The Palestinian Authority thinks it has quite a few enemies in the region, according to The Palestine Papers, including Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and other Arab states.
To that list, add a certain Qatar-based satellite TV channel.
Al Jazeera receives numerous mentions, none of them flattering, in this trove of Palestinian documents. It is often portrayed as pro-Hamas, a biased impediment to the “peace process.” Other Arabic-language media outlets are mentioned in the documents, but rarely by name.
The PA is keenly aware – in all of its internal discussion of media coverage – that its actions are often portrayed in an unflattering light.
A “communication problem”
Palestinian negotiators seem to become disappointed with Al Jazeera in early 2008, in the months after the Annapolis conference. Ahmed Qurei complains in February to then-Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni that the channel praises the “daily victories” of Hamas.
A critical perspective
(These “victories,” presumably, were military ones, as Hamas fighters carried out a number of high-profile rocket attacks around this time.)
Four months later, Saeb Erekat makes a similar complaint, arguing that Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar could use the channel to bolster Hamas’ political standing.
In an August 18, 2008 meeting, Erekat accused unnamed foes of using the media – particularly Al Jazeera – to scuttle ongoing talks with the Israelis. He complained that the details of recent negotiations over land swaps had been leaked to the press. “They are headlines in the Arab world,” he said.
Qurei: Our position in the Arab world… Al-Jazeera is not our friend, they are with Hamas. So this leak is not the result of journalism, it is a political decision.
The Palestinian Authority would try on several occasions to improve its profile on Al Jazeera. On November 19, 2008, advisers to Abbas urged him to stop at the channel’s headquarters on an upcoming trip to Qatar:
I tried to convince the PO [president’s office] that it is vital that the President meet with the board of Al Jazeera; arguing that part of the problem the President is having with Al Jazeera is the lack of communication.
Six days later, Wassim Khazmo, the communications director of the PA’s Negotiations Support Unit, recounted a brief conversation with Al Jazeera’s Ramallah correspondent Shireen Abu Aklen.
[I] informed her of President Abbas visit, and suggested that they can push for some sort of reconciliation efforts. I learned today that Nimer Hamad has been contacted by Al Jazeera, and they are trying to sort out the problem. I think that nothing positive will happen… The PA also acknowledges the media’s role in shaping reactions to the Gaza war. In January 2009, several members of the NSU discuss United Nations resolution 1860, which called for a cease-fire. Azem Bishara calls it a “problematic” resolution, since it includes neither a timeline nor a mechanism for ensuring the cease-fire is respected.
“No wonder the resolution was portrayed in Arab media, mainly Al Jazeera, as useless, promoting Israeli interests and allowing it more time in Gaza,” he wrote.
In a statement responding to the PA’s allegations, Al Jazeera issued a statement saying that it “adheres to the highest editorial standards and offers viewers impartial, balanced and in-depth coverage of events in the region and beyond.”
“To underline our commitment to transparency and accountability, we are publishing all of the documents in the Palestine Papers online, including allegations made against Al Jazeera,” the channel said.
While the PA does seem quick to blame the media for its image problems, it does engage in some self-reflection. A notable document from January 2009 analyzes the PA’s media performance during the Gaza war, and finds it lacking:
The poor performance, and the contradictory and unclear (old) messages that were delivered by the different Palestinian officials, left an unprecedented negative image of the Palestinian leadership among the Palestinians, Arabs, and the international solidarity movements.
The document goes on to argue that PA officials used the same language as Israeli officials – terms like “moderate” and “violence from both sides” – and that it should appoint a new spokesperson to handle media outreach.