The Media’s Moral Ambiguity on Palestinian Prisoners

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This week’s release of Palestinian prisoners sparked contentious debate in Israel over how high a price Israelis are willing to pay to revive talks with the Palestinians. Many Israelis expressed grief that Palestinians who had killed innocent Israelis, including a Holocaust survivor, should be released from prison merely as a gesture to the Palestinians.

On the Palestinian side, of course, there was much joy and celebration, as long-serving prisoners who had committed vile acts of terror were returning home earlier than expected.

People who get their news from the AP or the BBC, however, may be forgiven if they thought the two perspectives – Israeli and Palestinians – were morally equal. That’s exactly how they were presented by the media giants.

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According to the AP, thousands of Palestinians have spent time in Israeli prisons for a wide range of violent acts, from stone throwing to murder.

Palestinians tend to view prisoners as heroes, regardless of their acts, arguing they made personal sacrifices in the struggle for independence.

In Israel, many consider those involved in the killings as terrorists, and some of the attacks are engraved in the nation’s collective memory.

In presenting both views as essentially equal in moral weight, the AP is drawing readers to conclude that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” That adage was employed by Reuters executive Stephen Jukes at the start of the Second Intifada to explain why Reuters refused to call a Palestinian who blew up innocent people on a bus a terrorist.

The BBC’s coverage of the prisoner release essentially follows the same formula. There are interviews with family members of the terrorists and their victims. One side is ecstatic about the release, and the other is pained by it.

The prisoners are seen as heroes of the Palestinian cause, but on the Israeli side they are simply seen as terrorists, our correspondent says.

Simple enough. It’s only Israelis who consider the acts committed by the released Palestinians, including in one case a murder with an axe, to be terrorism. The message from the AP and the BBC is that morality is subjective – at least when it comes to the Palestinians.

The moral ambiguity shown by these media outlets is part of a larger culture of impunity for the Palestinians. It starts with the insistence that terrorists should be referred to as militants, not terrorists, and eventually the moral scales shift so that they are balanced equally between the terrorists and their victims.

As if to underscore the ubiquity of Palestinian impunity, the BBC article ends with a short reference to an outbreak of violence in Gaza that took place as the prisoners were being released:

In a separate development on Wednesday, the Israeli military said it had carried out air strikes on rocket-launching sites in northern Gaza.

The strikes were launched overnight in response to the firing of two rockets from Gaza towards the Israeli town of Sderot, the military added.

The short interlude is striking for two reasons. First, it only reports the violence after Israel responded, not when the Palestinians attacked. And second, it never mentions the Palestinians by name. There were simply two rockets fired from Gaza.

The media’s desire for balance in reporting on issues related to the launch of peace talks should not result in moral ambiguity. The media has an obligation to report on events as they truly are, and if that means reporting that violent terrorists were released from prison, it should do so without hesitation.

Image: CC BY-SA HonestReporting.com, flickr/DieselDemon.


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