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Arab media portray Palestinians as courageous victims

They offer images of carnage and emotional narratives. Israelis, the U.S. and even Arab leaders are pilloried.

January 08, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman and Raed Rafei

CAIRO AND BEIRUT — Face splotched in blood, eyes closed, mouth aslant, the child seems to be slumbering, but she is dead. The only part of her you see is her head tilting in ash and rubble above the caption, "A day of massacres in Gaza."

She is nameless, but her face, peeking from a black-and-white photograph spread like a flag of horror across the Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper, is unforgettable. In the Gaza Strip, Israel maneuvers with sophisticated tanks, missiles and planes. But the Arab media possess a potent arsenal of pictures, videos and hyperventilating voice-overs that portray Palestinians as courageous victims against a bloodthirsty aggressor.

War is fought on battlefields, but passions are roused by images. Watch the Al Jazeera satellite TV network or skim through Islamic websites and magazines and the message is singular and clear: Muslims are united in the suffering of Palestinians, and no drop of blood, wailing mother, raised Kalashnikov rifle, smoking ruin or pair of empty sandals beside a lifeless body goes unrecorded.

It is the cinema verite of the underdog, an erratic landscape of martyrs and heroes and boys hurling white rocks at the enemy invader.

Romanticism and rallying cries of defiance and resistance are often summoned. An editorial published Wednesday in the Syrian daily Al Watan speaks to the children of Gaza: "Teach us because we have forgotten. Teach us to be men because men here have turned into dough. Teach us how stones in the hands of children become dear diamonds. . . . Teach us the art of clinging to the land."

Al Jazeera and other Arab media outlets have grown more objective in reporting in recent years, but when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, balanced coverage is often outweighed by pathos and narratives of funeral corteges proceeding amid the sounds of explosions.

Newspaper caricatures depict Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with a hooked nose and beady eyes and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as a bulbous Nazi on a pedestal. And often, lurking like a creepy Oz is the visage of Uncle Sam, portrayed as puppet master and protector of the Jewish state.

While airing a recent news conference of Livni discussing with a European delegation Israel's right to defend itself from Hamas rockets, Al Jazeera suddenly split the screen to show Palestinian children lying in hospital beds. The subtext was anything but subtle. The station also frequently uses phrases such as "war crimes" and "holocaust against the Palestinian people."

An Al Jazeera report about Tuesday's shelling of a U.N. school in Gaza offered an emotional account about the civilians killed: "They asked for security after they lost their homes. . . . It is a tragedy. . . . There is no place immune from attacks. . . . Images of blood have not stopped. . . . Thirteen members from one family died. . . . The Palestinians are asking, what is the world waiting for?"

The report did not mention Israeli statements that Hamas was launching mortar shells from the school.

It is not only Israelis and Americans who are pilloried. Arab leaders, especially those seen as U.S. pawns, such as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, have been skewered since the Israeli offensive began Dec. 27. Mubarak has been heavily criticized for keeping Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip closed and accused of not doing enough to aid Palestinians. His words are contrasted with the pro-Palestinian rhetoric of Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and even with the statements of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, whose government Tuesday ordered the expulsion of Israel's ambassador.

Many of the images of carnage and of young, bloody men draped in the arms of brothers and fathers rushing them to hospitals would be considered too graphic and grotesque for Western broadcast sensitivities. But in the Arab world, where governments issue statements but are largely powerless to stop Israel's incursion into Gaza, the unsanitized picture is the weapon.

Accompanying the Al Watan editorial on Gaza's children are three pictures: a medic holding a little girl clearly dead, her mouth agape; a running man cradling a child whose neck is covered with blood; and a man in distress sitting by a pile of children's bodies wrapped in the green flag of Islam.

Al Jazeera, which in times of regional war becomes a kind of electronic Arab living room abuzz with opinion, has been repeatedly airing one clip between news reports: With a dirge playing in the background, an angry crowd burns an Israeli flag. A teenage girl with a firm voice tells the people of Gaza to "be patient. God is with the patient." A woman says, "What is absurd is the accomplice of Arab leaders." Another woman shouts: "Where are you? Where are you, Arabs?"

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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Rafei is a special correspondent.

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latimes.com

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