Surprise - Palestinians Revile Sharon

Stories about "the Arab street" don't tell us anything we don't already know.

The upper right-hand photo on the New York Times’ Web site this morning was of a man in a bazaar reading a newspaper with the caption, “Little Pity in the Arab World: The basic sentiment at the prospect of Ariel Sharon’s dying was that it would be a shame if he passed away peacefully in bed.”

The attached article, by Neil MacFarquhar, who seems to specialize in taking the temperature of something that has come to be called “the Arab street,” is a pretty predictable collection of invective hurled at the dying Israeli leader. The amazing bit is that MacFarquhar manages to find at least one man, Muhammad Bassiouny, Egypt’s former ambassador to Israel (also interviewed on NPR this morning), who says that Sharon’s disappearance from the political scene could be a bad thing. The rest of the comments are more along the lines of 51-year-old Abu Khaled Khalife who says, “I wish he was hit by a bomb that would have shredded him to pieces.”

There is really nothing very surprising or newsworthy about this opinion. It’s no great feat to capture enmity toward Sharon. It’s always been there. All you would have had to do is put a microphone on any street corner in Cairo, Amman, Tehran or Ramallah any day during the last twenty years and you would have found it.

But the Times deemed this an important element in the story of Sharon’s last days — as did the Los Angeles Times in an article that also endeavored to soak up the Palestinian mood.

It made us wonder if a similar media treatment had taken place when Yasir Arafat suddenly became ill and died in November 2004. Although many would object to the comparison, there is no question that Arafat elicited just as strong a negative reaction among Israelis and Jews as Sharon does among Palestinians and Arabs. Were there Jew-on-the-street stories, interviews with your average New York Jew, French Jew, British Jew about their feelings on Arafat?

Were there even stories from the beaches of Tel Aviv or the yeshivas of Jerusalem gauging the public’s feeling about the Reis’ passing?

Our memory tells us not. And a quick Nexis search of the period confirmed the suspicion. Nothing.

We are not questioning whether or not the Arab street story is an important one. It’s always refreshing when reporters go out and try to find out what normal people think, especially in a part of the world it would behoove us to understand better. It is a much better way of finding out what is brewing, and more accurate than a political leader’s carefully tailored public statements.

But it seems that these articles have become a kind of reflex, an unthinking reaction whenever something momentous happens in the Middle East. Sometimes they do reveal something unknown about “the Arab street.” But more often than not they take the place of any real political analysis, and don’t add much to the coverage.

Just as it would seem pretty futile to ask Jews what they thought of Arafat — would we call their answers news?— these stories, too, of which there will surely be more to come, are an exercise in futility. They do not provide a new angle on the Sharon situation or the Middle East conflict. We don’t really need another 1500 words to tell us that these two peoples hate and distrust each other. That, sadly, we already know too well.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.