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To give peace a chance, make peace the story

By Aditi Bhaduri

A journalist recounts how she discovered the many nuances of the Palestine-Israel conflict, and how she discovered the truth in the statement that objectivity doesn't mean treating all sides equally, it means giving each side a hearing. After years of exploring and covering the conflict, she found herself increasingly telling stories which proved that, along with the indignities and the insecurities faced by Israelis and Palestinians, there was also a constituency for peace

In politics it is said that perceptions are often more important than anything else. This can well be said about conflict and conflict reporting too. Conflict reporting has its own challenges, and perceptions play an especially significant role. In my experience of reporting on Israel-Palestine, the subject with which I began my writing career, I found that perceptions are almost centrestage. I can recall two occasions that encapsulated and instantly conveyed to me the reality of the region -- its complex makeup, and its multiple identities, which go much beyond what is superficially made out to be an Arab-Jew/Jewish-Muslim/Palestine-Israel issue.

The first instance was when I landed in Ben Gurion airport -- the very first time I was in the region. I took a taxi from there to Nazareth, to a friend's place where I was to stay initially. The taxi driver mistook me for an Arab, his impression bolstered by the fact that the friend I was going to see was an Arab woman, living in Nazareth -- a predominantly Arab town in Israel. As a gesture of friendship, the driver put on an Arab CD for me and Arabic music soon blared in the small confines of the car. When I asked him, in some confusion, whether he was an Arab, he laughed and explained that he was a Jew, but of Iraqi origin. He had spent a great deal of his adult life in Iraq, but later decided, for security reasons, to move to Israel. But, he told me, he often listened to Iraqi Arab music, spoke the Arabic prevalent in Iraq, and cooked Iraqi food at home.

Here was one aspect of Israeli life revealed -- many Israeli Jews have Arab origins or are culturally Arabs. Later I was to find out that one of Israel's most famous singers was a Jewish immigrant from Morocco, and that one of the very popular Israeli artworks and charms, the 'Khamsa', was of North African origin.

The second occasion was when I made my first visit to a church in Israel -- the Church of the Holy Annunciation (the largest church in the Middle East) -- in Nazareth. The church has a number of services in different languages; the one that happened to be held during my visit was in Arabic. So here was a flock of the faithful -- Arab by ethnicity, language and culture, but Israeli by citizenship and Christian by religion. They sang to Allah, but it was a Christian god not a Muslim one as Allah to my mind had always been. This then was another great reality of the Middle East -- Christian Arabs. Arabic is the sacred language of Islam -- the Quran was revealed in Arabic -- and a majority of Arabs in the Middle East and in the world are Muslims. But there is also another Arabic community that sings hymns in Arabic to Allah, the father of Jesus. They are Arab Israelis in Israel and Christian Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Before 1948 and the partition of Palestine, they constituted a single community -- Christian Palestinians -- "...a part and parcel of the Palestinian national identity..." (1), in the words of Palestinian political activist and feminist Hanan Ashrawi.

I mention these two instances because, minor as they seem, they reflect a certain reality in the region, which is important to understand the conflict there and its different nuances. These instances removed certain stereotyped images in my mind, and as I found out later, in those of many of my readers here in India. They reiterated that nothing is black and white in life, and certainly not in the region of Israel-Palestine. This is particularly important while reporting on conflict and peace. The conflict in the region, therefore, is that of Palestinians vs Israelis, not Muslims vs Jews, for not all Israelis are Jews and not all Palestinians are Muslims. This is a powerful deterrent to stereotyping and generalising, and hence a deterrent to the demonising of one side or the other. Individuals not only have multiple identities, but nations comprise multiple identities.

This is perhaps why one of the bedrocks of peace journalism is the principle of framing conflicts in terms of many parties pursuing many goals. Any kind of reporting entails balance and places immense responsibility on the reporter. In the case of conflict reporting, the responsibility immediately increases -- the reporter should not only report, but report in a manner that presents in as unbiased a way as possible, without creating scope for the conflict to escalate.

It is this fact -- that there are many parties to a conflict -- that demonstrated to me that we had a simplistic view of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. And it was to bring these facts, which I found so important, to light that I began doing human interest stories. I did not consciously embark on peace journalism; it seemed to be a natural outcome. Since I was writing features, I also had greater scope for peace journalism. In the words of the veteran Israeli journalist Danny Rubinstein: "...A big terrorist attack would make a good story. But peace negotiations will be relegated to the secondary place. My conclusion is that to give peace a chance, make peace the story." (2)

One of the cardinal rules while reporting on conflict and peace is to do thorough research. And read both histories -- that is, written and propagated by both sides to the conflict and from both perspectives. It is also imperative to listen to the histories of various participants on the two sides -- for example, the history of Palestinian Christians in the Palestinian Territories, or that of Israeli Bedouins in Israel. It is only by knowing both sides that we can come up with unbiased, informed reports. The principles of my work were -- do extensive fieldwork, engage in participatory observation, and talk to everyone. How different, for instance, Palestinian refugee camps in the West Bank seemed to be from what I had imagined them to be.

It helped me tremendously to have friends on both sides of the divide. It made it especially difficult for me to take sides, no matter how great the temptation at times, and generated a greater urge to create a situation where taking sides was no longer necessary. It also made it more difficult to report. There were invariably criticisms from both parties that I was favouring 'the other' more, and sometimes that I was hunting with the hounds and running with the hare. This is perhaps where my Indian-ness, my Indian identity, played a role -- not only with the Israelis and Palestinians but also with myself.

Being Indian, I grew up reading about Anne Frank and got a tiny glimpse into the trauma of the Jewish holocaust. Being Indian in the city of Kolkata, I grew up eating pastries from Nahoum's in Kolkata -- one of the traditional and best bakeries in the city, and Jewish. Being Indian, I also met Palestinian students who lived as refugees in Jordan because their part of Palestine had become Israel in 1948. The pain of both communities reached me at an early age, which is why perhaps it resulted in a lifelong interest in the region, an interest not always comprehensible to my fellow Indians. Especially since I am not of any Semitic religious persuasion, which excludes any religious bonding with the area. Therefore, I was able to relate to both sides. I have been as welcomed in Jewish but multi-ethnic and multi-cultural Israel as I have been in Muslim-dominated Palestine. There are also commonalities in culture. As a Hindu I found cultural similarities with Jewish Israelis. As an Indian or a person from the East, I found cultural similarities with Arabs -- Palestinians and Israelis, Muslims, Christians and Druze. Establishing a personal rapport is important in journalism -- it gives us enormous access to private stories, hopes, fears, the sum of daily lives in a community. It opens up doors otherwise closed, opportunities which seem far away.

Being Indian, specifically Hindu, also gave me physical access to spaces closed to other communities, even those from the region itself. I could visit the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the Al Haram Al Ibrahimi and the old city of Hebron -- all contested sites which are crucial to an understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Access to some is denied to Israelis, Palestinians, Jews and Muslims. Only as a Hindu Indian could I cross all these divides and gain physical access to these sites.

As an Indian I realised what an opportunity it was to be able to report from Israel and the Palestinian Territories. As an Indian I could travel there, while other States in the region -- primarily Bangladesh and Pakistan -- forbid their citizens from doing so, as do most other Muslim countries. Yet, there was enormous interest in the region in these countries because of obvious religious and cultural ties, and it usually resulted in one-sided information being available. Writing for the media in South Asia, I realised there was a huge information gap and it would be valuable to plug this gap.

Since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is primarily about human lives, human hopes and aspirations, it is important to bring out the human angle of any conflict. Unconsciously, that is what prompted me to deal with this subject in the first place, though I did not recognise the impulse then. What I wanted to do, even as I learnt more about the region and the people locked in this conflict, was to also set the perspective for write-ups published in the mainstream press, which I found skewed. Either it was the 'fascist Zionists' against the 'dispossessed Palestinians' or it was 'murderous Palestinians' against the 'ever-persecuted Jews' -- both of which was not quite the case, but reinforced age-old stereotypes. That is how I embarked on reporting on this region.

One of the fears that haunted me initially was that I would not be allowed to return to the region. In order to enter the Palestinian Territories, and Israel of course, I needed an Israeli visa -- which is always a difficult task. The Israeli representatives in India were constantly tracking what I wrote on the region, and constantly sending me rejoinders and responses, especially when they found something I had written distasteful to them or ''biased towards the Palestinians''. Yet I learned a great lesson, a lesson later bolstered by the advice that journalist Danny Rubinstein gave me when I met him: "...Being honest is to be safe; honest reports and honest analysis give you credibility." (3)

I overcame this dilemma by quoting Israeli sources to substantiate charges or allegations or grievances reported by Palestinians. For example, if Israeli sources quoted Palestinian casualties as 'x' number, I knew there was no way that the figure could be inflated. Or if Israelis cited human rights violations by the Israeli defence forces in the Palestinian Territories, then exaggeration charges could not be levelled, as they could have been had I cited Palestinian sources.

Similarly, I cited Palestinian sources to substantiate atrocities committed against Israel or instances of intra-Palestinian fighting. Gradually, I came to follow this methodology -- to quote representatives of the transgressing side on the transgressions. That kept it safe and accurate. I did this primarily through interviews and that is how I became acquainted with the constituencies of peace that exist on both sides.

The interview was one methodology that I used extensively. I gave a voice as often as possible to representatives of both sides and of as many factions as possible. For example, I interviewed a Palestinian human rights activist on the gun culture in Palestine. Through my interview with Israeli peace activist and political scientist Lev Grinberg, I informed my readers of the military occupation of the Palestinian Territories and the significance of the Refusenik movement (refusal of Israeli defence recruits to serve in the Palestinian Territories), and so on. I acknowledge that this honesty worked. To the extent that my next visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories was on the invitation of representatives of the Israeli government, during the Gaza withdrawal in 2005. This, in part, can also be attributed to the fact that with all its shortcomings and drawbacks, Israel is a democracy and there is a free press.

One of the rules I have always followed is to let people narrate their own stories. While there were numerous agencies breaking news and reporting on the technical aspects of the Israel-Palestine conflict, I preferred to dwell on subjects and features that more often than not did not make it to the news. Again through interviews and features I brought out how a Zionist could also be a peace activist who initiated the 'Bring back Israeli soldiers from Lebanon' movement. I gave a voice to Khulood Badawi, an Israeli Arab woman whose entire impression of Jews and Israel changed the day she "...saw old Jewish women confront armed Israeli soldiers; being beaten by these soldiers. These women were in the firing zone for the sake of Arabs -- people who are deemed to be their enemies". (4)

And so I let participants of the conflict, inhabitants of the region, talk, and captured their voices in my writings. Not all these were published as interviews; some were stored in my database and proved useful later when I needed to bolster or substantiate a claim or quote a precedent.

I used another not-so-traditional method. At the peak of one of Israel's military operations into the Palestinian Territories, in 2002, condemned by many, including people inside Israel, I published personal letters sent to me by a young Palestinian man I had met in one of the refugee camps in the West Bank where I had lived for some days. The letters were published in Refugee Watch, a publication in the alternative media, but they found their way to a moderately large readership -- especially of students. It was a very good first-person account of someone inside the conflict -- with all the attendant anger, outrage, sadness, as well as resilience and undying hope.

One of the pitfalls of this approach, and perhaps of conflict reporting in general, was that both sides tended to see themselves as eternal victims and this victimhood sometimes became a trap that coloured objectivity and reality. It also led sometimes to exclusivism. While it is true we can never fully imagine or understand what another person suffers without going through an experience ourselves, this can sometimes simply blur reality, even leading to the demonisation of the other. The narratives can often be exaggerated. It was not, for example, uncommon to hear that the Palestinian tragedy was the tragedy of humankind for all times. Simultaneously, the hum on the other side of the divide was that no community had suffered as much as the Jews had, and that one could never fully comprehend the holocaust. This indeed was and is true. However, it would serve no community's cause if the Jewish holocaust and the Palestinian dispossession were allowed to colour every act of Israel or those of the Palestinians.

Victimhood and exaggeration in some cases also led to the abdication of duties. On a visit to Bethlehem once I was taken aback that the absence of toilet paper in the svelte Bethlehem Star Hotel, where I was staying, was blamed on the Israeli occupation and not on the staff's carelessness! There are numerous such examples.

Nevertheless, it was important to experience local life in the different communities. As already mentioned, participatory observation and extensive fieldwork was another methodology that I used in my reports on the region. This was especially important because information is difficult to access on the Palestinian side. While Israelis -- both civilians and State representatives -- do an excellent job of furnishing and supplying information, including that which is not always flattering to Israel, the same is difficult to say of the Palestinians. While the Palestinians were always willing to talk, and numerous blogs and articles in the alternative media surface on the Internet, accurate, reliable data is often hard to come by. Hence, extensive fieldwork in the Palestinian Territories is mandatory.

Only by standing in queue with other Palestinians at checkpoints in the freezing winter, in the scorching summer or in the sudden rain (and without an umbrella) could I fully understand the agony of waiting at a checkpoint. In the constant security checks in the smallest of cafes and simplest of pizzerias I understood the level of insecurity with which Israelis live their life. By living in the old city of Jerusalem, I understood what Christians living in the middle of the strife between two major communities -- Jews and Muslims -- felt. Participatory observation was extremely important in order to know and understand exactly what the issues are and what the inhabitants of the region -- who were my principal subjects -- experienced. Participatory observation helped me, to some extent, not only do justice to the experiences I reported on, but also informed my judgement in choosing which stories to write.

Semantics was another challenge. How to use words; how to convey information without causing offence or heartache to one side or the other. Indeed, it was often difficult to be 'objective'. I tend to agree with Christiane Amanpour that, "there are some situations one simply cannot be neutral about, because when you are neutral you are an accomplice. Objectivity doesn't mean treating all sides equally. It means giving each side a hearing". (5) Sometimes, a term had to offend one side or the other. I partially solved this dilemma by referring to terms used by journalists who had gained credibility on both sides. While there are quite a few, special mention has to be made of Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who became the first Israeli Jewish journalist to live and report from Gaza and later the West Bank, but who never hid her Jewish identity. The writings and books of Amira Hass, the child of holocaust survivors, have been a great guide for me in my understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

Gradually, I moved into what can be considered 'peace journalism'. Peace journalism is commonly defined as the choices that editors and reporters make -- of what stories to report on, and how to report them -- which create opportunities for society at large to consider and to value non-violent responses to conflict. According to Jake Lynch, director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney: "Peace journalism entails exploring the reasons for violent incidents; the stew of tensions, fears and grievances that underlie the visible effects of conflict. In doing so, it reaches out to many sources, including those with suggestions for peace initiatives." (6)

It would be too ambitious to say that I have been able to reach sources with suggestions for peace initiatives. But I can definitely say that I have added a drop in the ocean of efforts and initiatives to humanise the parties to this conflict -- at least to a small section of readers in South Asia, and in the Middle East too. Many of the stories I have written, which I hesitate to call 'peace stories' but which have highlighted the fact that a constituency for peace exists on both sides of the divide, have travelled around the world and have been translated into other languages, thanks in part to the efforts of one Jewish couple -- Libby and Len Traubman -- in the US. The Traubmans have been conducting a Jewish-Palestinian living room dialogue for almost two decades now. Some of the stories have been used to demonstrate how ideas and initiatives can be replicated.

Yet, obfuscating the truth in order to pursue the larger agenda of peace has never been my intention. There can never be peace without justice, and that can only happen when the truth is highlighted and acknowledged. But what my interviews and observations revealed was that there was something retrievable in this longstanding bitter conflict. I was determined to tell those stories which proved that, along with the indignities and the insecurities faced by Israelis and Palestinians, there was a constituency for peace.

When I think back now, I find that I have left a lot of stories unwritten. I have not appreciated or been able to convey the enormous existential threat that Israelis perceive. And perceptions, as I said earlier, are so important. This has coloured their daily lives and actions. At times I have not given enough space to Israeli voices. There are numerous stories of harmony or of cooperation that men and women from both sides have engaged in, braving a dangerous divide, defying hardliners on their own sides and risking their lives, and I have not highlighted them. I also realise that I have not captured, in particular, the stories of the many brave women on the Palestinian side who are caught, on the one hand, by growing militarisation and religious radicalisation of Palestinian society, and on the other by the Israeli occupation, and their own initiatives to democratise Palestinian society. Then too, I have not done justice to the constituency for peace that exists among the Palestinians. A lot is left undone, but in the process Israel and Palestine have taught me that in every conflict there is always something retrievable.

Endnotes

1 Bhaduri, Aditi. 2008. 'In Conversation with Dr Hanan Ashrawi', in Paula Banerjee (ed), Women in Peace Politics. South Asian Peace Studies: Volume3. New Delhi: SAGE, 2008

2 'Make Peace The Story', The Hindu Business Line, Chennai. May 11, 2007

3 Ibid

4 Bhaduri, Aditi. 2006. 'A Minority in a Minority', The Hindu: Magazine, Chennai and New Delhi. October 8, 2006

5 Schmitt, Eric. 1996. 'Five Years Later, the Gulf War Story Is Still Being Told', The New York Times. May 12, 1996

6 Lynch, Jake. 2008 'Peace Journalism About Afghanistan' http://www.transnational.org/Resources_Media/2008/Lynch_PeaceJournalAfghan.html

(Aditi Bhaduri is an independent journalist and researcher writing for the Indian and international print and electronic media. She is one of the few journalists to have lived and reported from the West Bank and Palestinian Territories.)

InfoChange News & Features, February 2009

Do's and don'ts for the peace journalist

1. Avoid portraying a conflict as consisting of only two parties contesting one goal. The logical outcome is for one to win and the other to lose. Instead, a peace journalist would disaggregate the two parties into many smaller groups, pursuing many goals, opening up more creative potential for a range of outcomes.

2. Avoid accepting stark distinctions between "self" and "other". These can be used to build the sense that another party is a "threat" or "beyond the pale" of civilised behaviour — both key justifications for violence. Instead, seek the "other" in the "self" and vice versa.

3. Avoid treating a conflict as if it is only going on in the place and at the time that violence is occurring. Instead, try to trace the links and consequences for people in other places now and in the future. Ask: * Who are all the people with a stake in the outcome? * Ask yourself what will happen if ...? * What lessons will people draw from watching these events unfold as part of a global audience? How will they enter the calculations of parties to future conflicts near and far?

4. Avoid assessing the merits of a violent action or policy of violence in terms of its visible effects only. Instead, try to find ways of reporting on the invisible effects, eg, the long-term consequences of psychological damage and trauma, perhaps increasing the likelihood that those affected will be violent in future, either against other people or, as a group, against other groups or other countries.

5. Avoid letting parties define themselves by simply quoting their leaders' restatement of familiar demands or positions. Instead, inquire more deeply into goals: * How are people on the ground affected by the conflict in everyday life? * What do they want changed? * Is the position stated by their leaders the only way or the best way to achieve the changes they want?

6. Avoid concentrating always on what divides the parties, the differences between what they say they want. Instead, try asking questions that may reveal areas of common ground and leading your report with answers which suggest some goals may be shared or at least compatible, after all.

7. Avoid only reporting the violent acts and describing "the horror". If you exclude everything else, you suggest that the only explanation for violence is previous violence (revenge); the only remedy, more violence (coercion/punishment). Instead, show how people have been blocked and frustrated or deprived in everyday life as a way of explaining the violence.

8. Avoid blaming someone for starting it. Instead, try looking at how shared problems and issues are leading to consequences that all the parties say they never intended.

9. Avoid focusing exclusively on the suffering, fears and grievances of only one party. This divides the parties into "villains" and "victims" and suggests that coercing or punishing the villains represents a solution. Instead, treat as equally newsworthy the suffering, fears and grievance of all sides.

10. Avoid "victimising" language such as "destitute", "devastated", "defenseless", "pathetic" and "tragedy", which only tells us what has been done to and could be done for a group of people. This disempowers them and limits the options for change. Instead, report on what has been done and could be done by the people. Don't just ask them how they feel, also ask them how they are coping and what do they think? Can they suggest any solutions? And remember refugees/the dispossessed have surnames as well.

11. Avoid imprecise use of emotive words to describe what has happened to people. * "Genocide" means the wiping out of an entire people. * "Decimated" (said of a population) means reducing it to a tenth of its former size. * "Tragedy" is a form of drama, originally Greek, in which someone's fault or weakness proves his or her undoing. * "Assassination" is the murder of a head of state. * "Massacre" is the deliberate killing of people known to be unarmed and defenseless. Are we sure? Or might these people have died in battle? * "Systematic" eg raping or forcing people from their homes. Has it really been organised in a deliberate pattern or have there been a number of unrelated, albeit extremely nasty incidents? Instead, always be precise about what we know. Do not minimise suffering but reserve the strongest language for the gravest situations or you will beggar the language and help to justify disproportionate responses that escalate the violence.

12. Avoid demonising adjectives like "vicious", "cruel", "brutal" and "barbaric". These always describe one party's view of what another party has done. To use them puts the journalist on that side and helps to justify an escalation of violence. Instead, report what you know about the wrongdoing and give as much information as you can about the reliability of other people's reports or descriptions of it.

13. Avoid demonising labels like "terrorist," "extremist", "fanatic" and "fundamentalist". These are always given by "us" to "them". No one ever uses them to describe himself or herself, and so, for a journalist to use them is always to take sides. Instead, try calling people by the names they give themselves. Or be more precise in your descriptions.

14. Avoid focusing exclusively on the human rights abuses, misdemeanours and wrongdoings of only one side. Instead, try to name ALL wrongdoers and treat equally seriously allegations made by all sides in a conflict. Treating seriously does not mean taking at face value, but instead making equal efforts to establish whether any evidence exists to back them up, treating the victims with equal respect and the chances of finding and punishing the wrongdoers as being of equal importance.

15. Avoid making an opinion or claim seem like an established fact. ("Eurico Guterres, said to be responsible for a massacre in East Timor ...") Instead, tell your readers or your audience who said what. ("Eurico Guterres, accused by a top UN official of ordering a massacre in East Timor ...") That way you avoid signing yourself and your news service up to the allegations made by one party in the conflict against another.

16. Avoid greeting the signing of documents by leaders, which bring about military victory or cease fire, as necessarily creating peace. Instead, try to report on the issues which remain and which may still lead people to commit further acts of violence in the future. Ask what is being done to strengthen means on the ground to handle and resolve conflict non-violently, to address development or structural needs in the society and to create a culture of peace.

17. Avoid waiting for leaders on "our" side to suggest or offer solutions. Instead, pick up and explore peace initiatives wherever they come from. Ask questions to ministers, for example, about ideas put forward by grassroots organisations. Assess peace perspectives against what you know about the issues the parties are really trying to address. Do not simply ignore them because they do not coincide with established positions.

—

These are notes are from Peace Journalism — How To Do It, by Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick, 2000.Jake Lynch is a correspondent for Sky News and The Independent, based in London and Sydney. He is a consultant to the POIESIS Conflict and Peace Forums and co-author of The Peace Journalism Option and What Are Journalists For?