How not to cover the Middle East conflict

Kudos to Voice of America for its recent contribution to Middle East coverage, “Israeli Airstrike Kills Palestinian in Gaza“:

JERUSALEM — An Israeli air strike has killed a Palestinian man in the Gaza Strip, the first deadly air strike in the Palestinian territory since a truce five months ago ended eight days of fighting that killed more than 100 people.

Indeed, VoA deserves praise for recognizing that any news from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be reported — legally — through a lens of tit for tat, he said she said, back and forth competition between two warring peoples:

Israeli Defense Forces say the airstrike Tuesday targeted Haitham Mishal, a Gaza resident who they said was a member of the Islamist militant group Mujahideen Shura Council of Jerusalem.

A spokesman for the Gaza Health Ministry said he was a policeman. [Editor’s note: these two occupations need not be mutually exclusive.]

VoA helpfully goes on to provide some geopolitical background and recent history of the conflict in eight consecutive one-sentence paragraphs. (Sample complete paragraph: “A Hamas spokesman called the attack a dangerous and unjustified escalation.” Another: “Islamic militants have become active in the Sinai since security deteriorated there following the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak.”)

All of this would be unremarkable were it not for the other news item of the day, which VoA saved for the eleventh “paragraph” down:

The airstrike in Gaza came amid rising tensions in the West Bank.

Israeli settler Eviatar Borovsky was stabbed to death Tuesday by a Palestinian man near the Palestinian city of Nablus.

Israeli Police Commander Yaakov Shabtai said the Palestinian, Salam Assad al-Zaghal, subsequently grabbed a gun and began firing.

Shabtai said two policemen positioned nearby opened fire and wounded the attacker who was taken to a nearby Israeli hospital.

So, to review, one alleged terrorist killed in an airstrike commands a headline and the first two-thirds of the article. Another guy fatally stabbed by the side of a road earlier in the same day gets a few lines toward the end — after all the background and context, and probably after everybody stopped reading. There’s a reason it isn’t VoA with the slogan “Fair and Balanced.”

Listen, I can imagine why VoA led its daily coverage with the Gaza story.* It feels like more of an event and like less of a condition. A targeted attack, an assassination, an explosion, an escalation — something happened there — might it lead to war?? More rockets? A ground invasion? A stabbing, by comparison, is pedestrian. Plus, the victim was a settler in the West Bank. Doesn’t this happen, like, every day? He was sort of asking for it. Move along now, nothing to see here. Better yet, bury it under a mountain of “context” and you won’t suspect there ever was anything to see here.

Here’s the a problem: even if you agree with VoA that it doesn’t qualify as the main event, that stabbing is the context. And I don’t think pretending otherwise — see: relegating it to the end of the article, after eight paragraphs of other context — is constructive. Israelis have real security concerns, and writing them off because the headlines aren’t as sexy, or Israelis are somehow less deserving of your sympathy because they’re the oppressor, is not going to move this conflict any closer to a resolution.

To understand why there are separate highways and separate buses and checkpoints and a “security fence” and targeted killings and so on — and this is absolutely not an endorsement of all these practices — you also have to understand that sometimes the evil settler — noted enemy of peace and tool of oppression — is really just a 32 year old father of five looking for a ride home.


*No, there was no separate stabbing story in which the headliner was reversed.


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