Palestine's War of Words

Since Hamas took over control of the Gaza Strip the political schism between the main Palestinian parties has had clear geographical boundaries. The Listening Post's Salah Kadr looks at the equally fierce propaganda battle taking place on the airwaves and presses of the media.

When Hamas forces took control of the Gaza Strip from Fatah last year, the fighting between the two groups was not restricted to the ground.

A media war, nearly as fierce, is being conducted in the Palestinian territories and has had serious consequences with both groups attempting to use television programmes and news bulletins to their political advantage.

According to Laila El Haddad, a freelance journalist and blogger who works in Gaza, the local Palestinian media is as divided as the parties themselves and tends to focus on issues that pertain to their individual loyalties.

"The feeling of needing to absolve individuals in either party - or even the party itself - of certain accusations or acts drives this media war," she says.

The situation means that media organisations that are without political affiliation, such as the Palestine News Network (PNN), are subject to pressure from both sides.

"We have been discouraged in the West Bank from reporting on any of the events of Hamas," Kristen Ess, the director of the PNN's English service, says.

"Just as in the Gaza Strip, the journalists are discouraged from reporting on the events involving Fatah and the Palestinian Authority."

She says Palestinian media outlets tend to take one side or the other based on the political affiliation of their journalists.

That affiliation is made sometimes out of necessity for their own safety and sometimes because of the political affiliation of the publication or the owner of the publication or station that they work for.

"A large part of this has been going on for a long time, it is not new. It's not just because of recent Fatah Hamas split," Ess says.

Cartoon violence

Possibly one of the best examples of the war being played via the television screens is a cartoon that has been shown on Hamas-controlled Al Aqsa television that can be seen to depict the takeover of Gaza by the group last summer.

"In this cartoon we see that the rats of Fatah are receiving crates of weapons marked with the American flag," Habib Battah, an Arab media analyst and blogger says.

"In the end Hamas has had enough and a roaring Lion pounces on these rats, gets rid of them and cleans up Gaza and there is a bright new future ahead for Gaza."

Nine months since the takeover and the Palestinian media is as divided as Palestine's politicians.

However just as Israel and, in an indirect way, the US have played a significant role in developments on the ground, international media coverage has also played a part in the media war.

As many western media organisations are forced to do the bulk of their reporting from outside the territories there is a belief within the territories that their agenda is being dominated by the view from Jerusalem and Washington.

"For sure the international media have played a part in this media war," Karim Rebhour, who works for the Agence France Press news agency in Ramallah, says.

Remote reporting

"First of all for most western media Hamas are seen as the bad guys in this story. Mostly because Hamas is an Islamic organisation, listed as a terrorist group in Europe and the US, so western media reflect that."

Battah says members of Hamas rarely appear on a lot of media channels outside the Middle East and that there is not really a lot of in-depth reporting on the situation

"A lot of the reports that are filed from the region come from Jerusalem - so you'll have a reporter in Jerusalem talking about events in Gaza or the West Bank," he says.

"Obviously being so far away from the conflicts is going to influence the reporters and they are going to have access to the Israeli point of view more than actually being on the ground in the area."

That is a claim often made by the Arab media who have accused some outlets of provoking either side through their coverage and inflaming emotions, particularly at the height of the infighting last June.

Indeed a documentary on Al Hiwar television, a London based pan-Arab station, recently went as far as to suggest that the bulk of western media coverage of the so-called Hamas "coup" against Fatah was pure propaganda.

"I would say that for the most part, international media have adopted the Fatah narrative on this one," El Haddad says.

"Meanwhile Arab media has ranged in its views from sympathetic to Hamas to hostile or even accusatory."

Israeli role

According to Ess the international media has done what it always does. It has taken the side of the US.

"The US has certainly taken the side of the Palestinian Authority against the Hamas government, who was elected and then of course ousted," she says.

"The day that the Hamas government won the Palestinian legislative council elections the US imposed sanctions on the Palestinian people for electing them and openly threatened any bank who dealt with them.

"When people stopped being able to buy bread for their children they started to believe the hype - the international hype and did start to blame Hamas. So the international media actually had a lot more of an effect on the internal political situation than the local media did."

In recent months the conflict in Gaza has increasingly been between Israel and Hamas after an Israeli military escalation caused the deaths of three Israelis and more than 120 Palestinians, including dozens of civilians, before the fighting subsided at the end of last month.

The media battle has subsequently turned in the same direction.

Israeli media has had a virtual blackout on Gaza since November 2006 and recently accused Al Jazeera of slanted coverage in favour of Hamas in particular over the network's coverage of the most recent military operations in the territory.

"Of course during the last weeks and last months with Israeli military offensive in Gaza, the attention has switched to Israeli-Hamas conflict more than the internal Palestinian conflict, but the divide is still there," Lebhour says.

For some journalists the media war is having a detrimental effect on how the conflict is covered.

"The media perception of the city has become so far removed from the human scale as to become worrying," El Haddad says. "In the process normalising an otherwise abnormally criminal situation."

Ess says she does not believe the local Palestinian media has truly made a difference to what people think of the Hamas-Fatah split.

"It doesn't seem that anyone's been swayed based on a Hamas run newspaper as opposed to a Fatah run one," she says.

"Most people are well aware whose with whom politically. There's a lot of self-censorship and that's part of that media war."

(c) 2008 Al Jazeera

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