The pullout drama

Published : Jan 27, 2006 00:00 IST

As Jewish settlers were evacuated from the Gaza Strip in August last the media caught every tearful, defiant move on camera. But how much was real and how much stage-managed?


IN any media review of 2005, Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip features prominently. Few can forget those powerful images of tearful, anguished Israeli settlers barricading themselves into synagogues, standing on rooftops hurling abuse, flour and paint at soldiers, or being reluctantly wrenched from their homes, accompanied by bewildered toddlers and screaming teenagers. The events in Gaza took over the international media in August. Since then, it has been cited as a bold move in the Israel/Palestine conflict, transforming the image of Ariel Sharon from a hawk to a brave man of peace.

That many of the evacuated settlers were genuinely devastated, or that the disengagement was a historic moment, is not in dispute. But were we witnessing, through the media coverage of the time, a spontaneously unfolding narrative or a pre-orchestrated piece of theatre?

"It was a masterpiece," says one picture editor of a large news agency. "Afterwards, we all felt we played a game and that we had been used, bought with great pictures." This editor is not alone in such sentiments. Other journalists involved refer to "a tremendous amount of manipulation" and "the biggest ever publicity stunt", or claim that the event was "definitely stage-managed".

The biggest gripe is that the scenes recorded by the media were not entirely real. "There was a very clear sense that, despite all the anguish and seeming chaos on the ground, the evacuation went like clockwork," says Hazel Ward, a reporter for AFP. The top line was of settler resistance in the face of inevitable evacuation by a strong but sympathetic army. Yet some reporters say this story was pre-negotiated. David Ratner, a reporter for Israel's Haaretz newspaper, describes such an arrangement in Homesh, a former settlement in the northern West Bank. "They held meetings where the settlers would say, `Let's keep to the agreement, we don't beat up the soldiers, we will lie on the ground holding hands', and the soldiers were saying, `We will break you apart, in small squads of four soldiers but not using excessive force, and you are not allowed to kick at the military.' This is what one of the officers told me." He adds that the showdown was agreed right down to the details of what the settlers could throw at the soldiers and police: flour was OK, acid was not OK. "An officer told me they agreed the settlers could throw any food they wanted, tomatoes, hummus, pickles - as long as the pickles had been removed from the cans."

Ratner says that in most settlements he visited, events were not spontaneous but "completely under control". A photojournalist confirms this. "Remember the reports from Gush Katif [the largest Gaza settlement], against the backdrop of a huge bonfire built by settlers, so that it looked like a report from Saigon? It was a done deal, the settlers had told the soldiers they would not resist too much if they could build the fire."

Nobody knows to what extent these negotiations took place or how far in advance. A spokesperson for the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) says: "The IDF does not discuss or elaborate the details of meetings that are held behind closed doors."

Although settlers are largely hostile to journalists (and demonstrate that by trashing media equipment and slashing car tyres), the Gaza and West Bank evacuees grasped the media opportunity of disengagement. There are numerous reports of hysterics and tears that appeared to be staged for the cameras.

Although journalists speedily point out that there was genuine settler grief, some say it soon became apparent that some was of the "rented wailing woman" (as one Israeli reporter puts it) variety. "I'm not saying people weren't heartbroken," says Ward. "But when you realise people are putting on a show for you and that you are lapping it up and peddling it out to the world, it casts a really unpleasant light."

The result, some journalists fear, is that settler and government objectives dovetailed into a common purpose of making the Gaza evacuation appear difficult (and therefore unrepeatable).

If the media coverage made disengagement look like Sharon's "painful concession", it made the IDF look like heroes. Prior to it, the IDF typically featured in the world press as a brutal force, harassing Palestinians at checkpoints, demolishing homes, shooting kids and making bloody incursions into Gaza and the West Bank. Now, here they were, conducting settlement evacuations with calm and dignity, often in the face of verbal assault. "They were given a prime opportunity, on a plate, to present themselves as caring, strong, brave, tender, you name it," says Ward.

According to Amelia Thomas, a correspondent for Middle East Times and Christian Science Monitor, this felt pre-meditated, too. "Those accounts and images of the soldiers looked compassionate, but when you saw it take place, it didn't seem genuine but more like, `Oh God, now I've got to hug another settler'." One photographer is similarly cynical, describing it as "Woodstock Gaza, 2005".

Around 8,000 settlers were living in the areas to be evacuated. Roughly half of them had left without a fuss before the forced evacuation began. Many of those depicted in the final showdowns were outside supporters and not actual residents. An estimated 24,000 settlers remain, illegally, in the occupied West Bank. Crucially, Sharon's government approved settlement expansion in the West Bank, currently being executed at a breathtaking pace. Many journalists, especially print journalists, hold that this fact was reflected in the disengagement reports. Others fear that these nuances were lost in the overall drama. "The problem is that, when we get good images like these, it rocks, and it becomes really difficult to see beyond that," says one picture editor.

Media preparations were under way months in advance and were based on disengagement being a lengthy, combative affair. In the event, it took six days and nobody was seriously injured. Massive media budgets were doubtless involved and, as one journalist has speculated, ensuing coverage may have reflected the need to "make good the money spent".

David Ratner of Haaretz suggests that, if foreign media overestimated the level of violence likely to erupt during disengagement, it is because they did not fully comprehend the cohesion that exists within Jewish Israeli society. "If the settlers really wanted to open fire, it would have been a piece of cake," he says. "But 99.9 per cent would never cross that line."

One reporter witnessed a rabbi ask teenage settler protesters if they intended to put up a struggle for a day or a week, to which they replied: a day, because any longer would make the Army look weak. Indeed, the settlers lost all credibility among the Israeli public when some were pictured verbally assaulting soldiers, describing them as Nazis. So was the media coverage myopic and manipulated? No definitive conclusions can be drawn here since, for that to happen, hundreds of journalists would have to be questioned and their comments tallied with an exhaustive overview of disengagement reporting. But if a media post-mortem has not taken place, it may be because journalists were simply worn out. After 30 years in the business, Tami Allen-Frost, ITN producer and deputy chair of the Foreign Press Association in Israel, says, "This was the most exhausting period of my professional life. There were endless frustrations, arguments with the army over media access to the settlements, uncertainty because the goalposts were moving, constant discussions over costings at head office and crewing difficulties because we never knew how many people we could have where." She adds: "This went on for months upon months, going into high gear in June and July." With budgets blown, media outlets immediately moved extra hands out of the region.

There are journalists who stand firm in the opinion that their coverage was accurate, proportionate and balanced. Others believe it is impossible to tell. Some agencies do not wish to get involved in the discussion: "We are here to report the news, not be the news," one editor says. Another journalist reports trying to push for an analysis piece and getting nowhere: "For me, the worst of it was that my company didn't really want to talk about that."

Members of the liberal Israeli press seem the most blase about manipulation. "We get used here to everyone bullshitting you all the time," says one Israeli photographer. "Like everything else in this country, this [story] was a game to be played and now it's finished and that's it."

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006
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