Shakira in the Middle: the ubiquity of balance in Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Coverage: Update

Posted on June 22, 2011

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Shakira made headlines this week by playing top bill at the Israeli Presidential Conference, another of the kind of meaningless appearances in Israel by which celebrities can signal to the world that they harbor no deviant political opinions about Israel. They visit Israel, and while visiting Israel claim they want peace in the Middle East. This is most obviously Shakira’s motivation in being there—as a way of cleaning up rumors that she is pro-Palestinian, and thus an anti-semite. People like Shakira make the pilgrimage to Israel to show that they are neutral. They don’t take sides in this war.

Nothing represents this venerable trope of the conflict more ably—that it is a lamentable war in which Israel and Palestine are two evenly matched foes that can’t seem to work things out—than the sadly abused ideological corpus of Marya Aman, a young Gazan girl who was made a quadriplegic during an Israeli extra-judicial killing. Aman was, in military terms, collateral damage during the attack, like some 350 other Palestinians since 2003, many of them also children–who represent more than half of those killed and injured in Israeli “targeted killings”. Aman makes a brief appearance at the conclusion of the New York Times’ coverage of the Shakira visit, which “balances” the conflict in a familiar way:

 Earlier in the day Shakira, who came to Israel with her boyfriend, the Spanish soccer star Gerard Piqué, visited the Hand in Hand Max Rayne Bilingual School in Jerusalem, where Israeli and Palestinian children, Jews, Muslims and Christians, study together in Hebrew and Arabic.

The children, mainly elementary school age, screamed on and off for 40 minutes before Shakira had even arrived. On entering the packed courtyard, she went to sit with some of the children on the floor.

Then she greeted and kissed Marya Aman, a 9-year-old girl from Gaza who was paralyzed from the neck down after an Israeli missile accidentally struck her family’s car in 2006, killing her mother, a brother, her grandmother and an uncle, and breaking Marya’s spinal cord.

Marya’s father, Hamdi, who speaks no English, asked a reporter to scribble Marya’s story on a piece of paper so that Shakira would know who she was. He added: “Write at the end that Marya loves Shakira and her songs.”

It’s familiar because this isn’t the first time Marya has appeared in a New York Times story by Ethan Bronner. In 2009, Marya, along with an Israeli child named Orel, injured during a Palestinian rocket attack, were the subject of a Bronner exposition. The article is full of “balancing” native to this kind of reporting–that is, creating a one to one image of the conflict, in which Orel and Marya represent two warring populations, and the hopes and potential for peacemaking if only the two parties could learn to love one another:

Friendship often starts with proximity, but Orel and Marya, both 8, have been thrust together in a way few elsewhere have. Their playground is a hospital corridor. He is an Israeli Jew severely wounded by a Hamas rocket. She is a Palestinian Muslim from Gaza paralyzed by an Israeli missile. Someone forgot to tell them that they are enemies

[…]

In a way, a friendship between two wounded children from opposing backgrounds is not that surprising. Neither understands the prolonged fight over land and identity that so divides people here. They are kids. They play.

[…]

But for those who have spent time in their presence at Alyn Hospital in Jerusalem, it is almost more powerful to observe their parents, who do understand. They have developed a kinship that defies national struggle.

“The wounds of our children, their pain, our pain, have connected us,” noted Angela Elizarov, Orel’s mother, one recent day as she sat on a bed in the room she shares with her son. Next door is Marya, her 6-year-old brother, Momen, and their father, Hamdi Aman. “Does it matter that he is from Gaza and I am from Beersheba, that he is an Arab and I am a Jew?

It unfortunately does matter. Because, according to human rights groups like Btselem, children from Gaza like Marya have a much higher chance of being killed in Israeli attacks, in which nearly seven thousand have perished, and many more thousand injured, since 2000. Only a handful of Israelis have been injured by Palestinian rockets. The number of Palestinian children killed in Israeli attacks alone, is double the entire number of Israelis who have died in all Palestinian attacks since the year 2000. In total, less than thirty Israelis have been killed by Palestinian rocket attacks. The exact number of injured is not recorded accurately because it is so low as to be, on a national level and in the context of a conflict, meaningless.

Yet, the trope of tragic symmetry–especially when exemplified by injured children and grieving parents–is ubiquitous. A year earlier, a similar article paired a Palestinian boy accidentally injured in another Israeli attack, and an Israeli youth injured by a rocket in Sderot both being treated in the same ICU. The duality was even more striking in that context  because of the incredible and literal roadblocks placed knowingly upon the emergency medical infrastructure of the Palestinian territories, where people have died in ambulances and given birth on the side of the road, halted for hours at IDF checkpoints.

There are no similarities between the dangers faced by Gazan children and those faced by Israeli ones.  There are many reasons why the illusory balance suggested by the New York Times coverage described above continues to be a prominent feature of descriptions of, and journalistic reportage of the occupation and conflict. For people like Shakira, the refuge of balance allows them to live a public life without being handicapped by ethnic branding [in her case, Arabness] or hounded by accusations of anti-semitism for whatever bland remarks they may make off the cuff about the situation. The American public at large takes solace in the balanced view, for it does not require them to examine their country’s overwhelming financial and diplomatic support for one side of the conflict. The ideological trope–one war, two peoples–is a historically common one that has been used to describe many lopsided struggles through the years, from segregation, to the Vietnam War [trips to Vietnam by John McCain and John Kerry, most prominent]. Thus, journalists are already on the lookout for such narrative elements, and easily find them in Israeli hospital wards or bi-ethnic Israeli programs or schools whose ostensible goal is to promote “peace”.

The dangers of this imagery are manifest in the kinds of peace processes offered as a solution to the conflict, and the normalization of economic and physical suffering caused by an ongoing occupation and colonization movement that is regularly ignored as the main engine of the violence, in favor of the story of two active and equal participants in an ethnic conflict. Until celebrities like Shakira visit Gaza and the West Bank as well as Israel, the real profile of the conflict–a war by Israel to subsume Palestinian territory and control its population–will remain hidden. Until the images in our media find a way to describe a few hundred Palestinian children in a hospital ward with the corresponding one injured Israeli child, our media will continue to fail to get to the heart of the matter.

Update: I just wanted to add one thing that I feel I failed to capture in the original piece here. All of these “balancings” take place in an Israeli context. That gives the image that the seed of peace already exists on the Israeli side, with its multi-ethnic hospitals and learning facilities. They’re trying, as you can see, from the great strides they make to bring children and families together across the divide of the conflict. This normalizes Israel in relation to Palestine, where Palestinians have no similar programs and facilities for the armed colonists subsuming their land. This is no accidental image, Israel goes to great pains to allow a handful of ill Palestinians, or cynically, those injured in Israeli attacks access to Israeli medical facilities and care. The “seeds of peace” type programs are regularly used in propaganda messages which paint Israel as the more mature and peacey of the two, such as this repellant ad that went up in BART stations in Berkeley and other places in the Bay Area:

What’s ironic is that the “balance” articles and imagery are almost always on Israeli terms, in Israeli facilities. Ironic, because one of the “seeds of conflict” is the fact that Palestinians are not only not allowed to move freely in their “own” ostensible country because of Israeli movement restrictions, they’re certainly not allowed to enter Israel in any real number.