‘Headlines from the Holy Land’ in new paperback edition

9781137395122

I am very pleased to say that my book Headlines from the Holy Land is soon to be out in paperback. Thank you to everyone who has read it so far. You can see more on the publisher’s website, here, and reviews are below.     

“At a time when reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is under unprecedented scrutiny, James Rodgers provides an essential and insightful historical perspective on the long “war of words” behind a major conflict of our time. Rodgers’ book is essential reading for those seeking a greater understanding of the difficult dynamics behind reporting – and resolving conflicts.” – Lyse Doucet, Chief International Correspondent, BBC News

“Headlines from The Holy Land is an impressively, innovative form of history as media history, looking at one of the most complex stories of our age through the imperfect, shifting but revelatory perspectives of the many journalists who covered this often compelling tale as it unfolded, from its 1946 roots through the various wars and propaganda battles fought in the streets of Gaza or the networks of social media. James Rodgers is an insightful, empathetic and rigorous guide to how journalism struggled often heroically to tell one of the most brutal and difficult of international stories.” – Charlie Beckett, Director, Polis, Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics, UK

“James Rodgers is honestly direct about the challenges and pressures that makes reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unique amongst the myriad of crises faced by international journalists; something he was uniquely placed to do as the only western correspondent based in the Gaza Strip in the tumultuous years immediately after 9/11. But what makes this book so refreshing and incisive is that this account of reporting on this most intractable yet consequential conflict is the work of someone with the benefit of having been an experienced foreign correspondent but who now writes with the rigour of an academic’s eye on how our world is reported. In doing so, Rodgers leaves very few stones unturned, from the war over terminology and language, to the increasing role of religion in a crisis centred on the small area brimful of contested holy sites and he has framed it in a way that has context, careful analysis and is accessible to all those who either want to understand how this war which continues to have a major international impact is reported and to those who want to report it themselves.” – Rageh Omaar, International Affairs Editor, ITV News

“Reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often generates as much controversy as the issue itself. James Rodger’s book is rare for approaching the subject of how the story has been told by Western journalists over the decades, with an open mind and an academic rigour. It combines detailed research and candid insights from many of the region’s seasoned correspondents with an accessible style that keep the pages turning. With so many thoroughly biased self-appointed media watch dogs out there it’s freshening to read something that genuinely attempts to tackle the job of reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with intelligent thoughtfulness.” – Paul Danahar, author of The New Middle East: the world after the Arab Spring

“The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been more intensively covered by the media, and for a longer period, than any other in recent times. In this fascinating book, James Rodgers tells us the story of the story. He shows how, as the struggle came to be as much about meaning, language, and perception as about bullets, bombs, or negotiations, reporters were under constant pressure from two sides seeking to control the narrative to their own advantage. He shows, too, how they brought their own prejudices and national viewpoints to the story, and how, nevertheless, good reporting did emerge and was, as it remains, vital in sustaining what informed public opinion there is on the dire state of affairs in the Holy Land of the title.” – Martin Woollacott, commentator on international affairs and former Foreign Editor, The Guardian

“An important and necessary book.” – Patrick Cockburn, The Independent

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Headlines from the Holy Land — telling the full story

This week’s post outlines some of the ideas in my new book, Headlines from the Holy Land. It was originally published on the website of The Conversation, and later by Newsweek, and, in India, The Scroll.

Gazans watching butchers at work, Eid Al-Adha, February 2004

Gazans watching butchers at work, Eid Al-Adha, February 2004

Blood ran in the gutters of Gaza that day and formed red puddles along the rutted roads. But it was the work of butchers, not bombs.

That year, 2004, Eid Al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, fell in early February – so the blood from the shops and slaughterhouses mingled with what was left of the winter rainwater. Residents relaxed and rejoiced as they sat down to celebrate. A day of relative calm was a relief. The second intifada, or uprising against Israel, was in its fourth year.

Just a few kilometres away – although only as the crow flies, not as a human might travel – Gaza’s Jewish settlers were about to learn of a sacrifice they would be called upon to make. Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister, surprised almost everyone by announcing that the settlers would have to to leave Gaza. They duly did – largely against their will – the following year.

After Sharon’s announcement, the settlers sought to make their case in the international news media. I was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza then. Journalists were invited to visit places – such as the settlement of Netzarim, in the centre of the Gaza Strip – which had previously been largely off-limits. They could do so on the same day that they visited a refugee camp in Gaza. The route was necessarily the long way round: out of Gaza, and then back in again via the roads reserved for settlers, but it could be done.

A watchtower at the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, Gaza 2004

A watchtower at the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, Gaza 2004

Covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was, and is, a huge challenge for an international journalist. The demands are intense – pressure from all sides, sometimes physical danger – and the rewards not always obvious. The pressure, especially at times of intense fighting, frequently turns to abuse from audiences. This seems especially to be the case in the age of social media.

Whatever the failures of the way the conflict has been covered – both Israelis and Palestinians, and their supporters, will point to countless shortcomings – international journalists have one advantage over many others involved or interested in the conflict: they can see more of it, just like we did that day in 2004.

Where diplomats fear to tread

The separation we saw then has only increased. Where a decade ago there were still some small areas of economic cooperation – casual labourers from Gaza were allowed to enter Israel. That is no longer the case – cross from Israel onto the West Bank and a big sign in English, Arabic, and Hebrew warns Israelis that they are not permitted to pass (settlers have separate roads, which are not open to Palestinians).

The wider view is denied to diplomats as well – those whose task it is to write reports for governments seeking to solve the conflict. The United States and the European Union have designated the Palestinian group Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Their diplomats are not permitted to meet any of its representatives.

“Diplomats and politicians don’t spend much time talking to ordinary people,” Harriet Sherwood, who was The Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent for almost four years, told me during my research for my latest book, Headlines from the Holy Land. “So they were quite hungry for that information, and because I used to talk to Hamas officials and they are banned from doing that, they would say ‘who’ve you seen, what are they saying?’”

All this is further complicated by the lack of any political process. Where an upsurge of bloodshed during the second intifada might eventually lead to more talks, the same is no longer true. Instead, if the Israeli assault on Gaza last year is anything to judge by, the violence is complemented not by a political process, but by protagonists’ attempts to influence the news media.

The force of faith

There is another aspect which is changing. The Gaza where I lived and worked from 2002-2004 was run by the Palestinian Authority. Today, it is administered by Hamas, proudly Islamist. On the other side of the divide, Israel has a deputy foreign minister who reportedly uses the scriptures to argue that the West Bank belongs to Israel.

The growing role of religion presents particular difficulties for journalism, and diplomacy. The BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, himself the author of a book on the 1967 war, says: “What’s changed is that it is a religious conflict now – the growth in religious Zionism.

“There was always religious Zionism from the beginning, but it got kick-started when they had the West Bank to colonise.”

Daniel Kurtzer, who was the United States’ ambassador to Israel from 2001-2005, suggests: “Diplomacy has so far proven incapable of figuring out what to do about religion … It’s a real challenge.”

Journalism struggles with that, too. Daily news cannot be a rolling explanation of the scriptures, but the full context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be understood without taking into account the growing force of faith.

This is something which correspondents in the region will increasingly have to contend with. Both Kurtzer and Sir Jeremy Greenstock, former British ambassador to the United Nations, used the same phrase: “Two sides of the same coin,” to describe the relationship between journalism and diplomacy. The success of both relies on getting information – and making sense of it for someone else.

They both rely, too, on asking the right questions. Seeing religion as an increasingly important element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is vital for understanding its changing nature – even if it will not provide an immediate solution.