Where One Man’s Incitement Is Another Man’s Fact

Netanyahu and Israeli experts on Palestinian media charge that incitement against Israel is a major problem. But many Palestinians say don’t blame the messenger: the news simply reflects the grim reality on the ground.

Reuters

When an Israeli police chief named Baruch Mizrahi was shot on the eve of Passover on his way to a seder near Hebron, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a statement blaming the Palestinian Authority for its incitement. 

“The Palestinian Authority continues to constantly broadcast – in its official media – programs that incite against the existence of the State of Israel,” the statement read. “Last night this incitement was translated into the murder of a father who was traveling with his family to celebrate the first night of Passover. The incitement of the Palestinian Authority continues in that it has yet to see fit to condemn this abominable and reprehensible act."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesman did condemn all acts of violence, as did Abbas himself, but Netanyahu’s camp say it did not get the direct condemnation they were waiting for. To hear Netanyahu tell it, the Palestinian Authority – run by the secular Fatah faction of the PLO – may as well be shouting out for jihad against Israel from every mosque and rooftop.

So how does that jibe with Abbas’ announcement earlier this week that the Holocaust is the most reprehensible crime in history? Does the PA incite against Israel or not?

Incitement, like beauty, may be in the eye of the beholder. Israeli groups watching the issue, such as Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), say incitement against Israel is prevalent. But Palestinians say their media simply reflect the grim reality for Palestinians living under occupation.

Mohammed Dajani, a professor at Al-Quds University who conducted studies of the Palestinian media over several years, says he did not discover any incitement, so much as outrageous-but-true stories, the facts of which cannot but enflame passions.

“I don’t think what’s being published there is incitement. It’s facts and opinions,” says Dajani, who recently made the bold move of taking students to Auschwitz. “People reading the headlines would feel very distressed and depressed. People read that the army killed someone or just demolished a house. The news items themselves might incite people, but these are just the facts of what’s going on. The answer for that is for the Israeli policy to change, to be more humanistic, more compromising.”

Of course, those who say there is incitement have no shortage evidence. Palestinian Media Watch daily posts something new about what it considers to be incitement. This video, for example, was played on official PA television two days before Abbas’ Holocaust comment. In it, a young girl reads a poem which includes the lines: “To war that will smash the oppression and destroy the Zionist's soul.” Earlier this week, PMW posted an update on Tawfiq Tirawi, a Fatah Central Committee member, calling for Israel’s destruction.

David Pollock, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has been studying the issue for several years and published a major study on incitement last September called “Beyond Words: Causes, Consequences, and Cures for Palestinian Authority Hate Speech.” He says little has changed since then.

“Unfortunately the reality is that the incitement is worse in the official PA media than elsewhere,” Pollock says in a telephone interview. “The official daily paper, al Hayat al Jadida, compared to al Quds [an independent paper], is more inflammatory towards Israel. But even worse, the official PA television channel tends to be more inflammatory than whatever independent television programming there is. Similarly when it comes to official websites and statements, when we talk about official websites, the worst is Fatah – it’s not the PA but it’s the ruling party. If you look at their Facebook pages, their Twitter accounts, they quite regularly post material that is defamatory, abusive, glorification of terrorists if not direct instigation of violence.”

It’s that last point – the direct instigation to act in a violent or unlawful way – to which incitement classically refers. Ruham Nimri, an analyst with the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre, which has offices in East Jerusalem and Ramallah, says that it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what incitement actually is.

“It all depends on your definition of incitement. The Palestinian media is still acting according to what’s happening on the ground. Now, for example, when the peace process is stopped and the relations with Israel are not really good, you see a totally different tone than what you saw before,” he says. “When talks are ongoing, the tone in the press is more positive. What’s going on between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, for example, affects whether Palestinians will use ‘suicide attacks’ or ‘martyrdom attacks,’” he says.

Until about four years ago, Nimri worked on a joint Israeli-Palestinian media monitoring project. He was working for Miftah, a think-tank founded by Hanan Ashrawi, which teamed up with Keshev, the Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel. The project ended in 2010 when it ran out of donor funding, but also, because of the impossibility of coming to any agreement on what incitement is.

“We were going to do an incitement index. But we couldn't agree on what it is, so it just didn’t work,” Nimri says. “From my point of view, I don’t really see any incitement in the Palestinian media. Even today, you have these price tag attacks, the behavior of settlers, the behavior of the army, and in terms of a response to these things, I don’t see anything that comes near incitement. If you define not recognizing Israel as a Jewish state as an incitement, then yeah, there’s plenty of it.”