Three weeks ago, the Egyptian media’s take on Gaza was that, by and large, it was Hamas’ fault.
Media outlets covered the heavy volley of Hamas rockets that came as part of the usual tit-for-tat exchange - an Israeli air strike that killed six Hamas militants in response to desultory rocket fire from Gaza. There were also columnists and TV talk show hosts who took things a step further, denouncing the entire Palestinian people.
But as the massive Israeli attacks (air-to-ground missile and bombs, tank fire, artillery and naval shelling just off Gaza’s shoreline) continued to kill an ever rising number of civilians, the horrific images of death and destruction transmitted by Egyptian, Pan Arab and global media began to shift public opinion here in Cairo.
That shift in public opinion was mirrored, and progressively reinforced, by Egyptian media, as prominent Egyptian commentators like Emad Adeeb, as well TV talk show hosts, cautioned that while one can be critical of Hamas, it is wrong to malign the Palestinian people.
Egyptian media expert Dr. Hussein Amin, who is an old friend and colleague at the American University in Cairo, said: “In the beginning, Egyptian media was completely against Hamas and treated the Palestinian people with disregard. But this position has been eroding over the past few weeks and most noticeably since [Egyptian] President Sisi re-launched his humanitarian ceasefire proposal, after Egyptian officials began a dialogue with the Hamas leadership. You can see this developing shift in both state-owned and privately- owned media, on talk shows as well as in print.”
Much of the Egyptian media responds to a variety of changing circumstances, not just in Cairo but in Western (Israeli occupied) Jerusalem and in besieged Gaza City as well. This is because all the players seem to be modifying or reversing course. Hamas representatives are here in Cairo as part of a united Palestinian delegation to negotiate indirectly with Israel, although Hamas was declaring only a week or so ago it would never come to Egypt after rejecting Sisi’s first ceasefire proposal.
Hamas’ apparent media victory was made possible precisely by the failure of its rocket attacks on IsraelAbdallah Schleifer
Quite dramatically, and equally quite briefly, it appeared that Qatar, possibly favored by Hamas as the preferred mediator , would displace Egypt from the role it held over the past decade. However, that turned out not to be the case. Also, Israel had vowed it would never negotiate with any united Palestinian government that included Hamas. This too, seems not to be the case.
Indeed, the various initiatives Netanyahu took to provoke the Hamas rocket attacks that started this war seem to be intended to destroy the united Palestinian government formed by Fatah and Hamas and headed by PA/Fatah President Mahmoud Abbas. Netanyahu had already all but openly denounced America’s willingness to deal with, and not sabotage, this second attempt at Palestinian unity. This is precisely because a unified Palestinian government that was committed to a two-state solution would make for a strong Palestinian presence and an unavoidably serious partner for peace that Israel has always claimed did not exist. Here in Cairo, there is an Israeli delegation openly negotiating, even if indirectly, with the unified Palestinian ranks that Israel has always striven to divide from the earliest years of the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.
Now, ironically, it is the stalled but bloody Israeli invasion which has sealed Palestinian unity.
Although both sides deny it, what is obvious to whoever follows Egyptian and global news reporting is that Hamas has actually relented on its demand that lifting the siege of Gaza was a precondition to ceasefire negotiations. It now stresses, quite accurately, that lifting the siege is to be one of the immediate topics for the negotiations . This was all affirmed by the Egyptian foreign ministry yesterday.
On the other hand, another Hamas pre-condition to negotiating a ceasefire has been met by Israel, that is the withdrawal of the IDF from Gaza. Who could have imagined that this would actually happen when only a week ago, Netanyahu and others in his cabinet were saying the invasion of Gaza still had a long way to go, and there would be no Israeli withdrawal of ground forces until Hamas was no longer capable of firing rockets at Israel?
Suddenly, Netanyahu and the IDF announced that Israeli ground troops were withdrawing because they had destroyed all of the tunnels that burrowed under the border between Israel and Gaza (which is hardly likely since the tunneling network is so extensive and taking into account that the shafts and tunnels reach deeper into Gaza City that the IDF ever managed to reach).
Media pundits weigh in
One of the factors that impacted both upon Egyptian media, as well as the Israeli political high command, was that global media and international political figures who had previously weighed in on Israel’s right to defend itself significantly shifted attention to the escalating loss of Palestinian civilian life. Suddenly, France’s President Hollande was talking about how one could not remain neutral in the face of such losses, President Obama expressed similar concern and suddenly Secretary of State Kerry was not only talking about Israel’s need for security but also about how the Palestinians of Gaza must be able to breathe again.
IDF losses at the time of the ceasefire were ten times greater than they were in the 2008-09 invasion and comparisons are already being made in the Israeli media and among Knesset MPs between the current situation and 2006’s invasion of southern Lebanon, when the IDF ran into Hezbollah resistance.
However, while the IDF lost that particular foray into southern Lebanon, it cannot be said to have lost this war as Hamas claims, at least in military terms. What can be said is that Hamas won the global media war, given the widespread media condemnation in increasingly strong terms for the general devastation and loss of Palestinian civilian life.
Therein lies the most bizarre irony of all. Hamas’ apparent media victory was made possible precisely by the failure of its rocket attacks on Israel. If Israel’s civil defense and anti-missile system was as non-existent as Gaza’s, Israeli civilian casualties would have been at least as high as Palestinian losses, and those images would have played out across screens and in newspapers across the world.
Abdallah Schleifer is a veteran American journalist covering the Middle East and professor emeritus at the American University in Cairo where he founded as served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for TV and Digital Journalism. He is chief editor of the annual publication The Muslim 500; a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) and at the Royal Aal al Bayt Academy for Islamic Thought (Jordan.) Schleifer has served as Al Arabiya Washington D.C. bureau chief; NBC News Cairo bureau chief; Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique; as special correspondent (stringer) , New York Times and managing editor of the Jerusalem Star/Palestine News in then Jordanian Arab Jerusalem.SHOW MORE