News media coverage routinely frames Palestine-Israel as a story of two sides deserving more or less equal portions of blame for the absence of peace and of Israelis and Palestinians experiencing comparable pain as a result. I call this approach the “both sides” narrative and argue that it is untenable. In the following excerpt from my book, The Wrong Story: Palestine, Israel, and the Media, I examine the use of the “both sides” frame in New York Times editorials on Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza, Operation Protective Edge. Both sides-ism distorts events in Israel’s favour—and thus also in favour of its patron, the United States, for whom Israel is a crucial proxy—by grossly inflating Palestinian wrongs while understating Israel’s.
As I contend in my book, the “both sides” narrative is not the only frame through which media outlets misrepresent Palestine-Israel in ways that are advantageous to Israel. This tendency has persisted in mainstream news media accounts of Palestine in the years since 2014. For example, in the fall of 2015, Israelis killed 43 Palestinians and injured 5,100 while Palestinians killed seven Israelis and injured 70 and major US papers obscured the larger context in which Palestinian attacks occur and focused on Israel’s “right to defend its citizens” without concerning themselves with Palestinians’ right to self-defence. During the Palestinians’ Great Return March, news outlets have partaken in linguistic gymnastics to avoid stating the simple fact that Israel is shooting hundreds of demonstrators with live ammunition. When Israel killed 62 Palestinians on May 14th 2018, media sources de-humanized Palestinians and victim-blamed. Throughout the demonstrations, news outlets have suggested that “violent” Palestinian protests are at fault for Israel shooting thousands of unarmed Palestinians and presented Palestine-Israel as though it were a civil war, or a “he said, she said” story where the reality of what’s happening—ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and resistance to these—is impossible to unravel. Such deeply flawed reporting persists because the institutional structure of the media remains in tact: the Western ruling class both controls the media and is deeply invested in Israeli settler-colonial capitalism but has no comparable interests in Palestinian liberation.
The first Times editorial on Protective Edge was on July 7th 2014 and, in assessing responsibility for the violence, it deploys the “both sides” frame. The article discusses the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers by Palestinians in the West Bank and the subsequent kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager by Israelis. The editors write that these incidents could lead to a full-blown war and that “It is the responsibility of leaders on both sides” to stop that from happening. The editors then assert that the “hostilities and recriminations began with the kidnapping and murder” of the three Israeli teenagers. The claim that this round of antagonisms “began” with the abduction of the Israeli youth is dubious even if one sets aside the broader context of Israeli colonialism in which these events played out.
The three Israelis were kidnapped on June 12th, whereas on May 15th the Israeli military shot and killed two unarmed Palestinian teenagers at a demonstration organized to both express solidarity with Palestinian prisoners on a hunger strike and to commemorate Nakba Day, which is when Palestinians mark their mass dispossession of and displacement from their homeland that took place during the creation of the state of Israel. If Operation Protective Edge was partially a consequence of the mutual killings of teenagers, it is only possible to say that these episodes “began” with the deaths of the Israeli youth if the killing of the Palestinian teens less than a month earlier is overlooked. Further underscoring this point is that the killings of those two Palestinian youth brought the total of Palestinian children killed by Israeli forces in 2014 to four, according to the UN-affiliated Defense forChildren International-Palestine.
Blame for the violence leading up to and during Protective Edge is addressed in the editorials from July 7th, July 18th, and August 6th. Yet none of them note that Israel started the violence. The July 18th editorial lays most of the blame on Hamas. It says that Israel sent ground forces into Gaza “to keep Hamas from pummeling Israeli cities with rockets and carrying out terrorist attacks via underground tunnel.” In other words, the paper claims that Israel’s land incursion was a response to Hamas’ violence even though Israel provoked the rocket fire and even though there is a paucity of evidence that the tunnels were being used to attack Israeli civilians. The editors say that Hamas leaders “deserve condemnation” for allegedly inviting Israeli fire on Palestinian civilians while the harshest criticism that the paper offers of Israeli leadership is to say that military action is “not a long-term solution” and that President Obama was right to “express concern” about “the risks of further escalation and the loss of more innocent life.”
Meanwhile, the August 6th editorial says that “both sides” are worthy of blame for the carnage. Yet the first rockets fired from Gaza were on June 13th, whereas Israeli airstrikes began on June 11th when the Israeli Air Force targeted an alleged militant riding a motorcycle together with a ten year old child. The motorcyclist was killed instantly. The child sustained serious injuries and died three days later. Two civilian bystanders were also injured. Omitting this essential piece of information benefits the Israeli state by contriving the Palestinians’ responsibility for the bloodshed while hiding Israel’s.
In these editorials, the “both sides” narrative operates by selecting starting points for Protective Edge that favor Israel because this version of events rationalizes the destruction inflicted by Israel on Gaza, which as I show below was far greater than the destruction Palestinian armed groups caused in Israel. The story of Protective Edge is told in a way that speciously implies that Israel is at fault for going too far at times but that Palestinians are at fault for starting the fighting and that therefore both sides are in the wrong. This narrative depends on concealing Israel’s killing of the two Palestinian teenagers on May 15th and Israel’s June 11th airstrikes, to say nothing of the larger historical and contemporary picture.
A more accurate accounting of what happened would be that the Israeli state had started a war against a population made up mostly of people that it made refugees. The long-running siege of Gaza is also a crucial context. In 2005, Israel dismantled its settlements in Gaza, evacuated their residents, and withdrew its military forces from inside of the territory. Israel, however, maintained effective control over its points of entry to and exit from Gaza and over Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters. In short, Israel still occupies Gaza. When Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian election, Israel imposed a blockade on Gaza and tightened it in 2007 when Hamas won control of the territory in a struggle with the PA. The siege’s effects have been devastating.
The blockade was one of the central concerns of the Palestinians during Protective Edge. In a 2012 ceasefire that was reached to end Israel’s operation Pillar of Defense, Israel agreed to “Opening the crossings and facilitating the movements of people and transfer of goods and refraining from restricting residents’ free movements,” which would have meant lifting or significantly easing of the siege. Israel, however, did not follow through on this agreement and that was a crucial factor behind the 2014 violence. Early in Protective Edge, Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups rejected a ceasefire, which they had no part in crafting and which was put forth by their enemies in Israel and Egypt, largely because it offered no assurances that the siege would be lifted.
Yet of the five Times editorials written during and immediately before Operation Protective Edge, the blockade of Gaza is only mentioned in the one published August 7th. This lack of attention is necessary for the “both sides” narrative to hold: since only “one side” was besieging the other, the mere existence of a siege is itself enough to puncture the “both sides” narrative. Keeping to the “both sides” framework deprives readers of a crucially important context. Obscuring the importance of the siege to Palestinians distorts the narrative of Protective Edge in Israel’s favor. Paying so little attention to the blockade removes one of the Palestinians’ major grievances, thereby hiding a key reason for their willingness to fight while also consigning to the background what both the Palestinians and many respected international organizations see as a major Israeli wrong.
Similarly, editorials in The New York Times repeatedly presented Operation Protective Edge as a war in which both Israelis and Palestinians were harmed to comparable degrees. The Times’ July 18th editorial tells readers in the second sentence that “The tragedy is that innocent civilians on both sides of the border are paying the price, once again.” Having this phrase at the outset establishes “both sides” as the article’s operative frame. The frame is reinforced by the structure of the article, which primarily consists of shifting between the sins the paper attributes to Hamas and to the Israeli government as well as between the difficulties faced by civilians in Gaza and in Israel. This framing arguably mitigates the casualty figures noted in the editorial, which reveal that one side is paying a much steeper price: “Only two Israelis have died” whereas there had been “260 Palestinians killed, three-quarters were civilians, including more than 50 children.”
The paper deviates somewhat from its practices in other Protective Edge editorials by providing concrete examples of Israeli attacks on Palestinians: “Innocent Palestinians are being killed and brutalized: four Palestinians boys playing on a beach; four children playing on a rooftop; a rehabilitation hospital, all destroyed by Israeli firepower.” These deaths, however, are subsumed within the “both sides” narrative as they follow the paper’s account of how “Well over 1,000 rockets have fallen on Israel since July 8, and they have reached farther than ever, threatening Tel Aviv and beyond” and of how “Israeli citizens are running for cover from incoming rockets.” The equivalency is false: Palestinians were “threatened” by and “running for cover” from Israeli weaponry to a far more dramatic extent than were Israelis from Palestinians. This is clear given that Israeli deaths occurred at 1/180th the rate they did in Gaza and given that 22,900 Gaza residents had been displaced by Protective Edge at that point while Israelis did not face displacement on a similar scale. In its July 24th editorial, the Times writes that “the war is terrorizing innocent people on both sides of the [Israel-Gaza] border.” At the time, two Israeli civilians had died since Protective Edge began compared to a minimum of 578 Palestinian civilians, including 185 children; the Israeli military had declared 44% of Gaza a “no-go zone,” which together with “unremitting hostilities” was “restricting the movement and security of Palestinian civilians and the ability of humanitarian actors to carry out even the most basic life-saving activities, adding to the growing despair” of Gaza residents. Considering the gaps in these casualty figures, considering that 44% of Israel was not declared a “no-go zone” and that Israelis were not being denied access to life-saving activities, significant features of the situation are obscured when readers are merely told that “innocent people on both sides” are being terrorized.
Moreover, less than a week before this editorial was published, “intense Israeli bombardment of [the Gaza City neighbourhood] Shuja’iyyeh killed more than 60 people, including at least 17 children,” according to Amnesty International, and Doctors Without Borders says there were hundreds of civilians wounded in the neighborhood. No mass violence against civilians on the scale that took place in Shuja’iyyeh occurred in Israel so it is a distorted picture that simply describes “terrorizing innocent people on both sides” without even mentioning that Israel had inflicted mass killings and injuries on Palestinians in Shuja’iyyeh. Furthermore, in Gaza at the time, 149,000 people were displaced, 167,000 were in need of emergency food assistance, 18 health facilities were damaged or destroyed, and 1.2 million of
Gaza’s 1.8 inhabitants had no or very limited access to water or sanitation services. Remotely comparable conditions did not exist in Israel so it’s misleading to speak of undifferentiated, terrorized innocent civilians on both sides. Using the “both sides” narrative papers over these differences between the Palestinians’ experience of the fighting and that of the Israelis’ experience. This narrative erases what the reports from Amnesty, Doctors Without Borders, and the UN make clear: far more Palestinians than Israelis were suffering. In these respects, the Times offers a version of events that misrepresents what was happening in Israel’s favor.
The paper’s August 6th editorial, like the one from July 25th, emphasizes the feelings of terror associated with the violence. The article notes that at that point 1,800 mostly civilian Palestinians had died, including 408 children, compared to 67 Israelis. After the editorial gives an overview of the damage done in Gaza, it says that “There are important but less tangible costs: the way ordinary Israelis have had to live in fear of rocket attacks.” The fear Israelis experienced is presented as a counterweight to the discrepancy in the casualty toll. The suggestion that there is a balance between the harm done to Israelis and that which was done to Palestinians in Gaza rests on the notion that mass Israeli fear is comparable to mass Palestinian death and injury. The premise that terror is as undesirable as death is itself questionable but the equation entirely falls apart when one considers that, while casualties in the thousands were unique to the Palestinian experience of Protective Edge, living in fear was not unique to the Israeli experience. For example, in Rafah, a Palestinian city and refugee camp in southern Gaza, Israel killed 45 Palestinians between August 1st and August 3rd, including 40 civilians and 10 children, wounding another 50 civilians, 21 of them children. Inhabitants of Rafah, therefore, had ample reason to “live in fear.” In these ways, the “both sides” narrative favors the Israeli government by downplaying the harm Israel has inflicted on Palestinians and inflating the harm done to Israeli civilians.