Western media and public opinion and Israel’s war on Gaza

Dina Shehata , Wednesday 25 Oct 2023

Coverage by the mainstream media in the United States and Europe of Israel’s war in the occupied territories has been biased towards Israel and has mostly embraced the Israeli narrative about this war, increasingly putting it at odds with a public whose views are more complex.

Israeli bombardment
An injured man holds another injured child, both survivors of Israeli bombardment, while a nurse bandages his head at a trauma ward at Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on October 24, 2023. AFP

 

While such a bias is not surprising given longstanding Western and especially American support for Israel and its occupation of Palestine since 1948, what is different this time is the heightened public awareness both in the Arab world and in the West about the flagrant nature of this media bias.

Widespread use of social media has allowed hundreds of millions of users to share and disseminate media both supporting the Israeli aggression and documenting its brutality. This has shown Western double standards on human rights when it comes to Israel’s repeated violations of international laws and the basic rights of Palestinians.

However, this bias towards Israel among mainstream Western media does not accurately reflect actual divisions in public opinion. Important demographic groups comprising youth, immigrants, and progressive social movements are increasingly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

It is important to understand and leverage these contradictions in order to promote policies that are more balanced and aligned with Arab and Palestinian interests.

Western media coverage
 

Media coverage of the recent violence uncritically revolves around several key themes promoted by Israel, which are:

1. The 7 October attack is a terrorist attack: Israeli and Western mainstream media frame Hamas' attack on several Israeli sites on 7 October as a terrorist attack by a militant or armed group against innocent civilians. News coverage avoids making references to the historical plight of Palestinians and to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands since 1948.

2. Hamas’ attack was unprovoked: Western, especially American, media outlets, echo the narrative that Hamas’s attack was unprovoked, meaning Israel has the full right to retaliate. Little emphasis is placed on Israeli actions and policies leading up to this attack. This narrative disassociates the Hamas attack and the Israeli occupation, asserting that there can be no moral equivalence between the former and the latter.

3. A new September 11: Western media likens the 7 October attack to the events of September 11, 2001, in the United States. According to this narrative, in both cases, terrorist groups driven by an extremist religious ideology targeted unarmed citizens. This comparison aims to create empathy and alignment between American and Israeli citizens, suggesting they face the same enemy and the same risks, thus supporting Israel becomes a moral imperative.

4. One battle in Israel and Ukraine: The media draws parallels between the Israeli war on Gaza and the war in Ukraine, portraying them as part of the conflict between the forces of good represented by the US and other democratic Western countries, and the forces of evil represented by Russia, China, Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Hence, supporting Israel and Ukraine in their current wars becomes part of the West's battle against anti-Western forces globally.

5. A war between Hamas and Israel: The media narrative presents the current war as a war between Hamas and Israel, not one between Israel and the occupied Palestinian people. This conflict is portrayed as a battle between a democratic state and a terrorist group, likening it to the USA’s war against Al-Qaeda. There is a deliberate attempt to disassociate the Palestinian question or the Israeli occupation from the current war.

6. Hamas is an extremist Islamic group: Western media depicts Hamas as an extension of extremist Islamic groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS, driven by an anti-Western, anti-Semitic, radical religious ideology that transcends the Palestinian reality. This is an attempt to separate Hamas from the struggle for Palestinian statehood and national liberation.

7. Hamas does not represent Palestinians or the Palestinian cause: Western media maintains that Hamas, as a terrorist group, does not represent the Palestinian cause or its people. Hamas is portrayed as having hijacked Gaza and imposed its will on its people. As a result, its attacks are not legitimate resistance to occupation. This narrative also emphasizes the differences between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority and between West Bank and Gaza residents.

8. Gaza is no longer occupied, and Hamas had other options: A recurring narrative is that Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, therefore Hamas is not resisting its occupation. It is emphasized that Hamas received grants and aid from Arab and Western countries, which could have been used for developing Gaza into a tourist or industrial zone like Singapore, but chose to use these resources to develop military capabilities to attack Israel.

The fact that Israel withdrew from Gaza while fully encircling it from all sides, laying siege to it, and turning it into an open-air prison is not presented.

9. Egypt hindered the opening of the Rafah crossing: Western media portrays Egypt as hindering relief operations for Gaza residents by refusing to open the Rafah crossing for refugees and displaced persons, attempting to shift the responsibility for the humanitarian tragedy in Gaza from Israel to Egypt.

The fact that Israel has bombed the Rafah crossing four times and has denied the entry of humanitarian aid to Gaza through the Rafah crossing is not presented. Similarly, the dangers that could result from allowing an influx of Palestinian refugees into the Sinai on regional security, the future of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and the future of the Palestinian cause are not highlighted.

Public opinion more complex
 

Despite the near-complete bias for Israel shown by Western political leaders and mainstream media outlets, including justifying its violations against Gaza and its inhabitants, Western public opinion is markedly more complex.

The attack on 7 October generated a wave of sympathy towards Israel, particularly as Hamas targeted civilians and took a number of captives. However, as time passed and Israel engaged in systematic destruction in Gaza, used excessive violence against Palestinian civilians, and caused mass internal displacement, Western public opinion began to shift.

Various opinion polls conducted over recent years have recorded significant shifts in Western public opinion, including American public opinion, towards the Palestinian issue.

Increased sympathy towards Palestinians has been particularly noticeable since the Sheikh Jarrah events in Jerusalem in 2021, especially among youth, immigrants, and liberal and progressive forces. For instance, a poll conducted by Gallup in March 2023 showed that for the first time, those affiliated with the Democratic Party in the United States expressed greater sympathy for Palestinians (49 percent) as compared to Israelis (38 percent).

However, polls conducted after 7 October showed that most Americans supported Israel’s actions. According to a CNN poll conducted on 15 October, Half of Americans said that the Israeli government’s military response to the Hamas attacks was fully justified, another 20 percent said it was partially justified, and just eight percent said that it is not at all justified, with 21 percent unsure.

Republicans were far more likely than independents or Democrats to say the response was fully justified (68 percent, 45 percent, and 38 percent, respectively). Older Americans were also much likelier to say it was completely justified (81 percent of those aged 65 or older see the response as fully justified, compared with 56 percent of 50-to-64-year-olds, 44 percent of 35-to-49-year-olds and 27 percent of 18-to-34-year-olds).

However, this rise in sympathy for Israel, especially among youth and Democrats, is expected to be temporary in light of Israeli violations and crimes following the Hamas attack.

Several factors have influenced the shift in Western public opinion, especially among the younger generations. Chief among these is the growing role of social media, where most youth obtain their information, especially TikTok. These platforms allow users to access information directly from Palestinian activists on the ground. Young Palestinian activists, like Mohammed El-Kurd, have played a significant role in educating Western youth about the Palestinian issue.

Additionally, the increasing influence of progressive social movements representing immigrants, racial minorities, and marginalized groups, along with their rising influence in their respective countries, played a significant role in forming a public opinion more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

However, despite these significant distinctions and shifts in Western and American public opinion towards the Palestinian issue in recent years, these shifts have not been reflected in the orientations of political leaders and mainstream media in these countries.

The escalation of Israel’s latest war on Gaza, this gap may widen. This could place the Palestinian issue at the forefront of the political debate within Western societies, opening opportunities to pressure the leaders and media outlets of these countries to adopt more balanced positions towards the Palestinian issue.

​*The writer is a senior researcher at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies

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