As Israelis have been incessantly watching their televisions for the last few weeks, constantly monitoring updates of Operation Protective Shield, for the larger Arab world still grappling with the violent fallout from the failed Arab Spring, the news from Gaza is just one headline among many.
“In Israel, everybody is glued to the television non-stop,” said Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, a historian of the modern Middle East, who teaches about Israeli-Arab affairs at Carnegie Mellon University, and who was in Israel from June 27 through July 14, working on a research project. While Eisenberg found herself fascinated to be “absorbed and enveloped in the Israeli news stream,” she also spent time on English language Arab news websites.
The difference between the ways the news was reported was striking, she said.
“It was very interesting to compare the media and see how the events were described differently,” said Eisenberg, who was conducting research in archives in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Eisenberg said that the differences in reporting the same events were “mostly nuanced,” rather than wholly contradictory.
“Hamas media was not trustworthy, but the mainstream Arab sites were not reporting falsehoods as much as presenting events with a very different emphasis and context than the Israeli media,” Eisenberg noted.
“But one thing I thought was very telling,” she said of the news reporting in the Arab media. “There was always a breaking news headline about Gaza and several stories about the suffering civilians in Gaza and the aggressive Israeli army going after them. But that would be only one of many stories they were following. It was clear to me that Gaza was not always front and center in the minds of the editors.”
Arabic news sites in English all presented a variety of news stories of more immediate concern to their audiences and were not necessarily dominated with news from Gaza.
“Gaza was one of many stories,” she said. “Sunni-Shia violence, Syrian refugees and the civil war, the success of the Islamic State extremists are very real and immediate crises in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Jordan that commanded even more attention.”
Eisenberg noted that even the sports, entertainment and cooking sections continued to post new articles as well.
Most of the ordinary citizens in the Arab world, while angry with Israel and distraught at the loss of civilian lives in Gaza, are not uniformly supportive of Hamas, according to Eisenberg, who is informed by Arab colleagues in several Arab countries with whom she regularly corresponds.
“They tell me that the Arab population is furious with Israel, wildly supportive of the Palestinian cause and pressing their leaders to do more to help Gaza,” she said. “But some of the Arab governments, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, see Hamas as part of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood threat to their own rule and are not that sad seeing Hamas getting beaten up, and are glad to have Israel doing it for them.
“A colleague in Beirut confirms that everyone is just sick over the loss of civilian life in Gaza,” she continued. “But they also blame Hamas. And they recognize that with its tunnels, rockets and firing from civilian sites, Hamas has clearly taken a page from the Hezbollah playbook.”
She noticed an uptick in Arab coverage of the Gaza story as the crisis intensified after she left Israel, but it is still not all-encompassing.
Israeli reporting during the current conflict, meanwhile, struck her as wholly insular.
“Israeli TV media totally turned inward,” she said. “It’s news by Israelis, for Israelis, about Israel. After a couple days, I realized there must be other things happening in the world. Family back home told me Gaza was not necessarily the top story in the U.S. media, which was giving equal or greater coverage to the crisis of immigrant children pouring across the U.S. border and some serious incident between Ukrainian and Russian forces.
“If you were only watching Israeli news,” she added, “you would think the rest of the world was taking a timeout. I thought it was curious that Israeli TV news anchors didn’t even go to their correspondents abroad to ask about pro- or anti-Israel demonstrations around the world.”
And Israeli media only ran interviews with Israeli Jews, she said.
“They did not move out of their cocoon,” Eisenberg continued. “I didn’t see them interviewing anyone but Israeli academic, political and military analysts. No Israeli Arabs, no Palestinians, not President Mahmoud Abbas. Even Obama was mentioned only in passing. I didn’t see the Israeli news trying to get someone from Gaza on the phone, asking what it looked liked from there, if they were getting the warning leaflets that Israel was dropping.”
She knew of some Israeli Jews who were trying to check on former employees in Gaza by cellphone; she herself was sending anxious emails to a former graduate student with six children in Gaza, although she knew it was unlikely he had electricity or Internet.
Israeli commentators would remark that Israelis felt isolated from the rest of the world, Eisenberg said.
“But I thought they were self-isolating, to a certain extent,” she continued. “Israel TV is producing many moving and compelling stories, but they’re all in Hebrew for a limited, in-Israel audience. By not including coverage from other sources or places, they’re really just talking to themselves in a bubble.”
Since returning home, she has noticed that Israel seems to be projecting its story very effectively in English on social media sites.
For Eisenberg, who lectures and writes about the Middle East conflict, being in Israel during the past few weeks was “eye-opening.” And she appreciated the experience of going through the many warning sirens.
“I was very glad I was there for that,” she said. “I felt like I was supporting my family and friends by being there with them in the bomb shelters, and it was extremely uncomfortable to leave them and fly away to a safe place while they are still dashing to shelters at all times of the day and night. But I was glad to be able to put my money where my mouth is for the time I was there. I will write and teach about these events with greater insight.”
Eisenberg encourages readers to seek information beyond U.S. broadcast and print journalism and take advantage of English-language Israeli and Arab media sites. Among the former are The Jerusalem Post, Ynet and Haaretz. Arab sites include Lebanon’s Daily Star, Egypt’s Al-Ahram, the Jordan Times and the Pan-Arab Al-Jazeera. Al-monitor.com highlights articles from media throughout the Middle East, including Iran and Turkey.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.