A review of The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy, by Stephanie Gutmann

Stephanie Gutmann is a talented American journalist who has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for a variety of publications. The Other War is a carefully researched, on-the-ground account of the media skirmishes that take place each day and collectively determine how that conflict is portrayed to the world. Her book, detailed and convincing, is written with a wry wit that makes it a pleasure to read, despite the gravity of her subject.

The first half of The Other War is a series of vivid reconstructions of the major incidents in the Second Intifada, which the late Yasser Arafat launched in fall 2000. Parallel to the "actual ground war in which people died," she writes, "there was a war of competing narratives played out in the mass media." Her argument is that this war of narratives is often the more consequential of the two. Of course, propaganda wars in concert with real wars have been in fashion since Moses said some things about the Amalekites, and on the same territory no less. But after 35 centuries, something changed. "[T]he first Gulf War happened and television producers discovered world conflict as a riveting form of 'reality programming.'" Technology was the enabling factor: "Satellites, digital cameras and the internet made transmission of text and visual content nearly instantaneous." Today's media war is driven by the same ancient impulses, but now, like the technology on which it relies, it is instant and infinite.

Gutmann believes that Israel has been steadily defeated on the media front, and with deadly consequences. In March 2002, for instance, Israeli army planners were preparing a full-scale assault against West Bank terrorist networks. But they recalled the public-relations pummeling the country had endured during the previous two years, in which the United Nations, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, and others routinely condemned Israel for "excessive force." And so, instead of lightning air strikes, Operation Defensive Shield relied on door-to-door raids, resulting in the deaths of 23 Israeli soldiers. Military superiority over its enemies is no advantage if Israel is continually dissuaded from using it.

In the media war, Israel has three disadvantages. The first is an open society, which allows reporters (and filmmakers and activists and human-rights observers) the freedom to roam, record, and interview in first-world comfort. This has saddled Israel with what may be the world's highest per capita concentration of reporters. Jerusalem is host to 350 permanent foreign news bureaus, as many as New York, London, or Moscow; the volume of reportage on Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank is 75 times greater than on any other area of comparable population. This obsessive attention necessarily distorts, by casting the Israel-Palestinian war in a theatric, world-historical light.

In the last decade, around 4,500 Israeli and Palestinian lives have been lost to the fighting. The Russo-Chechen war has killed 50,000 (11 times as many), the Darfur crisis has killed 180,000 (40 times as many), and the Congolese civil war has killed 3.5 million (778 times as many). But very few Americans can call to mind images of the ghastly violence in Chechnya, Sudan, or Congo—or even identify the warring parties—because these are places so dangerous that the New York Timessimply cannot responsibly send a reporter there, much less a bureau.

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If freedom is disadvantageous, this goes double when you happen to abut a shameless, propagandizing Arab dictatorship. According to Gutmann, the Palestinian Authority under Arafat used "the combat theatre (the West Bank, Gaza, and inside Israel) as a kind of soundstage." Those famous scenes of Palestinian boys with rocks confronting soldiers, for example, are usually choreographed. Palestinian youths, exhorted by parents, teachers, and their televisions to pelt Israeli soldiers, are so conscious of the media presence themselves that they often don't start in with the stones until photographers arrive. Israeli soldiers are actually forewarned of clashes when film crews suddenly materialize. (Coalition forces have experienced the same phenomenon in Iraq.)

How do these reporters or photographers, on a quest for dramatic stories and footage, know where the "spontaneous" violence is to "erupt"? One or another foot soldier in their "small army of Palestinian fixers" is tipped off by the attackers. The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Press (which together supply 80% of news images to the world media) require the assistance of natives who speak the local language, know who's who, and can get things done. These hired locals, in turn, make decisions about where to drive and what to translate (or leave un-translated).

The Palestinian regime isn't brutal in the way of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, but its operatives are trained in the same school of media manipulation. On September 12, 2001, as the Middle East awoke to the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Palestinians in several cities took to the streets. The celebration in Nablus, estimated at 3,000 people, was filmed by an A.P. photographer who forwarded the footage to his bureau in Jerusalem. Before it hit the wire, the photographer called his bureau again, this time sitting in the Nablus governor's office with guns to his head. The reporter lived, but the truth did not. The A.P. was told by the Palestinian Authority that it "could not guarantee their safety" in the future unless the A.P. learned to be "more careful."

Regime propaganda is pervasive. TV spots feature inspirational poetry like "how beautiful is the scent of the land, which is fed from the waterfall of blood, springing from an angry body." In April 2002, an Israeli drone flying above a funeral procession in the city of Jenin caught on tape a Palestinian corpse falling off his bier, reproving his handlers, then hopping back on. It happened again in the midst of a crowd, sending bystanders fleeing in terror. It was part of an effort to inflate both the body count and the number of photo-ops.

Israel's third disadvantage is media convention itself. Gutmann reminds us that all news is constructed: "Behind every picture there is a long story and a regiment of people who brought that particular picture, of all possible pictures, to you." And construction is rarely better than its architects: "producers sitting in carpeted, climate-controlled studios in New York and London are making war their subject…. [A]nd journalists, dumped on the ground with little prior knowledge, are forced to condense and 'package' terribly complex and crucial events." The general leftism in the news media gives reporters and producers many ways of introducing their bias into the simplified narrative: "David and Goliath, Poor versus Rich, the Third World versus Western Colonialism, Man versus Machine, even you-in-third-grade versus those-guys-who-always-beat-you-up after school." With Israel and the Palestinians, the overall result is "Large Mechanized Brutes versus Small Vulnerable Brown People."

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The second half of The Other War is a series of introductions to the cast of characters in this Middle East media drama, among them naïve and flamboyant journalists, venturesome photographers, spin doctors, soldiers and terrorists, and Gutmann's personal "fixer," renamed for his protection. Her interview with the Jerusalem Post's Khaled Abu Toameh, probably the most famous Palestinian journalist, is particularly trenchant, not least because unlike any other Palestinian working within reach of the Palestinian regime, Toameh seems uniquely able to say whatever he pleases. (Gutmann says he is protected from on high by Israelis.)

Two of Gutmann's "case studies" from the beginning of the Second Intifada illustrate the character of this media war and the obstacles that Israel faces: the shooting death of a young Palestinian, and the lynching of two Israelis. According to CBS News's Richard Roth, these two episodes became "defining symbols of the conflict for those on each side."

On September 30, 2000, film footage became available to the world showing a Palestinian boy, Mohammed al-Dura, who, cradled in his father's arms, is shot by Israeli soldiers. Or so it seemed. Subsequent analysis, based especially on firing angles and ballistics examinations, called the story into doubt. Israel, in fact, was probably not responsible for the shooting. But by the time the Israeli army released the findings about its unlikely guilt, the Pietà -like image had zipped around the world, eventually appearing on a Belgian postage stamp, inspiring renamed streets and squares across the Arab world, and co-starring in the propaganda film extolling the execution of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.

On October 12, 2000, less than two weeks after the al-Dura incident, two Israeli reservists took a wrong turn while driving home and were arrested by Palestinian police, taken to the local station, and lynched by a mob. One photographer happened onto the scene:

Within moments [the crowd was] in front of me and, to my horror, I saw that it was a body, a man they were dragging by the feet. The lower part of his body was on fire and the upper part had been shot at, and the head beaten so badly that it was a pulp, like red jelly. My God, I thought, they've killed this guy. He was dead, he must have been dead, but they were still beating him, madly, kicking his head. They were like animals.

The crowd tore the photographer's camera from him and smashed it. But a colleague managed to capture the infamous image of one of the murderers holding up his bloody hands for a cheering crowd. 

The two scenes provided visual scripture from which reporters sermonized about symmetry, suffering on both sides, and cycles of violence. But Gutmann discerns the tragedy, for Israel, precisely in the asymmetry:

The images were frequently paired—by the news media. But it was a forced symmetry, created by the media for its convenience and because it was more soothing and less complicated to represent the situations as the same. Consider just the two pieces of videotape by themselves, which was all anyone had to work with at this time: In 'Ramallah' we actually see perpetrators at work—men hoisting a body to a window ledge, then shoving it off the ledge to a crowd below, whom we then see all too clearly stomping and stabbing it. In 'al-Dura,' however, we see a boy collapsing, apparently shot. That is all. In one story, most of the who, what, where and why is answered. But in 'al-Dura,' virtually everything, except that two people were shot at in front of a wall, is essentially a mystery.

Less of a mystery is that the "al-Dura" cameraman became a minor celebrity, treated to interviews at European media conferences. The "Ramallah" cameraman, on the other hand, remains unknown, while death threats forced his bureau chief to flee the region.

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Towards the end of her book, Gutmann details some of Israel's long-overdue—and successful—efforts to reverse the tide in the media war. Because her observations throughout are so scrupulous and clear-eyed, her belief that things are taking a turn for the better is encouraging, even if it remains a little hard to believe. 

As Gutmann says, nearly every evil of the last three centuries—racism, apartheid, militarism, colonialism, fascism, ethnic cleansing, genocide—is routinely invoked against Israel. These are not so much criticisms of policy, mind you, but of Israel's existence, for it is understood that regimes dedicated to such evil deserve to be eliminated, not reformed. Are such criticisms confined to the political fringes? If they were, Gutmann wouldn't be able to cite a 2004 poll in which 68% of Germans agreed that Israel now conducts a "war of extermination" against Palestinians. There are ten times as many Palestinians today as in 1920, I might point out to the Germans, but fewer Jews.

At the close of The Other War, Gutmann writes: "Looking at the virulent, vituperative tone of European coverage, and particularly at how openly jeering it grows when Israel tries to defend itself in the media war, it is hard to imagine that any Israeli public relations staff with any amount of resources at its disposal could have an impact on Europe." She's right; there must be something more to it, and she alludes, briefly, to anti-Semitism. Earlier in the book, she mentions the hard Left's fixation with Israel and the brutality of Arab propaganda. But each receives only glancing notice. The logical next step—accounting for the forces behind and beyond the media—is outside the scope of her important book, but nevertheless essential to the whole truth about "the other war."