When It’s in Israelis' Interest Not to Believe the Palestinians

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The illegal outpost of Evyatar in the West Bank where IDF soldiers have helped settlers with construction of buildings, June 17, 2021
The illegal outpost of Evyatar in the West Bank where Israeli army soldiers have recently been helping settlers in the construction of buildings, last Thursday.Credit: Hadas Parush

Within a week three important reports were published in Haaretz with very similar headlines – two about soldiers and one about prison guards: “Israeli soldiers photographed helping build illegal West Bank outpost”; “Israeli soldiers filmed beating, kneeling on neck of Palestinian during arrest in West Bank”; and “Israeli officers were filmed beating Palestinian inmates. No one arrested, case closed.”

We journalists know that headlines have to summarize the events being reported. Thus, according to these three items, the news is the filming and not the event itself: an illegal act perpetrated by army troops or prison guards. We may assume that those who wrote the headlines know that there’s nothing unusual about Israeli soldiers and prison wardens exceeding the limits of their official license to assault Palestinians, or about soldiers helping settlers in an illegal activity. They know that the bodies and the lands of Palestinians fall prey, constantly, to Israeli agencies of order and control. This is the routine, which cannot be reported all the time. But I guess that is not the reason for the similar wording.

The correct explanation, in my opinion, is different: Israel’s Jewish public doesn’t believe and doesn’t want to believe reports by Palestinians who report and testify about Israeli violence. To overcome this lack of belief, we journalists are quick to report that the incidents in question were actually filmed, meaning that the violence or the offense can be seen very graphically.

It might very well be that were it not for the visual/photographic documentation, there would be no report, or it would be downplayed. Because the basic assumption of Israelis is that “the Palestinians lie” in their testimonies about Israeli actions. Fifty-four years of occupation, and mountains of evidence from Palestinians and numerous investigations by Israeli human rights groups, including testimonies of soldiers, corroborate the Palestinians’ testimonies – and yet this basic assumption still dominates journalistic language.

Let’s compare the three above headlines to another important one that appeared recently in Haaretz: “Netanyahu ordered illegal shredding of docs at his office before Bennett took over, sources say.” The headline summarizes an event, without reservations. The story relies, as much as can be gleaned from the wording, on oral testimony obtained by the reporter – not on visual documentation. Netanyahu denied this report vehemently, and yet the headline reveals a belief in the story provided by the sources and confidence in the professional work of the journalist.

Military and police spokespersons do not report violence against Palestinian citizens by their organizations out of their own good will and in real time. They do report violence by Palestinians, which immediately makes headlines. With or without visual documentation. The abuse by prison guards of dozens of prisoners for hours in the Ketziot Prison took place in March 2019. In real time it was only reported that a prisoner stabbed two guards. Why should the Israel Prison Service spokesman report the abuse of prisoners by his guards, and why should we believe the Palestinian media when they report exceptional violence even at the hands of prison guards?

Without the meticulous work of Hamoked – Center for the Defense of the Individual, whose attorney, Nadia Daqqa, collected testimony by the Ketziot prisoners in order to file a complaint, and the subsequent appeal against the closure of the case – the film footage of and the very fact of the abuse in early 2019 would not have become news in June 2021.

Our political memory of newsworthy events is mainly created in real time, when official spokespersons control the scene. Collecting testimony from injured parties takes much longer, especially if they are incarcerated, are Gazans who have been bombed and shot at, or are Palestinian farmers in places that can only be reached by off-road vehicles.

The age of the internet and breaking news have only increased our reliance on official spokespersons, who have immediate access to information. But what we get from them is a carefully formulated account that has been factually, economically, politically and legally filtered according to the needs of whatever entity stands behind them. In the Israeli-Palestinian case, it would mean the needs of those in power: namely, of Jewish Israeli society that benefits from its domination over the Palestinians.

The healthy distrust Israelis display toward any official statements by governmental and private entities that have a say about their socioeconomic situation, disappears in the context of the Israeli occupation. Here the interest is to believe the spokespersons. The basic assumption – that the Palestinians are lying and the spokespersons are telling the truth – is part of the system and one of the techniques that help preserve our domination over the Palestinians.

The range of Israel’s aggression against the Palestinians is quite wide. It’s a way of life, a given. Israeli society and the reality of Palestinian life cannot be understood, analyzed or covered by the media while ignoring this fact. But when the entire public, as media consumers, has a material, political, economic and emotional interest in not changing the violent reality, because it works in its favor – then Palestinians' testimonies are compromised. Even when they accumulate and reveal an ongoing pattern, the public doesn’t consider them sufficiently credible. And in any case, even when there is filmed and written documentation and official documents – those responsible are not punished, because there are so very many of them.

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