On March 2, 2002, as deadly suicide attacks terrorized Israel on a weekly and even daily basis at the height of the Second Intifada, a huge blast in downtown Jerusalem pierced the cheers of Israeli soccer fans in bars nearby watching one of the most extraordinary matches in the country’s history.
Thirty minutes into the game, Israeli Premier League leaders Maccabi Haifa had just conceded a shocking third goal to Maccabi Kiryat Gat, which was wallowing at the bottom of the table and set for relegation. Three nil. Almost miraculous, even for the beautiful game.
Then the bomb went off.
Channel 2, Israel’s only commercial channel at the time, was accustomed to interrupting its regular broadcast to cut to the carnage and grief of suicide bombs. But with the devastating regularity of attacks, and the incredible drama of the ongoing soccer game, the channel this time made an unprecedented decision.
Rather than end the broadcast of the game, it instead decided to split it, showing coverage of the attack on two-thirds of the screen while the Haifa-Kiryat Gat face-off played silently on the rest of it.
For 10 minutes, soccer fans and families of victims, or both, watched their television sets in awe while a very different drama played out next to the one they were focused on. The bizarre viewing spectacle only ended when, upon learning that there were fatalities in the Jerusalem attack — 11 people were killed — Channel 2 executives decided to end the broadcast of the game entirely and scale the news report to its regular full screen.
The curious juxtaposition of live footage didn’t last long but the incident, which later became known as the “Split Screen Broadcast,” represented something of a watershed for Israelis, shocked at their own and their society’s apparent acclimatization to the brutal reality of deadly violence. In the aftermath, Channel 2 was lambasted across the board for the decision and its production company, Telad, lost all franchising rights for three years.
On Monday, Channel 2’s successor, Reshet, and its news division Hadashot were again faced with a dilemma over what to show viewers as two dramatic and dramatically different events took place at the same time.
In the capital, Israel’s political echelon gathered for a highly anticipated ceremony dedicating the new US embassy in Jerusalem. Over 22 years after the United States Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act calling to move the US mission from Tel Aviv, America was, for the first time, officially opening an embassy in the capital.
At the same time, partially in response to US President Donald Trump’s decision to relocate the embassy, tens of thousands of Palestinians were marching on the Israel-Gaza Border in grisly scenes that included violent clashes between IDF troops and protesters, some of whom tried to breach the security fence.
Encouraged by Hamas, the terror group that rules the Strip, the clashes grew more intense in the run-up to the ceremony, with the death toll rising to 31 Palestinians just moments before it began.
As honored US and Israeli guests took their seats, Hadashot split its screen between the jubilant celebration in Jerusalem and the violent scenes on the border.
Footage on both sides of the screen rolled on, each oblivious to the existence of the other.
Foreign media outlets persisted with their own split screens. But as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the other dignitaries entered the embassy compound, Hadashot’s dual screen silently gave way to full, undiluted coverage of the embassy opening, leaving viewers to wait a full hour and half for an update on Gaza.
By the time the ceremony was over, the death toll in Gaza had reached 46.
The incident, reminiscent of the Split Screen Broadcast 16 years earlier, both highlighted the dilemma for Israeli television executives and the viewing public, and offered a window into the Israeli mindset.
Unlike in 2002, when carnage ultimately outweighed spectacle, in 2018 it was Jerusalem’s jubilation that won out over Gaza’s grief.
The channel’s designating the celebratory ceremony as more relevant than the protests in Gaza, which were relegated to a mere sideshow, reflected the stark dissonance between how Israelis and Palestinians view the embassy move, and maybe even their own divergent histories.
Jerusalem Day, not Independence
Delighting Israeli officials already elated by the planned embassy move, the Trump administration announced in February that the ceremony would take place on none other than May 14, the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence.
Netanyahu quickly praised the decision, saying it will “turn Israel’s 70th Independence Day into an even bigger celebration.”
Speaking Monday at the event, US Ambassador David Friedman said the choice of the day was linked not only to Israeli independence in 1948 but also to the US recognition of the state on that same day.
“On this exact day 70 years ago, almost at this exact time, David Ben Gurion declared independence and 11 minutes later President Truman decided to recognize the reborn state of Israel,” Friedman told the crowd. “Seventy years since that historic day, the United States finally takes the next step.”
For most Israelis, however, the link to Independence Day was somewhat more ambiguous: Israel celebrates its anniversary of independence according to the Hebrew calendar; this year, Independence Day fell on April 19, almost a month ago.
The embassy move, significant in its own right, would likely have been just as meaningful for the Israeli public had it been slated for a week earlier or month later.
The proximity to a different day in the Israeli calendar, however, may have provided a clearer link. On Sunday, Israel celebrated Jerusalem Day — the anniversary of when Israeli forces took control of the Old City and Arab-majority East Jerusalem in 1967.
To mark the day, thousands of Israelis took part in the annual Jerusalem Day parade celebrating 51 years since the reunification of the city, in which primarily religious teenagers parade through the Old City decked in white and blue, the colors of the Israeli flag.
This, more than last month’s Independence Day barbecues, was feted as the real symbolic connection to the embassy move, with government ministers at Sunday’s cabinet meeting directly linking the two.
‘The Israeli narrative’
The choice of the May 14, however, does hold a huge but very different significance for Palestinians, coming on the eve of Nakba Day.
On May 15, Palestinians and many in the Arab world and elsewhere mark the Nakba, or the “Catastrophe,” mourning the displacement of the Palestinian Arabs during the 1948 war with Israel.
Moving the US embassy a day before that commemoration was perceived by Palestinians as a deliberate slap in the face. Indeed, when Hamas announced the Gaza protests six weeks ago, it said that they came in response to the “acceptance of the Israeli narrative of May 14” and warned that the decision would lead to an “explosion” in the region.
It’s not clear if the Trump administration was aware of the symbolism of moving the embassy either immediately after Jerusalem Day or immediately before Nakba Day. It may have simply seen it as an opportunity, as Friedman said, to link Trump to Truman’s recognition of Israel and therefore place the decision in the canon of Israeli and American history.
But intended or not, the message was perceived by Palestinians as a direct rejection of Nakba Day and an acceptance and celebration of Israeli control over Jerusalem, and even the West Bank and Gaza too.
Intended or not, Hadashot news recreated the seeming acceptance of one experience and narrative over another when it silently cut its Gaza coverage in favor of the embassy party. In contrast to 2002’s split screen brouhaha, it’s unlikely many Israelis this time around will raise a fuss over the channel’s editorial decision.