Sunday, July 30, 2006

Arab Israelis and the War

In the Old City

A recent article in Ha'aretz, which features Ghaleb Kiwan, the news reporter for Arabic-language broadcast on HOT (Israeli cable network), suggests that some Arab Israelis actually want to see Israel lose the war against Hizbullah. I can understand opposition to the war because of the deaths of Lebanese civilians, but I am baffled by statements such as these, made by Kiwan while touring Haifa:
"It's natural and legitimate for an Arab to identify with Nasrallah because this is not a war that threatens Israel's existence," he explains. "Why shouldn't I identify with him when I don't get all my rights from this country, when I'm surrounded by a militaristic society and when Israel is attacking him so fiercely?"
I don't know whether most Arab Israelis really share Kiwan's views. I have heard from some Arab Israelis who, despite their opposition to the war, would never identify with Nasrallah. I also have a friend who supports the war and actually does view it as a threat to Israel's existence. (How can missile attacks that shut down the entire north of the country NOT be an existential threat?). On the other hand, while walking through the Muslim quarter of the old city in Jerusalem last week, I overheard a 14-year-old boy (the child of one of the shopkeepers there) stopping an American tourist, asking her whether she understood Hebrew. When she responded in the affirmative, he told her with a broad grin that חיזבאללה בדרך - "Hizbullah is on the way." Then again, the views held by Palestinians from East Jerusalem are not necessarily identical to Arabs in Israel proper.

20 comments:

Halla said...

It would be interesting if that was broken down along Muslim & Christian lines among the Arab Israelis. I have spoken to some relatives that were outraged over the comments made by the father of the boys in Nazareth.
There is a great divide among both sides of Arabs in Israel.

Noah S. said...

Amos, perhaps he meant that Hizbollah has, ˆde factoˆ, no real power to threaten Israel's existence (god forbid that they ever do). Even Nasrallah, who seems to hunger for a war of annihilation, knew that the katyushot were not existential threats but rather instruments of terror. If you listen to his speeches, however, from the very beginning of this war Nasrallah has been courting Arab solidarity against Israel, hoping to muster a larger force that could actually threaten destruction. But most of the world sees this conflict as it exists now as posing no real threat to one of the world's most powerful militaries.
Unfortunately, it's not as easy to deny the existential threat when you have to hide in a bomb shelter to save your life.

It seems more than coincidental that an Arab Israeli sentiment such as the one you quote would appear at a time when regional Arab opinion in general is shifting. If I were in the gov't, I would make it propaganda priority #1 to court Arab Israeli loyalty... Btw, a request from our correspondents currently in Israel (John, Amos, Carmia): could you keep us up to date as to what kinds of tactics the government is using to sustain morale?

Noah S. said...

Sorry, I meant a "request for," not a "request from."

seth kimmel said...

hey all,
i wanted to comment on a discussion that began a couple days ago concerning the idf "public relations" blunder of releasing photographs of israeli children writing on bombs headed for their lebanese counterparts. First off, and most importantly, the blunder is not primarily a "public relations" one, but rather an ethical one, which is of course why it was such a powerful image in both western and arab media (more on the latter in a moment). There are obviously parallel pedagogical and publicity agendas in the arab world: israeli flags, for instance, are now painted on the ground in several places throughout the old city of damascus, so that everyone walking does a little trampling -- kids, as kids tend to do, like to jump and make a scene. i tend to think they would do the same on just about any painting on the ground, but the image is striking nonetheless. The photo of israeli children writing their greetings on (american made, rush-shipped?) bombs is, as of today, tied to condoleeza rice's comments last week about a "new middle east." in today's "diyar" paper, which is one of the two major daily's available in damascus, there was the photo of israeli children with a large, clearly sarcastic commentary on rice's phrase. The arabic translates as something like: "the new DIRTY middle east" [a-sharq a-WASACH al-gadeed], which is a play on "the new middle east" [a-sharq al-ausat al-gadeed]. The arabic pun is in bold.

rice's comment has a history which the arab world is taking as a clear sarcastic stab. the "new middle east," as the new york times pointed out on friday, is a term used by shimon peres during past peace talks. not only does the american administration seem intent on refusing to recognize the specificity of the present moment, but they seem oblivious to the fact the "new middle east" is already a play on the old pan-arab catch phrase "the greater middle east" [a-sharq al-ausat al-kabir]. the point is that among arabic reading audiences it seems that rice's choice of language is carefully calculated ridicule -- just as carefully calculated as her implorable refusal to use the word "immediate" in calls for a cease fire. i would think that after watching 5 minutes of al-jazeera coverage of today's events in qana (do the pictures of dozens of dead children frozen in horrifying positions make it to israel and american television news?), the word "immediate" would roll a little more easily off her tongue.

so i suppose my main point is that words and images are powerful not simply because they function strategically in world media, but because they both represent and shape political/military agendas whose consequences are anything but symbolic.

seth kimmel said...

sorry:

...her "deplorable" refusal...

Atieh said...

What is your idea about today's war crime of Israel Army at Qana ????? I want to know Are the children a threat to existence of Israel ? How about infants who were killed today????!!!!

Halla said...

Seth, that picture of the kids writing on the missiles has not gone over too well. I have seen numerous blogs that showed that picture and showing where those missiles have landed killing children. Very gruesome pictures, whoever took those pictures had to have known the damage it would reap

dv said...

Sorry if this is offtopic, but does anyone here know debka.com? How reliable is that site?

Noah S. said...

apropos - http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/744062.html

John said...

Seth, I didn't really understand the point of your comment. Your conclusion seemed quite banal and does not really contradict Uri's post about the propaganda battle between Israel and Hizbullah. Words and images are the means by which different actors in this conflict try to advance their agenda. If you stayed true to your critical approach, then you would recognize that those Israeli photographs are just another instrument in the (explicit)morality plays that are broadcast on Arab TV networks everyday. The pictures of the gruesome carnage from al-Qana serve as another dose of catharsis for Arab viewers and westerners who are looking (like all of us, I should add) for moral certitude. When they are able to harness it, the Arab regimes thrive on that moral certitude. Graphic footage from al-Qana allows Syria to distract attention from the responsibility it bears for this crisis. Those Syrian headlines that you cited here are laughable. Syria's state-controlled media is grandstanding as the moral beacon of the Arab world, when it is Syria that armed the militia that dragged Lebanon into this conflict.

BTW, news that most of the dead and wounded at al-Qana were children were not hidden from the Israeli public. The reason that you do not see live carnage on western and Israeli TV networks is because of self-imposed restraints. Ever notice the fact that when there is a terrorist attack in Israel, all you see on Israeli TV is people being rushed to the hospital on stretchers or, at the most, pools of blood and covered bodies? There's no shortage of gruesome footage that could be filmed at the site of a suicide bombing or in the living room of a house that took a direct hit from a katyusha. For some reason, the Arab networks do not have the same compunction about publishing carnage. Maybe it has to do with the audiences that they are appealing to. Maybe you could enlighten us on this point.

Seth Kimmel said...

John,
The earlier discussion about the public relations battle implied that the primary blunder was the _release_ of the photos, rather than the fact that Israeli kids were actually signing the bombs in the first place. I take issue with that stance. My "banal" point was that there is an important difference between being upset at the dissemination of the pictures and being upset that the pictures were possible to take in the first place.

You are absolutely right that Assad, repressively controlling his own people and encouraging the supplying of Hezbollah, is using the violence to polish his image as a defender of Muslims against Israeli aggression. But that does not change the fact that Lebanese civilians are dying because of Israel's attack and WE should be outraged for completely un-strategic reasons.

I was suggesting that those "self-imposed media restraints" are not always a good thing. And I think that your final implication that aljazeera shows mangled children on television because those are the "audiences that they are appealing to" is completely out of line. Your subtext is that arab media shows more graphic violence because arabic speaking audiences get some sort of pleasure out of such violence, while Israeli and American media avoids such violence because their public does not share that pleasure. I reject the essentialism of that point.

John said...

First, let me say that I'm as upset as you are about the killing of innocent civilians in Qana and elsewhere. I just don't draw the same conclusions as you.

Secondly, I am also disgusted by the idea of kids participating in war rituals of this sort - and writing messages on shells is a time-honoured practice of soldiers all over the world. But, you are guilty of (wilfully?) exaggerating the significance of that picture. Tthe messages seen in the picture are all directed at Nasrallah and Hizballah. Put yourself in the shoes of kids who've been in bomb shelters for days and have nothing to do and are then egged on (either by their parents or by foreign journalists - it's not clear to me) to draw pictures on shells. It should be obvious that kids that age wouldn't have written those messages. In any case, I really have to question the reasons behind your moral outrage. Had there been messages of "Death to Lebanese" or "Death to the Arabs", I would be able to understand your anger. Instead, you uncritically accept the shallow claim that these kids are revelling in the death of innocent civilians their age.

Finally, with regard to the nature of media coverage in the west and in the Arab world, you misunderstood me. I would venture to guess that many people, not just Arabs, are fascinated by gruesome pictures and death scenes. The difference is that, for some reason, Arab TV networks do not have the same compunction about displaying mangled bodies. And don't even try to tell me that this is because Israel television wants to hide the effect of the war on Lebanese civilians. The fact is that even in coverage of suicide bombings carried out against Israelis, you will never find the same graphic images that you see on the likes of al-Jazeera.

Derek said...

This weekend's NYTIMES had a very interesting article about the capabilities of Hizbullah, which I think are sometimes underestimated by people (like myself) who aren't totally immersed in the conflict
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/30/weekinreview/30shanker.html

John said...

Thanks, Derek. That's a great article, actually. I've been making that point, too: there's no doubt that Iranian and Syrian military planners have been studying this war and the Iraqi insurgency very carefully.

Halla said...

As regards to the carnage being shown on TV, daughter is in Israel right now visiting and has seen the differnce in the news between the west & the middleeast and was surprised. I believe that its the kids that get affected the most by these images (adults get jaded), they grow up watching these gruesome pitures, either they get immune to them or it will have a real impact. Its sad when she is at a childrens birthday party and one of the children asks her "do they have war in America like they do here?". All these kids need to feel secure and we have to do something to change either the way we have been doing things or change the mindset.

I rambled on but this does get me heated up.

Noah S. said...

Hi Seth (btw - glad that you're reading the blog!),

Graphic violence is a thorny topic in journalistic ethics. Remember the debates about American stations showing the decapitations of Nicolas Berg in Iraq? Publicizing extreme pain, agony, and above all blood affects the viewer emotionally in extremely powerful, visceral, and usually predictable ways (disgust, horror, and usually, in wartime scenarios, anger at the perceived perpetrator of the violence).

I do not think that it is in every case morally superior to withhold footage of carnage from viewers. But Seth, you have yet to make a case for discarding editorial self-censorship.

One must, I think, draw a distinction between state-run propaganda and private networks. Not understanding Arabic, unfortunately I can't watch Arab stations, but I do know that stations which are unabashedly mouthpieces of the state have far less compunction about showing mangled children. Like I said, the emotional effect of these images is predictable, and it is often used instrumentally to represent the physical manifestation of martyrdom, strengthen the resolve of resistance, or indeed simply to justify hatred. Don't get me wrong - all networks, even when they hide behind the mask of objectivity, inevitably create emotional responses in their viewers with their choice of stories. But blood and guts is qualitatively different, I think. The difference is that it has the power to instill *hatred* in the viewer IF the viewer identifies (e.g. nationally, ethnically, socially) with the victim.

For example, in the case of N. Berg's decapitation, I found the American discourse around censorship to be weak-kneed and prude in a typically American way (the images were described as "pornographic"), but at the end of the day I agreed with the decision to withhold the video from mainstream networks. The danger of producing a one-sided emotional response against Iraqis as a (dare I say essentialized) group was too great. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a bloody picture can overwhelm words altogether. As an American Jew myself, I would have found it difficult not to draw instinctual, emotionally conditioned conclusions from seeing another American Jew beheaded by Muslim hands.

You're wrong to accuse John of portraying Arab viewers as somehow more interested in seeing violence. It seems to me undeniable that many Arab stations use violent images instrumentally and propagandistically - and unabashedly so. Many of them are state-run networks with no use for objectivity. Networks that strive toward objectivity (even if they fail, inevitably) strive to be apolitical and therefore tend to avoid overly emotional material. Given the sensitivity of these images I believe it is better to err on the side of the latter. There is a reason that editors in democratic societies have chosen objectivity and censorship of extreme violence in their codes of ethical journalism. On the other hand, one could make the argument (and I hope you do) that objectivity/censorship-based journalism runs the risk of reducing human suffering to euphemism and "mere words." All I'm saying is that choosing to reveal suffering is a dangerous game to play, and one with which most stations that strive toward objectivity and non-politicality (is that a word?) tread lightly.

Noah S. said...

Btw sorry for the stream-of-consciousness-like nature of that last post but I'm just running out the door and have no time to craft something more coherent - loooking forward to discussing this important issue

John said...

With regard to debka.com :

They've come out with revelations and advance news of stuff that turned out to be right. But they also have a right-wing agenda. I'm sure they have some excellent sources in the Minisry of Defence and in the IDF - unlike other military commentators working for established newspapers (e.g. Yedi'ot Ahronot or Ha'aretz), they don't have the same constraints. They publish whatever they want, whereas established newspapers do more fact checking and less speculating. But debka is definitely worth following.

Amos said...

Noah and others - maybe I have a different sense of what qualifies as an "existential" threat. I think that when more than 300,000 of your citizens have to abandon a significant chunk of the country's territory, shutting down all economic activity in the north, the country's survival is threatened. It is not a situation that can be accepted as normal. I am not saying that Nasrallah has the capability to annihilate Israel, but I don't think that's necessary to call Hizbullah an existential threat. Perhaps I am not using the word correctly.

Noah S. said...

Amos, yeah, I don't know. This question has obviously important implications, though. To describe a threat as "existential" justifies action in a way that even the descriptor "immediate" does not. "Existential" connotes a fight for survival, whereas "immediate" connotes basic self-defense. I think it's safe to say that a response to the former threat will be the strongest type.

I think these are the types of questions where the critique of language is useful.