Reading Between the Lines: The Devil is in the Interpretation

Oct 19, 2023 | Blogs

“…now is not the moment to blame the victim,” writes Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, Steven Tian, and Dan Raviv in Time Magazine1 while defending the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made Gaza the world’s largest ‘open-air prison’2 and killed thousands of innocent civilians including unarmed ‘rock-less’ children. Somehow, unsurprisingly, in the same breath, the authors managed to defend decades of colonization, dehumanize Palestinians, blame Russia and Iran, and urge the Israeli Prime Minister that in order “to restore deterrence, and to prove Israel’s overwhelming force would require a lot of destruction within the Gaza Strip.”

This misrepresentation of Palestinian resistance by the Western news outlets, journalists and academics is not a novel phenomenon.3 In fact, any careful analysis of almost every newspaper in the US would conclude the similar. Many indicators as to the reasons for such misrepresentation and bias can be found in the ideas of critical theorists such as Michel Foucault,4 Karl Marx,5 Antonio Gramsci,6 and Louis Althusser.7 These theorists contend that the underlying intersection of ‘power’ and ‘ideology’ informs much of the social apparatus. In more precise terms, they argue that the ways in which power relations and ideologies intersect and interact intricately shape the structures of the social system, influencing how individuals, groups, and institutions behave and relate to one another. These ideas were adopted and elaborated further by media theorists like Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky,8 Edward Said,9 Michael Parenti,10 John Pilger,11 Ben Bagdikian,12 Douglas Kellner,13 and Stuart Hall,14 who postulated that media is not ‘objective’, and it certainly does not reflect the world out there. For instance, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argued that the US media does not look for facts but instead, it operates under an underlying elite consensus which, by and large, structures the news and presents gross misrepresentations to cater to their vested interests and ideologies. The Israel-Palestine conflict,15 Russia-Ukraine crisis,16 the Iraq War,17 the War on Terror, and the discourse around ‘Islamic Terrorism’18 are few examples of how media constructs and shapes perceptions.

Similarly, there has been a lot of debate on media bias ever since Hamas, an armed Palestinian liberation organization, launched an unprecedented attack on 7th October 202319 on Israel’s military centers for decades of oppression, brutal colonization, and apartheid, as per the Amnesty International.20 Hundreds of Israeli civilians and innocent children were killed in the attacks. In response, Israel started bombing Gaza with its powerful military resources and the US support, killing hundreds of innocent children and civilians, while Israeli officials publicly advocated for the absolute erasure of Palestinians and “destruction of Gaza;” at the time of writing, Israel had cut off Gaza’s electricity, water, food, and fuel supplies, and destroyed at least 70 industrial facilities and 970 residential units in the Gaza Strip.21 However, gross distortion and misreporting against Palestine has been going on ever since the crisis started. For instance, the mainstream Western media launched a campaign that Hamas has beheaded 40 Israeli infants. The reporter, Nicole Zedeck of i24News22 (it acts as a proxy for Israel and comprises of 35 ex-IDF veterans as staff),23 initially broke the story that an “Israeli soldier believes it” and told her; one “Israeli soldier” is the only source of her information, and consequently, of almost the entire Western media including The Times, Metro, CNN, New York Post, Fox News, Daily Express, The Scotsman, The Statesman, The Australian, The Telegraph and Financial Times, etc.

Furthermore, a Qatar-based scholar Marc Owen Jones, author of the 2022 book “Digital Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Deception, Disinformation, and Social Media,” revealed that this unverified claim by i24News attracted a staggering 44 million impressions, 300,000 likes, and over 100,000 reposts in just 24 hours on X.24 At the same time, while the West misreports, an Israeli woman records that Hamas did not try to hurt her and assured her of safety. This is just the tip of the iceberg; the instances of epistemic violence are more mainstream now more than ever. Ben Shapiro is one example of the prevalent calculated bias against Palestine in the American media. Renowned intellectuals like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in “The Israel Lobby,”25 and Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens in “Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question,”26 argue that there is a deliberate emphasis on Israeli perspectives, the unjust dehumanization of Palestinians, and the lack of scrutiny towards Israeli actions.

The violence through language has only intensified over time. Rashid Khalidi in his book, The Hundred Years War on Palestine,27 writes that at the time of the First Intifada, the public opinion was more positive and favorable towards Palestine, but the perception took an overwhelmingly negative turn at the time of the Second Intifada. Unarguably, something changed, and it was not the conflict but rather the way how we view the conflict.

Therefore, below I analyze an article, to explore how the Western media operates through language, by one of the widely recognized news outlets and authors, whose coverage of the conflict in the Middle East is subscribed by influential politicians, policy-making circles, and international organizations.

1. ‘There Were Terrorists Inside’: How Hamas’s Attack on Israel Unfolded by Patrick Kingsley, Aaron Boxerman and Gabby Sobelman in the New York Times28

The article by Patrick Kingsley, Aaron Boxerman, and Gabby Sobelman in The New York Times paints a vivid, emotionally charged narrative of a “violent” incursion by “Palestinian militants” and terrorists into Israeli territory. Before delving into the article, it is important to note that Patrick Kingsley is the NYT’s bureau chief in Jerusalem, where he is responsible for covering both Israel and the occupied territories. He is pursuing his Hebrew education and resides in Berlin, Germany. The assertion made by Amnesty International that Israel is an apartheid state was quickly ‘debunked’ by him. A deeper analysis of his writings reveal that the author frequently refers to Palestinians as “some Palestinians” and almost by and large, if not totally, cites Israeli sources and government officials while ignoring the Palestinian voices. Kingsley follows the same trail in this article as well.

One of the notable aspects of the article is its use of emotive language and terminology. Phrases like “massacre,” “bloodiest weekend,” and “abduction” are employed to create a visceral and emotional impact. These powerful terms are intended to convey the severity of the situation, engaging the reader’s empathy, and framing the “Palestinian militants” as ruthless aggressors who disrupted an innocent celebration. However, this emotional tone is used as a rhetorical strategy to sensationalize the event, manipulating readers’ emotions, and garnering sympathy for one side of the conflict.

The selective focus on Israeli perspectives and experiences is another point of contention. While personal stories of victims and survivors humanize those affected by the attack, the article predominantly omits Palestinian voices and viewpoints. This asymmetry in the representation of the crisis contributes to a one-sided portrayal of the situation. It overlooks the motivations or context of the Palestinian resistance, leaving a void in the understanding of the conflict, absolving Israel of responsibility for murdering thousands of Palestinians, and therefore, legitimizing the Israeli destruction of Gaza.

Furthermore, the authors present the event as a sudden and unprovoked assault by Palestinian “militants,” omitting the broader context of decades of colonization and Israeli atrocities in Palestine. By simplifying a complex issue, this framing perpetuates a biased understanding of the crisis, labeling Palestinians as “ruthless militants.” There is the obvious absence of Palestinian context and the limited inclusion of information about the motivations or grievances of the Palestinians. This omission can be interpreted as a form of misrepresentation, as it simplifies the narrative and omits the complexities of the conflict.

Henceforth, a careful textual analysis reveals an unequivocal exposition of discernible biases against Palestinians in the Western media, notably, but not exclusively, in the United States. These biases are manifested through the deliberate strategies of discursive misrepresentation, characterized primarily by the inordinate reliance upon the passive voice to depict destructive or violent actions directed towards Palestinians. Secondly, a visible inclination is evident toward the utilization of a lexicon steeped in negativity and violence when referring to Palestinians, while subsequently applying a gentler tone and terminology to their Israeli counterparts. Such linguistic tendencies underscore the necessity of perpetual scholarly critique vis-à-vis media discourse around the Israel-Palestine conflict.

About the Author

Arsim Tariq

The author is a Junior Research Fellow at Roads Initiative.

1 Tian, J. S. a. S., & Raviv, D. (2023, October 8). Why Hamas tried to sabotage Arab-Israeli peace prospects with a massive unprovoked attack. TIME.

2 Gaza: The world’s largest open-air prison | NRC. (2023, October 13). NRC.

3 Shupak, G. (2018). The wrong story: Palestine, Israel, and the media. Or Books.

4 Purvis, T., & Hunt, A. (1993). Discourse, ideology, discourse, ideology, discourse, ideology… British Journal of Sociology, 473-499.

5 Stoddart, M. C. (2007). Ideology, hegemony, discourse: A critical review of theories of knowledge and power. Social Thought & Research, 191-225.

6 Fontana, B. (2008). Hegemony and power in Gramsci. Hegemony: Studies in consensus and coercion, 56, 80.

7 Althusser, L. (2020). On ideology. Verso Books.

8 Mullen, A. (2017). The propaganda model after 20 years: Interview with Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, 6(2).

9 Said, E. (2016). Islam and the West. In Defining Islam (pp. 335-357). Routledge.

10 Parenti, M. (2002). Monopoly media manipulation. Mediterranean Quarterly, 13(2), 56-66.

11 Pilger, J. (2007). The invisible government. Information Clearing House, Speech.

12 Bagdikian, B. H. (1974). Congress and the media: Partners in propaganda. Columbia Journalism Review, 12(5), 3.

13 Kellner, D. (2003). Media spectacle. Psychology Press.

14 Hall, S., Lumley, R., & McLennan, G. (2013). Politics and ideology: Gramsci. In On ideology (pp. 45-76). Routledge.

15 Kandil, M. A. (2009). The Israeli-Palestinian conflict in American, Arab, and British media: Corpus-based critical discourse analysis.

16 Boyd-Barrett, O. (2016). Western mainstream media and the Ukraine crisis: A study in conflict propaganda. Taylor & Francis.

17 Kellner, D. (2008). Globalization and Media Spetacle: from 9/11 to the Iraq War. Revista FAMECOS, 15(35), 17-21.

18 Jackson, R. (2018). Writing the war on terrorism: Language, politics and counter-terrorism. In Writing the war on terrorism. Manchester University Press.

19 Sella, A. (2023, October 7). Buzzing Tel Aviv’s streets empty, as Israel-Hamas conflict escalates. Israel-Palestine Conflict News | Al Jazeera.

20 Amnesty International. (2023). Israel’s apartheid against Palestinians. Amnesty International.

21 Gaza: Israel’s energy cuts violate laws of war. (2020, October 28). Human Rights Watch.

22 Desk, I. T. V. (2023, October 11). ‘One of the worst acts of violence’: Journalist who reported killing of 40 babies by Hamas – India Today. India Today.

23 Solmas, Calli. (2023, October 11). Despite refutations from Israeli military, headlines that Hamas ‘beheaded babies’ persist. Anadolu Agency.

24 Ibid.

25 Mearsheimer, J., & Walt, S. (2006). The Israel Lobby. London Review of Books, 28(6), 3-12.

26 Said, E. W., & Hitchens, C. (Eds.). (2001). Blaming the victims: Spurious scholarship and the Palestinian question. Verso.

27 Khalidi, R. (2020). The hundred years’ war on Palestine: A history of settler colonialism and resistance, 1917–2017. Metropolitan Books.

28 Kingsley, P., Boxerman, A., & Sobelman, G. (2023, October 8). How the Hamas Attack on Israel Unfolded. The New York Times.