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Draft: for full text see Y. R. Kamalipour (Ed.), The U.S. Media and the Middle East.
Westport, CT:  Greenwood Press, 1995.

The Palestinian Leadership & The American Media

Dr. R. S. Zaharna
American University

In 1993, Yasser Arafat of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Yizhak Rabin, Prime Minister of Israel, were selected to be TIME magazine's "Men of the Year." Their recognition follows the historic signing of the Israeli-PLO Accord in September 1993. The Palestinian leader, like others before him, has not always enjoyed such favorable coverage.
How the Palestinians have gone from faceless victims to faces of violence -- to now, faces of peace, tells as much about the Palestinians as it does the American media which covered them. To understand the trends more concretely, I have examined the portrayal of the Palestinians in one of Americans most popular news magazines, Time. While other works have focused on the portrayal of either the Arabs in general (Belkaoui, 1978; Curtiss, 1982; Ghareeb, 1983; Hudson & Wolfe, 1980; Mousa, 1984; Suleiman, 1988), or the Palestinians in particular (Mahmoud, 1993; Terry & Mendenhall, 1974), this study focuses on the unique relationship between the Palestinians and their leaders.

The early trends are important because, once established, these pattern proved to be most enduring. Even though events were occurring on the ground in the Middle East that could have changed perceptions, the media trends were so entrenched that perception gave the appearance of little if any change. The first significant trend that emerged was the disappearance of the Palestinians and the Palestine from the American coverage.


In many ways, the birth of Israel in May 1948, not only erased Palestine from the map, but the national identityof the Palestinians as well. During the 1946-49 time period, the term Palestinian was not used as all. Instead, Palestinians were referred to as the "Palestine's Arabs," "Palestinian Arabs," "Arab inhabitants of Palestine" or "Arabs of Palestine."
In the 1950s and 1960s, the term varied from "Palestinian Arabs," "Jordanians," "Non-Jordan Arabs," to "Israeli Arabs." It was not uncommon to find Palestinians referred to differently within one article. For example in a story of a Palestinian wedding in village bordering Israel and Transjordan, the members of the same family all had different nationalities. Some were "Arabs on the Jordan side," others were "Jordanian," and some "Israeli Arab" (Sept. 3, 1956).
How and why the Palestinians disappeared so early from the American media's reporting is the combination of several factors, including the U.S.-Israeli special relationship, the absorption of the Palestinians under the "Arab" label, and the leaderlessness and voicelessness of the Palestinian refugees.

The Special Relationship

From the very beginning, after the British turned the question of Palestine over to the U.N., the U.S. become actively involved in the dispute. Not only does the U.S. emerge as a pivotal player in the U.N., but also the Jewish aspiration in Palestine become part of the American electorial agenda.
This special political relationship that begins to emerge between the Jewish community and American officials, in turn, influenced the American media's coverage in profound ways. First, instead of being a strictly foreign conflict, Palestine became more a more of an American issue. In Time, for example, Palestine no longer fell under "International" heading, but beginning in 1947, also appears under "National." This trend continues to this day. With the active involvement of prominent American officials, the American media became more involved as well. As numerous scholars noted, the media made its voice heard, especially during critical times (Evensen, 1990; Trice, 1979).

Second, the predominance of the special relationship served to push the Palestinian voice into the background. When the shift from international to national occurred, rather than securing quotes primarily from the two parties -- the Palestinians and the Israelis -- the media quoted extensively from American politicians and Israelis. Because American officials were more supportive of Israeli views (Time ), this practice only serve to reinforced the Israeli perspective and negate the Palestinian message. Indeed, quotes by Palestinians are all but absent in the early reporting. Not until the rise of the Palestinian terrorist do quotes re-emerge.

The special relationship also gave rise to a predominance of the Jewish perspective (Curtiss, 1982; Ghareeb, 1983). For example, quotes by Jewish leaders far outnumber those of all the Arab leaders. The quotes by Arab leaders appear to have been chosen for their dramatic effect, rather than for adding substantive understanding of the Arab position. Similarly, the human interest stories and personalized images of the Jews in Palestine are abundant, while those for the Arabs of Palestine are conspicuously absent. Personalized stories on the Palestinians did not emerge with frequency until the Palestinian Intifadah in 1987.

The "Arab" Label

Another factor which contributed to the disappearance of the Palestinians was their absorption under the larger label of "Arab." Instead of referring to the native inhabitants of Mandated Palestine as "Palestinians," all the people, including the large influx of Jewish refugees from Europe, were divided along ethnic lines. Hence, the media descriptions: the "Jews of Palestine" and the "Arabs of Palestine." Such labelling reinforced the image of a conflict drawn along ethnic lines.

By calling the Palestinians "Arab," the Palestinians, in effect, lost their own national distinction. They became part of a larger ethnic pool that spanned from Morocco to Saudi Arabia. Being made part of this ethnic pool produced a perception of the conflict of one tiny country against the masses, instead of between two peoples, the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Time's early portrayal of the Arabs were at times reminiscent of the American conquering the wild West and stereotypes of Native Americans. "Tough-looking Arab warriors in battle dress and kaffiyas (headdresses) ... " (March 15, 1948) Or, "During the day, fierce-faced, khaki-clad soldiers of Transjordan's 1st Mechanized Regiment had swirled and stamped, with arms interlocked, in traditional Arab war dances" (May 24, 1948).

The "Arab" label also created for the Palestinian a dual image of both aggressor, "Arab" armies -- and victim, "Arab" refugees.

Voiceless Refugees
The image of voiceless and leaderless Palestinian refugees is another factor that contributed to the disappearance of the Palestinians. One of the great tragedies of the 1948 period was not simply the displacement of the Palestinians from their homeland, but that their story was not told.

In a full-length article, Time correspondent John Luter tells the dramatic life story of one Jewish refugee, Abraham Greenberg, and his pregnant wife Zahava's efforts to reach "the Promised Land" (Feb. 7, 1949). In contrast, out of the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian villagers displaced from their homes in 1948, there was not one personalized account. Instead the Palestinians are referred to en masse:

"Panic-stricken over Israeli military successes, 300,000 Arabs had fled from their Palestine homes" (Aug. 9, 1948) or, "The New D.P.s . . . In Amman, more than a thousand were hold up in the dank underground galleries of the ancient Roman amphi-theater" (Oct. 25, 1948).

The voicelessness of the refugees was reinforced by the absence of a Palestinian leadership. The Jewish leadership was established and known to the American media. Names such as Chaim Weissman or David Ben Gurion are still well known today. In contrast to the organization of Palestine's Jews, "Palestine's Arabs had little time to think about a new government" (Time, May 17, 1948). As Time noted, "Palestine's native Arabs were panicky, almost leaderless" (May 24, 1948). To underscore the differences between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs, the two were often juxtaposed. In Time, for example, "... the Jews buck up by a week of military successes, Arabs whipped up by a new sense of desperation" (April 26, 1948). "... the Jews moved into the Arab quarters of the city. Bewildered Arabs gathered for one brief counterattack, then collapsed in leaderless confusion" (May 3, 1948). "Palestine's Jews awaited the end of the British mandate in cocky confidence, Palestine's Arabs in complete demoralization" (May 17, 1948).

This constant juxtaposition not only reinforced the image of a conflict, but underscored the disparity between the two parties. It also set the trend for the "good guy" versus "bad guy" scenario that would dominate throughout much of the conflict (Suleiman, 1988).

Trends that began in the 1940s became more entrenched as the conflict progressed. Although the focus shifted from Palestine to Israel, the image of the Palestinian Arabs that does filter through is both fragmented and conflicting. On the one hand, in contrast to the Jews fighting in Palestine, at the U.N., and in the American elections, the Palestinians were unskilled and leaderless. In short, not a credible threat. The image of the masses of Palestinian refugees and their unresolved plight reinforced this impotent image.

In contrast to this weak image, Palestinians were still considered part of the larger "Arab" contingent, and thus a perceived threat. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Palestinian "leadership" consist of rival Arab leaders serving as spokesmen for the "Arab cause." The Arab leaders used dramatic rhetoric in their quest for the hearts and minds of the Arab masses. The unfortunate irony is that dominance of the vocal Arab leaders added to the invisibility of the Palestinians as a people, while the acerbolic rhetoric fueled their hostile image.

The physical descriptions of Arabs are not only unflattering, but reveal the beginnings of Arab stereotyping. Usually the description highlight some distinguishing or odd feature. For example, the Arab leader Kawukji, "Grinning with a calm ferocity that showed his gold molars" (April 26, 1948); "Fawzi Bey's some 80-odd wounds still sometimes make his popeyes water with pain" (March 15, 1948). "Arabs waited tensely for the shells to land, bony brown hands clutching their rifles, eyes narrowed to slits" (April 19, 1948). "a freckled, pug-nosed Arab soldier-adventurer based in glory" (March 10, 1947). "El-Kuwatly acted more like a traditional, feckless Arab politician" (April 11, 1949).

King Abdullah of Transjordan, who annexed the West Bank in 1948, was viewed as an early Arab leader for the Palestinians. Time described the King as "the little man" with "an impish smile ... [who] had waited long to become cock of the Arab walk ... and [whose] life had been one long schooling in the devious ways of Arab rivals" (May 24, 1948). Time at one point likened the Arab monarch to a fire-breathing dragon: "Abdullah would have to breathe anti-Zionist fire. But he was a reluctant dragon ... Like all Arab leaders, he had to make warlike noises and gestures" (May 24, 1948).

King Hussein took over from his grandfather, King Abdullah, as the head of Transjordan. Although part of the Arab camp, Time described Hussein as "the least unreasonable Arab" (July 14, 1967). Later, as Israel considered Hussein as its preferred negotiating partner, Time's descriptions of Hussein became even more positive and distinct from the other Arab leaders.

In the early 1950s, President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt emerged as a leader of pan-Arab nationalism and the Palestinian cause. He was strongly against Israel and thus became another prominent Arab "villain" (Belkaoui, 1978). Time gave the Egyptian president the title of "Dictator," and used it either placing it before his name, eg., "with skill, Dictator Nasser last week..." (Aug. 27, 1956) or simply substituted for the name. Examples of Time's physical descriptions included Nasser's "blind rage" and "coiled-spring character" (Aug. 27, 1956).

In 1964, Nasser help establish the Palestine Liberation Organization. Perhaps because the organization's leader, Ahmed Shukairy, was associated with the Egyptian president, Shukairy quickly became another Arab "villain." "Boss" and "fire" became Shukairy's trademark in Time: "in the eyes of Arab firebrands, notably Syrian-born Nasserite Ahmed Shukairy. As the boss of the Palestine Liberation Organization ..." (July 8, 1966). "Ahmed Shukairy, the fire-eating boss of the Palestine Liberation Organization ..." (May 26, 1967). "Ahmed Shukairy, the fiery chief of the Egyptian-based Palestine Liberation Organization and a special Nasser guest ..." (Aug. 11, 1967). "Ahmed Shukairy, the leftist, demagogic boss of the Palestine Liberation ..." (Sept. 22, 1967). The use of "fiery" is often in reference to the vivid Arab rhetoric used by the Arab leaders.

The rhetorical style of the Arab leaders fueled the villain image and added to Arab stereotyping. "Forbidden wine by the Prophet, Arabs often grow intoxicated on words. Florid exaggeration is a supreme Arab art" (Time, July 14, 1967). Whereas Arabs pride themselves in their verbal skills, Time reflected the American literate culture which places a premium on accuracy, linear logic, and precision.

The "Arab-villain" scenario established during this period set the tone for emergence of the Palestinian leadership. Whereas the displaced Arab refugee garnered sympathy, any organized Arab leadership on behalf of the Arab cause was seen as a threat to Israel. This conflicting image of the Arab as both victim and aggressor would become a split image for the Palestinians.

The 1967 War marked a turning point not only in the history of the conflict, but also in the coverage of the Palestinians and their leadership. After the defeat of war, the Palestinians emerged distrustful of Arab leaders and began promoting their own Palestinian identity. Ironically, it was in trying to counter their invisible victim image of refugee, that the Palestinians created a highly visible -- yet primarily negative image, the Palestinian "terrorist." This split image dominated the American media coverage. As Time stated, "Their popular image in the West is that of a throng of terrorists and refugees" (April 14, 1980).

The image of the Palestinian victim became more pronounced as the 1967 war produced new flood of refugees. Their desperate image was magnified by the international community's inability to care for these new refugees. Israel held the Arab governments responsible for the care of refugees, while the Arab governments held Israel responsible for displacing the refugees. Although the PLO had been created in 1964, it was ineffectual in securing aid for the refugees. Thus, the Palestinian masses remained an image of voiceless pawns in the international political arena.

In contrast to this victim image, the 1970s also witnessed the rise of an entirely opposite image -- the Palestinian "terrorist." Whereas the refugee was a helpless victim of the powers that be, the terrorist "equipped with nothing more complex than guns, dynamite and airline schedules, render some of the most advanced nations impotent" (Sept. 21, 1970).

During this period, Palestinian became synomous with "terrorists," "skyjackers," "commandos," and "guerrillas." The term "fedayeen" was often used, but rarely translated. This added to the mysteriousness and deviousness of the Palestinian groups. Fedayeen means "freedom fighter."

While the main goal of the Palestinian groups was to gain international awareness of the plight of the Palestinian people, the hijackings got the world's attention, but did little to garner the world's sympathy or understanding. Palestinians were viewed as "dedicated, vicious political fanatics" (Sept. 21, 1970) and "unpredictable terrorists" (March 19, 1973) and their acts were seen as "insensible terror" (May 27, 1974), "savage and irrational" (Jan 7, 1974).

Added to this threatening image, the PLO began to garner diplomatic power. In 1974, the Arab League summit in Rabat recognized the PLO as the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people." This historic move had profound implications for American and Israeli efforts to negotiate a settlement. Israel had labeled the PLO as a "terrorist organization," and refused to negotiate with any terrorist organization. However, the wording of the Rabat statement recognized that only the PLO was authorize to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians -- not the Egyptian or Jordanian government.

This prominent dual image help foster the diplomatic stalemate. As the American media conveyed more information on the living conditions of the Palestinian refugees, American sympathy increased. The plight of the refugee stimulated the need for a negotiated settlement. However, the only authority recognized to speak on the refugees behalf was the PLO, and Israel and the US refused to speak to the PLO. Thus, negotiations were frozen.

Although there were profound events during this period, they only served to widen the gap between the double image. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter called for a "Palestinian homeland,' recognizing the plight of the Palestinian refugee. In 1979, the Camp David Peace Accords were signed between Israel and Egypt. The Accords raised the issue of "Palestinian autonomy," but the PLO had been barred from the negotiations.

In 1981/1982, American sympathy for the Palestinian people was at an all time high (Gilboa, 1987; Slade, 1981), thus stimulating the need for negotiations. However, with the PLO still the sole representative, negotiations remained stalled. In 1982, Israel invaded Lebanon with the "primary aim ... to destroy the PLO" (Time, July 12, 1982). Israel's invasion did force the PLO out of Lebanon, but it did not destroy the organization. Thus, the threatening image of Palestinian terrorist leader remained (Shaheen, 1989). And, with the massacre in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camp, the helpless image of the refugee remained as well. It was not until the Palestinian uprising in 1987 that the images would be shattered and new, more harmonious images would emerge.

In 1988, profound events on the ground and on the diplomatic front created equally profound changes in the image of the Palestinian people and PLO. For the first time, the images of the people and the leadership began to converge. Also, for the first time, it became clear in very concrete ways that the "Arab"-Israeli conflict was fundamentally about the Palestinians and the Israelis.

It was the reporting of the Palestinian uprising or Intifadah that transformed the image of the Palestinians as a people. In December 1987, what began as a spontaneous reaction to a car accident, turned into a full fledged campaign of Palestinian resistance to Israeli military occupation. The media images of the Intifadah were vivid and the language graphic (See Daniels in this collection). The images of the Intifadah, as Time stated, "changed perceptions, painting the Palestinians as ill-armed victims of Israeli truncheons and gunfire" (June 20, 1988).

The images of the Palestinian stone throwers contrasted dramatically with the voiceless, helpless, and exiled refugee. The Intifadah, said one scholar, shifted the "center of political gravity" for the Palestinians from the exiled leadership back to the homeland (Sayigh, 1992, p. 265). This shift was an important step in grounding the Palestinian image of the people to the leadership. The "Palestinian cause" became real and concrete, it was no longer an abstract political phrase.

Often the visual and written words combined to resonate with dominant American values, further enhancing the Palestinian image. For example, "the Palestinians are turning self-reliant to defy Israeli rule" and "searching for independence" (May 23, 1988). The "self-restraint of the Palestinians" was shown in "not a single gun has turned up in Palestinian hands" (Jan. 25, 1988). During this time there were numerous personalized accounts and quotes. Some quotes were reminiscent of the American revolution. "It is not important whether we live or die if we do not have our rights" (Jan. 11, 1988). And in contrast to the voiceless refugee, a 17 year old claimed, "Let it be know to the Israelis that we are strong" (Jan. 25, 1988).

Part of the change on the reporting of Palestinians may be the fact that the media itself was also subject to harsh treatment: "...a CBS television crew were attacked by troops ... cameras have been smashed and film confiscated . . . and nearly 100 journalist have been attacked by Israeli soldiers" (Time, April 11, 1988). Israel did take measures to severely restrict media access to the territories and thus the Palestinian story.

The parallel to the Intifadah, was "great visa flap" between the U.S. Secretary of States Charles Shultz and PLO Chairman Arafat. In an effort to translate the Intifadah into political gains, the PLO began a series of political moves in break the negotiation stalemate. The initiative began with media leaks by a PLO spokesman in July and progressed to the PLO call for a "two state solution." This move, "which implicitly recognizes Israel" was so significant that the U.N. invited Arafat to address the international community at its headquarters in New York. While "55 nations applauded the Palestinian move," the U.S. and Israel dismissed it as "unimaginative and excessively cautious" (Nov. 28, 1988). This lead some to comment on the U.S.'s unfair double standards (Dec. 5, 1988).

The stakes became higher when U.S. Secretary of State Shultz acted alone to deny Arafat a visa. Time described Shultz as "a one-man jihad to prevent PLO chief Yasser Arafat from speaking to the U.N. in New York City" (Dec. 5, 1988). The "great visa flap" Shultz was called the "loser" (Dec. 5, 1988) while Arafat reaped "a publicity bonanza" -- "If Shultz intended to depict Arafat as a common terrorist, he failed" (Dec. 12, 1988). Indeed, as Time stated, "the visa rejection ... gave Arafat the image of an underdog being bullied by the U.S." (Dec. 26, 1988).

For the first time during this period, the Chairman of the PLO also began to take on a human face. He was cited for his courage when Time referred to his "painful and personally dangerous efforts" (Dec. 26, 1988). Arafat also shared a more human side, as a Time reporter noted in an interview, "[Arafat] surprised his visitors with glimpses into his personal life" (Nov. 7, 1988).

The international uproar against the U.S. to suppress the PLO voice, in many ways, paralleled that against Israeli actions to suppress the Palestinians in the territories. Both the people and the Palestinian leadership assumed highly visible postures. Both were portrayed as underdogs that come out victorious. Both gained sympathy from the world community in the process. For the first time both were portrayed with positive values such as courage, self-reliance, desire for independence and the human side of both the leadership and the people emerged through quotes and personal stories. While this convergence of images did not change things over night, once many of the previous trends were broken, changes appear to occur at an accelerated rate. Also, while the images had become aligned to one another, there remained a gap between the leadership on the outside and people on the inside.

In 1991, with the opening of the Madrid Conference, a new image would emerge to bridge the gap between the leadership and the people. That bridge was the Palestinian negotiators; Palestinian leaders from the West Bank and Gaza who were appointed by the PLO to serve as members of the Palestinian negotiating team during the peace talks.

When the talks were organized, the PLO, having fallen out of grace of the U.S., was banned from participating, "Arafat is being treated officially as a nonperson by both Israel and the US;" however, as Time also noted, "none of the Palestinians inside or outside the occupied territories can move or talk without PLO approval" (Oct. 21, 1991).

Although the PLO was banned, the negotiators, in effect, served to link the leadership to the people. As the negotiations progressed, this link became stronger, not only through verbal statements quoted in the media, (e.g., Time "Arafat and his appointed negotiators," Oct. 12, 1992), but in pictures showing the negotiators first with the people in the territories, then with the leadership in Tunis.

While a bridge was created between the images, the gap between the leadership and the people remained, and the political stalemate over negotiations also remained. The media, through visual images and open reporting of the connection, had served to close the gap, making the ultimate political leap possible, if not, inevitable.

The September signing of the PLO-Israeli peace agreement was not only a diplomatic breakthrough, but a breakthrough for the Palestinian image in the American media. Although the U.S. had recognized the PLO for a brief time during 1988/89, the Israeli never had. By denying the existence of the Palestinian leadership, the Israeli had, in effect, denied the Palestinians the ability to create a whole image for their people. It had always been a body without a head, or a head without a body.

Ironically, the merging of the Palestinian leadership with the people came not through the PLO identifying with its own people, but through being identified with its enemy, the Israelis. There are two significant themes during this time. One is the humanizing, instead demonizing, of the Palestinian leader. During Arafat's brief visit for the signing, one aid took him magazine copies from the newsstand, remarking to the Palestinian leader, "You actually look good in some of the magazine pictures." During the actual signing, CNN watched the signing with Arafat's new wife, Suha. This humanizing was enhanced by personal notations, such as being Arafat "fond of children" or that his nickname is "the Old Man" (Sept. 13, 1993). The second feature was the replacing of the "conflict" theme with the "togetherness" theme between the two principal parties to the conflict: "Arafat and Rabin ... Israelis and Palestinians, side by side ... can share the land they both call home ... these two can live ... the two are emerging from the clutches of history ... creating their own choices ... the two could build their promised lands ... they are now free to live with each other ... (Sept 13, 1993)

This theme is visually reinforced: a cover with the Israeli leader and the Palestinians leader featured (Sept. 13), or a picture of an Israeli soldier and Palestinian woman sitting on a wall (Sept. 20), or a historical perspective of their former relation -- "The Victors, 1967" with a picture of young Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem, and "The Vanquished, 1967" with a picture of elder Palestinian couple resting on a deserted road as they fled Jerusalem (Sept. 20, 1993).

As the theme continues, a sense of mutuality emerges that had been missing from past reporting: "Israeli and Palestinians embrace ... enemies who could not live together ... neither Israel nor the PLO can destroy each other ... attempt to live side by side ... If No. 1 is coming, then another No. 1 must come ... Israelis and Palestinians can now ... the Palestinians and the Israelis now ... both have what it takes" (Sept. 20, 1993).

In the course of reporting the Middle East conflict, the Palestinian image has undergone radical transformation, moving from invisibility to high visibility within the American media. Most of the change over represented a hardening of conflicting images: victim and villain; helpless refugee and threatening terrorist.


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Biosketch: R. S. Zaharna

Dr. R.S. Zaharna teaches public communication at the American University. She served as communication consultant to the United Nations, the World Bank, and as media analyst for the Palestinian delegation to the 1991-1993 Middle East peace talks. Dr. Zaharna holds doctorate from Columbia University.