The essence of the matter

In a recent radio interview on NPR’s “Here and Now,” David Folkenflik, NPR’s media correspondent based in New York, discussed the difficulties of reporting the news from the Middle East. He points out that coverage is “incredibly fraught…It goes back decades…on back to the Bible for many people. I think it is also essentially seemingly insoluble…Israel doesn’t want to deal with Hamas…and Hamas has stated that it wants to, you know, wipe Israel off the face of the earth. You’ve got two enemies which seem inclined not only to not want to strike a decent bargain, but not want to acknowledge the legitimacy of the other in doing so. So the coverage of this means that….the idea of fairness…kind of goes out the window: it’s two competing narratives which are irreconcilable and therefore a strict adherence to what you can prove and show and facts on the ground is probably the safest bet for reporters there.”

In describing problems that reporters face in covering the news, Folkenflik may have unwittingly brought to light the words that highlight the existential essence of the conflict: “Israel doesn’t want to deal with Hamas…and Hamas has stated that it wants to, you know, wipe Israel off the face of the earth.” I wonder, when the cry is raised for Israel to “negotiate a truce,” what exactly is it that they might be negotiating about? Funeral arrangements?

My blog is dedicated to the idea that words are important, that words can heal and words can kill. Folkenflik emphasizes that reporters should report only what they see. But often this is not so simple. If a reporter is on the street and sees two people wrestling, one on top beating one on bottom, what does he report? When bystanders rush in to intervene, the reporter watches and later interviews them. One of the interveners says “Oh, the guy on the top, he was brutal, beating the guy on bottom! So unfair, that man was clearly weaker than he!” Another says “The guy on the bottom — I saw the whole thing, he started it when he attacked the other guy with a knife! It was just out of the blue, he was walking by and pulled a knife on him. It was a miracle that he didn’t kill him!” The words the reporter uses to tell this story can leave the reader clueless as to the context, and helpless to resolve the conflict.

Often reporters in war zones are young, and have never focused intensively on the background of the conflicts they are covering. They go in “tabula rasa,” clean slate, with the intention of being impartial, reporting only facts. But facts do not make good radio or television or even good print stories. And without the understanding that a deep knowledge of history of a conflict conveys, the “human element” that every reporter adds to his or her stories strikes the reader “context free,” leading them to believe that a story rich in detail is also rich in context.

So this all leaves me wondering: does Hamas really represent the average Gazan? Dr. David Pollock, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, recently commissioned a poll of Gazan residents. To his surprise, the poll reported that the average Palestinian family man was interested in peace and a steady job in Israel. This is some solid context demonstrating that extremists who manage to grab power and headlines are not necessarily representative of the people they purport to represent and defend. And often those average people are the ones who pay the price of extremism.

(This posting received special assistance from my executive editor, Cindy Harris)


2 thoughts on “The essence of the matter

  1. If the average Palestinian in Gaza is indeed interested in peace, doesn’t it then follow that Israel needs to more heavily weigh Palestinian casualties in its calculus of whether to respond to Hamas’ rockets? After all if the average Palestinian wants peace, doesn’t it follow that the average Palestinian killed in an Israeli response to terrorism has family that wanted peace? But after loosing a family member to an Israeli rocket do you think they would still want peace?

    If the average Palestinian wants a job, shouldn’t that also change Israel’s calculus? After all why should Palestinians start businesses and create jobs if there is a good chance that Israeli bombs will destroy the business? Also how can Palestinians start businesses and create jobs if the Israeli blockade blocks the sort of trade that produces economic opportunity?

    And if the Palestinians want jobs in Israel, how will the establishment of a Palestinian state help them? Wouldn’t such Palestinians desire a right of return to Israel and be jealous of Israel rather than be accepting of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state?

    Also, what about similar polling in Israel? Do a majority of Israelis still want peace? What are Israelis willing to do to achieve peace if they do claim they want it or is their claim to want peace an idle claim? For that matter … those Palestinians who claim they want peace with Israel? What are they willing to give up or is their claim to want peace an idle one?

    • I regret to have overlooked your comments to my blog from July 14. I accidentally came across it the other day.

      Before Hamas took forcibly over the Gaza territory, trade relations with Israel were normal, as they are now with the West Bank. Eight thousand Gazans worked in the Israeli settlements that were eventually removed as a gesture towards peace. When Hamas took over they lost their jobs. The greenhouses left for their use as the Israelis departed were destroyed.

      Hamas’ stated goal is the destruction of Israel. and they soon started launching rockets from Gaza into Israel, creating a state of war. As you might imagine, trade relations were disrupted as a result of these bombings. Hamas began receiving weapons from Iran, causing Israel and Egypt to set up blockades that slowed commerce even further. But until the recent outbreak, Israel responded only in muted ways, doing its best to avoid “collateral casualties” that would be caused by attacking Hamas launchers situated in densely populated areas from afar.

      As you should know, Israel accepted the partition of Palestine in 1947, only to be attacked repeatedly by Arab nations over the next 30 years. To date, only Jordan and Egypt have concluded peace agreements with Israel. In the meantime, Israel experienced several wars, suicide bombings, a massacre of their Olympic athletes in Munich, and more. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, there have been approximately 25,000 Israeli casualties as a result of these acts of violence.

      You point out that many refugees might wish to return to Israel. But this is not exactly true. The Palestinian Authority officially acknowledges Israel’s existence, although Israel does not appear on maps in schoolbooks in the West Bank or in Gaza. Hamas has never acknowledged the existence of Israel. What these perpetual refugees are actually envisioning is a return to a place they call “Palestine” that exists in their minds in the physical territory that the rest of the world calls “Israel.” This is why the so-called “right of return” is something that will never be acceptable to Israel as part of a comprehensive peace agreement. There is no “Palestine” for these refugees to return to in the places they envision: there is only Israel.

      There has been no other instance in modern history when “refugees” have been held in camps for over 60 years in hopes that they might return to the homes of their ancestors. Yet since 1948 the UN and its members have been complicit in exactly that state of affairs for the Palestinian refugees. Since you are showing a keen interest in these issues, I highly recommend that you listen to the speech I refer to in my most recent blog posting at

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