Interview: What Hamas’ media thinks of Israeli elections

How is the Palestinian media covering Israeli elections? What do they think of the Joint List? A media survey covering Palestinian outlets in Israel proper, the West Bank, Gaza and beyond. And an interview with the editor of Hamas’ official newspaper.

Hadash Chairman Ayman Odeh. Odeh was elected to first place in the united Arab slate. (photo: Oren Ziv/
Hadash Chairman Ayman Odeh. Odeh was elected to first place in the united Arab slate. (photo: Oren Ziv/

According to the famous cliche, there is no better time for news than during wars and elections. When it comes to wars, both the Palestinian and the Israeli media would likely agree. When it comes to elections that will directly affect the lives of millions of people under occupation who have no right to vote, however, there is no point in comparing how interested Israelis are in in the elections with Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza.

On the day the Knesset was dispersed, Palestinian news site Safa published the following headline: “Israel announces elections as a result of its failure in Gaza.” The site published a top story on the elections every day for a week, although the issue has become less prominent on the site ever since.

In most major Palestinian outlets, elections are covered in a mostly unbiased manner, since Palestinians see no point in differentiating between Netanyahu, Herzog or Livni. Instead, coverage focuses on updates, polls and analysis, while most of the headlines describe how some Israeli politicians choose to use Palestinian blood for the sake of their campaigns.

Over the past week, most of the media has focused on Avigdor Liberman, who said Israel should chop off the heads of disloyal Palestinian citizens. “The ISIS ideology long ago permeated into the Israeli elections,” wrote the news site Al-Aqsa, which belongs to the television channel of the same name, and which broadcasts from the West Bank. They didn’t forget, of course, to add a link to Likud’s campaign video, which compared the Israeli Left to the Islamic State.


Hamas: We respect the will of Palestinian citizens

My first interviewee may upset many Israelis. Last week I was able to secure an interview with Wisam Afifa, the editor-in-chief of Hamas’ official newspaper, Al-Risala, which is published in Gaza. Afifa was very pleasant, and happy to hear that the person on the other end of the phone is a Palestinian who writes in Hebrew.

I began our conversation with a question on how his newspaper covers the Israeli elections. “Since we heard about the elections, we have dedicated special coverage sections and segments in our newspaper, website and radio station. We have our own coverage, but also rely on experts and commentators in order to predict and analyze the results.”

Like who?

“Not Israelis. We asked experts on Israeli affairs such as Adnan Abu Amar, Salah Na’amna (two well-known Gaza journalists), experts in the West Bank and from ’48. We ask Palestinians from anywhere to write for us.”

Have you ever tried asking an Israeli expert to write?

“This is very problematic and complex. You are now getting into issues of normalization. We were in contact with Israeli journalists in the past — I especially remember Haaretz’s Amira Hass. There are a few important and complicated political aspects to this, and we prefer to refrain from doing so.”

Do you think that the people in Gaza are interested in the elections, especially in the wake of the destruction of last summer?

“I think that those who were not as harmed by last summer’s war are more interested. It also has to do with how educated they are. The more educated people are, the more they will be interested in what is happening in Israel. This also has very much to do with which media outlets a person gets his news from. Newspapers in Gaza will sometimes ignore the Israeli elections, but the large satellite television channels like Al-Jazeera grant them a lot of coverage. Those who watch these channels will know what is happening in Israel. I assume that as we get closer to election day, the interest will only grow.”

What do you and Hamas think about the Joint List? Do you think believe Palestinian citizens should even be in the Knesset in the first place?

“Our view as Palestinians regarding our brothers in ’48 is very realistic. The Palestinian Authority tracks what is happening to them, and I won’t deny that Hamas does the same. This also includes having formal ties with Palestinian leaders inside ’48.

“As for the Joint List, I hear talk about them getting 15 seats. I think that it is very important to make sure the Zionist parties become worried, to make them feel a powerful resistance inside their own home. I think it was the right move and am certainly happy about the unification. There is a famous saying that goes: ‘The residents of Mecca know their own people better than anyone.’ I believe that ’48 Palestinians know better than us how to lead their struggle. Yes, in our view Israel is an aggressive and cruel enemy, against Palestinian citizens as well. But they will be the ones to decide on their own struggle, and we as Palestinians must support any decision they make. I am also aware of calls among Palestinian citizens to boycott the Israeli Knesset.”

I tell Afifa that I myself belong to those who call for a boycott. He laughs. “I was listening to an interview on Israel Radio last week with a Palestinian who called for boycott. He gave some very interesting and convincing arguments. As I said, I respect Palestinians who choose to vote for the Knesset, as well as those who choose to boycott. This is your struggle and you will be the ones to decide.”

Afifa’s words remind me of Arab citizens who criticized the Palestinians in Gaza for the ways in which they resisted the siege and the last Israeli attack. I could not help but feel a pinch of happiness when I heard a journalist from Gaza identifying with us and explaining that any way that we choose to struggle is acceptable.

Does Hamas share this view?

“I think that Hamas sees ’48 Arabs as Palestinians for all intents and purposes, and it too respects their decisions. The Hamas leadership was officially in contact with some members of Knesset in the past, and I see no reason why this cannot continue.”

What do you think about the fact that the list consists of communists, secular nationalists and Islamists?

“I believe this is a very aware, progressive and democratic choice. Until now, many Palestinian citizens had ignored their political leadership. This time, there was no use but uniting in the face of all the changes in the Israeli political map. I think that this led to massive Palestinian support, and I see unification as an exciting and important event, even in the historical sense. The racist, extremist right wing is getting stronger from day to day, and if this unification is what will work against the Right, then I support running on a joint ticket, despite the understandable ideological differences.

“Palestinian blood was always used for electioneering. As Palestinians, we have no interest in conflagration. I believe the resistance movements know this, and will be very careful in their response to Israeli provocations from now until the elections. But it is not only about the responses — I believe that the resistance movements are being very careful to ensure that their own activities aren’t seen as a provocation. The issue here is not to prevent the Israeli Right from becoming stronger, but rather a desire to avoid spilling blood for nothing, and to prevent them from using our blood for their campaigns. There is no difference between the Right and the Left in Israel. We view Israel as one entity.”

So you have no expectations from what is called the Zionist “Left” in Israel, should Herzog and Livni win the elections?

“From our previous experiences, most of the bloodletting on our side happened when the Left was in power. Look at Ariel Sharon, the murderous bulldozer — there was far less blood spilled under him than under Livni, who was one of the architects of the massacre in Gaza in 2009 (Operation Cast Lead, R.Y.). We are realistic in Gaza, and see no difference between the Right and the Left. With the Right you know where you stand; the Left knows how to speak beautifully to the world while declaring war on us. Our experience has taught us to look at Israel as one homogenous entity, and not differentiate between Right and Left.”


Radio silence in the West Bank

It is surprising to note that the media in the West Bank is not talking about boycotting. Muhammad Sabitani, a journalist for Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, the official newspaper of the Palestinian Authority, explains:

“I think that it has to do with the fact that there is real support for the Joint List. One of our commentators even wrote that he is jealous of the Palestinians in Israel. Of course there are those who believe in boycotting, but how can a commentator in Ramallah tell a Palestinian in Lyd (“Lod” in Hebrew, R.Y.) how to lead his struggle? He will immediately receive a lot of opeds in response. That is why they ask Palestinian intellectuals in Israel, the people who write in Haaretz and in the Arab media, to publish these kinds of articles.”

The unification of the Arab parties managed to make waves in the Palestinian media, which is generally supportive of the decision. There is not a single website that has not dedicated at least an oped or two a week to the issue. Ma’an News Agency, considered the biggest Palestinian news site, and which is associated with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, gives prominent coverage to the Joint List. There, one would be hard pressed to find an oped calling to boycott the elections.

Al-Quds Al-Arabi, which is printed in London and is considered highly influential in the Palestinian street, printed an oped by Lebanese author Elias Khoury earlier this week, in which he salutes the Palestinians in Israel for running together:

“As a response to the brutal policies of erasure and derision by the State since its bloody inception, the Palestinians are doing the right thing by unifying to resist the winds of racism, which are expressed in a range of laws, including the Nation-State Law. At a time when Arabs are divided and fighting each other, it warms my heart to see Palestinians, communists, nationalists and the religious fighting together for their existence in a responsible, national way… The issue is not the potential strength of the party, but rather the process of building of a unified political framework for the Palestinian minority in Israel, as the beginning of a new expression of Palestinian unity everywhere.”

Ghassan Anbatawi, a commentator for the economic daily Al-Hadath, writes that the Palestinian factions in the West Bank and Gaza could, “learn a lesson from their Palestinian brothers in occupied Palestine, who understand that there is only one way to fight against policies of divide-and-conquer.”

The attempted disqualification of Palestinian MK Haneen Zoabi, and the televised debate between Ayman Odeh and Avigdor Liberman on Channel 2 made headlines on most of the major news sites. However, most of the Palestinian media outlets did not dedicate so much as a special coverage section to the Israeli elections.


A late start in ’48

But what about the Palestinian citizens of Israel, who live under Israeli rule but are allowed to vote? For journalist Khulood Masalha, who writes for Bokra, one of the most popular sites among Arab citizens, it is important to emphasize the difference between these elections and previous ones. “In the last elections, there was competition between the different parties in the Arab media, as evidenced by the media coverage. This time, with the Joint List, this issue simply no longer exists, despite the tensions that exist among members of the List, who disagree on several issues.” In addition, Masalha is upset about a campaign that started very late in comparison with other leftist parties.

“If you go to the Arab street and ask the average person, you will see that there is a semi-consensus on the issue of the Joint List, even among those who previously voted for Zionist parties, and who today feel an obligation toward their own society. Just a week-and-a-half ago there was a poll conducted in two high schools in Acre, one Arab and one Jewish. The Joint List received the most votes. Assuming that the Jewish students didn’t all vote for the Arabs, it is clear the the Arab students feel the consensus regarding the List.

“It is clear that the Arab street will vote for the Joint List. But there is also a gap between the consensus and the activities of the List’s candidates. There is a very large gap between what they do and the support of the public. They should have been more present in the streets and the campaign itself began late, which is especially difficult considering the campaign from the last election. We still remember that.”

You are referring to Balad’s campaign?

“Yes, the video with Liberman dancing was a hit last time around. The embarrassing video that the List released a few weeks ago was more funny than effective. It doesn’t take more than that to understand the weakness of this campaign.”

Masalha is not only critical of the campaign’s electioneering.

“Both the Zionist Camp and Meretz, which represent what is known as the ‘Zionist Left,’ have been investing a lot of resources in campaigning on Arab news sites, even when compared to the Joint List. A large number of these sites refused to grant coverage to the Joint List, since it took its time to allocate funds for advertising.

“The feeling in the media was that the Joint List thinks it has both the Arab public in its pocket and the entire Arab media. At the end of the day, we are talking about the support of Arab websites, which rely on those ends. There was a vacuum and Meretz filled it. I do not think Meretz will necessarily gain from this move, but the Joint List could definitely stand to lose from it.”


A media boycott?

The local news sites are considered very significant among Arab citizens, and are seen as no less influential than major, national ones such as Bokra or Arabs48. “A.”, a journalist from one of the local sites, is fuming. Our interview takes place just before the Joint List’s official Arabic-language launch party in Nazareth.

“In the past, the Arab parties paid a lot of money to advertise on our sites. This time, however, instead of money coming from the three parties, the initial assumption was that we would make far less, since there is only one list. I know that there was a meeting several weeks ago between the owners of a few different sites, in which they decided that the Joint List would not receive coverage as long as it didn’t give us money for advertising.”

Are you referring to important news coverage as well?

“I’m speaking about everything. Look, large sites like Bokra cannot ignore the List, but the smaller sites ignored them completely. Let’s look at what is happening the in Negev as an example — there you have six or seven small yet influential websites. Even more than Bokra or Panet. The Joint List has received almost no coverage there until now.

“The larger newspapers dedicated more of their coverage to the List, but also found more effective means of pressuring it. Go to one of the large Arab sites and you will see a huge Meretz ad. All of a sudden Meretz’s money is buying more advertising space, and that is no coincidence. I place the blame squarely on the Joint List for that vacuum. And why? Because even if they don’t pay, they could have made 20 press releases a day, every day, which would have made it impossible for even the smallest sites to ignore them. Are they unable to pay or do they not want to? Fine, don’t. But at least create content that will force us to publish something.

“Money isn’t everything in life. I honestly do want to write about the Joint List, but cannot find a single thing to write about. I start writing an oped, and I have nothing new to say. So you’ve joined forces, great. How many times can this statement be re-written? What more can we analyze? The sites are being somewhat extorted, especially the larger ones. But if, for example, they released a new video every day, the sites would have to publish them, otherwise they would lose traffic.

“Another issue that bothers me is the Joint List’s large presence in the Israel media. There is a clear attempt to speak to the Palestinian voter through the Hebrew media, which is very important. But the feeling is that it is at our expense this time. At the end of the day, this creates a lack of legitimacy for us among our public.”

A.’s final comment makes me wonder about the responsibility that the leaders of the Joint List have toward their public, as well as Arab media outlets. The delayed campaign, the ignoring of the Arab media and continually giving preference to Hebrew outlets not only harms these smaller sites, it could also create a situation in which the internal Arab media becomes irrelevant in the eyes of Palestinian citizens of Israel (updates on the Joint List are often easier to find in the Hebrew media). But there is no doubt that as future members of Knesset, they have the responsibility of helping Palestinian media grow and flourish.

In response, MK Basel Ghattas, who heads the Joint List’s communications department, says A.’s claims are far from the truth: “95 percent of the funds allocated to our media campaign were designated for the Arab media. The campaign went through all the Arab media outlets, both print and digital, including 80 local sites and every local paper, all of which received money.”

Read this article in Hebrew on Local Call here.

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