Packaging the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

After a lull, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict erupted full-force last Saturday when Hamas and other Gazan groups lobbed 50 rockets into southern Israel. Israel retaliated, killing four civilians, and both sides continued their assaults. On Wednesday, a bomb exploded at the Jerusalem bus station killing a British tourist and injuring dozens of bystanders. Both sides continued air strikes throughout the week

According to a Google timeline, hundreds of sources covered the successive stories. The greatest spike occurred after the Jerusalem bombing and a subsequent attack of phosphorous shells, which international law prohibits, fired by Gaza fighters into Israel.

While it's no surprise that punishing raids and devastating deaths draw headlines worldwide, it is stunning that so few stories about the day-to-day toll of the conflict are posted, published and broadcast. (Equally notable is the paucity of coverage on models for coexistence.) Is the problem lack of space, absence of interest, a diminished press corps or a news cycle bound to a narrowly circumscribes set of blood-and-bluster narratives?

In Israel earlier this month, my graduate journalism class and I repeatedly confronted a basic question: What is news and by whose authority is it defined? Visiting Lod, a mixed city of Jews and Palestinian Arabs just southeast of Tel Aviv, we walked through some of the city's poor Palestinian meighnorhoods. According to Shatil, an Israeli NGO that works in cities with mixed populations, more than 70 percent of the homes in these areas have no legal status. Since houses are on land that the Israeli government has zoned agricultural rather than residential, owners are not allowed to expand or improve them. When owners do so anyway, making repairs to older structures or expanding smaller buildings to accommodate larger families, the government deems them illegal and subject to demolition.

More than 400 homes have been demolished in Lod; 1,600 more are "illegal" and could be added to that list. In the past, when houses were torn down, the government reclassified the land as residential, making it possible for developers to build apartments, schools and other accommodations for Jewish Israelis.

Walking through the streets, we saw ramshackle homes, empty lots and a high concrete wall that blocks off the blighted Palestinian area from a wealthy Jewish one. But the impact of the problem truly hit when we rounded a corner and came upon a football-field sized lot with several house-sized mounds of broken concrete, twisted iron pipes, flattened appliances, unhinged doors, solitary sneakers and similarly unmoored remnants of a once-normal life.

On the morning of Dec. 13, 2010 Israeli police roused residents of seven homes that housed some 70 members of the extended Abu Eid family. Families were ordered to evacuate immediately so that bulldozers could smash the buildings. Many of those who were displaced went to live with nearby friends and families, but a group of men pitched tents around the rubble, signifying their determination to stay. They'd also laid foundations for two prefabricated homes when, on March 2, the police demolished those, too. When we visited on the 14th, two tents were back up.

The Lod demolitions and the Abu Eids' story have been covered by Israeli and Palestinians news outlets and circulated by NGOs. But few American sites have picked up this news, even though it should be impossible to ignore. The Lod demolitions reflect an ongoing crisis in Israeli society that is just as pressing and just as intractable as the bloody outbreaks that are the most obvious outward emblems of the conflict.

Palestinian Arabs make up 20 percent of the Israeli population. Although most are citizens of the state, they are subject to ongoing discrimination. Just this week, the Israeli Parliament passed a law that "allows the Finance Ministry to remove funds from municipalities or groups if they commemorate [Israel] Independence Day here as a day of mourning or reject Israel as a Jewish and democratic state." The Nakba, the Arabic word for catastrophe and the term used to describe the birth of Israel, resulted in the loss of homes, lands and a way of life. But new legislation seeks to make this narrative illegal. A second law allows small communities to establish admission committees to screen potential residents. Applicants considered unfit or undesirable -- who might be Arab or Ethiopian Jews, single mothers or ultra-Orthodox Jews, as well as Palestinian Arabs -- could be turned away.

These new laws, like other examples of state-sanctioned discrimination, reflect the complexity of maintaining a democratic Jewish state amidst a large and growing non-Jewish minority. Most Americans may be aware of the human toll enacted by the Israeli Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. But far fewer know the problems facing Palestinian citizens within Israel.

But it's not only news of demolitions or democratic conflicts that go unreported for American audiences. There is also good news that's seldom covered. Palestinians, moving into the middle and upper middle classes, are making a way for themselves in Israeli society; Jews and Palestinians are collaborating on projects to push integration and equality in education, the arts and economic ventures, including start-ups that bring Palestinians into the lucrative Israeli high-tech sector.

As recent revolutionary movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and other Middle East countries demonstrate, there are on-the-ground social, cultural and economic storylines that swirl beneath the political, top-down, conflict-oriented narratives that constitutes news for many American media outlets. News consumers would do well to ask who decides what they get to see, hear and read -- and what calculations go into those decisions.