Gaza disengagement coverage splintered by factional views online

“What happened last week can only be described as horrific, and all who were there have been painfully altered by the psychological trauma and are experiencing emotional aftershocks. We have all witnessed the rape of a lifestyle, brotherly betrayal, and now wholesale abandonment of the evacuees. A generation of wandering ‘displaced persons’ without DP camps.” — Shlomo Wollins,

“I’ve had it. I think I’ve seen one too many images of weepy settler theatrics (and weepy settler questions on radio interviews) for my own sanity. … The story is NOT about settler surfers having to leave the beautiful seashore they crave; or dismantling prized organic orchids or whatever the hell it is the settlers grow. … It is about 30,000 Palestinians who lost their homes (and many times, their lives), sometimes with less than two minutes notice, sometimes with no notice at all, to armoured Israeli bulldozers — all for the sake of these ‘weepy settlers’ who are being ‘forcefully evicted’ from the ‘only homes some ever knew.'” — Laila El-Haddad, Raising Yousuf blog

Sometimes the Internet provides more context for a story, more depth than the TV news crawl and the dry wire copy of a newspaper. But sometimes, the deeper you go online, the more confused you get, the less sure you are of what really happened.

That’s the case with the recent evacuation of Jewish settlers in the Gaza strip, part of the disengagement plan hatched by Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. While there has been an international media swarm in the area and various on-the-spot blog reports from both the Palestinian and Israeli settler vantage points, a lot of questions remain. Is this a setback for Israel or only for religious Zionist Jews? Is it a victory for terrorism or for the new leadership of the Palestinian Authority?

Of course one side’s loss is always the other side’s gain. But in this case, the Arab media is conspicuous in its shallow coverage of events, while Israeli media has gone full tilt on a story that never was the tinder box they long expected.

Rafah Pundits is a group blog dedicated to showing the Gaza town near the Egyptian border in a more realistic light. The bloggers don’t seem to have thrown any parties for the disengagement plan. One of its contributing bloggers, known as Elliot (who lives in Leeds, England, and had worked for a non-government organization in Rafah) publicly replied to my questions and explained why the story resonates with Israelis more than Palestinians.

“For Arabs, supporters of Palestinian self-determination, and the refugees the disengagement is a very hollow victory,” Elliot wrote. “Although it should improve the lives of Gazans no one believes for a moment that it is a first step towards Palestinian statehood or resolution of final status issues anytime soon. For the Jewish onlookers, I imagine there are mixed views. Pleasure at compliance with the law from a section of society that is not highly regarded in Israel, sadness at seeing a part of the Zionist settlement enterprise fail (or fall short) and the inevitable comparisons with the Holocaust with Jews being expelled from their homes. I think the disengagement will become part of the Jewish narrative only.”

Not surprisingly, some of the most balanced online coverage came from more removed sources like the BBC, which again used its citizen media to full advantage: one diary from a settler, one from a Palestinian; a whole host of user-generated opinions; and eight longer opinions — four from each side — along with user comments on those.

The highlight page from those eight opinions is enough to make your head spin: “The Gaza pullout will make no difference — it’s a unilateral step,” says an aid worker in Gaza City. “The evacuation is totally immoral and unethical,” says a farmer in one of the Jewish settlements.

But with full-throttle mainstream media coverage planned well ahead of time, this was not a story that was captured spontaneously by camera phones at the scene. Instead, everyone had access to the scenes of Israeli soldiers removing settlers forcibly, sometimes getting drenched in paint, sometimes crying together. While much of the usual rhetoric made it difficult to sort out just who solved what problem, it was much easier to make sense of it all just by reading an editorial from the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen.

“On their own, the changes in Gaza will not lead to peace,” Bowen writes. “Israel still controls its borders, its airspace and its territorial waters. But for the first time an Israeli leader has taken on the settlers. Israelis who believe that the settlements on the West Bank are an expensive obstacle to peace are hoping that Ariel Sharon has created an unstoppable political dynamic. Palestinians who watch the West Bank settlements growing are much more pessimistic. But at the very least an opening has been created, that wasn’t there a week ago. It is not perfect, but it’s progress.”, the adjunct site for the popular Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, has had a 17-year-old Jewish settler named Renana Marmelstein writing an online diary since May. Ynetnews’ editor and managing director Alan Abbey told me Ynet has had reporters “embedded” with Israeli troops even during their training for the disengagement, and the site launched its special section for the disengagement more than a month ago.

“We put on extra editors, translators and hours to cover the news around the clock,” Abbey told me via e-mail. “Lots of pictures to go along with the videos, and lots of opinion pieces. Some of the best citizen reporting has been in the ‘talkbacks’ on our stories, some of which has (presumably) come from within Gaza. … Traffic is up all week by 50 to 70 percent. We hope to attract people during this period and keep the majority of them afterward.”

Blogs capture emotions on both sides

Although many blogs have moved beyond being just online diaries, the diary aspect of blogs was what made them fascinating for this unfolding story. The emotions were raw for many people, including bloggers who were settlers or living among them as they were evacuated.

Pesach Aceman’s diary at (the site dedicated to the Gush Katif settlements) was picked up by the BBC, and for good reason. The 63-year-old doctor provided a real window into the thoughts of settlers. He quickly denounced the sensationalism of TV showing violent acts by some settlers.

“I want to make this point very clearly,” Aceman wrote on August 22. “Most of the violence seen on TV in relation to Gush Katif settlements was caused by supporters who are not full-time residents. The residents, for the most part, departed in pain but peacefully. In fact there was such a display of pain and love between those evicted and those who did the evicting. This became a truly remarkable part of the whole mess.”

Shlomo Wollins has been running his site from Gush Katif since last April, offering up video, on-the-spot reports and plenty of photos from the scene — before being evicted last week. Brazilian/Israeli journalist Rinat Malkes went to Gaza to report for O Globo newspaper in Rio de Janeiro, and her Balagan blog gave a running account of what it was like working in such a frenzied atmosphere in the Neve Dekalim settlement as it was evacuated.

“Today people’s feelings just came out,” Malkes wrote in an August 17 entry. “No violence, but some shouting and many many tears. I admit I myself cried. I guess it’s the result of four days under [sweltering heat], almost no sleep, no food and lots of pressure. Tons of pressure.

“Went to the south of the settlement, where hundreds sat down in the street and started singing and praying. For a moment, I just lost control. I am a human being, sorry. When I heard the so typical Zionist songs like ‘Eli, Eli’ from Rachel, my eyes flooded. Sat down, drank water, calmed down. Everything under control. Passed. Not that easy to administrate our emotions here. Carried on my job. Talked to people. The hostile attitude’s been broken and the sadness has found its place in the settlers’ hearts.”

On the Palestinian side, there was more skepticism than celebration. Elliot said the Rafah Pundits considered themselves disengaged from the situation. “The first couple of days we were all like ‘Ooh, this is sooo exciting,'” he said. “Then after two days of screaming and tire burning it was more like ‘Puh-lease turn the news off and let’s watch The Simpsons.'”

Laila El-Haddad, a journalist who writes for Al-Jazeera’s site and posts to her blog about raising her young son, gave an eye-opening account of just how terrible life was in Gaza for Palestinians in a virtual war zone.

“Hajj Ali’s daughter, clearly still traumatized from the past years, told me how the washing machine on her roof was inaccessible to her,” El-Haddad wrote on a recent blog entry. “How she actually had to get ‘military clearance’ to wash her clothes (funny, but true. She resorted to buying a new washing machine instead).

“She says she won’t believe the withdrawal is for real until she actually sees the sniper tower that still stands directly across from her kitchen window, which rendered that side of the house inaccessible for five years, dismantled. As we spoke, for the first time in years, her sons played football in an empty lot outside of the house without the fear of being shot at.”

Mohammed Omer is a 21-year-old Gazan in Rafah who has helped visiting journalists as a guide and translator. He has also become a journalist and photojournalist over the past five years, writing reports for the weekly Vermont Guardian and other publications. Omer has featured his photography and reports on a site called Rafah Today. He told me he would like to write for bigger American newspapers to get the untold story about Gaza out to the public. Most of all, he’s frustrated that the world media came to see the settlers leave, but hasn’t paid attention to the plight of Palestinians in the same strip of land.

“I would like to tell people what’s going in my hometown,” Omer said. “I’ve lost my brother, I’ve lost my home, I’ve lost everything. … I just said to this journalist visiting here, ‘Where were you last October? Last October, 133 Palestinians were killed by the Israeli Army. Hundreds were injured. Where were you?’ I counted five journalists then and they were all local. We need the media all the time; we need the world to know about everything. We’re not asking the world to act, just to know what’s going on, to educate themselves.”

Objectivity lost in the haze

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has stretched on for decades, and it’s not an easy conflict to grasp for an outsider with no knowledge of history. Both sides seem more obsessed with showing their pain and suffering to the world than trying to end the conflict. The AP reported recently that some settlers insisted that soldiers drag them from houses in front of TV cameras. According to the story, one settler cried and wailed while the camera rolled, and when the cameras were off, he stopped crying and walked away.

This is a story with players who are seasoned by years of manipulating the media to their own ends, leaving the public grasping for credible, unbiased information.

Lisa Goldman, a freelance journalist who writes for the English version of Ha’aretz and whose blog is called On the Face, told me she has written many stories that have gone beyond stereotypes — about an Orthodox Jewish settler who believes in a Palestinian state, about a Palestinian journalist critical of anti-Israel attacks, and about ordinary Israelis in non-political contexts.

Goldman was most frustrated by the influx of journalists who were unabashedly looking for blood and guts with little background on the situation and who also didn’t bother checking facts.

“Most of the 4,000 journalists (more than came to cover the Gulf War in 1991) who came to cover the pullout arrived only days before it began, and without bothering to do even the most basic background research,” Goldman told me via e-mail.

“This was particularly true of the photojournalists and television reporters, many of whom asked me questions that displayed some pretty shocking ignorance. As a result, the coverage lacked nuance or context, and was often simply erroneous. A minor example was the BBC’s report that a settler woman had immolated herself to protest the pullout; in fact, the woman was not a settler and had a history of mental problems,” Goldman continued.

Hani Jabsheh, CEO and founder of the Arab news service Al Bawaba (Arabic for “the gateway”), agreed that mainstream news coverage lacked historical context. Jabsheh told me the grief of settlers was played up melodramatically while the history of Gaza and Jewish settlements there was rarely discussed. As for bias in the media — both mainstream and alternative — there’s just no way around it in the Middle East, he says.

“There are no unbiased views; it is impossible,” Jabsheh said. “This is the nature of this region. Everyone has an opinion and everyone has a story to tell and everyone has an issue with someone, whether it’s their neighbor or the government. I wish you luck trying to find it. … The media itself has become biased, so it’s very hard to read any story without any bias. That’s the way we look at things and we try to understand the story when we’re looking at it. We approach it by saying there’s a lot of bias in it and how can we take it out.”

And there are different shades of bias, with some liberal Israelis having little patience with the more conservative settlers, or militant Islamists refusing to cooperate with peace-seeking Palestinians. Ynet’s Abbey is resigned to working in a very difficult situation for a journalist trained to be objective.

“Everyone has an agenda here, up to and including the mainstream media,” Abbey told me via e-mail. “It is difficult for me as a U.S.-trained journalist to grapple with the naked bias often shown by the local media, either left or right. It parallels the divisions in the country. Objectivity, fairness, listening to both sides equally, compromise — these are often considered weaknesses and are not widely held values. Sigh.”

As Jabsheh told me, the individual reader must take on the task of ferreting out what’s right and what’s wrong, who’s trustworthy and who’s not. With so many media outlets on so many political sides — along with the freeform nature of blogs — this is a conflict that demands more and more reading just to understand how little everyone understands each other.

* * *

Learn more about the Gaza pullout and history

A selection — by no means comprehensive — of online resources to get more information.

Mainstream media Israel Leaves Gaza

BBC: Israel and the Palestinians

Jerusalem Post: Disengagement 2005

Ha’aretz: The Disengagement

Guardian: Israel and the Middle East

New York Times: The New Occupation: Trying to Govern Gaza

Palestinian side

Electronic Intifada: Coverage of the Gaza disengagement process

Arab Media Internet Network: Opinions on the Gaza Withdrawal

Human Rights Watch: Razing Rafah: Mass Demolitions in the Gaza Strip

Al Bawaba: Palestinian view on Israeli pullout

Israeli side

Little Green Footballs: Gaza Watch

Israellycool blog

Israpundit blog

Both sides group blog: Pro-Jewish, Pro-Arab, Pro-Peace

Gush Shalom

Flickr: Disengagement photos

Global Voices Online: More Disengagement Reactions

Bitter Lemons: Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at


  1. Thanks for your comprehensive piece about the disengagement. It is a complicated story and the coverage has a bit too much of that wall to wall CNN style to it which does have a tendency to make the eyes glaze over. Like any such story, though, it requires the ability to read, think and understand nuance (not qualities that lots of people have unfortunately).

    As someone who’s been studying, writing (& bloggin) and demonstrating for Israeli Palestinian peace for nearly 40 years, I know this.

    I’m happy to see you provided a link to my friend, Andrew Schamess’ excellent May I humbly suggest that my blog, Tikun Olam, might also provide some perspective on the pullout. I also quote many Israeli news sources in my blog.

    While I understand your interest in focussing mostly on Israeli and Palestinian sources for your story, there are a number of American Jews who blog on this subject and who are writing good material about it. I even think we might get some helpful distance from it in making our judgments.


  3. Thanks for the comments, Richard — would love some links to the work of Americans you mention. If you have a minute, could you post some here?

  4. I wanted to add some commentary from Dan “Mobius” Sieradski, an American Jewish blogger in Israel who had an interesting viewpoint for the story that didn’t make it in.

    Q: Are there blogs or other online news sources you trust for information on what’s going on in Gaza?

    A: Hardly. I had two friends who were down there — one a photographer for the EPA newswire and another a writer for The Christian Science Monitor — who would tell me directly what was going on. I didn’t trust any of the news sources and sometimes even word-of-mouth coming out of Gaza itself wasn’t trustworthy, like the story about the settlers splashing soldiers with acid which turned out to be paint thinner. Actually, I would say — there aren’t any blogs or online news sources I trust entirely on the Jewish side. Sometimes you can get a scoop from Israel National News as long as you know (and it’s hard to miss) that they have an overt right-wing agenda. But for the most part you have to piece the story together from various sources. Everyone has quiet biases which cause them to misconstrue the situation in favor of their agenda. So you have to take what you can verify as credible and toss the rest aside.

    Q: Is there an untold story that’s happening in Gaza around the pullout that the mainstream media aren’t telling?

    A: Well there are some fishy things relating to financial relationships between contractors and government officials. I’ve heard that one of the guys whose been pushing for the disengagement owns an agribusiness and owes the farmers of Gush Katif hundreds of thousands of dollars for goods he’s bought off them. There’s also some shady business regarding existing plans for the construction of a casino in Gaza. …Weird hidden financial motives and things of the sort.

    Read his whole take here: