FREE Subscription to our
just enter your email address
View Previous Issues



British public warms to Palestinian cause

30 April 2002,
Rime Allaf
Daily Star correspondent

Sympathies rise despite ‘media bias’

LONDON: It is difficult to gauge the direct effects that the latest Israeli incursion on Palestinian towns has had on the European public’s position on Middle East matters, and in particular on Britons, because in spite of the massive demonstrations held in the past few weeks, no evidence had been collected to address this specific question or to quantify it. However, recent surveys show that there is a definite upward trend in giving support to Palestinians.

Today, more and more Britons support Palestinians (in fact double those who support Israel), according to a poll conducted by The Guardian/ICM a few days ago. It is still far from being close to an absolute majority, and most people actually still found themselves unsure about what to think.

Of the 1,000 adults polled, 23 percent were completely neutral, supporting neither side, while 20 percent refused to even answer the question. Those who expressed an opinion on the conflict were divided as follows: 14 percent sympathized equally with both sides, another 14 percent backed Israel, and 28 percent backed Palestinians. In relation to the past, this number is actually significant, and is an indication that the Palestinians’ battle for public support in Britain is slowly reaping the fruits of its efforts.

Britons still seem to be making a major distinction between leaders and people. For all the growing support of the Palestinian people, 54 percent of the Britons polled had unfavorable views of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. Sharon received a slightly less negative response, with 50 percent saying they didn’t like him.

What is interesting is that another poll two weeks ago found that at least one section of British media was biased against the Palestinians. In a survey conducted by the Glasgow Media Group, television news in Britain were found to be more sympathetic to the Israeli side and not at all careful about explaining the roots of the conflict. These findings were quickly criticized by some media networks, such as the BBC and ITN, who deemed it was not their task to educate the viewer about history and the origins of struggles.
But the fact remains that some education may be needed, for only 9 percent of young people polled even knew that Israel was the occupier. After the beginning of the intifada in September 2000, a research team in Glasgow University studied transcriptions of 89 news bulletins on the conflict.

Out of 3,536 lines of text, only 17 were found to refer to its history. Without a context to explain the possible causes of the intifada, it is clear that understanding about an occupying force and an occupied people was missing. This was probably also fueled by the fact that Israeli attacks are often referred to as “retaliations to Palestinian attacks,” not only in television news, but also in print media.

Perhaps because images sometimes speak for themselves while giving a snapshot of the present, regardless of the nature of the accompanying commentary, print media is an important contributor to the comprehension of any given issue.

British print media has been devoting a significant amount of space to the Middle East conflict, especially in the last month when coverage was only eclipsed by two big one-time events which took over more column inches, namely the Queen Mother’s death and the budget.

But another interesting finding has shown that heavy print coverage is not necessarily advantageous for a cause, even though it brings it recognition. Print media has scored dismally in Britons’ confidence.

In yet another poll carried out last week by Eurobarometer for the European Commission, it has been learned that only 20 percent of Britons trusted their newspapers, or less than half the European average of 46 percent trust in print media. In fact, British newspapers were the least trusted in Europe. In contrast, 65 percent of Britons trusted radio, and 71 percent trusted television (the latter up by 14 points in one year).

Interesting conclusions can be drawn from all these figures, with respect to public support of the Palestinians. Even with limited comprehension of the origins and the history of the conflict, even with strong distrust of the print media which has covered the conflict in much detail in recent weeks, and even with revealed pro-Israel bias in television news, the constant exposure of the British public to this issue has resulted in a slow but sure inclination toward backing the Palestinian cause.

It can thus be argued that even bad publicity is good, and that even reporting with a pro-Israeli bias is better than not reporting at all. But one should take the growing support of Palestinians in a bigger context to attempt understanding why Britons in particular have slowly been coming out for them.

When the bombing of Afghanistan began in October 2001, three-quarters of Britons approved it. Two weeks later, the figure had dropped to two-thirds, with 54 percent supporting a pause in the bombing to allow for humanitarian aid to reach the Afghan population. By November, only 51 percent of Britons thought the bombing had been justified. And by March of this year, 51 percent of Britons were against British support of or participation in a military strike on Iraq.

While these numbers portray a growing anti-war sentiment in Britain, one must also remember the growing antagonism to supporting the US as a major factor. The more the US wants to strike, the less Britons seem inclined to agree. These feelings certainly helped contribute to the opposition to war in any country, and they also seem to have helped contribute to the increasing open British support of Palestinians (while the US supported the opposite camp).

Added to detailed coverage on events in the Occupied Territories, most recently on the Jenin tragedy, it seems that even ignorance of the roots of the conflict or exposure to pro-Israeli coverage cannot quell Britons’ increasingly strong feelings for Palestinian rights.