The Arab media and Israel

Why did the Fogel murderers’ relatives, amid such widespread censure, choose to describe the killers as “heroes”?

By KHALED DIAB
February 22, 2012 21:48
The mother of Hakim Maazan Niad Awad.

Mother of Fogel murder suspect 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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There has been widespread outrage in Israel over reports that official Palestinian television had aired a show “glorifying” the two Palestinians who, in 2011, brutally murdered five members of the Fogel family, including their three children.

The aunt of Hakim Awad, the young man who led the attack on the Israeli settlement of Itamar, described her nephew as a “hero and a legend.”

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In 2011, the Itamar massacre was harshly condemned by Arabs, including the Palestinian Authority, media and many local Palestinian residents. So why did the murderers’ relatives, amid such widespread censure, choose to describe the killers as “heroes”?

“This happens in every society. ...It is more acute in societies, though, that are in great emotional conflict, like Palestinians and Israelis,” said Ray Hanania, the Palestinian-American stand-up comic and columnist who also writes for The Jerusalem Post. “These relatives are no different to the relatives and friends of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered scores of Palestinians praying at a mosque.”

That said, support for the Fogel murderers is not confined to their nearest and dearest. In the immediate wake of the killings, there were reports of celebrations in some Palestinian communities, including fireworks and the distribution of sweets.

But is this really any different to the thousands of “pilgrims” who have visited Baruch Goldstein’s grave, many singing and dancing or even kissing the gravestone, with fans describing him as a “saint” and a “hero of Israel,” despite widespread Israeli revulsion and condemnation of Goldstein’s murder of 29 Muslim worshipers?

While deriving satisfaction from such misfortune and tragedy is truly perverse, it is a clear indication of how this bitter, protracted conflict has warped people’s humanity.

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And the Arab and Israeli media, despite journalism’s mission to seek out the “truth,” edify and challenge prejudice, have more often than not acted like loyal crack commandos for their respective sides. Nevertheless, there is a growing minority who courageously refuse to fall prey to this simplistic usand- them dichotomy, despite regular character assassinations.

Israelis are very familiar with the dissident voices in their midst but generally have the impression that the Arab media only demonizes Israel and its people. While this is true of some segments of the media, others strive for balance.

“There have been some significant changes in the Arab discourse on Israel since the 1967 war, the peace with Egypt and the Oslo agreements,” says Ofir Winter, a historian and researcher at Tel Aviv University.

In fact, anger at the occupation notwithstanding, there has been a kind of de facto partial “normalization” of Israel in the media. Not only is Israel now referred to by name rather than the “Zionist entity” of yesteryear, news coverage often takes a neutral and nonemotive tone. One of the trailblazers in this regard has been Al Jazeera which, despite allegations by the Israeli government of anti-Israel bias, regularly hosts Israeli guests and explores other aspects of Israeli society.

One recent example was a documentary, titled Jerusalem SOS, which featured Jewish and Arab volunteer paramedics in Jerusalem who cross the geographical and psychological divisions in the city to save lives.

In addition, when Israel is viewed beyond the prism of the conflict, it is often held up as a model to emulate. This may surprise many ordinary Israelis and Arabs alike, but this is what Winter, in collaboration with Uriya Shavit of Tel Aviv University, found by analyzing a wide range of content dating back to the 1970s.

In fact, Israel is often used by the opposition to highlight “the failures of Arab regimes,” explains Winter. For example, the recent prisoner exchange involving Gilad Schalit evoked not only joy in Arab quarters but a certain amount of soul-searching regarding the thousand-to-one arithmetic of the swap. “You are lucky in your nation, Gilad,” wrote Iqbal Ahmed in the Kuwaiti daily al-Qabas. “In the Arab world, it is the state that kills, arrests and disappears its sons and daughters.”

Different groups focus on different aspects of the Israeli experience. Some Islamists use Israel’s identity as a “Jewish state” to argue that religion can go handin- hand with modernity, prosperity and democracy, while certain secularists point to Israel’s embrace of “western values,” such as science and technology and gender equality, as part of the secret of its success in contrast to the Arabs’ failure.

The Iraqi-German writer Najm Wali, who wrote a book about his travels through Israel, once asked on Al Jazeera: “How did Jews from all over the world manage to build such a dynamic country?” Answering his own question, Wali put it down to Israel’s ingrained pluralism.

Fascinatingly, an audio recording uncovered by Winter, apparently of the popular TV theologian Yusuf al- Qaradawi, who some have accused of anti-Semitism, expressed, back in the 1990s, admiration for the achievements of Israeli democracy: “We hope that our countries will become like this country [i.e. Israel].”

Why? “There, it is the people who govern. There, they do not have the ‘four nines’ which we know in our countries,” he added, referring to the 99.99 percent of the vote with which Arab dictators often used to “win” elections.

Given all this oft-grudging admiration of Israel’s social, scientific and economic achievements, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Arab media reacted positively to last year’s tent protests – dubbed the “Israeli Spring” – which were at least partly inspired by the Arab uprisings, with some activists even calling Rothschild Avenue their own “Tahrir Square.”

What all this highlights is that, even if a certain amount of anti-Semitism exists in the Arab world, the majority of Arab hostility and distrust toward Israel stems from to its treatment of the Palestinians.

As Arabs battle to win their freedom from their dictators and Israelis struggle to preserve theirs against the extremists in their midst, it is time for moderates on both sides to find common cause and work together to find a just resolution to the Palestinian question and enable Israel to enter the new Middle Eastern fold as a respected and valued neighbor.

Khaled Diab is an Egyptian journalist and blogger currently living in Jerusalem. His website is www.chronikler.com

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