November 27, 2011

The News Media Are Balanced 1,027:1

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No, surprisingly, these are not the odds of Rick Perry finishing all of his sentences in the next Republican debate. At least not as far as I know.

1,027:1 is the ratio of Palestinians to Israelis exchanged in a highly controversial prisoner swap at the end of October. Palestinians, clearly, aren’t worth that much. Israeli soldiers on the other hand: valuable as ever.

The question, frankly, almost asks itself: How have we gotten to the point where so many human beings of one country (am I allowed to say that yet?) are worth so few of another? How is it possible that thousands of Palestinians who have children, wives, husbands and lives back home are nameless and faceless while the lone Israeli’s life and struggle at the hands of his captors is magnified and re-hashed hundreds of times to the point where even the most casual observer understands the importance of his life to Israeli society?

Ronen Bergman, in a cover story for The New York Times Magazine, tries to answer those  questions. He shows how the value of an Israeli soldier’s life has increased dramatically over the last 25 years due to, among other things, the pressure that families of captured soldiers have put on the Israeli government. The story, then, is about Israel, about Gilad Shalit, about how Israel’s leaders have compromised and negotiated with terrorists, and about how Israel as a country has come to value one soldier’s life extremely highly.

It plays into the general narrative constructed by the news media about this event: Gilad Shalit, a brave, young Israeli soldier kidnapped and held captive for five years is released in a prisoner swap deal. The Palestinians? Oh yeah, they were released too. But the only concern there is that they might commit future terrorist attacks. In fact, those in Israel who opposed this deal did so primarily out of fear that the released prisoners would organize future attacks.

This singular focus on Israel and Gilad Shalit is found everywhere in the press: “Israel and Hamas set stage for Gilad Shalit’s release” (The Guardian); “Gilad Shalit release: live” (The Telegraph); “The Galid Shalit prisoner swap” (The New York Times); “Gilad Shalit freed in Israeli-Palestinian Prisoner Swap” (BBC); “Gilad Shalit returns to Israel” (CNN); “Newly Freed Israeli Soldier Finds Himself in Spotlight” (LA Times).

It is exceedingly difficult to get a sense of who the freed Palestinians are: What their families have endured, how long they had been held captive, why they were held captive, what types of lives they are going back to. Not only that — there has also been little coverage of how they were treated while imprisoned in Israel. Several have said that they endured torture at the hands of Israeli security forces. Before the swap, many Palestinian prisoners went on a hunger strike  to protest against the harsh living conditions in Israeli jails. Those stories, though, are hidden.

Why, you might ask?

It’s quite simple: They do not fit into our narrative — the one where Israel is a force of good, its soldiers therefore humanized, and Hamas simply a terrorist organization, its members therefore somewhere just short of human.

Never mind that nearly 90 percent of Hamas’ activities are nonmilitary, but rather social and cultural. Never mind that Hamas governs the Gaza strip and therefore should be recognized as a state whose members are soldiers and not unlawful combatants. Never mind that Israel is still seen by the U.N. and International NGOs as an illegal occupying power in Gaza which has destroyed the lives of thousands of Palestinians.

The news media ignore what doesn’t fit into the accepted narrative of this conflict. And in so doing, they perpetuate the sense that Israeli lives are more important than Palestinian ones. The news coverage of the event has created the impression that Gilad Shalit is truly worth 1,027 Palestinian prisoners, despite the undeniable fact that one life should not be worth more than any other.

And it is that fact which sickens me. It is one thing for Israel itself to place such a high price on the lives of its soldiers. It is entirely different for the news media to accept and promote such a large disparity between the value of an Israeli and that of a Palestinian.

It is, admittedly, easier to report on Gilad Shalit than on the thousands of released Palestinian prisoners: less criticism, easier access, more receptive audiences. Until our attitudes change, however, the lopsidedness will continue. Until we dare to humanize the Palestinian prisoners, to acknowledge and write about their families, their lives, their struggles, they will continue to be just numbers: easily ignored, readily dismissed and happily forgotten.

We would do well to demand a more just treatment of Palestinians. The press is a good place to start.

Harry DiFrancesco is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at hdifrancesco@cornellsun.com. Stirring the Pot appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Harry DiFrancesco