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Arab media's potent weapon: images

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  January 9, 2009 12:33 PM

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A Palestinian woman protesting the Israeli military operation in Gaza
signaled to Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. (Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

The Globe carried an LA Times story today about how in the Gaza conflict in the Middle East, Arab media are using a potent arsenal of photographs to try to influence public opinion about the conflict. You can read it here:

By Jeffrey Fleishman and Raed Rafei
Los Angeles Times

CAIRO - Face splotched in blood, eyes closed, mouth aslant, the child seems slumbering but is dead. The only part of her you see is her head tilting in ash and rubble above the caption: "A day of massacres in Gaza."

She is nameless, but her face, peeking from a black-and-white photograph spread like a flag of horror across the Saudi-owned Al Hayat newspaper, is unforgettable. In the Gaza Strip, Israel maneuvers with tanks, missiles, and planes. But the Arab media possess a potent arsenal of pictures, videos, and emotional voice-overs that portray Palestinians as courageous victims against a bloodthirsty aggressor.

War is fought on battlefields, but passions are roused by images. Watch the Al Jazeera satellite network or skim through Islamic websites and magazines, and the singular message is clear: Muslims are united in the suffering of Palestinians, and no drop of blood, wailing mother, raised Kalashnikov, smoking ruin, or pair of empty sandals beside a lifeless body goes unrecorded.

It is the cinema verite of the underdog, an erratic landscape of martyrs and heroes and boys hurling rocks at the invader.

Romanticism and rallying cries of defiance are often summoned. An editorial published Wednesday in the Syrian daily Al-Watan speaks to the children of Gaza: "Teach us because we have forgotten. Teach us to be men because men here have turned into dough. . . . Teach us the art of clinging to the land."

Al Jazeera and other Arab media outlets have grown more objective in reporting in recent years, but when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict balanced coverage is often outweighed by pathos and narratives of funeral corteges winding amid the sounds of explosions.

Newspaper caricatures depict Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel with a hooked nose and beady eyes and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as a bulbous Nazi on a pedestal. And often, lurking like a creepy Oz, is the visage of Uncle Sam, portrayed as puppet-master and protector of the Jewish state.

An Al Jazeera report about Tuesday's shelling of a UN school in Gaza offered an emotional account of the civilians killed: "They asked for security after they lost their homes. . . . The Palestinians are asking, what is the world waiting for?"

The report did not mention Israeli statements that Hamas was launching mortars from the school.

It is not only Israelis and Americans who are pilloried. Arab leaders, especially those seen as US pawns, such as President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, have been skewered since the Israeli offensive began Dec. 27.

The images of carnage and of young, bloody men rushed to hospitals would be considered too graphic for Western broadcast sensitivities. But in the Arab world, where governments issue statements but are largely powerless to stop Israel, the unsanitized picture is the weapon.

Accompanying the Al Watan editorial on Gaza's children are three pictures: a medic holding a little girl clearly dead, her mouth agape; a running man cradling a child whose neck is covered with blood; and a man in distress sitting by a pile of children's bodies wrapped in the green flag of Islam.

Al Jazeera, which in times of regional war becomes a kind of electronic Arab living room abuzz with opinion, has been repeatedly airing one clip between news reports: With a dirge playing in the background, an angry crowd burns an Israeli flag. A teenage girl with a firm voice tells the people of Gaza to "be patient. God is with the patient." A woman says, "What is absurd is the accomplice of Arab leaders." Another woman shouts: "Where are you? Where are you, Arabs?"

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