Proponents of the settler movement, backed by Netanyahu, are ruling the airwaves and skewing coverage of the conflict
Since the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war, Israelis have been glued to their TV sets and scrolling through news and social media. The ordinarily news-obsessed public has become even more engrossed, and the war has seen the propagation of a point of view that for much of Israel’s media history has been marginal, but has now reached its apex: that of the settler far right.
The settlement movement, originating as a small vanguard of religious Zionists, has expanded exponentially since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza after the 1967 six-day war. Once perceived as bearded, outsider men patrolling the Hebron hills with Uzis, settlers have significantly increased their influence, becoming key political players. Recent elections have elevated some of the movement’s most extreme figures, such as Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, to high positions in government.
This didn’t happen overnight. A significant reason for the settlers’ success is a sustained effort, in collaboration with the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to infiltrate mainstream media and create media outlets devoted to settler goals, so reshaping Israel’s political discourse.
In its early years, the settler movement distrusted the mainstream media and wasn’t closely engaged with it. It believed the Israeli public didn’t disagree with the settlers’ goals for ideological reasons, but rather because their ideas didn’t infiltrate mainstream channels.
Two events shook the settler community and changed its outlook: in 1995, the then-prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated by a religious Zionist; a decade later, there was a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the evacuation of settlers there. The prevailing sentiment in the settler camp was that the broad Israeli public blamed them for Rabin’s murder and showed little concern for the settlers being forcibly removed from their homes.
They determined that it was no longer enough to simply capture another hill and expand their physical settlements; to ensure the movement’s future, they needed to “settle in the hearts” of the Israeli people. By embracing the mainstream media, they could narrate their story and integrate the settlement ideology into the Israeli ethos. Luckily, they found a willing partner in Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has always understood and used the power of popular media. As the journalist Joshua Leifer wrote, Netanyahu was “Israel’s first real TV prime minister. He took acting classes to perfect his public performances.” After Netanyahu lost the election to Ehud Barak in 1999, reporters heard him say: “When I return, I’ll have my own media outlet.” He ended up with two: the free newspaper Israel Hayom, launched in 2007 and funded by Sheldon Adelson, a mega-donor to the US Republican party; and Channel 14, founded in 2014. They changed Israel’s media landscape, and in the years that followed, a plethora of new hard-right outlets were established.
As these outlets grew, the positioning of hard-right and settler proponents in roles as commentators and journalists skewed discussions about the occupation, blurred the distinction between the West Bank and Israel in public perception, and reduced awareness of the real situation in Gaza.
Examples abound: Zeev Kam, parliamentary correspondent for the TV channel Kan 11, wrote that the soldiers who invaded a mosque in Jenin and said Hebrew prayers in the speakers for the call to prayer “spread light” in this evil place”. Zvi Yehezkeli, Arab-world analyst for Channel 13 who lives in the extreme-right settlement of Bat Ayin, said that 100,000 Palestinians should have been killed right after 7 October. Amit Segal, the most influential Israeli political correspondent today, blamed 7 October on the unilateral withdrawal. And Israel Hayom correspondent Yehuda Schlesinger tweeted in favour of “voluntary migration” so Palestinians wouldn’t raise “another Nazi generation”.
However, there’s no more egregious example of the settler takeover than Channel 14. Originally launched as a channel offering “Jewish” programming, it began airing opinion shows. Despite being fined for content that exceeded its licensed remit, intervention from Netanyahu’s government allowed it to include news in its broadcasts. The channel has since become a significant platform for the reactionary right, broadcasting rightwing propaganda previously unseen on Israeli television.
Channel 14 has a counter that logs the number of buildings demolished in Gaza, the number of Palestinians wounded, the number of “terrorists killed” (all casualties are labelled as “terrorists”). On a late-night panel show, an operative from Netanyahu’s party, Likud, blamed the Hamas surprise attack on “the crimes of Oslo” and the “leftist cancer” to the cheers of the live audience, while host Shimon Riklin said he was “for war crimes”.
The extreme discourse is so widespread that South Africa has cited journalists from Channel 14 and others cheering for mass killings in its appeal to the international court of justice against Israel.
This takeover by settlers and the far right has been significant in two ways. First, it has aggressively targeted the last strongholds of a free and liberal press, seeking not only to normalise the settlement project but also to conceal the crimes committed to maintain it.
Second, in the context of the war, it doesn’t show the Israeli public the full extent of the attack on Gaza. As Shimrit Meir, once an adviser to former PM Naftali Bennett, wrote on X (formerly Twitter), recently: “Someone decided about 20 years ago that coverage of the other side is leftist, and since then, the coverage of the opposing perspective has been minimal.”
Much of the Israeli public remains unaware of the extent of expulsions occurring in places like Masafer Yatta, the dispossession and statelessness faced by East Jerusalem residents, and the daily victims in the West Bank. They don’t know the extent of the carnage and displacement in Gaza.
We are at a moment of reckoning, not just in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in the internal Israeli conflict: will the rest of the media resist these reactionary anti-journalists and outlets that Netanyahu and the settlers have created, or will voices devoted to truth and journalistic integrity be silenced?
There is still hope: if protests like the ones Israel saw last year spark up again the day after the war; and if a dormant public awakens to the injustices of the Israeli government and the apparatus it has built, and makes its own voice heard.
(c) The Guardian, 2024