The Middle East: news and narratives

When would-be peacemakers insist the past is past and the only way to resolve the conflict is to look to the future and find a compromise solution to the competing claims, they underestimate the power of the narrative in determining identity and meaning.

Rosemary Hollis
23 October 2013

Journalists reporting on armed conflicts around the world have to take calculated risks with their own safety. That is generally well understood. Less well appreciated are the risks they take in deciding how to ‘frame’ the story. If they focus on one or two individual cases of personal loss or bravery, they may be accused of playing on the emotions of their audience to the detriment of ‘objective’ reporting. If they try to sketch out the big picture and provide context, they will almost invariably encounter irritation from one quarter or another for privileging one ‘narrative’ over another.

Media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is frequently designed to give ‘equal’ air time to both parties, the better to avoid accusations of bias. However, even this device presents problems if the protagonists end up arguing with each other such that the audience becomes confused and frustrated.

Equally likely, however, is that the audience will simply be reinforced in their own views on the conflict. What is going on in such cases is a contest to frame the narrative. The words, euphemisms, historical references and tropes used in this contest matter hugely. They have the power to depict one or other side as the more aggrieved or victimised, or the more disposed to violence or accommodation. 

The task of discerning the import of the words, phrases and illustrations deployed in the construction of a narrative has become something of a preoccupation among social scientists. They call this endeavour ‘discourse analysis’ and this seemingly rather pedestrian pursuit actually portends a whole new understanding of what conflict is about. 

None of us can operate without a narrative that defines the community with which we identify in historical and contemporary perspective. Our national or cultural narrative tells us who we are and who we are not – how the world works and where we stand in the local, regional or global political order. These narratives are therefore very precious to us and we resist accepting the narrative of ‘the other’ at the expense of our own. 

Time was, we did not even talk in terms of ‘narratives’ at all. But since the 1990s it has become common parlance. Academics use the term to describe the mental maps that we all absorb as we grow up (from history lessons, literature, politics and family stories) that frame our understanding of ourselves and others. Politicians talk about competing across party lines and with the media to ‘frame the national narrative’ so that it reinforces their view of the world and serves their interests. And journalists simply assume that they are going to run into tenacious opposition when they challenge an established narrative.

It behoves us therefore to take seriously the importance of competing narratives in any conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian one included. All the material facts of the situation - population size, the lay of the land, the position of military checkpoints, the distribution of water resources, the number and size of settlements, the circumstances of refugees - are indeed key features of this conflict. But so too are the different narratives developed and embraced by the protagonists to make sense of their situation.

Jewish Israelis explain their attachment to Jerusalem and its environs in both historical and religious terms. They understand themselves in part through reference to the history of the Jews before 1948. And for them, the 1948 war was when they won their independence. For the Palestinians, the same war and the refugee crisis that accompanied it are remembered as the Nakba or catastrophe. For a while they embraced the Arab nationalist cause to bring them salvation. Latterly, many of them identify with Islam. 

Another classic case of conflicting narratives emerged after the Camp David summit that US President Bill Clinton hosted between Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The latter placed the blame for failure on Arafat and Clinton endorsed that claim, reportedly in order to protect Barak from criticism back home. Arafat framed the outcome as a victory for Palestinian resolve. The various retrospectives written by some of the officials present also vary. Result – everyone else chooses the version they prefer. 

When would-be peacemakers insist the past is past and the only way to resolve the conflict is to look to the future and find a compromise solution to the competing claims, they underestimate the power of the narrative in determining identity and meaning. This is not something that can be thrown off easily and will have to be accommodated if there is to be any healing and moving forward.

In the Forum on Thursday we shall explore the difficulties of disentangling news from narratives when it comes to reporting conflict in the Middle East. And we shall not simply focus on the Israeli-Palestinian case, but also the conflict in Syria. How do we weigh the different accounts and characterisations of the Syrian regime, the various rebel groups, the regional powers, the Russians and the Americans?  And if all of them have some validity, what does that mean?

This piece, by one of the panellists for the forthcoming meeting gives a flavour of what will be on the agenda for discussion.

City University’s Olive Tree Forum at the Inside Out Festival7pm to 8.30pm, Thursday 24 October, takes place in The Chapel, King’s College London

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