Spin and its effect on the perception of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict (written for a Zeitgeist unit on SPIN)

When tensions escalated on the Gaza strip in May 2021, media focus was brought back to what has been one of the most problematic regions in the world for decades. One of the highlights of the new wave of bombings by Israel was the destruction of the al-Jalaa tower. The historical 11-storey building included residential apartments and was home to international media offices such as Al Jazeera and The Associated Press news agency bureau. But how intentional was this airstrike on the freedom of the press, and how was it perceived by the media around the world? And how has spin (1) affected the overall perception of the conflict around the world?

We can go back in history to the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara ship back in May, 2010, to analyse how the same event was perceived around different parts of the world. To quote Winston Churchill, ‘History is written by the victors.’ And to this day, it is still unclear whether the humanitarian ship fleet did house terrorist groups as argued by the Israeli media. The Journal of Palestinian Studies deconstructed the occurrence, reaching the conclusion that ‘Israel used the media blackout to present its narrative’ and based claims of self-defence when justifying the killing of civilian activists. This uncertainty in the veracity of events can be vastly attributed to the use of spin by the media and the politicians who analysed the events, proving that the pondered use of carefully crafted language is a powerful technique to avoid giving real power to the people by informing them accurately and unbiasedly. To put it bluntly, spin is the equivalent of throwing sand in people’s eyes as they strive to make sense of the world and the events around them.

Fast forward eleven years since the Mavi Marmara incident and we turn our attention to the media coverage on the bombing of the al-Jalaa tower. Israel’s reaction to the public outburst which ensued was justified once again by claims that the building ‘hosted military assets belonging to the military intelligence of the Hamas terror organisation’ (Al Jazeera). Simply by analysing these two separate incidents, one can start to see a pattern in the shaping of the narrative by Israeli authorities. No evidence has been put forward up until this point in time, and probably never will. And even if we support Israeli claims that the building was in fact housing Hamas terrorist cells, wouldn’t these same people have evacuated the building as well? This targeted attack on the freedom of the press had one simple objective: to silence the voices of the millions who object the authoritarian Israeli occupation. According to Palestinian human rights movement group Al Haq, ‘indiscriminate attacks on media buildings have been a significant feature’ of Israeli military forces (Al Jazeera). And as we watch in awe and scratch our heads trying to figure out who will bring Israel into accountability, one can only imagine what will really happen when all the flow of information coming out of Gaza finally reaches a silenced demise.

This conception of the use of spin by the press and politicians is not new, and the rising disbelief in media impartiality has led to a rise of public reporting of events as they unfold. As I tuned in to an Al Jazeera report on the events, the channel brought in a panel constituted by two scholars, one Palestinian and one Israeli. When asked about the ongoing conflict, the Israeli consistently brought his argument back to a statistic which has been circulating all around mainstream media: since the beginning of the latest conflict, the Israeli army reported that more than 4,300 rockets have been fired towards Israel (as per SBS). Regardless of how many arguments were presented against the bombing of Gaza, through the highly efficient employment use of spin in the construction of his narrative, the panellist continued circling back to that same argument, with extra emphasis on the pronunciation of the number. Israeli Affairs Journal nailed this technique when analysing spin-doctoring during the 2006 Israeli elections, stating how the ‘use of vague catchphrases, well-designed sound bites, misleading examples, and the use and abuse of statistics’ overtook the general discourse. When this back and forth was finally exhausted in this latest debate, the Israeli eventually progressed his argument: ‘We will not stand by and watch Israelis die.’ The loss of life, including children, has undoubtedly been the culmination of Gaza’s tragedy. But if we are to believe the numbers put out by the media, the death toll in this latest round of conflicts has claimed 12 Israeli lives, whereas the Palestinian losses amounted to 232 people (according to SBS). It is amazing, though, how by revolving around that same argument of 4,300 rockets fired towards Israel, the panellist managed to almost justify the constant bombing of Gaza.

As we sat on the couch watching the live images of an Israeli tank opening fire across the border, I asked my mum in disbelief who could stop Israel’s bombing and bring them into accountability.

‘Only the USA can stop this.’

Keeping this in mind, I tried accessing Israeli media websites in an effort to avoid a one-sided opinion. The first news story I was surprised to find in The Times of Israel newspaper was one reporting on the Biden administration going ahead with the sale of guided missiles to Israel, in a deal worth up to $735 million dollars granted by the U.S. State Department to weapon’s manufacturer Boeing. When scanning Australian websites for this same news article, nothing was to be found. This revelation of the consequences of spin got me delving further into its downward spiral. According to the Journal of Political Economy, these carefully thought-out PR stunts not only focus on the language conveyed in the delivery of news, but also their timing. This fascinating study analysed the lining up of unpopular policies with other important newsworthy events, considering it ‘a well-known practice among political spin doctors to release potentially harmful news in tandem with other important events.’ The journal article digs all the way back to 1989 when Netanyahu, Israel’s deputy foreign minister at the time, expressed regret during a speech at a university for the government’s failure to exploit the very newsworthy occurrences in Tiananmen Square to ‘carry out large-scale expulsions of Arabs from the Occupied Territories.’ (Journal of Political Economy). And the truth is that since the latest escalation in the Gaza conflicts, not many news outlets are reporting on the latest Israeli elections where Netanyahu’s opposition leader has a chance to form government. The spin-doctors in charge of operations seemed to have mastered the art of keeping us in the dark by controlling the focus of the sole flashlight in the building.

So, now that we’ve been spun around by everyone in charge of keeping us informed, what next for the promised piece of land which has brought some much anguish to both Palestinians and Israelis? To quote most politicians out there, ‘That is a very good question.’ I’d say the best course of action would be to not to appeal to see everything from both sides, but to be critical of every bit of information we are given. For if lose our ability to make sense of the world around us, who is to say we won’t be next in the long list of freedom fighters who ended up labelled as terrorists?

(1) Spin – the particular slant deliberately given to a media story so as to achieve the desired outcome in terms of public awareness and acceptance. (Macquarie)

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