, 54 Palestinians were killed by Israelis, most of them unarmed civilians, totally uninvolved in resistance activities. At least seven of the Palestinians killed during this time were children, at least 15 were teenagers, and two were women.4
Similar bias was shown when the US and other Western media commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the 1972 murders in Munich of eleven Israeli Olympic athletes by Palestinian militants. The anniversary story received blanket coverage by American media, whereas the twentieth anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, in which at least many hundreds, and probably thousands of Palestinians were murdered due to intervention by then Defense Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, was quietly passed over. That anniversary fell 10 days after the Munich one, but it was almost completely ignored by the US media, although the number of victims was more than a hundred times greater, although it took place more recently, and although one of the main perpetrators again, holds considerable power in world politics and is commander-in-chief of one of the largest military powers in the world. The few short mentions that the twentieth anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres received in the US mass media all left out the inconvenient facts that Sharon is now prime minister of Israel and thus, apparently, that the US's closest ally, which receives the most military aid and most overall aid from the US, is headed by a war criminal.5

The Israeli Media and the Media in Israel

In Israel itself, the media are often not as biased as in the US. First and foremost, media commentators who are not Jewish and who are outside Israel have a harder time criticizing Israel for fear of being accused of "anti-semitism".6 Moreover, in Israel, it is impossible to avoid some of the basic facts about Israel and its occupied territories to the same extent that this is being done abroad, especially when it comes to geographic and demographic facts. This does not mean, however, that the Israeli media or the elites' treatment of them or of foreign media are superior to their counterparts in the US in any moral sense.
Israeli state restrictions on reporting in areas under its rule have eased with increasing military power and self-confidence, but the restrictions are still severe. Compared to earlier conflicts, journalists are now allowed to get closer to the action during small-scale military operations, but not during large-scale operations. By the summer of 2003, our own research at the International Press Institute showed that the Israeli harnessing of the media, oreign and domestic, was highlighted by over 240 incidents of journalists being obstructed, harassed, attacked or shot by Israelis during the first 32 months of the Al Aqsa Intifada. In this context, it should not be forgotten that the Palestinian Authority (PA) also violates the basic human right to freedom of expression, especially in order to silence radical anti-Israeli journalists, columnists and publications. This, however, is mainly due to political pressure on the PA from the Israelis and the Americans, who, above all, wish for Palestinians to silence radical Palestinians.
Still, we found that at least 82 percent of all the press freedom violations so far in the Al Aqsa Intifada were perpetrated by the Israelis themselves. Aside from the targeting of journalists, including at least eight shooting deaths, this also comprised air force bombings and missile attacks on Palestinian media outlets, which are accused by the Israelis of spreading propaganda. There are no corresponding attacks on Israeli media outlets perpetrated by Palestinians.7 Indeed, many experienced war correspondents have reportedly stated that they have never encountered such rough treatment as they are receiving from the Israeli army.8
Newspapers Under the Influence, a book on Israeli daily newspaper coverage of the initial weeks of the Al Aqsa Intifada, concludes that objectivity did exist in that coverage, but mainly in the back pages.9 In an article on similarities and differences between South African and Israeli apartheid with regard to newspapers, Raymond Louw - the former editor-in-chief of the main anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa, the Rand Daily Mail - recalled the similar financial pressures that Haaretz, the main liberal daily in Israel, faced during the beginning of the most recent Intifada. Due to financial withdrawals, readers canceling subscriptions and companies canceling advertisements, the Rand Daily Mail had to close down in 1985, at the height of the South African uprising.10 Although censorship, harassment and brute force against the media, perpetrated by the privileged ethnic group, was (is) present in both apartheid societies, these extreme measures were found by the elites to be less efficient, and less objectionable to the international community, than financial pressures combined with propaganda.
The Cable News Network (CNN), part of the largest media corporation in the world, Time Warner Turner, reported on its website on the first day of hostilities that Palestinian protesters had pelted Israeli worshippers at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem with stones11, whereas in reality they had thrown stones at some 1,000 Israeli policemen and soldiers who had accompanied the rightwing Likud party leader and subsequent prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. The armed Israeli forces had provocatively taken up sniper positions on street corners, squares and the roofs of buildings, etc., on a Friday of all days, the Muslim religious day of rest and prayer. Five Palestinians were shot dead and hundreds were wounded, at least 32 of them seriously, by the visiting soldiers, who thus sparked the outbreak of the second Intifada, and the ensuing intense hostilities. Not a single shot was fired by Palestinians on that first day. Nor were any Israeli killed, although a few soldiers were injured by stones.12 In the following year, Hamas and Islamic Jihad resumed a retaliatory suicide attack campaign, dormant since 1996, targeting Jewish soldiers, settlers and civilians in the occupied territories as well as in "Israel proper".13
Meanwhile, the propaganda machines continue to mix their information with half-truths and lies: Israeli armed forces on occupied foreign soil are mostly referred to in US as well as European media as "security forces", Palestinian demonstrators on the other hand as "rioters" or "militants". The Israeli occupation army, which has created the largest mass of refugees in the world and is responsible for the longest period of military occupation in post-World War II history, is habitually referred to by its self-styled naming, the "Israeli Defense Force." In a June 2002 special on Jewish victims of Palestinian attacks, CNN's website again blatantly ignored coverage of Palestinian victims of the conflict and referred to illegal Jewish settlements as "neighborhoods". The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was perversely related by CNN to the US's "War on Terrorism", implicitly equating all Palestinians with terrorists.14
Heavy pro-Israeli pressure is also exerted on what to many must seem to be very unlikely targets. Powerful media that display deep pro-Israeli bias, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, and the BBC, are subjected to a barrage of criticism, even (temporary) boycotts, for being pro-Palestinian as soon as there is the slightest hint of criticism of Israel voiced within these media.15

The Palestinian and Arab Media

Commenting on the systematic destruction of the Palestinian media in this Intifada, Captain Jacob Dallal, an Israeli army (IDF) spokesperson, said: "We cannot underestimate the role of Palestinian media in the incitement of people to violence, and it is this belief - that the Palestinian media air programs that glorify violence and suicide bombings against Israelis - that leads the IDF to attack Palestinian media outlets repeatedly." In a letter of protest, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists said that it had analysed the Voice of Palestine broadcasts and found them to be non-military in purpose, thus challenging the Israeli attempt to justify its attacks on the station.16
As far as we have seen, it has yet to be proven that Palestinian and Arab media promote violence, although it is evident that they sometimes provide biased news and generally feed the Arab street a diet of anti-western and anti-Israeli propaganda, and that the Palestinian Authority occasionally restricts media freedoms. Palestinians and Arabs in general are well aware of the power of the mass media. According to the Palestinian journalist and media critic, Daoud Kuttab, "Al-Jazeera has been for this Intifada what CNN was for the Gulf War."17 On the global stage, however, the Arab media are preaching to a minority of converts, whereas the Israelis are able to appeal to the absolute majority as well as to the most powerful audiences.


This, then, is how the wide concept of hasbara, or propaganda, works, and why, as Said indicated, it costs Israel hundreds of millions of dollars to practice, i.e. why it is one of the most expensive propaganda enterprises ever undertaken: On a first level, words, expressions and images are carefully selected and manipulated to give both reporting and commentary a pro-Israeli spin. Lies do not necessarily appear at this stage, but reality is often bent out of recognition, due to extreme bias and selectivity. The people carrying out this manipulation are not necessarily being paid by the Israeli state or by any other Israeli apartheid institutions. Some are even doing it unconsciously, taking over bits of propaganda directly from pro-Israeli spin-doctors, or second-hand, from news agencies and other powerful media, reorganizing them superficially, and passing them on to the public without even realizing their deep bias. Once you have seen the same phrase a few times, e.g. "Israel retaliates", from a small number of trusted sources, you do not stop to question them any more. That is simply part of common journalistic practice, even if it goes against most journalistic standards. Public relations professionals have made sure that Israeli spokespersons charm journalists and the public into believing that army operations are necessary and as humanitarian in execution as possible. The character and extent of human rights violations perpetrated by Israelis are thus downplayed severely. Violations perpetrated by Palestinians, on the other hand, are, as we have seen, habitually and vastly exaggerated. Secondly, there is in hasbara a great deal of lobbying, courtship and even bribery of important information-brokers. These two first levels are expensive and labor-intensive kinds of propaganda activity, which the Israelis and their allies can afford, but the Palestinians and theirs generally cannot.
Thirdly, there are misleading official Israeli statements of denial, suppression of the truth and lies that are spread and upheld as much as possible, and then often again denied, i.e. the Israelis lie a second time by denying that they ever told the original lie, which is by now old news. Because of that, journalists are often too confused and weary to follow up on the story, and media consumers mostly too tired or too distracted to follow.
Fourth, if they should persist with trying to show the world some of the ugly truths about Israeli apartheid - even if unintended - writers, reporters and cameramen are obstructed, intimidated, beaten, shot at, often wounded and sometimes killed by Israeli armed forces, with almost total impunity. Cameras, film, videotapes and other kinds of records of human rights violations are also confiscated and/or destroyed by the Israeli powers that be. Articles and books are rejected due to their contents by pro-Israeli editors and publishers. Journalists are harassed, intimidated and/or fired.
Finally, if all else fails, media hardware and infrastructure, including whole broadcasting stations, are destroyed with heavy military means.18 The atter three levels of violations of the freedom of expression and of the right to free access to information are basic human rights according to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other conventions and treaties to which both Israel and the US are signatories. They are also are the easiest and cheapest means of oppression. Journalists and writers are unarmed, non-combatant civilians. Much of the Israeli weaponry and ammunition, in contrast, comes entirely free of charge from the US federal budget. This is the cheapest and easiest form of hasbara, but, interestingly, the Palestinians hardly employ it at all, compared to the Israelis.19 In our opinion, this could be because the Palestinians have less to hide.

1 Said, Edward W.: Propaganda and War, ZNet, September 2001, See also Pilger, John: Why My Film is Under Fire: The Pro-Israel Lobby Intimidates Journalists to Ensure that Most Coverage Remains Biased in Its Favour, The Guardian, September 23, 2002.
2 FAIR, Action Alert: For NPR, Violence Is Calm If It's Violence Against Palestinians, January 10, 2002,
3 FAIR, Action Alert: In U.S. Media, Palestinians Attack, Israel Retaliates, April 4, 2002,
4 Brown, Michael and Abunimah, Ali: Killings of Dozens Once Again Called Period of Calm by US Media, Electronic Intifada, September 20, 2002, ZNet, See also FAIR, January 10, 2002. According to FAIR, this action alert prompted 'at least several hundred people' to protest the biased use of 'calm' by contacting NPR and complaining about its flagrant misuse of public funds for pro-Israeli propaganda. Yet in spite of this campaign no improvement with regard to this bias in the NPR coverage of the conflict could be detected a month later. See FAIR: Activism Update: NPR Continues Distortion on Mideast 'Calm', February 5, 2002,
5 Abunimah, Ali: How the US Media Forget and Remember an Anniversary, The Electronic Intifada, September 18, 2002, , See also Eltantawi, Sarah: US Media Turn a Blind Eye to the Israeli Occupation, WACC, Media Development Journal, 3, 2002,; Dunsky, Marda: What Constitutes Full and Fair Media Coverage of Israeli-Palestinian Issues? WACC, Media Development Journal, 3, 2002,
6 Fisk, Robert: How To Shut Up Your Critics With A Single Word, The Independent, October 22, 2002, Herman, Edward S.: Anti-Semitism, Swans, ZNet, November 25, 2002,
7 Bathish, Nisreen; Khalidi, Natasha; Larsson, Charlotta; Leaper, Glenn; L?wstedt, Anthony; Mahdoun, Husam; Orlova, Diana Varghese, Reena: Press Freedom Violations in Israel and Occupied Palestinian Areas, September 28, 2000 - May 20, 2003, Vienna: International Press Institute,, 2003 (forthcoming)
8 Perlmutter, David D.: Spin Doctors in the Middle East, IPI Global Journalist, Second Quarter, 2002. Observers who are not journalists, e.g. representatives of the UN and other intergovernmental, as well as non-governmental organizations, human rights activists, etc., are also hindered and in some cases even killed by the Israelis. See N.N.: WHO Assembly Condemns Israel, Associated Press, May 21, 2001; N.N.: Amnesty Says Israel Shutting Out Foreign Scrutiny, Reuters, May 9, 2003; Gershberg, Michele: Israel Steps Up Crackdown on Foreign Activists, Reuters, May 9, 2003.
9 Dor, Daniel: Newspapers Under the Influence (in Hebrew), Bavel Publishers, 2001: 19, reviewed in Lavie, Aviv: All the News that Fits, Haaretz, October 19, 2001. See also Harrer, Gudrun: Konflikt findet auch in den Medien statt, Der Standard (Vienna), August 9, 2002. On the concept of democratic journalism, see Kunczik, Michael (Ed.): Ethics in Journalism: A Reader on their Perception in the Third World, Bonn: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 1999.
10 Louw, Raymond: Dealing with Hostile Readers, IPI Global Journalist, Third Quarter, 2001: 29. The main differences related by Louw are, again, differences of degree rather than of kind: the intensity of censorship in South Africa and the whole-hearted rejection of apartheid in the wide sense by all members of his staff, as opposed to members of the staff at Haaretz in Israel. Nevertheless, Louw's visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories was sponsored by the editor-in-chief of Haaretz, Hanoch Marmari, and Louw recounts how some of the newspaper's Jewish reporters did criticize Israel for implementing 'apartheid' during a visit to the West Bank that Louw undertook with them.
11 CNN, September 29, 2000. It is symptomatic that CNN chose white South Africans for their two senior correspondents from Israel and Palestine, Jerold Kessel and Mike Hanna, during the beginning of the low-intensity Israeli-Palestinian war from September 2000. The bias in its reporting did not diminish in any way, rather the opposite.
12 Miftah: Statement: Israeli Massacre of Palestinian Civilians Continues, October 2, 2000,; see also Shalal-Esa, Andrea: Israel's Sharon Again Rejects Blame, Regrets Deaths, Reuters, October 4, 2000 and Ackerman, Seth: The Myth of the Generous Offer: Distorting the Camp David Negotiations, Extra! The Magazine of FAIR, August 2002, Vol. 15, No. 4, Amnesty International criticized Israel for using military rather than policing methods in the fighting, though the international news media and world leaders on the whole paid scant attention to this side of the story. For a rare exception see N.N.: Amnesty Slams Israel's "Excessive Force", Reuters, October 22, 2000.
13 N.N.: Israel and the Palestinians: Yes to a Ceasefire, No to a Halt on Settlements, The Economist, May 26, 2001: 47f
14 Abunimah, Ali & Parry, Nigel: CNN Negates Victims And Ignores International Law, Electronic Intifada, June 27, 2002,
15 Herman November 25, 2002
16 N.N.: Israel: IDF Troops Destroy Palestinian Broadcast Facilities in Gaza, Committee to Protect Journalists, February 21, 2002,; Campagna, Joel: Picking Up the Pieces, CPJ Special Report, New York: Committee to Protect Journalists, June 13, 2002,
17 Quoted in Schleifer, S. Abdallah: Egyptian Media Waxes and Wanes in Its Attacks Against Al-Jazeera, TBS Archives, No. 5, Fall/Winter 2000, rchives/Fall00/news.htm
18 Campagna June 13, 2002. Israeli government 'inquiries' into the violence against journalists perpetrated by Israeli soldiers during the Al Aqsa Intifada left all soldiers blameless, except one verbal warning and one suspended jail sentence, both for attacks on Jewish journalists, one American and one Israeli. The inquiries, if any were opened, into the killings of six Palestinian journalists, one British and one Italian journalist by Israeli troops thus far found no one guilty, as was the case with scores of other shootings of journalists. Non-lethal crimes against Palestinian journalists, including scores of near-lethal attacks, were not even considered in any of the inquiries. See also Bathish et al. 2003.
19 See further Solomon, Norman: Media Spin Remains in Sync with Israeli Occupation, ZNet Commentary, October 14, 2000,; Fisk, Robert: When Journalists Forget that Murder is Murder, ZNet, August 18, 2001,; Schechter, Danny: Perception vs. Reality In The Middle East "Press War", ZMag, no date,