Ziad Asali
January 9, 2004 - 1:00am

Newspaper headlines on the day after Christmas read: “12-Week Lull in Mideast Ends,” on the cover of the Los Angeles Times; “Attacks broke a lull that had lasted more than two months,” reported the Chicago Tribune; “Lull in Violence Ends,” was the headline in the San Francisco Chronicle and 3,000 miles away The New York Times reported, “The suicide bomb attack…broke a relative calm that existed on both sides since October.”

The American press has reported on these periods of calm several times in the past year, however, these headlines often contradict, or at least present in very narrow context, the basic facts taking place on the ground in the Holy Land.

Recently, we reviewed an analysis performed by Jon Roth of the Middle East Policy Council, a Washington-based organization. In his study Mr. Roth methodically plotted daily Israeli and Palestinians deaths since the start of the Intifada, which began in September 2000.

The results revealed patterns that illustrate that the reported periods of ‘relative calm’ were in fact non-existent, at least not in terms of Palestinian deaths at the hands of the Israeli army. It is, however, evident that several extended of periods of time had passed where no Israelis were killed.

Analyzing the data from the past 1,200 days we find that, “the longest period of time in which no Palestinians were killed was seven days (July 9-15, 2003),” said Roth. Just seven days in nearly four years. In contrast the New York Times reported a period of 83 days without a suicide bombing. From September 2000 to the present, Israelis have killed a total of 2,656 Palestinians, while Palestinians have killed 835 Israelis.

These lives represented in American equivalents would total 219,572 and 39,636 deaths respectively. Even so, the sheer number of deaths should not be the issue. The fact that the lives of so many innocent people on both sides are brought to an early end is devastating. For this to be happening in the 21st century in an area of the world that is holy to three great religions is simply a tragedy.

While the Arab print and television media have consistently reported Palestinian deaths, often with a tendency to play to a sense of victimization, this has neither helped matters nor does it ‘balance out’ the fact that the American press has been so indifferent to the killing of Palestinians.

A few of these Arab media sometimes blur the margins between reporting the news and editorializing upon it, a practice which is confusing at best and instigating violence at worst. However, the access, reach and standing of American media outlets worldwide places an added responsibility on them to be perceived as accurate and fair in their reporting.

So why does this devaluation of Palestinian lives in the U.S. media matter in the larger picture of Mideast peace and stability? How does it affect the image of the U.S. in the Arab and Muslim worlds?

It matters because this devaluation has contributed to a process of polarization between that region and the U.S. The decision makers and political leaders of the countries in question, with tens of millions of their constituencies, watch CNN and read The New York Times and other American media outlets. As a result, they perceive the U.S. disregard for Palestinian deaths as a disregard for the course of Palestinian lives.

However, it is not just a matter of how Arabs in the Middle East perceive the U.S. To a great extent, media representations of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims form the perception of these groups that many U.S. readers and television viewers will carry. In a democracy, this translates into policy. So, when the time comes for politicians to try and stitch together a workable Middle East agreement, which they can sell to their constituencies with the attendant compromises that are needed, the existing misperceptions makes the process very difficult.

While there is much more to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than its media representations, the image of the United States is at its lowest point in history in the Arab and Muslim worlds and it is matched by an equally negative perception of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims here in the United States.

Achieving peace in the Middle East is hard enough as it is. Let us direct our efforts towards generating amity and reconciliation rather than polarization if we are to have peace in our time.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017