Jan 1 2001

Uprising Without Explanation

“The Palestinians began the latest protests with old-style demonstrations. Then they started shooting at Israeli towns. Now they are attacking settlements. It’s not at all clear what the next step will be, but every step seems to get bloodier.” — “Into the War Zone,” Time (12/4/00)

In war–especially the kind of war that has now broken out between Israel and the Palestinians–each side has its reasons. Not all reasons are equally valid, but in journalism both sides must be told, context and balance provided, and ultimately the audience should decide. When Israel is asked to explain the 300 Palestinians (compared with about 30 Israeli Jews) who have been killed in the Al-Aqsa Intifada, it generally responds that it has little choice but to defend its troops against Palestinians who attack with rocks, Molotov cocktails, even automatic weapons.

And when Palestinians are asked why they persist in confronting Israel’s soldiers, the reason is almost always the same: “The Israelis are occupying our land.” But while Palestinian fuel bombs, rock-throwers and militias are in full view on American TV screens night after night, the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land–continuous since 1967, condemned by the United Nations, and rejected as illegal by most of the world–is almost ethereal in its absence. It hovers over each report and yet almost never fully appears.

The Time article quoted above never reports that Israeli settlements are built on occupied territory.

The word “occupation” has become almost taboo for American reporters. Even the designation “occupied territories,” once routine on network TV, has all but disappeared. On the three networks’ evening news broadcasts–ABC World News Tonight, NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News–the West Bank or Gaza were mentioned in 99 news stories since the fighting began in late September. Of those 99 stories, only four used the word “occupied,” “occupation” or any other variation.

Thus, incredibly, more than 90 percent of network TV reporting on the occupied territories fails to report that the territories are occupied. (On CNN, the number is closer to 80 percent, perhaps reflecting the network’s awareness of its international audience.) This appears to mark an actual deterioration in the quality of reporting from the Middle East. During the Intifada years (1990-92), 156 of the 199 stories mentioning the West Bank or Gaza on ABC and CBS–more than three quarters–used words like “occupied”–usually as part of the now-vanished phrase “occupied territories” but often, more daringly, to explain that Palestinians were “living under Israeli occupation.” Tellingly, while Israel’s occupation has been mentioned in almost two-thirds of the news stories in the London Independent this year, it has been omitted from more than two-thirds of stories in the New York Times.

At times news outlets have even taken the step of referring to occupied Palestinian land as part of Israel. “As the fighting rages in Israel, there’s word of a possible cease-fire deal,” CBS‘ Dan Rather said, showing pictures of that day’s violence in the West Bank and Gaza. Tom Brokaw (NBC Nightly News, 10/2/00) introduced a report about “the ever-widening eruptions of violence in Israel.” He then went to NBC correspondent Martin Fletcher, who explained that Palestinians were “storming an Israeli army outpost in Gaza” and “setting siege to another army post in the West Bank.”

Thus, instead of an honest accounting of each side’s grievances, journalists reporting the clashes in the West Bank and Gaza offer what is, in effect, a daily catalogue of seemingly unprovoked Palestinian aggression. These reports follow a familiar pattern. A typical example is a story filed by correspondent Jim Wooten for ABC World News Tonight on October 9. Reporting from the West Bank town of Nablus, he described a skirmish between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers:

Thousands of Palestinians began a protest march in the center of Nablus today, then headed for the outskirts, apparently looking for a confrontation with Israeli troops. And they got it.What began, as usual, with rocks and bottles soon became a genuine gun battle. One more example of how the young Palestinians’ anger is turning more violent and more deadly.

Israelis on a nearby ridge opened fire on the marchers. Palestinians soon returned the fire from an olive grove beside the road. Those shooting back were part of Chairman Arafat’s Fatah organization, but it isn’t clear if he can control the level of violence anymore, given the level of rage in these streets. For example, here in Nablus on Saturday, after Israeli troops withdrew from the tomb of Joseph, a site some Jews consider sacred, Palestinian police were unable or unwilling to protect it from an angry mob. It was sacked and burned and an Israeli policeman killed. And that Palestinian fury against the Israelis continued today at the olive grove….

Among those injured in today’s battle, these two young men with leg wounds and this 12-year-old boy shot in the buttocks. Did his mother know he was in the march? Did she approve? “Yes,” she said. “Every Arab should stand up and protest, continue the resistance, keep the revolution alive.”

In such reports, Israel’s grievances are on vivid display. Viewers can see Palestinians “looking for a confrontation” with Israel, wielding “rocks and bottles,” provoking a “gun battle”–yet “one more example” of how their “anger is turning more violent and more deadly.”

But what are the Palestinians’ grievances? Why did they choose to confront Israel’s soldiers? Like most of his colleagues, Wooten maintains a studious silence. Perhaps his viewers would be surprised to learn that Palestinian residents in Nablus have been surrounded by Israeli army posts to the east and west of the city–even before the current round of violence began–and that to enter and leave their town, they need permission from Israeli occupation soldiers manning road checkpoints to the north and south.

Perhaps it is relevant that Israel has built four Jewish settlements around Nablus, populated by armed militants. Many of the settlers support extremist religious leaders, like the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated the expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank. And finally, Wooten might have mentioned that this entire apparatus of occupation is illegal under the Geneva Conventions, and that the U.N. Security Council has repeatedly demanded Israel’s withdrawal to no effect.

“Violence” and “retaliation”

Imagine reporters like Wooten portraying the Palestinian Intifada the same way they did the Kuwaiti underground during Iraq’s seven-month occupation of Kuwait–as an embattled resistance movement suffering at the hands of its occupiers. In 1990, Peter Jennings on ABC (World News Tonight, 9/6/90) forthrightly referred to the emirate as “Iraqi-occupied Kuwait,” and asked a Kuwaiti interviewee to “tell us about the resistance to the Iraqi occupation.”

On CBS, Dan Rather spoke admiringly of refugees from Kuwait “bringing stories of an occupied but still unconquered nation” (CBS Evening News, 9/11/90), while his correspondent in the Persian Gulf reported on heroic “attacks and ambushes on Iraqi soldiers by a fledgling Kuwaiti resistance.” “It is clear that among Kuwaitis in exile there is a will to resist,” the correspondent declared. “It is searching for a way” (CBS This Morning, 8/23/90).

But today in the Israeli-occupied territories, CBS correspondents talk of “Israeli soldiers under daily attack” (CBS Evening News, 10/4/00); “Israel…again feeling isolated and under siege” (CBS Evening News, 10/8/00); and, in one case where Israeli occupation troops abandoned a fortified position in the occupied West Bank, “Israelis [who] have surrendered territory to Palestinian violence” (CBS Evening News, 10/7/00).

“Palestinian violence” has become almost a mantra of the Middle East press corps. The war seems to feature “violence” from one side and mere “retaliation” from the other: “The renewed Arab violence provoked a new wave of retaliation from Israel,” was a typical formulation (Newsweek, 10/23/00). The double standard reached absurdity in headlines like “New Violence After Rocket Strikes on Palestinians” (New York Times, 11/1/00).

Instead of a war to end a military occupation–as Palestinians themselves generally see their Intifada–some journalists saw it as simply an outburst of hatred. “Hatred now has live ammunition,” Dan Rather announced (CBS Evening News, 10/14/00), as Palestinian militia were shown using firearms against Israeli troops. (Presumably, Israeli forces who have long used live ammunition were never motivated by hate.) “Fires of Hate” was the headline Time (10/23/00) gave its package of stories on the conflict; pictured on the facing page was a group of Palestinians hurling Molotov cocktails near a small bonfire.

Two images were chosen to capture the bloodiness of the conflict for Time‘s October 23 cover story, “Terror In the Middle East”: the bombed-out hull of the U.S.S. Cole warship and the infamous photograph of a Palestinian man jubilantly showing his bloody hands to a mob outside a West Bank jail. Together, the pictures told of 19 victims of “terror”: 17 U.S. sailors and two Israelis. Left out of the picture were more than 120 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces by that date.

More than anything else, it was the iconic image of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durreh, shot by Israeli soldiers in Gaza September 30 as he cowered in his father’s arms, that aroused world anger toward Israeli occupation forces. Yet the U.S. media were evasive about the circumstances of his death. The shooting revived one of the Mideast press corps’ more notorious cliches: the shop-worn euphemism “caught in the crossfire,” often used to describe high-profile civilian killings by Israeli soldiers. As Robert Fisk, veteran Mideast correspondent of the London Independent, recalled (10/2/00):

When I read the word “crossfire,” I reach for my pen. In the Middle East, it almost always means that the Israelis have killed an innocent person. When the Israelis fired shells into the United Nations compound at Qana in southern Lebanon in 1996, Timemagazine printed a photograph of a dead baby with a caption saying it had been killed in “crossfire”. This was untrue. The baby had been killed in the Israeli bombardment along with 105 other civilians….So when 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durah was killed in Gaza on Saturday and I read on the Associated Press wire that the child was “caught in the crossfire,” I knew at once who had killed him. Sure enough, reporters investigating the killing said the boy was shot by Israeli troops.

The “crossfire” theme appeared in the U.S. media with remarkable uniformity: NBC Nightly News and CBS Evening News (both 9/30/00), along with the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and Baltimore Sun (all 10/1/00), all used some variation of “caught in the crossfire” to describe the boy’s shooting, even though Israel’s responsibility was clear.

(Although Israel later acknowledged its soldiers had shot the boy, the top Israeli Defense Force commander for Gaza released a report claiming that he and his forces were not to blame. Citing a variety of evidence ignored by the commander, Israel’s leading paper, Ha’aretz, editorialized on November 10 that “it is hard to describe in mild terms the stupidity of this bizarre investigation.” Nevertheless, the November 28 New York Times–under the deadpan headline “Israeli Army Says Palestinians May Have Shot Gaza Boy”–gave the investigation a respectful hearing, reporting at the top of the piece that the inquiry came under criticism “from Palestinians,” while packing damning information, such as the withering Ha’aretz editorial, into the very last paragraphs. On the same day, in contrast, the London Guardian‘s Tel Aviv correspondent efficiently debunked the self-exoneration under the headline “Israel Washes Its Hands of Boy’s Death.”)


Consensus vs. consensus

With the context of occupation missing, the media had little difficulty depicting staggering Palestinian casualties as the unfortunate byproduct of inexplicable “Palestinian violence.” Of course, that characterization would have been difficult to square with the broad international agreement–outside the U.S.–that Israel was committing grave violations of human rights, an assessment that is closely connected to the consensus on Israel’s status as an occupying power. But the media simply skimmed over that subject.

Where the Middle East is concerned, one of the U.S. media’s greatest taboos is simply reporting what the rest of the world thinks. The October 7 United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s “excessive use of force against Palestinians” in the context of its status as the “occupying power” was largely ignored by the press (Extra! Update, 12/00).

Likewise, Amnesty International’s scathing November 1 report on human rights violations in the occupied territories–in which Israel was said to be engaging in “a pattern of gross human rights violations that may amount to war crimes”–was nearly blacked out. Most papers totally ignored it, including the New York Times. It was briefly noted in the Boston Globe‘s foreign news roundup (11/2/00), and mentioned in passing in a Washington Post article (11/2/00). Later, it earned fleeting mentions in the Los Angeles Times (11/5/00) and Chicago Tribune (11/15/00).

In sharp contrast to the international consensus, U.S. newspaper editorials lined up overwhelmingly behind Israel. An October 24 study by the Anti-Defamation League, which typically accuses the media of anti-Israel bias, found that editorials displayed “overwhelming support and sympathy for Israel’s position.” The group examined editorials in 43 major U.S. papers and found that 36 expressed either “out-and-out support” for Israel or what the league called “‘even-handed’ commentary.” Only seven papers expressed what the group described as “support for the Palestinian cause” or “focused blame on Israeli officials.”

Actually, editorial attitudes toward the crisis were even more monolithic. Newspapers were somewhat divided on the question of whether it was the malign cunning of Yassir Arafat or Israeli rightist Ariel Sharon’s unhelpful visit to the Temple Mount that was most to blame for derailing Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s steadfast march toward peace. Most papers settled on the first interpretation; commentaries that singled out Sharon were deemed “pro-Palestinian” by the ADL.

But central elements of the crisis were almost totally exempt from editorial criticism in the United States: Barak himself, who continues to build settlements in the occupied territories; the Clinton administration, which has tolerated and subsidized Israel’s occupation while claiming the mantle of “honest broker”; and the entire U.S.-brokered Oslo negotiating process, which has served to protect Israel from its international obligations by eroding the Palestinians’ already-established rights under international law.

Protecting Oslo

Media accounts of the failure of Oslo usually followed the script of the Clinton administration: Barak and Arafat had come tantalizingly close to a final agreement at the Camp David meeting in July, with Barak generously offering to share sovereignty over East Jerusalem–but Arafat refused, demanding more.

This version of events was useful because it shielded the Oslo framework itself from criticism (since the peace process was said to have brought the two sides together to an unprecedented degree); and because it conveniently framed Arafat as the deal-breaker, since it was he, in this account, who refused to “compromise.”

The Washington Post (10/9/00) lent credence to this view as the fighting escalated. A front-page headline announced that “Barak’s Open Hand Now a Clenched Fist.” The article beneath it insisted that “even in the view of the most dovish Israelis, Barak made Arafat a good deal at the U.S.-brokered Camp David talks in July, and Arafat has repaid a serious effort at negotiations with attacks on Israeli positions.”

But to find more “dovish” Israelis, the Post would have had to look no further than Ha’aretz‘s Palestinian territories correspondent, Amira Hass, who wrote in a biting commentary in the French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique (11/00): “Undeniably, Oslo has locked the population of the Palestinian territories into so many fragmented cages, reinforced the settlements and tied economic development to Palestinian acceptance of a new form of Israeli control.”

Indeed, to portray the Camp David offer as a gesture of stunning generosity, it was necessary for U.S. media to forget that East Jerusalem is among the occupied territories from which Israel was required to withdraw under U.N. 242, the resolution officially governing the Camp David talks. Hence, any parts of East Jerusalem granted to Israel under a final settlement would represent Palestinian concessions, not the other way around–regardless of how “dovish” Israeli officials feel about it.

Moreover, Jerusalem was not the only issue over which the two sides failed to agree, though American officials sought to portray it that way. According to a series of articles by Arafat advisor Akram Hanieh which presents a quasi-official account of the talks from the Palestinian side, “the greatest failure of the summit [in the eyes of the Palestinian delegation] was in the Refugee Committee, over the refugee issue,” where Israeli officials refused “to take any moral or legal responsibility” for the 50-year-long refugee problem.

The issue concerns those Palestinians (and their families) who fled or were expelled from what is now Israeli territory during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. These refugees number 700,000 to 900,000 and live in surrounding Arab lands. The Israeli government has always maintained that they left voluntarily, while the Palestinians—along with a new generation of Israeli historians—say they were driven out by Israeli forces. The Palestinians are seeking the right to return to their homes in Israel.

Yet the Washington Post editorialized (10/11/00) that the peace process

rested on two premises: first, that Israel would be prepared to relinquish control over Palestinian land and lives; and, second, that the Palestinian leadership would be willing to attain its independence through negotiations alone. The deep compromises Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak offered at the Camp David summit proved the first assumption correct. The second premise, however, has been shattered.

The New York Times editorial page hewed faithfully to the Labor/Clinton line, claiming (9/30/00) that “the Camp David meeting in July pointed toward progress on a number of previously intractable issues. But it broke down over questions of political authority in Jerusalem, particularly sovereignty over the Old City’s principal religious sites.” Since “none of Israel’s proposed compromises have drawn a positive response from Mr. Arafat,” the Times wrote, “most of the burden for compromise now lies with Mr. Arafat.”

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (10/10/00) gave an account of the talks that was almost a mirror image of reality, stating that Barak “offered to make the eastern and heavily Arab part of the city the capital of a Palestinian state, with Islamic holy sites to be managed by Muslim religious authorities. Yassir Arafat turned his back on the proposal and went home. It was not enough. He wanted all of Jerusalem.” Apparently, Cohen is under the impression that Arafat was offered all of East Jerusalem but insisted on having West Jerusalem, too. In fact, he had never claimed any of West Jerusalem for the Palestinians, while Israel demanded most of East Jerusalem for itself.

Time columnist Charles Krauthammer (10/23/00) wrote that “with Israel’s myriad concessions, unilateral withdrawals, pleas for peace and general demoralization, the [Arab] euphoria has returned. Israel’s enemies sense weakness.” Time did not publish a column presenting the Palestinian view to balance Krauthammer’s bitter polemic.

Authentic debate

Meanwhile, the kind of searching questions about Oslo that are virtually untouchable in the American media were widely asked in the British press, where an authentic editorial debate played out in the opinion pages. While conservative papers like the London Times and Daily Telegraph affirmed their staunch support for Israel, and the centrist Independent voiced what the ADL would call “even-handed” criticism, the left-leaning London Observer (10/15/00) blamed the violence on “the Oslo accords [which] built in an overwhelming Israeli territorial advantage in the West Bank and inevitably turned Arafat into a compromised leader.” Calling Israel’s settlement policy a “system of apartheid,” aimed at creating “self-administered Bantustans” for the Palestinians, the paper declared that “there is and never can be any long-term legitimacy for the Israeli state in the Middle East as long as this process continues.”

And the influential weekly New Statesman (10/23/00) pointed out that “the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem have become, in Western media parlance, ‘disputed lands,’ not ‘occupied territories.’ Yet occupied territories–illegally occupied, according to U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338–is exactly what they are.” In contrast to the U.S. consensus, the New Statesman contended that “Ehud Barak is portrayed as a rational and practical dove even though, like the Ulster Unionists, he says ‘no’ to most things.”

Newsweek did commission an essay on the crisis, titled “The Wages of an Unjust Peace,” from Azmi Bishara, an articulate Palestinian member of Israel’s parliament. Arafat was unfairly blamed for “turning down Barak’s ‘generous’ offers,” Bishara argued, “but the generosity is illusory.” The essay, however, ended up appearing only in Newsweek‘s European edition (10/16/00)–not in the United States.

In its place, Newsweek‘s domestic edition ran an interview with Ariel Sharon conducted by Lally Weymouth, a right-wing American journalist who vehemently favors Israel. (Weymouth, the daughter of Katharine Graham, is part of the family that owns Newsweek.) In the next issue (10/23/00), Newsweek featured another interview by Weymouth, this time with Ehud Barak. “You offered Arafat a generous deal,” she asked the Israeli leader. “Why is he turning to violence?” This was paired with an interview with conservative Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, suggesting an attempt to balance two different Israeli perspectives even while ignoring the Palestinian viewpoint.

Barak was also given space in Time (10/23/00) to tell his side of the story; an exclusive interview with the Israeli leader ran under the headline, “‘We Are a Tough and Small People.'” In this instance, there was an opposing Palestinian viewpoint: an interview with a guerrilla fighter from the radical opposition group Hamas, which was headlined “I Shot an Israeli.”

This article is the first of two parts. The second part is “Those Aren’t Stones, They’re Rocks: The pro-Israel critique of Mideast coverage,” Extra!, March/April 2001.