Covering Palestine

Jared Malsin is a young New York based journalist who in 2008 began working as the head of the English division for Ma’an, a popular news media source in the Occupied Territories. In January 2010, after retuning from holiday in Prague, Malsin was detained at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport and interrogated by the Security Service. After having spent a week imprisoned in the airport’s holding cell, he was refused entry into Israel and placed on a flight back to New York. In March, Malsin gave a lecture at Brown University, where I heard him talk about bias in Western media’s reporting of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Here, he talks more about news media, Flip Cams, YouTube and demonstrations within the Occupied Territories.

When I heard you speak in March you had only two months before been detained for a week and deported from Israel. You mentioned that you were beginning legal work in order to get back in the country and return to your job at Ma’an. What is the status of your case now?

Pretty much the status quo is the same as what it was when I spoke at Brown. The only thing that’s new is that my case isn’t really going anywhere.  At first, it looked like there was some hope for an appeal and maybe a 1% possibility that I would get back in, but I’ve spoken to a few lawyers recently and it looks like there’s no chance.

Over the last few months there’s been a few high profile cases of journalists and academics being banned from entering Israel because they are audibly critical of the state.

Yes. Like Noam Chomsky.

You worked for Ma’anas the head of its English language division from 2008 until January of this year.  Can tell me about the news media that exists in the Occupied Territories?

It’s a very diverse media, even though there’s so much factional control. The way I think about it is that there’s a kind of chaos where you can get away with a fair amount. There’s three dailies based in Ramallah and Jerusalem: Al-Quds, Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, and Al-Ayyam. In Gaza, there is the newspaper Philistine. In general, all news media except Ma’an is controlled by one political faction or another. The first three I mentioned are Fatah leaning – Al-Hayat is directly controlled by the Palestinian authority. Hamas newspapers only circulate in Gaza. In the West Bank, Hamas as a political party is banned from operating in public –  they can’t hold demonstrations, pass out fliers or even hang up posters without getting arrested. The same applies for their media. Hamas’s TV, called Alexa TV, I believe you can still get on satellite in the West Bank because the PA has no way of controlling it.  The same applies in Gaza, where you can get PA TV. The most popular media in terms of TV is by far Al-Jazeera.

You saw first hand the struggles faced by journalists in Palestine when you were detained and removed from the country in January. I’m wondering how Palestinians cope with this reality. Given these limitations, how do they disseminate to the public what happens around? My first question is to what extent are Palestinians employing tools to personally report news?”

First off, there are systematic efforts to have citizen journalists document human rights abuses. B’Tselem has a project, formerly known as “Shooting Back,” where they bought up a bunch of either Flip Cams or some other cheap cameras and gave out hundreds of them throughout the West Bank, especially areas close to settlements or military encampments that experience more violence than other places. They have captured thousands of hours of documentary evidence of human rights abuses. There have been a few cases where really shocking videos broke though into public consciousness.  The biggest one by far, and this wasn’t even connected with B’Tselem’s initiative, was in Ni’lim. There was a teenage girl who during a military incursion captured a video of Israeli soldiers shooting a Palestinian man blindfolded with his hands behind his back. An Israeli soldier shot him point blank in the leg. That video that was all over the news, the Palestinian and Israeli media. These are quantitative shifts that you’re seeing over the last few years.  Because this technology is becoming more widely available and you have these systematic attempts to distribute the technology.

I’m interested in knowing the extent to which points of intense mobilization, protests, for example, are being captured by onlookers and exposed on the Internet. Is the footage from Flip Cams or phone cameras being uploaded on blogs, or YouTube, or other user-generated media sites?

That’s happening in a big way. Like you said, a lot of it is disseminating because you have specific places where there’s higher degrees of mobilization, specific villages where there are protests every single week. In the towns that are more active, you have these indigenous media initiatives. You can go on YouTube and type “Bil’in protest” and you’ll see that every Friday after the demonstration they upload a video. They’re documenting it all on video. They’re very savvy about it. The videos are getting more and more professional in terms of editing. They also do things like when the Israeli army comes in at night to raid people’s houses and arrest them, they’ll be there with their video cameras capturing every moment.

We might think about these instances of information capture and dissemination as examples of affective engagement with technology. Onlookers are capturing events, taking them home, and releasing them to a wider audience. It seems to me that such use must radically change depending on context.

Let’s turn to the case of Gaza, which people call the largest open-air prison in the world.  You wrote an article for Open Democracy in which you argued that the Gaza strip poses unique obstacles for resistance. Your point I think is that because Gaza is so contained, it is immune to Bil’in style demonstrations. Do you see the same kind of use of media in Gaza?

What I was talking about was based on an idea consistently disseminated by Israelis – that Israel no longer controls Gaza, that it left Gaza. That’s not actually true. But, I think that this is the direction in which things are going all over the Occupied Territories including the West Bank. Israel wants to cut loose of the Palestinian population and derogate their responsibility for their wellbeing in a humanitarian sense, while maintaining physical control. What I think they’re trying to do in order to achieve this is reduce the number of friction points where Palestinians can clash with Israeli soldiers or come in to contact with them. It’s a lot harder to come into conflict with a concrete wall then it is a group of soldiers.  How does that effect the kind of media that is available? I’m not sure. I think we’re still finding out. I laid out in that article what it means for protest.

But we’ve been talking about how protest in Palestine has a direct relationship to how media is being used. Do you see differences in the possibilities of documentation and dissemination that exist for those in the Gaza Strip where they face specific limits to their protest?

In Gaza there’s a totally different set of issues. I guess in Gaza you can use a phone to document how your school doesn’t have paper because of the siege or how houses haven’t been rebuilt since operation Cast Lead in 2009. But it’s not a situation of capturing day-to-day brutality except in specific circumstances like Cast Lead. However, you’re starting to see some protests in buffer zones. These are the 500-meter exclusion zones between Gaza and Israel where the Israeli army completely inhibits anyone from going. If a farmer goes to farm his land near the border he’ll get shot at. Now you have protests venturing into those exclusion zones, doing similar things as in Bil’in.

How do you see user-generated technology making a difference to human rights accountability?

To me this is the future of human rights advocacy. For the people who are violating human rights you have nowhere to hide now. Even though most of those videos are seen by a very small number of people, they do have consequences. Slowly as this kind of evidence builds, I think it develops a kind of public pressure. What you saw in May with the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident was really a case in point. For me what was so shocking was that there was a video that emerged documenting the early moments of the raid. Really shocking images came out, and then obviously the Israelis confiscated all the journalist’s equipment and documentary evidence and they were very careful of blacking out any alternative narrative of what took place aside from their account. Then they were able to selectively release whatever evidence supported their version of events. That’s quite extraordinary. But others did get out, and they were documented with video and photos and so on.

How would you characterize Western media’s response to the flotilla attack?

This is my subjective anecdotal opinion. Obviously the Israeli official line was repeated a lot and was probably not challenged enough. But I get the sense that for anyone who was listening and approaching it in intellectually honest way, there was no way to accept everything Israel was saying. Even the New York Times did a long investigative piece. I had issues with the article but they exposed several aspects of the Israeli narrative that just didn’t add up. For example, the fact that passengers on the Mavi Marmara treated wounded Israeli soldiers was information that Israel did not release to the public because it absolutely complicated their version of the things.

What you’re saying is interesting in light of the lecture you gave at Brown University in March.  Your talk was about Western media’s reporting on the conflict. You discussed a situation in which the reporting is somehow contentless, despite the fact that the conflict is over-reported.

Palestine/Israel is one of the most over-reported places on earth. People often ask me why people aren’t talking about the issues and why won’t the truth get out. The truth is that it is being talked about and reported on a lot on a day-to-day basis in the Arab, including in English, and in Western media. I’d say that the reporting is disproportionate in terms of the scale of the conflict. What I argue has to do with quality and the tropes our media has come to rely on in narrating the conflict.

In that lecture you took an article from the NYT and sort of parsed it, showing its biases. It was really effective.

I was talking about an article published March on the settlement crisis. it was during Biden’s visit to Israel. It was written by Ethan Bronner, the NYT Jerusalem bureau chief. In the lead of the article,  he used words like: “a dispute over a municipal housing announcement in Israel has caused the worst the worst crisis between US and Israel in 30 years.” Something along those lines. What I did was unpack it for people. What it’s about is not a municipal housing conflict. It’s about building houses in someone else’s country. It’s not that he’s a bad journalist. I’m just sort of astonished that he’d use a kind language is used that deprives his own report of meaning.

So how do you place the flotilla incident in this pattern of reporting?

What we saw was something new. There was footage. And partly because of that footage the NYT did several articles. They interviewed witnesses. I mean I don’t think there’s been enough. It was an international incident where 9 people died including one American citizen. But, to me, it seems like something different from what I’ve seen in past. Usually, when there’s an instance involving the Israeli military, it’s like “this many people died, the military said this, case closed.”  Maybe what’s different this time is that foreign nationals were involved.

NATHANIEL WOLFSON can be reached at: