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Feb
7
2024

What the Israeli Public Doesn’t See
Report
What the Israeli Public Doesn’t See
In largely ignoring the suffering of Palestinian civilians in Gaza, the Israeli media both shapes and reflects public opinion.
Elisheva Goldberg

On January 29th, The Nightly News with Michal Rabinovitch—which airs on Israel’s public broadcaster, known as Kan—ran a series of stories that were broadly representative of the channel’s programming over the past few months. A story about diplomatic progress toward a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas was followed by a report on the rockets launched into Israel’s interior from the Gazan city of Khan Younis; the segment included video from inside Hamas tunnels and footage captured by soldiers’ body cameras as they fought house to house. Next came a story about how Israeli soldiers were failing to open fire—as, the panelists emphasized, they had instructions to do—on any Gazan approaching the “buffer zone” along the border with Israel; that day, five Hamas fighters had come within 500 meters of an Israeli town, generating fear of another infiltration. The show then turned to coverage of Israeli politics, interviews with young war widows, a story about a car-ramming attack that day at an army base in Haifa, video of Israeli protesters trying to stop humanitarian aid from entering Gaza, and, finally, a profile of struggling businesses in the north, near the border with Lebanon. In the middle, it cut to a nine-minute briefing by Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military spokesman.

Notably absent from this coverage of the war and its reverberations was any mention of the killing of Palestinian civilians, or of the perils now facing the more than 2 million people trapped in the besieged enclave—including not only Israel’s military campaign, but also famine, thirst, displacement, and lack of medical care. In most Israeli media coverage, “it is as if [Palestinian civilians] don’t exist,” Gideon Levy, a reporter for the left-leaning Israeli daily Haaretz, which has covered the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, told the progressive American news program Democracy Now!. On international news networks, “you see Gaza. You see children dying on the dirty floors of the hospitals, bleeding to death. You see the uprooted people, you see the destruction, you see the suffering . . . and the starvation,” Levy said. “In Israel you see only the soldiers, only the hostages.”

Some media analysts have warned that this absence is shaping Israeli public opinion. A poll released by Tel Aviv University’s Peace Index and the Israel Democracy Institute in mid-November showed that a majority of Israeli Jews—57.5%—believed Israeli forces were using insufficient firepower in Gaza, while another 36.6% thought the military was using the correct amount of force, and just 1.8% thought it was using too much. A poll by Tel Aviv University’s Peace Index from mid-January showed that these numbers have held stable, even as the death toll in Gaza has continued to climb, prompting more international calls for Israeli restraint. “I assume that if the media were showing stories about what is happening beyond the border, it would force [the Israeli public] to deal with another aspect of reality,” said Oren Persico, a staff writer at the Israeli media watchdog The Seventh Eye. Rami Younis, a Palestinian filmmaker and journalist, similarly perceived a far-reaching effect. “The entire Israeli population has moved more to the right [since October 7th], and that is mainly because of the media,” he said. “The louder you shout that Gaza must be obliterated, the more likely it is that you’ll get featured on TV panels.”

But to some close observers of the Israeli political landscape, the question of whether the media is molding public opinion or simply reflecting it is not straightforward. “The media is making a choice, but so are Israelis,” said Raviv Drucker, an Israeli political commentator and investigative reporter. “People don’t want to see [Gazans’ suffering] and the media doesn’t want to show it.” This does not necessarily reflect a lack of knowledge about what is happening in Gaza. “This is a state in post-trauma,” he said. “If you stop an Israeli on the street, they know that thousands of children are dying in Gaza. It’s not a lack of understanding; it’s a lack of empathy. An unwillingness to participate in their pain.”


Most Israelis get their news from television, and in particular from four major channels. These include three mainstream channels—the public broadcaster Kan, which is Channel 11, and the popular commercial channels 12 and 13—and the far-right Channel 14, which is, in Persico’s words, “entirely loyal to Netanyahu.” For nearly a year before October 7th, the media had been polarized around the Netanyahu government’s planned judicial overhaul. Channel 12, for example, doggedly covered the protest movement that pushed to maintain the independence of Israel’s judicial system. The populist Channel 14, on the other hand, held firm to the Netanyahu government’s line that stripping the judiciary of key powers was a “democratic” move to decrease the power of “unelected” judges. But after October 7th, the media’s voice grew more unified. Drucker told me that, though the media has rallied around the flag during previous rounds of fighting, this time they’ve done so with unprecedented fervor. “Lots of people felt like they had been too empathetic [toward Gazans] before—and that that is what brought this calamity upon us,” he said. Persico, too, sees a media united around the belief that “Israel has to fight without mercy” because “it’s us or them.” Asa Shapira, a professor of marketing and communications at the University of Tel Aviv, argued on The Lab podcast that Channel 14 is already “an echo chamber, and Channels 12 and 13 are moving in that direction as well.” “I think this presents a crisis of journalism,” he warned.

It’s not only a question of what Israeli media outlets aren’t covering or saying, but also of what they are: Since October 7th, Israeli broadcasters have become increasingly tolerant of explicit anti-Arab incitement. Ifat Media Research, a private media analysis firm, reported 137 incidents of direct incitement between October 7th and November 6th on the four most-watched television channels, as well as two popular radio shows. On October 26th, for example, Channel 12, the most popular mainstream channel, had on Eliyahu Yossian, a researcher at the right-wing Misgav Institute for National Security who, when asked what the Israeli military should do right now, said: “Fight with peak brutality; with no God, no morality. None. We go into Gaza with the goal of revenge. There need to be maximum bodies. Because that’s the secret to success in the Middle East.” Persico told me that Yossian had been a highly sought-after panelist for news shows, interviews, and podcasts since the beginning of the war. Channel 12 later posted the interview to TikTok, where, as of January 30th, it had garnered 66.2 thousand likes.

The impulse to rally around the flag is visible in print media as well as on television. “In normal times, you’d see more Palestinian perspectives [in the press]. But after what happened on October 7th, the media—in line with the Israeli public—lost any interest in Palestinian suffering,” Sivan Hillaie, a reporter for Israel’s most-read news site, YNET, and its most popular commercial daily print newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, told me. “After they abused the people at [the Nova music festival] and committed those atrocities, Israelis didn’t have space to contain the pain of the other people. You have to choose one side. And that side is our side.” Einav Halabi, the Palestinian affairs reporter for YNET and Yedioth Ahronoth, told me that she had watched the videos of atrocities against Israelis on October 7th. “It was very emotionally influential,” she told me. “So, to say that I’m objective [as a journalist]—I can’t say.” In her view, the Israeli consensus in favor of “destroying Hamas and flattening Gaza” is a “natural response” to October 7th. “It was like a genocide,” she said. “I don’t see any other option, other than the war.”

Halabi has reported from Gaza for both YNET and Yedioth Ahronoth. Like all Israeli and international journalists, she has only been permitted to enter the enclave under army escort. (Journalists are also required to submit their reports to the army censor, which makes sure there is no sensitive information that could endanger the lives of soldiers.) On January 20th, she toured the Gaza City neighborhood of Tufah with a military escort; in an interview with me, she described seeing houses that had been burned by Israeli soldiers. She explained that these were the homes of alleged Hamas militants, in which the military “found some kind of munition or rocket launcher.” When I asked how she had verified that the burned homes had indeed belonged to militants and contained weapons, she cited Israeli military intelligence. “There are, of course, innocents who are dying—I am not naïve,” she added. “But in Gaza, innocent civilians are likely a very small minority—they don’t have another choice but to support Hamas.”

If the Hebrew-language news is increasingly closing itself off from Palestinian perspectives, the Arabic-language coverage—led by outlets like Al Jazeera—is doing just the opposite, focusing on telling stories from the perspective of Palestinians displaced by war, hungry, thirsty, and bereft. For Palestinian citizens of Israel, who comprise some 21% of Israel’s population, and who consume media in both Hebrew and Arabic, “it’s been surreal,” said Younis, the Palestinian filmmaker and journalist. “Watching Al Jazeera, Arabs see limbs and heads and burnt bodies and dead babies, people crying and starving—a horror show. Then you watch the Israeli news and there’s nothing of that. The Arabic-speaking public is exposed to something that the Hebrew-speaking public is not.” And yet, he said, in an environment where incitement against Palestinian citizens has become mainstream, few feel able to challenge the Israeli media narrative. “I haven’t been posting anything on my social media ever since October 7th—it doesn’t feel safe anymore,” he told Al Jazeera in an interview. “For someone like me who’s made a career out of being critical, out of exposing fake news, it feels very paralyzing.”

This narrative dissonance also exists, to varying degrees, between the Israeli media and much of the international press. Persico noted that when Israelis see foreign reports, or interact with people who have, they often react with surprise. They get stuck, he said, in the Israeli channels’ talking points: “‘How do they not understand that we’re the victims here, that Hamas started it?’ . . . They are surprised because there is a bubble around what they’re seeing.” Shapira, too, warned that this bubble represents a media failure that isolates Israelis. “[When] the media brings us information that strengthens our ‘national morale,’ in the end it does damage to our true understanding of what is happening,” he said. “At some point, information disappears from [view for] the average citizen . . . and Israelis stand here and say [to the international community], ‘What are you talking about?’”

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