Mar 1 2009

The ‘Right to Exist’ as an Arab Israeli

U.S. papers of record regularly erase Israel’s Palestinian citizens

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/nealunger

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/nealunger

On January 11, 2009, a Washington Post article (“The View from Israel: Victors in a Necessary War”) declared that “Israelis have been . . . resolute” in their support of Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three-week assault on Gaza. What the piece did not mention was that some 20 percent of the citizens of Israel are Palestinians.

While a common criticism of Palestinian political groups is their refusal to recognize Israel’s “right to exist,” U.S. corporate media repeatedly fail to recognize the existence of Palestinian Israelis. During Cast Lead, from December 27, 2008, until the tentative cease-fire unilaterally declared by Israel on January 18, 2009, U.S papers of record all but dismissed the perspective of Israel’s one and a half million Palestinian citizens.

New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner, in the largest and most extensive story purporting to catch the Israeli mood (“Israelis United on Gaza War Even as Censure Rises Abroad,” 1/13/09), claimed, like the Post, that “voices of dissent in this country have been rare….Israel, which is sometimes a fractured, bickering society, has turned in the past couple of weeks into a paradigm of unity and mutual support.”

Bronner referred to “polls [that] have shown nearly 90 percent support for the war thus far,” though he did not cite any poll in particular. That unsourced figure—a statistical unlikelihood in a country that is 20 percent Palestinian—was repeated by anti-Islam propagandist Daniel Pipes (FAIR Report: Meet the Smearcasters, 10/08), who specifically mentioned the Times when he cited the figure on Al Jazeera English’s Riz Khan (January 13, 2009).

In a more realistic—and verifiable—reading of Israel’s ethnic diversity, a Tel Aviv University poll (1/4-6/09) found that although 94 percent of Jewish Israelis favored the operation, only 81 percent of the overall population did—meaning a majority of Palestinian and other non-Jewish Israelis were opposed.

Bonner’s confused interpretation of Israeli opinion continued even when he mentioned Arab Israelis. He claimed that “antiwar rallies here have struggled to draw 1,000 participants,” yet some 10 paragraphs later wrote that “the largest demonstration against the war so far, with some 6,000 participants, was organized by an Arab political party”—just after observing that “many of the 1.4 million Israelis who are Arabs” viewed the attack with a “different feeling, a mix of anger and despair.”

The “6,000” figure itself is a vast undercount of any of a series of demonstrations that had been held in predominantly Palestinian towns in Israel. An Israeli official put the number of protesters at one such demonstration, in Sakhnin on January 3, at 10,000 (Jerusalem Post, 1/3/09). An Agence France-Presse article (1/17/09) claimed the protests drew 100,000 people, while Al Jazeera English (1/3/09) placed the number at 150,000. Sakhnin’s mayor called the demonstrations “the biggest procession in the history of the Palestinian people in Israel” (Al Jazeera English, 1/19/09). To Bronner, mysteriously, these much larger Arab demonstrations don’t seem to count as antiwar rallies.

Remarkably, the paper did not mention the Israeli Knesset’s vote to ban Arab parties from the upcoming national elections—which was later ruled unconstitutional by the Israeli Supreme Court—until after Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire. The Washington Post published a 315-word bare-bones account of the ban vote from an Associated Press article (1/12/09), while the L.A. Times (1/14/09) reported it in a 100-word “world briefing” article. (The L.A. Times’ only other reference to Arab Israelis during the Gaza assault came in a brief mention—1/4/09—of the Sakhnin demonstration, though in a January 11 editorial it noted that “the Gaza war has the support of upward of 90 percent of Jews in Israel.”)

As such often-ignored facts suggest, Israel’s Palestinian citizens live a precarious existence lacking well-defined rights, despite the nation’s boasting of being the only democracy in the Middle East. Even the number of Palestinian citizens of Israel is an open question, since Jerusalem is home to a quarter million Palestinians who, despite being born in areas Israel claims are within its borders, do not receive citizenship at birth and face a nebulous legal status as “permanent residents.”

Both the New York Times (1/20/09) and the Washington Post (1/20/09) finally ran articles on the Israeli Arab community days after Israel unilaterally declared a cease-fire and an end to Cast Lead. And while both articles attempted to give context to the lives of Palestinians living in the Jewish state, neither paper gave an accurate representation of the unprecedented scope of the demonstrations by Palestinian Israelis. Nearly 10 percent of the nation’s Palestinian citizens had protested the attack, but during Cast Lead, they were Israelis who remained largely invisible to U.S. media.

Jaime Omar Yassin is a Colombian-Palestinian-American writer living in Oakland, California. He writes fiction and non-fiction about transnationalism and diaspora.