The Vocabulary of Revenge
Sitting here in St. Paul, Minnesota, scanning the international wire service reports breaking like a speedboat oil slick on the shores of a nature reserve, I wonder if it is finally the time to admit that the craft of journalism is dead, buried under the thick sludge of a media system whose own worst enemy is its ‘efficiency’.
As journalists rush to name the events unfolding in front of them of which they often have only limited understanding, scrabbling to get the mandatory quotes and statistics, many are also trying to reconcile what they believed they would be doing as they gazed out of lecture hall windows into a future beyond journalism school, with their current reality of being chained by deadlines to a chair, in front of a computer, in a room, far from the events on which they are supposed to be reporting.
A BBC World Service Radio producer, stationed in Jerusalem during the current Intifada, told me that the sheer number of deadlines for programmes that electronic media journalists (radio, TV, Internet) are expected to meet usually preclude investigation, usually preclude travelling to the scene, and usually preclude any serious thought about the matter at hand. In a world demanding instant news, journalists have become slaves to a machine.
Today’s attack by Israel on Palestinian targets in my former West Bank home, Ramallah (as well as in Gaza), offered a classic example of this victory of form over content.
Israel’s line, as it sends combat helicopters to blast away at “precise” (the Israeli occupation army’s spokesman’s term) or “carefully selected” targets (Israeli prime minister Sharon’s term), is that all of this is “retaliation” for the recent suicide attacks against Israeli civilians by Palestinian militant groups.
Reuters reported that the Israeli spokesman stated: “There was a strike on one target in Ramallah and on a number of targets in Gaza. These were very precise strikes chosen for their involvement in terror activity.”
What were these “precise” and “carefully selected” targets?
According to reports, they were buildings and small armoured vehicles belonging to Yasser Arafat’s presidential guard, Force 17 (“Kuwaat Sabatash” in Arabic).
Was it merely my imagination that the responsibility for these bomb attacks was claimed by Islamic groups? What has Arafat’s presidential security force got to do with anything?
Everything. For quite some time now, Israel has attempted to paint Arafat as the instigator of the current uprising and bomb attacks.
Blaming the Intifada on Arafat as opposed to the Palestinian people as a whole and blaming Arafat for the bombings as opposed to the handful of Palestinians that carry them out, draws attention away from the fact that the Palestinian people as a whole are rising up in reaction to Israel’s 33-year old military occupation and its associated repression.
This, of course, has carried on unabated despite seven years of ‘peace’ accords and negotiations, leaving the Palestinians haggling over less than a quarter of their historic land.
With Arafat presented as the sole player and the 3 million Palestinians as mere robotic followers of his orders, both the Palestinians and their suffering are thus marginalised and rendered invisible.
As Israeli claims of Arafat’s omnipotence are usually made with reference to Israel’s ‘willingness’ to return to the ‘peace process’, a secondary effect of this line is the reinforcing of the myth that Israel has made one reasonable attempt after another at reaching a historical compromise, rather than having carried on business as usual.
Scapegoating Arafat is a very clever and effective strategy that plays into Western perceptions of Arabs and Arafat’s own, media-challenged image, and this strategy seems to tiptoe unnoticed past the piles of paper, demanding editors, and ringing telephones that plague foreign correspondents ‘on the ground’.
As I’ve both said and written before, Oslo brought a reality far worse than that experienced before to the front doors of Joe and Jane Palestinian and — if anything — I remain surprised that it took the Palestinian people as long as it did to rise up to claim the media spotlight back from the ineffectual and corrupt Arafat, and take their destiny into their own hands, however imperfectly.
Like the stones Palestinians throw, each a piece of rock formed by several millennia of geological pressure, so too have there been decades of pressure to shape each hand that throws its stone at an Israeli occupation soldier.
Each hand and stone combined is a jewel sparkling under the light of an over-riding and unarguable dynamic of human life that dictates that no people will accept being exploited, marginalised, and ruled with an iron fist.
More coloquially, each stone is a “fuck you” to Israel for a lifetime wasted negotiating checkpoints, for days spent sucked into submission by a swamp filled with layer upon layer of bureaucratic slime, and for being daily rendered powerless by a racist occupation army that is always ready to kill you if you protest against its bulldozers, relentlessly taking what is yours.
Just each stone?
How about each bomb, for that matter, or is there no link between decades of oppression, and terrorism directed at the oppressors?
There are some things that we are not allowed to even think, never mind say or write, even if the bald, naked, and ugly lie is standing right in front of us asking to be named.
This is one of them.
Although Israel may point at a bombing perpetrated by less than a handful of people to justify its national army rocketing targets in a city full of people, may God help anyone who attempts to trace the link back in the opposite direction.
Rather, we are only allowed to condemn in this strange semantic prison that has been constructed for the safe discussion of terrorism but, while we are here, let us talk about this ‘retaliation’ about which we have been given temporary speaking rights:
retaliation \Re*tal`i*a”tion\, n.
The act of retaliating, or of returning like for like; retribution; now, specifically, the return of evil for evil; e.g., an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.
— Source: Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary, ? 1996, 1998 MICRA, Inc. –
AN EYE FOR AN EYE, A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH
“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”
This is closer to the truth. Revenge, an enraged 10-year-old boy with a fleet of combat helicopters at his disposal, has developed a media strategy with its own strange vocabulary, and we are being taught to speak his language.
Israel walks a dangerous path when it starts talking about “retaliation” because the word itself actively makes a claim that we must examine, in light of what has been done by each side, to each side.
This is an equation that the Palestinians have been trying to bring to the world for the second half of the last century and an equation we’ve been very good at ignoring.
It’s hard to imagine a ‘proportional response’ to the Palestinian experience of the last 50 years, which is what the word ‘retaliation’ plainly infers.
What would be a ‘proportional response’ to the Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestine that resulted in the dispossession and exile of nearly one million Palestinians and the 33 subsequent years of force, might, beatings, and yet more dispossession, for those that stuck it out on the ground?
In trying to answer this question, it is clear that the Intifada is the very least Palestinians can do, and it is incumbant for us to remember that the uprising has the legitimacy of international law behind it.
Back to these harried journalists ‘on the ground’, ‘besieged’ by deadlines, ‘under attack’ from impatient editors, and ‘occupied’ with trying to get their jobs done.
According to the Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper, 350 foreign media organisations have permanent representatives based in the country. Following the outbreak of the Second Intifada, Ha’aretz noted the arrival of another 1,300 and that by the middle of December 2000, 400 of these were still present. 750 windows on the conflict, plugged by satellite and Internet into our television sets, radios, and newspapers.
Dr. Joel Cohen, a lecturer in communications at the Academic-Technological Institute of Holon and a research fellow at Bar Ilan University, undertook a study into these foreign correspondents, summarised by Ha’aretz on 6 November 2000. The article stated:
“The data that the foreign correspondents supplied about themselves are quite surprising in view of the Israeli claim of a clear pro-Palestinian bias among the press. The vast majority of the correspondents report from Israel about news from the Palestinian Authority as well, and about the conflict in general. A fairly large proportion among them are Jewish, most have lived in Israel for many years (almost 10 years is the average), and some are married to Israeli women. Some are veteran Israeli journalists who report from Israel to the foreign media on a permanent basis.”
Perhaps the most important aspect of this demographic that we trust to provide us with information on which we can lobby our government to make sane policy decisions is that all but a literal handful of the foreign and Israeli correspondents — who write for the English-language news agencies and wire services — live in Israeli-controlled parts of the country.
News is often produced with only irregular exposure to Palestinian society, without visiting Palestinian areas and, in the worst cases, Palestinians are not even consulted for any reaction to events before publication. All last week, during Sharon’s visit to the US, the Associated Press neglected to seek any Palestinian opinion for its reports on the visit.
Is it any wonder that when I log on to CNN’s website, to see how today’s story is being covered, that it is both headlined and leads with the ‘retaliation’ concept?
“Israeli attacks kill 1 in Arafat’s bodyguard unit: Targets selected in Ramallah and Gaza in **retaliation** for bombings”
Web-posted at 2:31pm EST. http://www.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/meast/03/28/israel.attacks.03/index.html
“The Israel Defense Forces sent helicopter gunships and tanks to hit targets associated with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat Wednesday, **responding** to a series of deadly attacks against Israelis.”
 This, in itself, is a rather ironic and unqualified description of an occupying army.
Although CNN is correctly reporting what Israel has said about the attacks, this is not presented in quotations as it should be but instead in a factual statement and headline, both of which frame the rest of the article.
As for the rest of the article, half is comprised of reportage of the bombings for which Israel is ‘retaliating’ for, the inclusion of which in this quantity serves to buttress the weak Israeli justification, and although Palestinian sources are given space to comment, **no investigative questioning of this linkage takes place at any level in the article.**
The next CNN update is headlined, “Israeli Cabinet minister says attack ‘defensive’”.
Web-posted at 4:45pm EST. http://www.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/meast/03/28/israel.attacks.04/index.html
The rest of this second article follows a similar pattern to the last, with over half the article dedicated to the bombings in Jerusalem, again helpfully linking the events, dumbing it down for the masses.
Journalists may be tempted to claim that this inclusion is offered “for background” to the Israeli statements. Don’t believe a word of it. It is important to note that neither report makes any mention of the Israeli military occupation.
CNN quoted Raanan Gissin, a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who said: “The purpose was to hit the terrorists and those who sent them. I think that mission was accomplished.”
A Reuters’ wire service report mentions that one of its cameraman saw the bodies of a man and woman in a Ramallah hospital following the raids by combat helicopters, and reported that, “A Palestinian Red Crescent official said the dead were a member of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s elite forces and a Palestinian civilian.” Six Palestinians were reported wounded in both areas. And let us not forget the population of two Palestinian cities, once again terrorised by missiles raining down from the air.
Mr. Gissin and the Israeli government that he represents, who seek “the terrorists and those who sent the terrorists” should note that the mirror of retaliation reflects more than half a century further back than the last bombing, and that it reflects both ways.
For us, if there are indeed new words for us to learn in this vocabulary of revenge, let us be sure that we learn the whole language. CP