Falling in line: Why the Second Intifada was a watershed moment for Israeli media

Working for a leading Israeli newspaper during the uprising, I saw firsthand how the media turned into a mouthpiece for government propaganda.

A TV journalist covering protests in the occupied West Bank during the Second Intifada, October 8, 2000. (Oded Baliti/GPO)
A TV journalist covering protests in the occupied West Bank during the Second Intifada, October 8, 2000. (Oded Baliti/GPO)

During the days of the Second Intifada, I was working at Yedioth Ahronoth, then Israel’s most popular and influential newspaper. With over 400,000 copies circulating daily, both the writers and editors of Yedioth walked around with a sense that they were “the country’s newspaper,” shaping the Israeli consensus on the most pressing matters.

As the head of reporters and later on as head desk editor, I witnessed from up close just how Yedioth’s consensus-building machine worked. It was during those days that I also saw how it was changing direction by excluding or completely distorting the voices of Palestinians in the media. After the Oslo years, Israelis were beginning to learn that there was only one side to this conflict — their side.

Before the Second Intifada, mainstream Israeli journalism could be looked at as a two-lane road with wide margins. One could drive along the margins and still somehow remain part of the mainstream. During the intifada, the media suddenly transformed into a one-way street with no margins. Anyone who drifted to the edges, as I did, was cast out.

The Second Intifada erupted with protests against Ariel Sharon’s ascent to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on Sept. 28, 2000, and after Israeli security forces shot dead at least four Palestinian worshippers there the next day.

Those deaths were followed by dozens more across the West Bank and Gaza, but many Jewish Israelis only heard about them two days later. Thousands were returning home from their Rosh Hashana vacations in northern Israel when they found that Israel’s major roads were blocked due to solidarity demonstrations by Palestinian citizens of Israel.

The anger was palpable. I remember a senior editor at the paper, who was later promoted to an even more senior position, telling our colleagues at the desk how he had to take a 125-mile detour through the Jordan Valley to get to Tel Aviv. And the headlines reflected this reality: the traffic jams were given much attention in the media, while the papers dedicated far less space to the fact that 13 Palestinians — 12 of them citizens — were shot dead by police during the protests, in what is often referred to as the October 2000 killings.

An Israeli police on horseback enters a crowd of Palestinians during clashes in the first days of the Second Intifada, October 20, 2000. (Flash90)
An Israeli police officer on horseback rams into Palestinians citizens at a protest during the first days of the Second Intifada, October 20, 2000. (Flash90)

For me, there was a single event that symbolized the change in direction. In March 2002, an Israeli tank shelled a pick-up truck in central Ramallah, allegedly in order to kill a “wanted” Palestinian. A Palestinian woman and her three children in the vehicle were killed, as were two other kids in a separate car. That same day, the head of the Red Crescent and a Palestinian ambulance driver were shot dead by Israeli soldiers in Jenin.

In both cases, the IDF Spokesperson admitted the killings were a “mistake.” Because the IDF apologized for the “harm caused to the innocent” in both incidents, I requested, as head of the news desk, that Yedioth publish the names, ages, and residences of the victims. The next day, the newspaper was flooded with angry phone calls.

When I was fired a year and a half later, the incident was recalled during a mediation session as proof of my “leftist politics,” which the newspaper could not bear.

A press under influence

Was the Second Intifada a watershed moment in the attitude of mainstream Israeli media vis-à-vis the conflict? Was that the moment it turned into a one-way street, or has Israeli media always been this way? Did the Second Intifada bring about a change for the worse or for the better, as some researchers have claimed?

In his book, Newspapers Under the Influence, released in 2001 at the height of the Second Intifada, Prof. Daniel Dor, who teaches communications at Tel Aviv University, looked at the way Israel’s largest outlets covered the first few months of the uprising.

A photographer takes photos of Palestinian protesters during the Second Intifada, near Lions' Gate in Jerusalem, October 6, 2020. (Oded Baliti/GPO)
A photographer takes photos of Palestinian protesters during the Second Intifada, near Lions’ Gate in Jerusalem, October 6, 2000. (Oded Baliti/GPO)

“The portrait of the Israeli press, as it emerges from this book, is one of a press under influence,” wrote Dor in the introduction to the book. “A press that operates under the influence of fear, and the influence of anger, and the influence of hatred, and the influence of ignorance, and first and foremost — under the influence of the massive propaganda system that Prime Minister Ehud Barak and members of the defense establishment operated throughout the month [October 2000] and even after.

“Under the combined influence of all these factors, the Israeli press provided its readers with a one-dimensional, distorted, erroneous image of the course of events — an image that, although it aligned with Ehud Barak’s propaganda goals, and nourished the readers’ collective feelings of distress, hardly reflected reality as it was.”

Speaking over the phone late last month, Dor did not back down from the assertions he made 20 years ago. He does, however, believe that the watershed moment came even earlier. Rather than October, he points to July 2000 — when Ehud Barak left the Camp David Summit and blamed the failure of the talks on PLO chairman Yasser Arafat — as the moment everything changed. That’s when Barak’s “no partner” thesis was born.

Until then, says Dor, “the consensus was that the debate was between the Zionist left and the Zionist right over the question of the occupied territories,” but after Barak’s declaration, that story was over. “Barak’s ‘no partner’ statement had a decisive effect,” Dor continues. “It created a sense of unity among the people that had not existed for decades.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, U.S. President Bill Clinton and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at the opening of the Camp David Summit in the United States, July 11, 2020. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, U.S. President Bill Clinton and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at the opening of the Camp David Summit in the United States, July 11, 2000. (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Had a right-wing prime minister come back from the summit with such a statement, Dor argues, the left would have criticized him for ruining the prospect of peace. But when such a statement came from a prime minister on the “left,” it had a different effect — particularly on journalists.

“There was a general feeling at the news desks that what we were used to was wrong,” he says, “that we were too left wing, and that we believed in Arafat and supported Oslo. Now we need to fall in line with the [government’s] policy.”

A prime example of the impact Barak’s “no partner” thesis had on Zionist left thinking, continues Dor, was an article by former Haaretz columnist Ari Shavit, titled Barak’s Copernican Revolution,” which was published toward the end of October 2000. According to Shavit, with the beginning of the Second Intifada, all Israelis were “looking straight into the eyes of the same cruel reality that Ehud Barak revealed. That Yasser Arafat embodies. The first conclusion of Barak’s Copernican Revolution is that there could very well be no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” This article, Dor argues, had a huge impact on editors working across Israel’s biggest newspapers.

Conforming to the consensus

One of the most interesting findings in Dor’s book is the gap between the actual content of the news items published in the press during the first months of the intifada, and the headlines and photos that accompanied them. In many cases, the reporters sent in articles that painted a complex picture of the reality in Israel and the occupied territories. Yet the headlines given to those articles focused on one element of the story that very often presented the Palestinians as the sole culprits, and the Israelis, especially Barak, as peace-seekers.

Dor concentrated on the news sections rather than on opinion pieces or features, assuming that daily news is what shapes people’s ideologies. “You’re supposed to bring a story that will fit right in with the consensus,” says Dor. That is why when Barak declared that there is “no partner for peace” among the Palestinians, the headlines changed accordingly to reflect that new thinking.

Israeli soldiers wear gas masks as they reach Ramallah, where Palestinian protesters were shooting tear gas at them, during the first days of the Second Intifada. October 24, 2000. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Israeli soldiers wear gas masks as they reach Ramallah, where Palestinian protesters were shooting tear gas at them, during the first days of the Second Intifada, October 24, 2000. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

At the beginning of the intifada, Dor wrote, reporters from Israel’s three leading newspapers — Yedioth, Ma’ariv, and Haaretz — headed out to the field to ask people how the uprising broke out. Nine of the 10 sources they spoke to — in the IDF General Staff, the Military Intelligence Directorate, the police, the Shin Bet, and among Palestinians — said the uprising was a spontaneous one. The Prime Minister’s Office was the only one to claim that the intifada had been orchestrated by Arafat — yet that was the version of events that the headlines in Yedioth, Haaretz, and Ma’ariv reflected.

Yossi Ben-Ari, a former senior member of Israel’s intelligence service who was tasked with going through all the raw intelligence material to find out who “gave the order” to start the intifada, wrote in an article in Haaretz published last week that he could not find any sign that Arafat or any other Palestinian leader had planned the uprising.

In another instance, when news broke in late 2000 that the Palestinian Authority had released two leaders of Hamas’ military wing from prison, Yedioth published an article that was unclear about whether the leaders were actually released or whether they were transferred to another prison. The headline, however, was unequivocal: “Mass murderers released from prison, Arafat gave a green light to terrorism.” 

This headline, Dor argues, also had a huge impact.

In March 2002, following the announcement of the Arab Peace Initiative, which called for a full peace agreement with Israel in exchange for the establishment of a Palestinian state, the front-page headline in Yedioth read: “A threatening message from Beirut.”

‘They stopped seeing Palestinians as human beings’

Israeli journalist Anat Saragusti served as the Channel 2 reporter in the Gaza Strip when the Second Intifada broke out. Apart from Amira Hass at Haaretz, Saragusti was the only other journalist reporting from the areas under the Palestinian Authority’s control.

Channel 2 began broadcasting in November 1993, shortly after the signing of the Oslo Accords. Perhaps as part of the time’s general atmosphere of reconciliation, the station’s leaders decided to send Saragusti to report from the occupied territories. “I would move around freely, children would shout ‘That’s the one from Channel 2!’” she says.

For Saragusti, the biggest change brought on by the intifada was the way reporters began taking their cues from the military officials who briefed them. “They stopped seeing Palestinians as human beings. They stopped writing articles about weddings or special education [in Palestinian society]. Palestinians were covered only through the prism of the conflict: whether they are threatening or not. Once the briefings come from the military, there is less room for the Palestinian narrative. It disappears completely.”

According to Saragusti, the decrease in coverage of Palestinian life happened for reasons out of her control. “Before the intifada, I had a direct line [to Palestinians]. I had sources in Gaza, and the Palestinians also had a desire to talk [to Israeli media],” she says. But at a certain point, it became difficult to reach the strip, both because of the army’s restrictions and because “I began to feel uncomfortable, tensions increased, Hamas grew stronger.”

Today, Saragusti no longer covers the occupied territories, but it is clear to her that the Israeli media’s coverage of Palestinians and the occupation is in much worse shape than before the intifada. “The Palestinians are of no interest to the Israelis, nor are the Palestinians interested in talking to Israeli media.”

Journalist and writer Yigal Sarna worked at Yedioth when the uprising broke out and, until the Second Intifada, he would often travel around the occupied territories and write for the newspaper’s supplement. He relates to Saragusti’s sentiments about the desire and willingness of Palestinians to speak with Israelis before the intifada. “I remember [the now imprisoned Palestinian leader] Marwan Barghouti once told me, ‘I get up in the morning and look to the West.’”

Because Sarna wrote for Yedioth Ahronoth’s supplements, he did not face the same pressure as the news reporters — but he too felt the change.

“Our love-hate relationship with the Palestinians — that ended,” he adds. “The bus bombings changed how we treated them. They became subhuman. The newspapers could not deal with the horrific nature of the attacks. We needed to turn the Palestinians into monsters.”

Wounded Israelis receive first aid next to the wreckage of a destroyed bus after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up near Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's official residence in Jerusalem, January 29, 2004. (Haim Zach/Flash90)
Wounded Israelis receive first aid next to the wreckage of a destroyed bus after a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up near Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s official residence in Jerusalem, January 29, 2004. (Haim Zach/Flash90)

Sarna, who was already a journalist during the First Intifada that began in 1987, recalls how Israeli media used to be open to Palestinian voices. “It was legitimate. There was a lot of hypocrisy, but also feelings of guilt. For instance, I once wrote a front-page story about Arafat’s childhood.”

He continued to travel to the occupied territories throughout the Second Intifada, but it became harder to “sell” those stories to the newspaper. “They were clearly dissatisfied. Noni [Arnon Mozes, Yedioth Ahronoth’s publisher] told me: don’t be Gideon Levy,” referring to the Haaretz reporter who has covered the occupied territories for much of his career.

Like Saragusti, Sarna also describes how it slowly became more difficult to speak with the Palestinian side — even with people in Fatah, with whom he enjoyed close relations. “It’s so tragic. Perhaps we deceived ourselves, but we did have a touching relationship.”

A security-minded media

Today, of course, the press is focused on other matters. Sarna connects this to both the rise of the ratings culture on TV as well as the political changes that have taken place in Israel since. Like the Israeli government, Israel’s mainstream media industry is also moving to the right.

When I contrast the Israeli public’s shock over reports of Israeli soldiers beating Palestinians during the First Intifada to the media’s apathy toward the killing of Palestinians during the Second Intifada, Dor pours cold water all over my romanticized thesis.

“A story about soldiers beating Palestinians is still a story about us, about what it does to us. It is not a story about Palestinians,” he responds. 

In this sense, as other journalists have told me, the Second Intifada may not have brought about any real change in Israeli media. “The media has never liked the Palestinian side; it is a security-minded media,” Yossi Ein Dor, a former Channel 2 reporter and television presenter, told me. “I don’t understand why you are so surprised.”

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.

Correction, Oct. 7, 2020: An earlier version of this article stated nine Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces the day after Ariel Sharon visited the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif. This has been updated to say that at least four Palestinians were killed.