Palestine in Western media: We are not numbers
This article is part of The New Arab’s States of Journalism series, a sustained exploration of freedom, repression, and accountability in MENA and global media landscapes. Read more of the series’ articles here.
It is jarring to me, and to every Palestinian, to see the increasing wave of humane and sympathetic portrayal of the Ukrainians as rightfully “fighting for their homeland” on US and other Western media platforms, when closely compared to our Palestinian reality.
Despite struggling with decades of biased and one-sided media coverage, it is still painful – baffling even, to witness the portrayal of Ukrainians as “freedom fighters” whose territories were “unrightfully invaded”. The injustices committed against the Ukrainians continue to be publicly condemned, rightfully so, and the wrongs committed against them exposed for what they are: crimes against humanity.
The irreparable damages, displaced Ukrainians, and their tragic deaths continue to be reported while the Palestinians fighting similar evils and injustices for over seven decades now, continue to be dismissed and minimised under carefully chosen Western media packaging techniques.
This glaring discrepancy is why I helped found We Are Not Numbers (WANN) seven years ago.
I was only 19 years old when Israel launched ‘Operation Protective Edge’ on Gaza. This was not the first war Israel had stated, and definitely was not the last, yet it was the most life-changing one I witnessed.
''This systematic pattern of exclusion, omission, selectivity of featured news has been routinely practiced on the Palestinians. This pattern of active misreporting entrenched the Western public’s misconception of Palestine, and fuelled the waves of hostility we continue to see online and offline.''
During Protective Edge, Israel killed more than 2,200 Palestinians, including 600 children. My brother, Ayman, and many of my close friends were amongst those who were killed. The humanitarian tragedies committed in that war were not properly documented, let alone noted, in the Western media. Instead, outlets were mainly focused on the number of casualties, and were preoccupied with giving context to and justifying why Israeli crimes were being committed against us.
The loss of those closed to me plunged me into a deep depression that persisted months after the war concluded. An American writer, Pam Bailey, whom I had met earlier that year, noticed the difference in my Facebook activity and reached out to me. She asked how I was doing, to which I responded: “fine.” She pressed me, “tell me something real...”. When the floodgates opened, she encouraged me to write a tribute to Ayman, to commemorate his legacy in my family and our community.
Over the course of three months, passing my essay back and forth, the story of Ayman as a brother and son unfolded, along with the story of Ayman the fierce advocate of freedom and identity. Pam said that this was a story Westerners were rarely ever exposed to- the very human tales behind the question of “why do they throw rockets?”.
Pam later submitted my piece for publication, and I was overwhelmed by the number of questions and sympathy that followed after. My depression began to lift as I simultaneously started to recognise the power of my words and role in representing the voices of my people.
This exact experience was the inspiration behind WANN, which Pam and I founded with the support of Euro-Med Monitor. We pair professional English writers from around the world with developing Palestinian journalists and essayists to help them share their truths with the world. Our mission is to amplify the narratives of Palestinians, busting stereotypes and challenging the Western media’s version of history and current events.
For example, Shireen Abu Aklehs’s death at the hands of an Israeli sniper has been barely marked by Western governments, but an increasing number of media outlets are flagging it as the outright murder that it was. I like to think that this gradual change is in part due to the work of WANN to insist that there is an alternative narrative.
We also write about Palestinian talent, love and family – all the nuances behind the numbers in the news that are left out. To date, we have recruited 400 writers and published over 1050 articles, commentaries, poems and essays.
During the March of Return protests, when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza protested against the Israeli blockade on Gaza and demanded their right of return according to the UN resolution 192, my team and I worked tirelessly. We wrote human stories of those involved, produced short documentaries, and read poems out loud.
We wanted to confront the distorted coverage of the subject and Palestinians saw this as a chance to challenge and dismantle the misrepresentations being published.
Furthermore, two years later when - thanks to the work I do in WANN - I won a scholarship to study my master’s degree in International Journalism in the UK, I focused my research on the Western media’s coverage of the March of Return. Whilst the conclusion was not very surprising, what struck me the most was the international scale of misreporting on Palestine. This was reflected in both the content included, as well as the information that had been excluded in the coverage.
This systematic pattern of exclusion, omission, selectivity of featured news has been routinely practiced on the Palestinians. This pattern of active misreporting entrenched the Western public’s misconception of Palestine, and fuelled the waves of hostility we continue to see online and offline.
Over the past 74 years, Western media coverage of Palestine has been two-dimensional and dehumanising. It gives more agency to Israeli politicians, soldiers and citizens, giving them the platforms to justify their crimes against the Palestinian people at the expense of those they actively target.
Observing this unjust coverage on Palestine without a foreseen horizon for change makes it our priority and moral responsibility to invent new channels for communication and delivering the naked truth.
At WANN, we are challenging this pattern of omission, deliberate silencing and systematic dehumanisation, one story at a time.
Ahmed Alnaouq is the founder of We Are Not Numbers. He has a Master’s degree in international journalism from Leeds University. He is also cofounder of Border Gone, a media project that tells stories from Gaza in Hebrew, and serves as advocacy and outreach officer for the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor.
Follow him on Twitter: @AlnaouqA
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.