Middle East

The Arab Media in Review

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Eclipses Bin Laden Videotape in Arab Media

Baghdad residents listen to President Saddam Hussein (depicted in the mural in the background) address the nation in a Dec. 18 broadcast. Hussein called for an emergency meeting of Arab leaders to discuss the escalating conflict between Israelis and Palestinians (Photo: AFP).

The videotape of Osama bin Laden discussing his involvement in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks received little coverage in the Arab press. Newspapers either relegated the story to the back pages of their Dec. 15 editions, or ignored the videotape outright.

Amman's English-language Jordan Times was the only Jordanian newspaper to devote an entire story to the tape and to quote Bin Laden verbatim. Arabic-language Jordanian newspapers mentioned the tape only in passing, as part of their coverage of the war in Afghanistan.

Independent Beirut newspaper Al-Nahar was the only Lebanese newspaper to publish the entire transcript of the tape. Other newspapers carried brief mentions in the back pages of their Dec. 15 editions.

The Egyptian government-owned Nile TV channel ran the tape in its entirety the night the Pentagon released the footage on Dec. 14, flagging it as "the tape that proves the involvement of Osama bin Laden" in the attacks. But commentators on talk shows on Dec. 15 were openly skeptical about its authenticity. "The tape is suspicious. It's cut in some places and the sound is muffled," military expert Hassan Suweilim said in a Dec. 15 TV interview on Nile TV's "Good Morning Egypt." "If the United States has evidence damning Bin Laden they should present it to courts, not on television screens."

The Arab press was far more interested in the latest crisis between Israel and the Palestinians and in criticizing the Bush administration for not doing more to help the Palestinians. The tape was released the day Israel announced it would cease dealing with the Palestinian Authority, and would confine Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to the bombed-out West Bank town of Ramallah.

"What does Sharon want with Arafat and the Palestinians? While Palestinian president Yasser Arafat is exposed to enormous pressure to prevent his people from acting in self-defense, Israeli occupation forces continue to strike at Palestinian civilians, demolishing their homes, killing their women and children, and displacing their elderly. The Israeli government has put in motion a plan to undermine the Palestinian Authority. The Israeli government is seeking to eliminate Palestinian resistance leaders and then depose President Arafat himself," wrote columnist Mohamed al-Shamma in the Dec. 12 edition of Cairo's government-owned Al-Akhbar.

"Meanwhile, [the Israeli government] asks Arafat to help them take aim at what they call Palestinian militants so that Israel can recognize him as leader of the Palestinian people and be sure he is qualified to sit with Israeli negotiators at the table?" Shamma continued incredulously. "This begs the question: 'what would they be negotiating?' Making Tel Aviv a Palestinian territory or Arafat's departure?"

"Sharon is delaying a ceasefire in order to destroy the Palestinian Authority and its institutions so that it can't be transformed into a state," wrote editorialist Maher Osman in the Dec. 11 issue of Saudi-owned London newspaper Al-Hayat. "All the American rhetoric about a Palestinian state remains just talk as long as America guarantees that Israel is the winner, regardless of who is right or wrong and as long as it allows Israel to use American-made weapons to murder Palestinians, ruin Palestinian institutions, and wreck Palestinian homes. America has become part of Israel's state terrorism and the brutality of Sharon."

"Whatever the number of arrests [by the Palestinian Authority of suspected Palestinian militants], it will never be enough for the Israelis, and always too many for the Palestinians and Arabs. There seems to be no way out of this dilemma, which is already generating inter-Palestinian clashes. Although Sharon claims he is not targeting Arafat personally, his instructions to the Israeli military to direct their missiles at places Arafat is known to frequent attest otherwise. Arafat is to be liquidated, either by Israelis or by Palestinians," Mohamed Sid-Ahmed, a respected Egyptian intellectual, wrote in the government's flagship daily Al-Ahram (Dec. 13).

"It seems that no matter what Arafat does, it falls short of U.S. expectations. But this pressure may compel Arafat to take unpopular measures that would consequently hamper his ability to keep matters under control. Washington would do better to take the heat off Arafat and shift a portion of its criticism to the bellicose Sharon," wrote the government-owned, English-language Egyptian Gazette in a Dec. 13 editorial.

Anger and frustration from the Arabic press makes good, lurid copy for American reviews of the Middle Eastern press. But in the midst of all this angst and chaos, Ibrahim Nafie, editor of Al-Ahram, has devoted his editorials to more restful topics. Nafie had traveled to Medina for the Ramadan pilgrimage known as umra. In his Dec. 15 editorial, he sought to provide some solace to Egyptian readers alongside the grim news that filled the rest of the Dec. 15 edition of Al-Ahram: "It's not difficult here to touch here what eyes and faces conceal in other places. You are in the Prophet's mosque, the most peaceful and secure place on Earth. In every inch one finds a rare mix of feelings of faith, expressions of regret, and requests for forgiveness. Bodies tremble and tears flow, pleading looks mix with pure words of prayer, and among hundreds of thousands of Muslims who fill the space of the mosque you will not find one person who wants to leave the place and the companionship of the Prophet…. It is Medina, which overflows with good, which God made a warm home and safe heart for the Prophet when life got tough."

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