B’Ivrit | Israeli Media Covers Anniversary of a Half-Year at War

By | Apr 09, 2024
B'Ivrit, Cover Story, Israel, Latest
B'vrit 4.9.24

Does the ongoing Gaza war and the broader conflict look different through the eyes of Israeli readers? How does Israeli media cover U.S. affairs? There’s a lot to learn about Israel by looking through Hebrew language newspapers, news websites and TV channels. Welcome to Moments new column, “B’Ivrit: Moment’s Hebrew Language Media Roundup,” a look at the news through the eyes of Israeli media consumers.

1. A somber milestone

Even for a nation still living with the trauma of October 7, this Sunday morning—the grim six-month anniversary of the massacre—was especially difficult. The day took many Israelis back to the moments of fear and disbelief that started at 6:30 AM on Saturday, October 7, and to the mourning and loss that has since become an integral part of their daily lives.

The Israeli press was there to make sure no one missed this milestone. Taking upon itself the role of a national consensus builder, Israeli media set aside the grind of daily news in favor of offering Israelis an opportunity to join together in grief.

The Jerusalem Post, the English-language newspaper printed Sunday through Friday and favored by tourists and overseas readers more than Israels, covered its entire front page with names of the Israeli October 7 victims in tiny font, so the immense number of casualties could fit on the page. 

The liberal-leaning Haaretz, usually averse to attention-grabbing graphics, broke with tradition and ran the photos of all 133 Israelis held hostage by Hamas, with the headline crying: “We can’t wait another day,” atop a harsh editorial condemning the Netanyahu government for failing to bring about their release.

Yediot Ahronot, one of Israel’s biggest dailies, chose for its front page a heartbreaking photo of 4-year-old Yahel, who was released from captivity but who is still waiting for her father, Tal, held by Hamas. Yahel is shown holding up a picture she drew of a man with his arms wide open. “He’s opening his arms for a hug, but no one is coming,” she said in a red-on-black quote dominating the front page.

At Maariv, a centrist daily, the headline read “Six months of war,” with a photo of Israeli tanks operating in Gaza. A sidebar showed a recent poll indicating that 62 percent of Israelis are not pleased with the results of the war so far. The statistic was counterbalanced by a front-page opinion column by Israeli President Isaac Herzog promising that Israelis “will once again joyfully harvest” in the kibbutzim ravaged by the October 7 attack and still emptied of their residences.

All Israeli TV networks devoted their Sunday broadcasts to special reports on the six-month anniversary, sending out their anchors to the destroyed communities in the south and to the ghost cities in the north, and toggling between recalling stories of bravery and sorrow from October 7 to breaking news on negotiations underway in Cairo for a possible hostage release.

The Israeli press has played a major role in shaping the way Israelis process the trauma and deal with the ongoing war. With public trust in the government, military and other national institutions at an all-time low, the media has stepped in to provide Israelis with a common narrative. This is a narrative based on a shared sense of loss and sorrow, on widespread concern for the hostages, and on a nationwide feeling that Israel’s security and Israelis’ own personal safety are no longer ensured.

It may be a simplistic way of looking at the complex reality that has played out in the Middle East in the past six months, and it clearly lacks any insight into the horror the war has unleashed on the Palestinian side, but it is a storyline that Israelis can rally around and a much needed frame for maintaining at least a semblance of a functioning society.

2. A moment of reckoning 

All this is not to say that the Israeli press has retreated to a cheerleading role in this conflict.

While it willfully ignores any sign of suffering from the Palestinian side and rejects any outside criticism of Israel as no more than a sign of hidden Jew-hatred, the Israeli press has done a lot to shed light on the political, intelligence and military blindness that made Israel so vulnerable on October 7; it has played a critical role in calling out the Netanyahu government for its lack of leadership int a time of war.

Israelis are exposed daily to articles analyzing the failures, testimonies of survivors and families of victims describing the chaos of that Saturday morning and their unanswered calls for help, and to news analysts and former generals in TV studios questioning the way the war is being conducted.

An Israeli flag has become a permanent feature in the background set of all news channel studios, and logos announcing “We are winning together” still have a prominent place in newspapers and on websites. 

That, in a nutshell, is the complex reality in which the Israeli media and public have been operating for the past six months: full support for the war, for the soldiers on the frontlines, and for the citizens who suffered the attacks, and at the same time clear and unabashed criticism of the leadership—both political and military—that brought Israel to this point.

3. Much shock, little empathy

Every war has its few moments—some heroic but most of them tragic—that remain etched in the public’s memory. The Israeli attack last week on aid workers of the World Central Kitchen, working to deliver food to the near-famine struck areas of Gaza, will be one such moment. 

The world responded with anger, disbelief and horror. Aid groups announced they are halting their operations in Gaza; European nations whose citizens were among those killed by the Israeli drone strike demanded an immediate investigation; and in the United States, President Biden, “outraged and heartbroken,” held a 30-minute phone conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in which he announced a dramatic change in U.S. policy toward Israel. For the first time since October 7, the United States says it will condition its support for Israel on Israel’s behavior in Gaza. 

Israelis were also shocked. But while the worldwide shock stemmed from the killing of international aid workers risking their lives in a war zone, Israelis were shaken by the international response and its impact on Israel’s war efforts.

Thousands of words, hundreds of tweets and posts, and endless minutes of TV punditry have been devoted to the incident within Israel, but almost all focused on the diplomatic crisis it ignited. Hardly any Israeli media sources have looked at the people who lost their lives trying to deliver aid or at the organization founded by Chef José Andrés, which has alleviated hunger and suffering in conflict and disaster areas across the world. 

Yediot Ahronot led with a three-part headline: “The mistake, the investigation, the price.” The story inside the paper provided an overview of the Israeli attack, and focused on the American response and the diplomatic price Israel will have to pay. Israel Hayom, the Miriam Adelson-owned right-leaning daily newspaper that boasts the highest circulation in Israel, went for a similar headline: “The incident, accepting responsibility, and the diplomatic battle.” The subheadline accused Biden of “lecturing” Israel. Maariv declared in its headline: “Investigating and apologizing,” and went on to explain how Israel has launched an investigation and to describe the diplomatic effort to block a wave of worldwide condemnation.

Only the few Israelis who get their news from Haaretz got a straightforward report of the incident: “IDF killed 7 aid workers in Gaza, the US is demanding a thorough investigation.”

There was one notable exception: Dov Gil-Har of the public broadcaster KAN went to Przemysl, Poland, to report a profile of Damian Sobol, a Polish volunteer killed in the attack.

4. Poll-mania

Even in wartime, and even though there are no elections in sight, Israelis are keeping up their obsession with public opinion polls. Practically every week, major media outlets issue polls measuring the political temperature. And for now, all seem to indicate that Netanyahu is in the final stage of his political career.

Maariv’s poll this last weekend, for example, gives Netanyahu’s Likud only 17 seats, while his main rival Benny Gantz gets 32. The current right-wing coalition led by Netanyahu will get, according to the poll, only 45 seats in the next election, a far cry from the 61 seats needed to form a government. Gantz, the poll indicates, could easily form a coalition of 66 members and become Israel’s next prime minister.

Other polls consistently reach similar results, while also highlighting other aspects of the public’s view toward the war and those leading it. Reshet (Channel 13) found in its poll a week ago that a majority of Israelis want to hold early elections this year and that a staggering 61 percent don’t believe the war will achieve the eradication of Hamas.

But wait a second. Does that really reflect the views of the Israeli public?

Not if you get your news from Channel 14, the right-wing, pro-Netanyahu, pro-settler TV network which has seen a huge leap in viewership since the war broke out. According to Channel 14’s poll last month, only 40 percent of Israelis want elections now, a majority of respondents think that more parties should join Bibi’s coalition, and even the raw numbers look better in this poll for the Likud, which receives 25 seats, far more than in any other poll.

This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. Just as in the United States, in Israel it’s not only about what the polls show, it also has a lot to do with who commissions them and the exact wording of the questions.

5. Protests: where you stand and where you sit

The same is true when it comes to coverage of the protests that are once again gaining steam, with Israelis going out to the streets demanding a hostage release deal and the removal of Netanyahu. The two causes, they explain, are intertwined: Only the removal of Bibi can bring about a hostage release deal.

These protests have taken Israelis back to the days before October 7, when hundreds of thousands would take to the streets every Saturday night, blocking Tel Aviv’s main traffic arteries and chanting against Netanyahu and the judicial overhaul he was trying to pass. 

In the middle of a March 30 protest calling for the release of hostages, the networks almost seemed like they were caught by surprise, or perhaps they weren’t sure how to cover political unrest at a time of war. “The country is burning and our TV is airing another episode of Master Chef,” complained a viewer on X. Walla, a popular website, reported that many were enraged by the lack of coverage, some feeling that network TV executives were afraid of delving into the heated political debate. Israeli media eventually reported on it, understanding that regardless of one’s views, it was a big news story. Even the pro-Netanyahu Channel 14, which ran the chyron: “At a time of war: Continuous incitement against the prime minister” accompanying its coverage. “Where’s the police?” One of the channel’s anchors weighed in. “Why aren’t they getting tough with them?”

Images courtesy of Jerusalem Post, Yediot Ahronot, Maariv and Haaretz.

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