Human tragedy as a catalyst for change

by Yizhar Be'er
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JERUSALEM – Almost every violent national conflict is retained in the public consciousness through an emblematic image which captures the essence of the story. The first Gulf war brought us the pictures of the poor oil-coated cormorants trapped in a slick in the waters of the Persian Gulf. In the second Intifada it was the boy, Mohammed al Dura, who was caught in the crossfire between Israelis and Palestinians at Netzarim junction and killed in front of a French television camera. Etched in our memory from the most recent war in Gaza is the figure of Izzeldin Abuelaish, the Gazan doctor whose three daughters were killed by Israeli tank fire.

These images shape our consciousness thanks to one technological invention–the television camera. The ability to capture reality as it unfolds and immediately send it across the world has created a revolution, the full implications of which are still unknown. As the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has said, television not only changes the way we see the world but also the world itself. In the battlefield, victory is no longer determined solely by the balance of power, the number of soldiers or the efficacy of their weapons. In fact, one can argue, the television camera is becoming increasingly as important as weapons of destruction in determining the outcome of war.

Countries, governments and armies fear an independent press in the battlefield and will do everything they can to prevent free access to the conflict zone, especially if the battlefield is located in a built-up civilian area. It should come as no surprise then, when each of the parties at war tries to monitor and restrict the movements of the press in an attempt to exploit it for propaganda purposes or at least prevent it from interfering with the proceedings.

Take, for example, the war in Iraq. It was conducted in a “sterile” fashion—almost entirely without the intervention of an independent press. And more recently, after the second Lebanon war, Israelis reached the conclusion that journalists roaming the battlefield contributed to the sense of failure that became associated with that war. In the Gaza war, Israel took the American approach to a new level by preventing local and foreign journalists from entering the zone altogether and only allowing limited access to a handful of military correspondents.

The results were predictable. Most Israelis were not exposed to the “harsh” images from inside Gaza and the foreign press had no access to sources of information other than the IDF spokesman and Arab networks such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. The result, no doubt, undermined the capacity of the public in Israel and across the world to know, understand and judge what was fully happening in that war.

Let us now return to the case of the Gazan doctor who lost three daughters in the war. The case unfolded live on Israel’s Channel 10. Other TV channels and newspapers in Israel continued to follow the story and interview the doctor in the days that followed. The heart-rending image of Doctor Abuelaish entered every living room in Israel at a time when viewer ratings for news broke all records. Never before had a Palestinian received such empathetic coverage by the mainstream media in Israel. His was the figure of a modern day Job: a pacifist, a doctor who speaks Hebrew and a human being who continues to speak the language of peace even after his daughters were killed.

After the broadcast, many Israelis came to the hospital inside Israel where the doctor’s other wounded children were being treated in order to console and encourage him. Others were moved to organise humanitarian aid missions to Gaza. The change in atmosphere was tangible even in the media. Reporters and programme hosts began challenging military spokesmen with tougher questions. Some people argue that this brought about an early end to the war. While it is not possible to prove this, there is no doubt it was a pivotal moment that left a deep mark on the Israeli psyche.

True, there were also antagonistic responses reflected in rumours and disinformation, such as the claim that the doctor’s house was hit by Palestinian, not Israeli, fire. But the bottom line is that the story of Dr. Abuelaish humanised the suffering of the Palestinians in Israeli eyes more than anything else in this war.

Television made this phenomenon possible. The nature of the medium is that it leaves editors with little choice. In an era of competition between television stations, no editor can afford to miss out on such dramatic coverage. This is both good and bad. On the one hand, television can air superficial, tabloid, even pornographic content that incites hatred and encourages violence. But on the other hand, television’s lack of inhibition can also open the medium, enabling it to present the other side with a human face.

How do we preserve the good and minimise the bad? The first step is to purchase video cameras and distribute them amongst people living in conflict zones. Success is guaranteed. This model was adopted by different organisations working in conflict areas. B’tselem for example, distributed cameras to Palestinians in the West Bank who used them to document injustices and the violence of the occupation from within—pictures that were then screened on Israeli television over and over again. This, in turn, gave rise to investigations and charges against particular officers and soldiers.

People engaged in a protracted national conflict tend to reject, ignore and deny the narratives of the enemy. Television can help achieve the opposite. By broadcasting the tragic truth of conflict we personalise and humanise the other. Television coverage of this sort can increase tolerance, empathy and heightened awareness that might, in turn, enable us to come to the aid of a civilian population more effectively. Perhaps it will also help shorten the duration of wars and, when necessary, warn against their recurrence.

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* Yizhar Be’er is Executive Director of Keshev - The Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel, and previously served as Executive Director of B'Tselem - The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. During the first Intifada, Be'er was a Ha'aretz correspondent in the Occupied Territories. This article is part of a special series on responsible journalism in the Arab-Israeli conflict written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service, 9 April 2009, www.commongroundnews.org. Copyright permission is granted for publication.
 
 
 
 
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Other articles in this series

Let the buyer beware by Barbara Sofer
Reaching people on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide by Ghassan Rubeiz
A vital medium by Khaled Diab
Serving the public’s best interests: A story of one journalist’s dilemma by Akiva Eldar
Media as critical reflective practice by Mohammed Cherkaoui