State of downplay
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Hebrew media review

State of downplay

As a prison hunger strike that riled the Palestinian street ends, Israeli papers continue to regard it as insignificant as a candy bar

Palestinians in Bethlehem show support for prisoners hunger striking in Israeli jails as US President Donald Trump meets with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in the city, on Tuesday, May 23, 2017 (Dov Lieber/Times of Israel)
Palestinians in Bethlehem show support for prisoners hunger striking in Israeli jails as US President Donald Trump meets with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in the city, on Tuesday, May 23, 2017 (Dov Lieber/Times of Israel)

If one were looking for a sign of the disconnect between Yossi G. Israeli and Yasser Q. Palestinian, they would need to look no further than how the press in Israel treats a hunger strike by Palestinian inmates that ended over the weekend.

During the 40 days the protest — the largest-ever hunger strike by Palestinian inmates — was going on, the Palestinian street was inflamed, leading to near-daily deadly clashes with IDF forces, and casting such a pall over the visit of US President Donald Trump that he had to cancel his visit to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.

Yet in Israel, the only time the strike really bubbled to the top of the news cycle was when The New York Times didn’t call strike leader Marwan Barghouti a terrorist, and when the Prisons Service put out a (possibly partially staged) video of Barghouti eating a Tortit candy bar, which made good fodder for late-night comedy bits but accomplished little else (and it should come as no surprise that the incident did little to lower the flames among the hunger strikers and their supporters). Neither story showed that the Israeli public really took the strike seriously.

On Sunday morning, the strike’s end — easily the biggest news event in Israel over the weekend — gets some front-page attention in the Hebrew print press, but the story still plays mostly second fiddle to other items the papers see as more important to highlight.

The modest coverage in the papers — especially the tabloids — echoes Israeli attempts to downplay the strike and the talks (or lack thereof) that led them to end just in time for the holy month of Ramadan (when most of them will be fasting during the daytime in any case).

“We didn’t even conduct negotiations,” reads the headline in Israel Hayom, highlighting not the strikers’ achievements or lack thereof, but rather Israel attempting to claim the strikers gave up and gave in.

Haaretz’s coverage reports those claims to be baseless, claiming that “Despite Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s remarks according to which there will be no negotiations and that the prisoners’ demands won’t be met, the strike ended following days of talks that peaked on Friday night. The prison service stressed that there were no negotiations with the prisoners, but rather that ‘understandings’ had been reached.”

Analyst Jacky Khoury notes in the broadsheet that even if the prisoners didn’t get all of their demands, the strike succeeded in proving a larger point.

“In reality the prisoners succeeded in setting the agenda,” he writes. “The protests, marches and Palestinian actions, which included serious clashes with Israeli soldiers at demonstrations in the West Bank showed that the prisoners’ issue is at the heart of the Palestinian consensus. Among other things, the protesters sent a message that the prisoners’ status cannot be ignored – particularly that of strike leader and leading Fatah figure Marwan Barghouti.”

Yedioth Ahronoth downplays the story to the point where it ends up next to the daily television review (but before the death notices). On the tabloid’s op-ed page, Ben-Dror Yemini refuses to call Barghouti a winner, but in claiming that the security prisoners already get more than they deserve and admitting Israel was cowed into somewhat giving in, he kind of does anyway.

“Experience shows that you don’t only need to be right – but also smart. True, the strike led by Barghouti didn’t manage to inflame the Palestinian street, but it had the potential to do so. Prisoners and others who find themselves under someone else’s control also have power. Israel preferred a partial loss, a marginal one, to prevent much more damage. The hunger strikers managed to achieve one more visit a month. Most of their other demands were rejected. By this, understand the victory was for whoever managed the crisis.”

While playing down the hunger strike, papers find other stories to play up. Israel Hayom, for instance, leads off with Trump repeating that “Netanyahu really wants peace,” which takes up the top headline and conveniently leaves out the fact that Trump said the same about Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (and Netanyahu seemed a bit of an afterthought in his remarks).

While the actual text of the story makes clear what Trump really said, the paper continues to push its agenda through selectively highlighting bits and pieces to fit its worldview, elevating pieces of information that help it tell a certain story. Thus, while the paper does report on suspicions that Trump S-O-L Jared Kushner opened a secret channel with the Kremlin, the paper’s headline makes sure to note that it was only to coordinate on Syria — based on a New York Times report that took the sting out of a slightly earlier Washington Post scoop on Kushner’s Kremlin cloak and dagger.

The two papers dueling over White House scoops is reminiscent of a simpler time — 1974 — but Israel Hayom’s Avraham Ben Tzvi scoffs at any comparison to Watergate.

“The fact that was exposed yesterday on the ‘secret channel’ that Kushner tried to set up, it seems, between the president-elect’s transition team and the Kremlin (which was never actually implemented), should not incriminate him at all,” he writes. “The opposite in fact, given the unending ‘background noise’ in the formal diplomatic channels especially during the twilight of the outgoing administration, there is a lot of logic in creating a pipeline and track for concurrent communications, which would allow initial coordination of expectations and the passing of messages of trust between ‘all the president’s men’ who are incoming and Moscow, and thus will prevent a further deterioration of ties between the White House and Kremlin on the eve of the changing of the guard on January 20.”

Haaretz also looks back to the past, though not as far, with its lead story, which quotes the head of the Waqf Islamic trust that manages the Temple Mount as being ready to allow Jewish visits to the mosques and shrines on the holy site, returning the flammable esplanade to its pre-Second Intifada status quo.

“We welcome tourists and want to return to the way things were before 2000. The government and police aren’t interested. Write that down: We want to return to the pre-2000 situation,” Sheikh Azzam al-Khatib al-Tamimi tells the paper in a wide-ranging interview in which he also says Jews must realize they can’t pray up there and accuses the police and government of allowing just that.

Yedioth’s lead story is perhaps most damning of all, as well as frustrating in that it will likely get as little attention and bring about as little change as the hunger strike: the publication of a state report accusing the state prosecution of misusing or ignoring findings from the state’s forensic crimes institutes and obstructing justice.

“The report determines that in some case that were examined the prosecution obstructed court orders, hid material from the defense that likely could have exonerated suspects and blocked the defense in an illegal way from receiving important evidence that could have been used by the accused,” the paper writes, reporting on a litany of cases in which justice was not served.

Columnist Ronen Bergman says reading the report makes one want to “explode” and notes that it covers only 11 of 35,000 cases investigated at the pathological institute.

“In a lot of other cases the [watchdog] asked to look at, they couldn’t find the material, neither the prosecutor nor the institute,” he notes. “If such severe findings were uncovered in the cases that were investigated, one can only guess what would happen were there enough manpower and determination to conduct a full probe.”

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