Newsroom staffers are scrambling to get up to speed on what is arguably the world’s most complex conflict
This article was originally published by Poynter on 13/10/2023 and is hereby reproduced by iMEdD with permission. Any reprint permissions are subject to the original publisher.
The war between Israel and Hamas is rooted in the complex politics, military control and religions of the region. In every newsroom across the United States, a host of journalists find themselves scrambling to get up to speed on what is arguably the world’s most complex conflict.
Suddenly, social media specialists, graphic designers, audience engagement editors, headline writers and visual journalists find themselves handling a large volume of stories related to the war and local reactions.
While there are many sources of information, it’s important to recognize that both Hamas and the Israeli government have an interest in presenting their side of warfare. For journalists, the ethical principle of independence requires news organizations to be open to completeness and accuracy.
Here is a guide on the basics, to help you avoid a blunder.
The choice of words, especially in the coverage of a war, has become a matter of debate among the news media.
Palestinians were the dominant group living on the land that became Israel in 1948.
Here’s an accurate history, according to The Council on Foreign Relations:
The state of Israel was created out of the British Mandate of Palestine, then home to about 1.2 million Arabs.
After more than 700,000 of them were expelled or departed in what Arabs call the Nakba, or catastrophe, about 150,000 remained within the new state and automatically became citizens, forming about half of Israel’s population. Unlike Jewish citizens, Arab citizens of Israel were subjected to military rule until 1966. Today, about 21 percent of Israel’s population is Arab, totaling some two million people. All are citizens of Israel except the few hundred thousand in East Jerusalem, who are permanent residents, a designation that affords them fewer rights. The majority of Arab citizens are Sunni Muslims, though there are many Christians and also Druze, who more often embrace Israeli identity. They share history, culture, and family ties with Palestinian Arabs living in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, as well as Palestinian diaspora populations in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and other countries.
Israel’s version of a constitution is called the Basic Laws of Israel. Human rights groups say it includes 55 laws that allow discrimination against Palestinian citizens in Israel and/or Palestinian residents of the occupied Palestinian territory.
The Council on Foreign Relations noted, “Arab political parties have long struggled to gain representation in Israel’s government, and many Arabs have expressed alarm at the leadership of right-wing Jewish politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Arab parties currently hold 10 seats in the Knesset. Arabs have served as judges, diplomats and other influential positions, but largely are not represented in Israeli government.
In the United States, 170,000 people identified as Palestinian, according to the last Census. This recent New York Times article documents the complexity of their responses to the recent declaration of war.
The world’s eyes have been on Israel and Gaza since the October 7 attacks by the Hamas militant group that are reported to have killed at least 1,400 people in Israel.
Most of Israel’s 9 million people are Jewish. But Israel is at the center of Islam and Christianity as well.
In the late 1800s through World War I, an important movement among Jews known as Zionism emerged that had roots in both religion and politics. Zionists had a central focus of establishing Palestine as a Jewish homeland. In the four decades starting in 1882, about 70,000 Jews immigrated there.
In 1917, British Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour submitted a letter of intent supporting the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration’s secondary goal was to get Jewish support for the Allies in World War I. Arabs opposed the proposal because they feared that a Jewish homeland would mean they would become second-class citizens.
The Jewish migration to Israel accelerated after the Holocaust of World War II, in which Nazi Germany killed 6 million Jews.
In 1948, Israel became an independent state, no longer under British rule. Arabs rejected the United Nations plan that, in addition to making Israel a separate state, also partitioned a section as an Arab state. That same year, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon sided against Israel in what was known as the Arab-Israeli War. Two years later, the fighting ended with the West Bank (so named because it is on the west bank of the Jordan River) becoming part of Jordan, and the Gaza Strip, which borders Egypt, becoming Egyptian territory.
In the years since, there have been eight significant wars between Arabs and Jews. One involved control of the Suez Canal. In 1967, Israel captured control over Gaza.
Israel has been at war with Hamas many times, including battles in 2008, 2012, 2014, 2021 and 2023. Not counting the death toll from the latest attacks, more than 170 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since the start of 2023, according to the human rights group The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs collects data on Israeli and Palestinian casualties in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel since 2008. The office says, “As a rule, for an incident to be entered into the database it needs to be validated by at least two independent and reliable sources.” Some data is based on media reports. The data is updated through mid-September 2023. Using this data, you can get an idea about the history of injuries and fatalities that have occurred on all sides and provide background to today’s hostilities.
One core issue between Hamas and Israel is that even though 135 United Nations member nations recognize Palestine as a nation-state, Israel does not. For years, the international community has urged Israel and Palestinian leaders to come to an agreement that would set up a two-state solution, but there has never been an agreement about borders. Arabs accuse Israel of encouraging Jews to settle in Palestinian areas even while saying Israel supports a two-state agreement. The events of the last week seem to end any prospect of a two-state agreement if for no other reason than Israel would have no reliable entity to represent the Gazans.
Two-thirds of Americans say the United States should publicly support Israel in the war between Israel and Hamas, according to the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, but there are wide generational and racial divides on the question. The same poll found that official U.S. support for Israel has made the Middle East safer. But Gen Z and millennials were the only group tested in which a majority (54%) said the U.S.’s support for Israel makes the region more dangerous. Nonwhite Americans say U.S. support for Israel makes the region more dangerous.
Gaza, or the Gaza Strip, is a stretch of land, 25 miles long by 6 miles wide, along the Mediterranean Sea, with borders with Israel and Egypt. It is home to 2.1 million Palestinians.
It is sealed in by walls and fences. Human rights groups have long raised concerns about the conditions imposed on Gaza by Israel.
Egypt controlled Gaza starting in 1948. Israel seized control of Gaza in 1967 and occupied it until 2005, ceding the territory to local control.
Palestinian people have been subjected to decades of Israeli restrictions, and about half of the people living in Gaza live in poverty. In September 2023, the International Monetary Fund said:
Years of isolation and continuous conflicts have left Gaza’s economic development far behind that of the West Bank. In 2022, per capita income in Gaza was only a quarter of that in the West Bank, and unemployment and poverty rates were much higher. This reflects much lower employment and investment rates as well as considerably lower productivity growth. While Israeli-imposed restrictions on access and movement of labor and goods severely hinder trade outcomes and productive capacity in both West Bank and Gaza, restrictions are far more severe for Gaza. Under these conditions, unemployment in Gaza reached 45 percent in 2022 and the percentage of the population living below the national poverty line stood at 53 percent, compared to 13 and 14 percent, respectively, in the West Bank.
Israel controls most of the economies of the West Bank and Gaza. The IMF report said, “Israel has remained the main trading partner for both territories, with more than half of imported goods into the West Bank and more than two-thirds of imports into Gaza coming from Israel. That said, import dependence on Israel has been slowly declining since 2008 for both Palestinian Territories. Similarly, most exported goods from both territories are directed to Israel (83 percent for Gaza and 81 percent for the West Bank).”
The IMF said, “Israel not only controls the movement of trade and people in and out of Gaza, but also severely restricts linkages and economic integration with the West Bank.”
Israel says the restrictions and control of people’s movement is necessary to ensure Israeli safety. And just before the Hamas’ October 2023 attack, Israel issued over 18,000 work permits to Palestinians allowing workers to increase what they could earn. But Israel could always impose blockades, such as what happened in September 2023 when inspectors uncovered what they claim was an attempt to smuggle explosives into the West Bank.
Hamas was founded in 1987 as a spinoff of the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas is both a political movement and an Islamist militant movement. The AP Stylebook is one of many journalistic references that acknowledges the duality of Hamas: “A Palestinian Islamic political party, which has an armed wing of the same name. The word is an acronym for the Arabic words for Islamic Resistance Movement.”
Hamas has called for the destruction of Israel. In 1997, the U.S. Department of State designated Hamas a terrorist group.
As a political group, Hamas was one of two major political parties that put candidates on a ballot in 2006. A year later Hamas seized control of the government by force and Gaza has not held elections since then.
Israel’s blockade of Gaza was a response to Hamas’ seizing control of the government.
People who are pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian frequently criticize news media for careless word choices that ignore this complicated history.
Avoid subjective adjectives, such as “unprovoked attack,” unless you are quoting a source.
Conversely, recognize that it is important to include the most complete version of events. Noting the long-standing suffering of the residents of Gaza does not negate the horror of the attack on Israeli citizens.
Many U.S. news organizations moved away from using the word terrorist, in favor of militant, because it was unfairly applied in conflicts around the world. That said, the State Department still identifies Hamas as a terrorist group. And it is accurate to describe many of their actions as acts of terrorism, including the attack on Israel that began Oct. 7.
For newsrooms following AP Style, “attribute the use of the word terrorism or terrorist to authorities or others except when talking about significant historical events widely acknowledged as terrorist actions.”
The BBC has come under intense criticism for refusing to call Hamas’ attack an act of terrorism. BBC News world affairs editor John Simpson explained:
Terrorism is a loaded word, which people use about an outfit they disapprove of morally. It’s simply not the BBC’s job to tell people who to support and who to condemn – who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. We regularly point out that the British and other governments have condemned Hamas as a terrorist organization, but that’s their business. We also run interviews with guests and quote contributors who describe Hamas as terrorists. The key point is that we don’t say it in our voice. Our business is to present our audiences with the facts, and let them make up their own minds. We don’t take sides. We don’t use loaded words like “evil” or “cowardly”. We don’t talk about “terrorists”.
Avoid Holocaust metaphors
Holocaust analogies are most often unfairly used as a rhetorical device in this conflict to critique Israel. It is best to avoid them and to avoid amplifying those who use them. If you are holding an influential voice accountable for inappropriately using a metaphor, be sure to include further context by explaining why those comparisons are inaccurate.
Ask the people you’re interviewing how they want to be described. Inside Israel, potential responses could include Arab-Israeli or Israeli-Arab, Palestinian citizen of Israel, or simply Palestinian. Also recognize Palestinians represent multiple faith backgrounds, including Muslims, Christians and others. Ignoring this diversity perpetuates the misleading notion that the conflict is at its core a religious one between Jews and Muslims rather than political in nature.
In the days ahead, as Israel stages what likely will be a forceful attack on Hamas, there will be protests and counterprotests around the globe. While such protests may be newsworthy because of where they occur, the size of the gathering or because of public reaction, journalists should carefully consider how to cover such gatherings.
Be thoughtful about allowing protesters to make unsubstantiated claims, spread hatred and mischaracterize others. Just because protesters carry signs and chant slogans, journalists have no obligation to publish or air those messages. However, if the event includes people who can be considered newsworthy, including elected officials, there might be a greater justification for including incendiary or disturbing content.
If the journalist chooses to blur or otherwise obstruct a protester’s message, the journalist should explain why the news organization made that decision. Remember that a decision to air or publish today is not binding on future decisions. Over time, the moment may be more or less newsworthy, and so the decision to publish may change.
(Here is further advice for newsroom leaders on staff objections to covering protests).
Using graphic images, video and audio
Hamas’ slaughter of more than a thousand people in Israel and the horrific deaths and injuries resulting from Israel’s punishing airstrikes on Gaza produced graphic scenes of death and suffering. Responsible journalists will include images from all sides of the war. (Standards editors describe how they make decisions).
To make decisions about what to show the public, consider:
What is the journalistic purpose behind broadcasting the graphic content? Does the display of such material clarify the story or improve audience understanding? Is there an issue of great public importance involved, such as public policy, community benefit or social significance?
Is the use of graphic material the only way to tell the story? What are the alternatives? Do the less graphic alternatives dilute the clarity and truth-telling? The graphic images of women, children and senior citizens being kidnapped and the bloody evidence of how Hamas executed people in their homes was initially essential to prove to the world what had happened.
Avoid being co-opted by warring sides that supply video to support their actions. Hamas provides slickly staged and produced video of soldiers staging missiles and gliders, and the Israeli Ministry of Defense supplied video of military movements. Both sides want their video to show strength, skills and determination. When journalists use any government-supplied videos, they should clearly label and explain the video’s origins and explain to the public what the journalist has done to verify the authenticity of the government-supplied imagery.
This article was updated to include a section about the history of the state of Israel and to provide a more detailed database about casualties in the region.
Correction: Israel became an independent state in 1948. The United Nations proposed its creation in 1947.