In the Palestinian Authority, Journalism in the Service of the Revolution

Yoni Ben-Menachem, the former general director and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and an analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, draws on his personal experience to expose the regime of threats, violence and incitement that the Palestinian Authority wields against journalists to control them and the flow of information.

Approximately six weeks ago, a group of Palestinian youth gang-raped a foreign tourist in the city of Bethlehem, an important tourism hot spot in the central West Bank. Though there are photographs of the violent crime, the Palestinian Authority sought to cover up the incident, keeping it out of the Palestinian and Israeli media on the grounds that “the national interest must be protected.” Coverage of the rape, said the officials, would harm tourism in the Bethlehem area.

Nevertheless, a handful of independent Palestinian journalists covered the rape. Israeli journalists, on the other hand, completely ignored the incident although they were aware of it. The one exception was my article in the Hebrew News 1 web site.

The Palestinian Authority has cast a total information blackout on the incident, which it continues to enforce to this day.

This story underscores how the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, is a dictatorship by any measure, just like the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, and just like other similar regimes in the region, including in Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco and more.

Freedom of the press and freedom of expression exist only superficially. In actuality, the Arab regime trample these freedoms and forcibly co-opt media outlets as government mouthpieces. Whoever undercuts the government ends up in interrogations, under arrest, torture or even worse, as witnessed by the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The Palestinian Authority is cut from the same cloth and has even legislated the “law of electronic crimes” enabling the authorities to take disciplinary actions against anyone who publishes criticism of the government in social media.

When I once asked a senior Fatah official why Palestinians admire Israeli democracy and freedom of the press, and yet don’t themselves adopt these models within the Palestinian Authority, his response was:

Our situation is different, our mentality is different. We are in the middle of a revolution to establish a state and criticism of the regime and the leadership harms our struggle, and so we adopted the term “journalism in the service of the revolution” (Sahafat Ath-Thawra). Every journalist in the Palestinian Authority territory knows his limits and exercises self-censorship in order not to exceed the red lines. Whoever crosses them is punished.

A screenshot from Fatah’s video inciting against Ben-Menachem, Ya’ari and Berger (from left to right)

On April 22, on its official site, the Fatah party published a video clip warning against Israeli three journalists: myself, Ehud Ya’ari and Gal Berger. The clip charged: “The Israeli war general masquerading as media are behind an orchestrated incitement campaign against Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh.”

The attack against us took place against the background of reports in the Israeli media on the extent of the Palestinian Authority’s anti-Israel incitement during the coronavirus crisis. “Observers conclude that the Palestinian Authority’s success in the war against coronavirus displeased the Israelis. Palestinian harmony and unity bother the Israeli government which tries to undermine them,” the film alleges.

Indeed, at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, where I work as a researcher, I published several articles on Palestinian incitement against Israel, led by Prime Minister Shtayyeh, and on the intensifying succession battle in the authority in light of the pandemic along with the corrupt affairs of senior PA officials.

The articles were based on conversations with senior sources in Fatah, news reports from the Arab media, and primary Arabic sources. In my view, the incitement video against me and the other Israeli journalists is intended to provoke violence against us and to attempt to prevent us from critical coverage of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Shtayyeh.

The Palestinian Authority leadership is apparently in crisis. Instead of mending its way and dealing with the criticism in a substantive way, it has opted for incitement against Israeli journalists in the hope of pressuring them to desist from their work in the West Bank, especially in Palestinian Authority controlled areas.

I have covered West Bank affairs for some 40 years, including the two intifadas. I was in Palestinian Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia for several weeks before and after the signing of the Oslo Accords. Several times, I found myself in life endangering situations. When senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub became head of the Preventive Security Force in the West Bank he personally attempted to harass me and to harm my work following a report that I broadcasted on “Kol Yisrael” radio about his attack on an Israeli soldier. I am cautious in my work and I do not fear the Palestinian Authority elite, with which I am well acquainted on a personal level.

If President Abbas and Prime Minister Shtayyeh think that an incitement video like this can deter me from doing my work as a journalist or researcher, they are mistaken. I have no intention of adopting the Palestinian principle of “journalism in service of the revolution.”

I know who prepared the incitement video. I assume that his directives came from above. President Abbas and Prime Minister Shtayyeh should have immediately condemned the video, apologized and removed it from the Fatah site.

The incitement and the attempt to intimidate Israeli journalists only strengthens the Palestinian Authority’s image as a dictatorship.

Senior Palestinian Authority officials automatically suspect every Israeli journalist who speaks Arabic of being either a Shin Bet operative or an official representative of the State of Israel and its defense policies. Their hypocrisy knows no limits. At the very same time that they put on a display of “national” strength by smearing Israeli journalists, they leak sensitive information about each other to the same Israeli journalists, especially with all that concerns the PA succession battles.

At times Palestinian officials try to exploit Israeli journalists for their own personal interests. I will share two of my many personal examples.

Approximately two years ago, a senior Fatah official approached me to consult about how to advance on the Israeli policy level backing for Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh as a mutually agreed upon candidate for Abbas’ successor. “Everyone knows,” the official explained, “that if Israel opposes the move he will never be able to assume the title.”

A year after senior Fatah official Marwan Barghouti was arrested for his role in the murder of Israelis during the second intifada, Muhammad Dahlan, a senior PA figure, appealed to me that I convince then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to release Barghouti from jail.

“Barghouti is a man of peace,” Dahlan insisted. “It behooves you [Israelis] to draw him close.”

“Is he prepared to express his regret for his deeds and to desist from terror,” I responded?

“I cannot promise,” Dahlan said. “But pass the request to Prime Minister Sharon.”

I did as he requested and Prime Minister Sharon asked that I give him a few hours to consider.

The next day, Prime Minister Sharon called and requested that I get a pen and paper and write down his answer to Dahlan exactly as he dictated, without changing a word. “Tell Dahlan,” Sharon said, “that next to Marwan Barghouti’s cell is another available cell. If he continues in this path he will find himself imprisoned next to Barghouti.”

I am critical of some members of the Israeli media who fail to cover, out of political-ideological or personal reasons, the phenomena of anti-Israel Palestinian Authority incitement, corruption on the part of the PA leadership and the power struggles over succession.

These journalists are failing to carry out their jobs because the phenomenon of PA corruption, for example, is a central part of the live of West Bank Palestinians and it cannot be ignored.

The PA considers the media’s blind eye to these stories a weakness which enables those engaged in corruption to continue their crooked activities.

Palestinian media outlets report extensively on all the cases of Israeli corruption. They translate into Arabic all the Israeli media reports on the subject. But when it comes to Israeli journalists covering the corrupt acts of PA officials and the injustice that they bring upon Palestinian citizens, the Palestinian officials charge that the journalists “are senior Israeli defense officials masquerading as journalists,” enlisting the PA media to wage a battle of incitement against them.

It is unfortunate that the PA government, like other Arab governments, will not deal substantively with the facts and instead opts to incite against Israeli journalists. In the wake of Fatah’s publication of the incitement video, numerous Palestinians have reached out to me expressing support, strengthening my resolve to continue in my work covering what the PA tries to conceal. I am determined to carry on and no threats or incitement will deter me, as they have not in the past.

The piece reflects the author’s personal views alone. For the Hebrew original of this article, please see Presspectiva.