The contemporary term, فلسطين (Filastin), is a word not found in the etymology of the Arabic language, but it is a direct reference to the biblical פלישתי (Philistine) of the Ancient Near East. The name itself, Philistine, can be derived from Hebrew root פ-ל-ש (p-l-sh), meaning “to roll” or “to wallow.” These two meanings are especially significant given the fact that the Philistines were the people of Philistia, or the “land of the sojourners;” they embodied the role of the migratory invaders without a motherland. The definitive Hebrew origin of the word is rather interesting considering how the Palestinian has evolved to define the historically Arab population of Gaza and the West Bank. In comparing the current Palestinian to the Philistine of the past, the two nationalities are solely connected by the identity of the migratory “wallower.” This generalization is especially relevant given the fact the culture of the Palestinian has been overshadowed by the consequences of Israeli occupation; the origin of the term casts the Arabic language, cultural traditions, and religious observances as simply irrelevant. The Palestinian nationality is not inherently Palestinian, it is a national identity which has been constructed by Israeli dominance and embodied by the population of the West Bank to become a cry of resistance.
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It is important to note that the origin of the term Palestine cannot alone account for the largely negative perception of Palestinian identity which has evolved to become the dominant global narrative. It is the combination between Palestinian resistance and the intersection between rhetoric, framing, and media portrayal that has created a polarized environment wherein the Palestinians have been ostracized from either a neutral or positive perception. I will attempt to trace the construction of this popularized negative portrayal through the lens of the American news coverage (given the influence of the United States has on the conflict) beginning from the events of Nakba day in an attempt to better discern how the Palestinians view themselves in a context of violence and oppression.
In tracing the construction of the Palestinian, it would be amiss not to recount the repercussions of يوم النكبة (The day of catastrophe). While it is important to note chaos and brutality did not suddenly materialize on a single given day, this date in particular signifies the culmination of tension and violence as Israeli independence was triumphantly declared while the everlasting Palestinian exodus began. In the months following this declaration, fighting and destruction continued to intensify as “the Jewish forces launched a more concerted campaign of massacre and forced displacement, including the notorious Deir Yassin massacre of about 100 Palestinians on April 9” (Ibish 5). These massacres and instances of forced displacement conducted as a part of this campaign were not isolated events and it is evident the tactic was constructed with the sole purpose of removal. By the conclusion of the initial onslaught, 700,000 to 800,000 people fled or had been expelled from the country to establish a Jewish majority state. The tale of Nakba, and subsequently the Palestinian, is “in brief, the collapse and disappearance of an entire society that was politically, militarily, and culturally unprepared for the collision with Zionism, colonialism, and war” (Ibish 6). The towns and villages of what was Palestine were demolished to establish and independent Israel regardless of the consequences. The inability to effectively respond to the aggression of Zionism in conjunction with the inability to return is a perpetual source of sorrow for the contemporary Palestinian; it is this sorrow and longing in particular that continues to define the identity of a stateless people.
Aside from the concrete events of Nakba Day itself and the division between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the events of Nakba had a further consequence of dividng the Palestinian from other populations of the Arab world. Preceding Nakba, the boundaries between a Palestinian and a Syrian were blurred until the Palestinian was forced to take on an identity of defense in response to Zionism. Rather than the “southern Syrians” of the past, Palestinians “today are either exiles, refugees, or living under Israeli occupation- or, at best, live as second-class citizens of Israel itself” (Ibish 7). This delineation becomes especially significant given the current state of affairs in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states gradually moving towards improved relations with Israel in response to the growing threat of Iranian influence. In regard to the Palestinians, this shift poses a grave danger considering the intransigence of the Israelis in working towards the development of a two-state solution, a movement which has been largely preserved due to a coalition within Palestine and the support of the Gulf. In this atmosphere, the Palestinians must confront the possibility of continuing their cry for sovereignty alone (a feat which will most likely lead to greater violence given the significance of Nakba day in the mind of the Palestinian and the refusal to assimilate with Israeli society) . In addition to the shifting international perception of the Palestinian, it is necessary to understand how the dominant narrative of the “ belligerent Arab” has been constructed to fully recognize the consequences of Nakba and the way in which the Palestinians have not only been exiled from their land, but also denied the right to create their own identity and history unique from the dominant Israeli narrative.
The major culprit in the unilateral portrayal of Palestinian identity can be largely attributed to the media coverage of the conflict and the framing of both Palestinian resistance and motivation. However, before proceeding to the coverage related to specifically to Palestine, it is necessary to first understand the general framework of media construction. For the sake of precision and relevance to the Palestinian conflict, I will focus solely on the aspect of political violence from the larger context of media framing.
In a society where identities and roles of been definitively constructed throughout history, political violence can be “classified along two basic lines: grievance/bottom-up and institutional/top-down violence” (Amani 182). Within these two distinctive categories, those included in the “grievance” division typically desire a recognition of suffering and reform, while “institutional violence is characteristic of ruling apparatuses that seek to repress potential or actual resistance by less powerful entities in a given society” (Amani 182). I would further hypothesis that this institutionalized form of violence constitutes an intersection with both cultural and direct violence. In this scenario, the most effective way to conceptualize this aforementioned intersection is through the form of a web wherein the three forms (Direct, institutional, and cultural) each represent a unique thread of prejudice, discrimination, and bias; these threads are often prone to knots and splinters as circumstances alter and state and non-state actors adapt to adhere or reject different ideologies. Furthermore, one of the dominant threads in the construction of identity is the media, so how does the media interpret these two categories? If we think further about what constitutes media (Television, social media, radio, etc.), it is clear that the news adheres to the role of an institution and, subsequently, favors the institutional/top-down narrative over the grievances of the marginalized. The media is merely an amplification of sentiment already expressed by the majority; it is a reflection of existing bias and perception. To demonstrate this dynamic, let us now return our attention to the plight of the Palestinian.
As mentioned previously, the Palestinians possess no right to express their own identity through the lens of mass media due to the institutionalized nature of news coverage itself. This bias in coverage can be linked to two particular threads in particular: sources and rhetoric. Take for example, the stories published following the massacre of 125 Palestinians in 1994 when Baruch Goldstein fired upon the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. The articles following the attack “did privilege the Israeli narrative” where “official Israeli sources were quoted in 82 paragraphs whereas Palestinain officials were quoted in 35 paragraphs” (Handley 259). How can one ever seek to understand or empathize with the other when the majority (or self) consistently dominantes the story? In addition to neglecting the Palestinian voice, the news coverage (ranging from articles to podcasts) is also guilty of mending events to adhere to unilateral expectations of what defines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; in turn, this perpective conceals the core of the conflict. In continuing in the analysis following the Goldstein massacre, stories published by both the Times and the New York Times, rather than acknowledge the event as a massacre, instead attempted to create “a narrative in which religious differences, not the occupation, were responsible for the Middle East conflict” (Handley 260). This generalization becomes problematic if one simply analyzes the consequences of Nakba day, a day which was not driven by the desire to covert or proclaim Judaism as the superior religion, but to establish an independent Jewish state. The refusal to acknowledge the impacts of the Nakba effectively delegitmizes the Palestinian resistance to occupation and the right of return while simultaenously painting the Palestinian as an Islamic extremist.
In transitioning from a specific instance of coverage to an overview of the language employed in constructing the Palestinian perspective, the dichotomy in the construction between the institution and the grievance grows icreasingly stark. In the words of prominent British journalist Robert Fisk, America journalists have created a narrative wherein “the ‘occupied territories’ have become ‘disputed territories,’ how Arab militants are ‘terrorists’ but Israeli militants only ‘fanatics’ or extremists’... how the execution of surviving Palestinian fighters was so often called ‘mopping up.’ How civilians killed by Israeli soldiers were always ‘caught in the crossfire’” (Fisk 3). If we truly think about it, how many times have you heard the term radical Islamic extremists versus the radical Zionist? To further address this disparity, it is also important to recognize the perception of the Palestinians themselves in contrast to the identity the news has constructed for them.