Recently two Israeli commentators have focussed on a disturbing trend in Australian media, and its problematic coverage of the delicate issue of the role of Palestinian children in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Tamar Sternthal, director of the Israel office of CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), noted the extensive media attention over a photograph of two girls, A’hd Tamimi, and her cousin Marah Tamimi, restrained by Israeli soldiers near the village of Nabi Saleh in the West Bank (Cheap shots: Palestinians put kids in the line of fire, Times of Israel,11.9.2012). While the photos come from the AFP news service, it was the use of the photos in Australia that drew her particular critical attention.
“Days later, photos of the distraught girls appeared in Australia’s Fairfax media outlets alongside a Page-1 article charging the Israeli army with the routine abuse of Palestinian children. ‘An Israeli soldier restrains a Palestinian girl crying over the arrest of her mother during a protest over land confiscation in al-Nabi Saleh,’ stated one caption in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, ” she writes.
Sternthal then describes the staged weekly demonstrations in the village, “where photographers gather every Friday to document repetitious scenes of Palestinian residents and international activists clashing with Israeli soldiers, Palestinian activists are placing their children in ever-more-visible roles.” She points out that this is a case of some Palestinian parents exploiting their own children “to score propaganda points in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” and privides the evidence to back it up.
It appears that A’hd’s parents, Narimen and Bassem Tamimi, are Popular Resistance activists and Narimen takes part in a video project by the Israeli NGO B’Tselem, in which the organisation distributes video cameras to Palestinians to document their interaction with Israeli soldiers and citizens in the West Bank. Marah’s father, Naji, is one of the organisers of the weekly demonstrations in Nabi Saleh.
“In other words,” she concludes, “the girls’ parents are among those who determine the protests’ strategies. Rather than keeping their children at a safe distance from the often-violent clashes, the parents encouraged their children to play highly visible roles in the confrontation with the army.”
How can two girls stage a confrontation with Israeli soldiers? Sternthal proivides a link to a Palestinian video posted on the Nabi Saleh Solidarity blog, which shows, as she explains: “… the two girls can be seen leading a crowd marching toward a spring that the army has deemed off-limits. A’hd and Marah are filmed at length, cursing the soldiers and trying to get around them. Marah can be seen running some distance to approach and confront soldiers. And when Narimen and two other women are arrested, the girls refuse to let go, interfering with the arrests.”
The intentional provocations are aimed at producing exactly the type of footage that later reaches Australian and global media in the hopes it will elicit strong emotional reactions and sympathy for the Palestinians. Multiple cameras are present to readily document every single reaction by the Israeli soldiers. These tactics are by no means unique to Nabi Saleh and Sternthal’s insight and observation could easily apply to a broad range of incidents during the history of the conflict, as she herself points out. She also raises the possible tragic implications of such attempts at manipulation:
“Though photographs of the crying and constrained A’hd and Marah are actually products of Palestinian manipulation and exploitation of children, the Australian media outlets publish them unquestioningly as ostensible evidence of Israeli abuse of Palestinian children… But what if next time their parents send them out into a violent confrontation they are injured, or worse? This would be tragic – but think of the pictures and articles incriminating Israel in the next day’s paper.”
The stunt involving the Tamimi girls seems to be part of a trend in Australian media, as Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor pointed out (Breaking what silence?, Jerusalem Post, 11.9.2012). He referred to the Australian media coverage of a report published by Israeli NGO “Breaking the Silence” (BtS) which as AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro noted at the time, was simply a re-hash of old material, and was covered by few international media outlets outside Australia :
“In late August, they issued a publication that appeared in newspapers across Australia and the UK, based largely on anonymous “testimonies,” which were then quoted without independent verification by foreign journalists. The report was filled with allegations of IDF misconduct and what the organisation refers to as a “pattern of behavior” of soldier misconduct that it claims to have “uncovered” through its research… The August 2012 report was first published by an Australian journalist eager for a scoop. As a result, these claims are now receiving sensationalist headlines in Australia,” which Stienberg argues contribute to the demonization of Israel “with the explicit goal of ‘the complete international isolation’ of Israel, using repeated accusations of ‘war crimes,’ ‘genocide’ and ‘apartheid.'”
BtS’s latest report focuses on allegations regarding human rights violations and harsh treatment of Palestinian children, following a recent campaign by the controversial, politicised organisation Defense for Children International-Palestine Section (DCI-PS).
Steinberg points out that “the report makes no mention of the central role that Palestinian children and minors play in the ongoing deadly attacks against Israeli citizens,” mainly the increase in rock throwing, “Both DCI-PS and BtS immorally portray this activity as benign, despite the many cases in which Israeli civilians have been wounded or killed.”
By downplaying and overlooking the dangerous behaviours in which Palestinian children are encouraged to participate, be it rock throwing, attending often-violent demonstrations, or staging intentional provocations and clashes with Israeli soldiers, human rights organisation, and the Australian media which at times uncritically and naively gives them a stage, are not helping them. On the contrary, they are contributing to political propaganda which is aimed at tarnishing Israel’s name and image, and not protesting alleged human rights violations, while also providing an incentive for Palestinian activists to put their children in harm’s way in order to score political points.
Maybe materials and testimonies by unofficial and often anonymous sources and politically-oriented NGOs should be treated with some more scepticism and some actual in-depth investigation, and not published as-is by “eager” journalists. Maybe not making Palestinian kids into propaganda pawns is a better way to preserve their rights and keep them from being placed in situations where they might be endangered or traumatised. And maybe refusing to blindly cooperate with such manipulation and propaganda would even result in better journalism.