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Opinion: Media bias and Israel-Palestine

As you travel from West to East, Israelis go from being "soldiers" in the media to being "colonists."

A member of Al-Qassam brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas movement, attends a news conference in Gaza City, Sept. 30, 2009. (Mohammed Salem/Reuters)

LONDON, U.K. — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's refusal to stop building Jewish homes in Arab east Jerusalem and the West Bank has become a major obstacle to peace talks with the Palestinians and severely strains relations with President Barack Obama's administration. That's a simple statement of fact.

But depending on which country you live in, the way the news media present these facts can make them seem quite different.

Most American newspapers and broadcasters refer to the Jews who build and inhabit these homes as “settlers,” a term usually used to describe hardy folk who are creating homesteads on virgin land.

At the other end of the spectrum, Arab media in the Middle East often call them “colonists,” which implies that they are foreigners taking over other people's land.

Both terms reflect biases that distort almost all reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But between the two extremes, there are gradations of bias as you travel from West to East.

I currently live in middle-of-the-road Britain, which by American standards seems pro-Palestinian, even though there is still some affection for Israel here.

Across the English Channel, the French press seems more stridently pro-Palestinian, perhaps a reflection of the country's large Muslim community and the fact the French government, which was once Israel's most enthusiastic supporter and arms supplier, abruptly turned its back on the Jewish state in 1967.

Germany's media are more nuanced. The history of the Holocaust has made Germans careful about what they say about Israel. But much of the Italian press, on the other hand, strongly supports the Palestinian cause. And the bias becomes stronger in countries that are closer to the Middle East.

Jewish organizations in America often see blatant anti-Semitism in European media coverage of Israel, and also spend considerable time and effort trying to maintain Israel's image in the American media. That effort pays off and affects the terminology used by American journalists.

I was once told by the person who was editing a piece I wrote about Israel that the ugly thing Israel was erecting between the Israeli and Palestinian populations should be called a “security barrier” and not a “wall” (which it obviously is).

In fact, most American and British media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict uses loaded words that reflect a distinctly anti-Arab bias.