Can Palestine be Put Back Into the Equation?
"When we demonstrate non-violently the world at least is with us," a young Palestinian resident of the West Bank village of Bilin recently told British journalist Graham Usher. "When we resist violently, it isn’t."
Usher, a veteran correspondent in Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories, was describing a non-violent protest against Israel’s separation wall that has been running continually since February in this tiny village situated three miles from Israel’s 1967 border. Palestinian residents of Bilin, Palestinian activists from neighboring villages, Israeli peace activists, and internationals from the International Solidarity Movement have maintained an almost permanent presence in Bilin to protest the confiscation of the majority of the village’s farmland for construction of the wall. The protesters have committed themselves to non-violent tactics, even prohibiting stone-throwing. In response, Israeli security forces have fired live ammunition and rubber-coated bullets into the crowds, beaten and teargassed protesters and, in at least one instance caught on film, sent in provocateurs posing as Palestinians who threw stones at police, provoking an assault on the protesters and the arrest of several Palestinians. More than 100 Palestinians, Israelis, and internationals have been injured by Israeli police and military. And construction of the wall moves on inexorably.
This Palestinian non-violence is an edifying spectacle, worthy of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. But one wonders how the young Palestinian’s hope that the world will stand in solidarity with the Palestinians if they are non-violent can ever be realized. For how will the world ever know? How will Israelis and Americans, let alone the world, ever know that Palestinians and their few friends in the Israeli and the international peace movements are risking their lives for the principle that Israel’s violence and aggression against Palestinians should be met with non-violent, non-aggressive resistance?
Who in the world cares? Apparently no one. A search of the Washington Post and New York Times archives for the name Bilin (including in its other transliteration, Bil’in) turns up nothing in the Post and only two items in the Times, both merely brief afterthoughts at the end of long wrap-up articles, both limited to two sentences about Israeli forces "clashing" with protesters, both dating five months into the months-long protest, and neither mentioning the non-violent nature of the protest or its duration. If CNN and the television networks have mentioned Bilin at all, the coverage has been minimal.
An even smaller village named Khirbet Tana in the north central West Bank fell into the same kind of oblivion, only worse, when in early July the Israeli military totally leveled it, and no one but Ha’aretz correspondent Amira Hass noticed. Almost every one of the village’s structures, housing its 450 people and its large flock of sheep, was destroyed; only the 200-year-old mosque and two other structures still stand. But this small-scale ethnocide was of no interest to the self-described newspaper of record; the New York Times took no notice. Nor did any other major U.S. paper, perhaps because to do so would have required recognizing, as Hass did, that, besides destroying "a venerable social fabric," Israel’s destructive action was "yet another method by which Israel attacks the broad margins of the Palestinian West Bank and dispossesses their occupants, in preparation for their annexation to Israel."
Palestine is fighting for its life in near-total political darkness. A particular horror always surrounds murders that occur in darkness, with no one to aid the victim or even tell the tale of his death throes. Atrocities like the 1964 murder of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi arouse such horror, as do the murders of "desaparecidos" in 1970s Argentina, and the middle-of-the-night knocks on the door in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia that meant disappearance and certain death. Such horror is being committed against Palestine today. Israel is terrorizing an entire people, clearly intending to disperse this people as a unified national entity and prevent them from ever becoming a viable nation state. But virtually no one lights the pervasive darkness in the media and in public discourse.
Palestine is being slowly done to death by Israel — and death is not too strong a word. It is death through ethnic cleansing. It is death through theft of life-giving land; through murder and intimidation of its people; through the removal even of Arabic road signs pointing to Palestinian towns, as if they no longer exist; through destruction of Palestine’s agricultural base, its economic potential, its transportation system, its water, its infrastructure, its people’s very homes. And hardly anyone in the world knows.
The common elements in the stories of Mississippi, Argentina, and the others are that the victims were terrorized in secret, that they were helpless, and that they were innocent of anything except being what they were: blacks or Jews, or their defenders, or peaceable seekers after justice. No one will ever know their real terror. But because these were innocents, our sense of outrage is limitless. And because they were helpless — utterly without any means of rescue from a lynch mob or a dictatorial security apparatus — our horror is palpable. But where is the horror on behalf of Palestine?
Everyone has something better to do. Most of America has gone shopping, or is on a five-week vacation while war and oppression rage, or has been out to lunch all along. Those who may know something don’t care about the Palestinians, don’t care to fight for simple justice, and don’t fathom the long-range strategic import for the U.S. of continued support for Israel’s oppressive regime. They don’t get how deeply the Arab people feel about the U.S.-supported Israeli terrorism daily being imposed on the Palestinians, or that this is where genuine support for the Palestinians lies, and where hatred of the U.S. festers and terrorism is bred.
Those supposedly in the progressive camp fall broadly into two categories on this issue. In one category are those who actively buttress Israel: who oppose the occupation but believe that Israel-as-Jewish-state is a marvelous enterprise and who therefore cannot bring themselves to criticize Israel itself or to acknowledge Israeli atrocities. In the second category are progressives who may in their most honest private moments recognize the horrors of what is occurring in Palestine but who are so intimidated by fear of being labeled anti-Semitic that they turn away, or who believe that other things, like opposing George Bush or opposing the Iraq war, are more important.
The result is a pervasive silence about Palestine and its fate. Wherever on the spectrum these Zionist and non-Zionist progressives, or the fervent supporters of Israel on the right, or the Christian Zionist supporters, may fall, the bottom line is that virtually no one is paying attention to the death of Palestine. And the problem almost daily grows more serious. As time passes and other large events intervene, Palestine recedes ever farther into the background and is ultimately forgotten altogether. It has become an old story, after all, and it is such a difficult issue, so easy to push aside.
Everyone takes the easy way. Antiwar activists focus on the war where Americans are dying, not where Palestinians are dying and believe that for tactical reasons they should avoid introducing disunity by talking about this issue. Far too many moviemakers who turn out anti-Bush films ignore the Palestinian issue and Israel’s role in U.S. politics altogether. Tikkun and its leader Rabbi Michael Lerner, who for years put themselves forward as the progressive religious voice opposing the occupation, have apparently concluded that they were getting nowhere with their effort to strike a balance between Israel and the Palestinians — always a futile effort in this most unbalanced of conflicts — and have now turned away almost completely, concentrating instead on a campaign to inject spirituality into U.S. politics.
Mainstream Christian churches, although taking some commendable steps toward condemnation of Israel’s separation wall and divestment from companies that support the occupation, are hesitant and extremely slow. The issue is too contentious for most denominations; the brave but tentative steps the Presbyterian church has taken, which it has labored over with excruciating care for a year now without making any definitive move, have caused the church incredible heartburn, from congregants within and particularly from organized Jewish groups, and other Christian sects have feared to go even this far. Theologians and churches that led the way in the civil rights struggle in the U.S. and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and can construct brilliant theses against injustice elsewhere have little, and in some cases nothing, to say about Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. Christian-Jewish dialogue groups for the most part ignore the Palestinian-Israeli issue altogether, refusing even to listen to the facts of the situation on the ground. The Catholic church, under both the present and the recently deceased pope, is so concerned with strengthening its now friendly ties to Judaism and atoning for its relationship to the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s that it too is loath to issue direct criticism of Israeli and U.S. policies toward the Palestinians.
Europe is hardly better. Tony Blair, never willing to look much beyond U.S. limits in setting British policy on the conflict, has apparently decided that his best political move is to capitalize on the London train bombings by emphasizing a new-found Islamophobia. He has become a blustering George Bush in miniature, utterly blinded to the notion that western depredations in the Arab and Muslim world inevitably arouse Arab and Muslim hatred against the West. As for France, a critic of Israel since the de Gaulle era and a stalwart of antiwar, anti-U.S. sentiment during the run-up to the Iraq war, it too has shrugged its shoulders over Palestine and now warmly welcomes Ariel Sharon to Paris. Again, Amira Hass has been the only one to notice the significance of this gesture. After listing the multiple instances of a constant Israeli strangulation of the Palestinians while Jacques Chirac embraces Sharon, Hass wonders, "Why should Chirac and other European leaders take an interest in the millions of trifles of the calculated dispossession, which dictate the lives of the Palestinian people? Trifles that add up to a clear picture: Sharon is determinedly striving to realize the master plan — integrating most of the West Bank into the sovereign State of Israel." She concludes that Europe bears an historic and a moral responsibility for both Israelis and Palestinians and that this "should be enough to obligate Europe not to assist Israel in implementing its master plan."
But of course it will not be enough.
The notion of reframing public discourse has gained currency recently with the popularity of linguist and reframing guru George Lakoff’s small bible on the subject, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Written to help out-of-power Democrats regain the field from conservative Republicans who have spent three or four decades and millions of dollars on think tanks and media consultants to fashion a winning message with mass appeal, Lakoff’s book urges progressives to use the conservatives’ strategy but not their language to do the same for the left. His thesis is that the Republican message, or frame, has filled public discourse, becoming a never-questioned set of assumptions that, like an elephant, overwhelms us and takes over our thinking, to the exclusion of any other line of thought. The only way to counter this is not to confront the elephant directly but to develop and propagate a new framework for thinking that will gradually seep into the public mindset.
Such a reframing of the American mindset on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is most likely the only possible way in which the death of Palestine can be stopped. Some few activists on behalf of Palestinian independence have talked cogently of a campaign to reframe the conflict, of turning around the demise of Palestine by putting forth a new way of thinking about the Palestinians. Like the Republican elephant and the conservative frame of reference, the sacrosanct notion of Israel as a Jewish state and the fact that every reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict revolves around guaranteeing Israel’s continued existence, overwhelms and fills public thinking in the United States so that all other possibilities are secondary and are judged in relation to how they might somewhere, somehow affect Israel’s security and survival. The point of a reframing would be to open public thinking to other possibilities, such as recognition that Palestinian rights in Palestine — the right to genuine independence, to the sanctity of homes and personal property, to a life free of human rights abuses by an occupying power — are as important in a just world as Israel’s right to exist.
But there is good reason to believe that any such reframing is a hopeless task, in no small measure because the Israel-as-Jewish-state frame, built up over decades and based in great part on compassion for Jews as a persecuted people, has such a firm lock on the media that it is utterly impossible to break into this essential conduit to change the message. Ultimately, the media are the only vehicle through which the thinking of antiwar activists, church groups, Zionist and non-Zionist progressives, politicians, and the general public might be changed. But the media will not cooperate. One small example: Amira Hass, almost the lone media voice telling the true story, reports that when she asked a European journalist why this other journalist did not write about the separation wall being built around — that is all the way around, totally enclosing — the East Jerusalem suburb of Anata, the answer was that the journalist’s editors were interested only in the Gaza disengagement because it was action-packed and exciting; the editors were tired of the "repetitious details" of the damage the wall is doing.
Oppression is such a drag.
Something exciting did happen several weeks ago to a Palestinian, but this too went virtually unnoticed in the media. A group of teenage Israeli settlers from the West Bank, come to Gaza to protest the impending disengagement, nearly beat to death a Palestinian teenager as he lay unconscious on the ground, in full view of a group of Israeli soldiers who did nothing and an international press contingent. Newspapers throughout Israel had the grace to be horrified and termed the event a lynching, but the U.S. media ignored it. One has to wonder if the old puzzle about whether a tree falling in the forest makes any noise if there’s no one there to hear it can be applied to the Palestinians: do Palestinians suffering oppression under Israeli occupation really suffer if the media fail to report it?
A comparison of media coverage of the evacuation of settlers from Gaza with coverage of the massive demolition of Palestinian homes that has been going on for years in Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem turns up the same pervasive silence about Palestine. During the disengagement, 900 journalists from around the world gave us day after day of the made-for-TV anguish of 7,000-8,000 settlers and the opportunistic fanatics who came from outside Gaza to support them, but no such theatrics have ever surrounded Palestinian anguish over the literally thousands of homes destroyed and the tens of thousands of innocents left homeless because Israel deemed their land to be in a "security zone" or too close to an Israeli settlement or in the way of the separation wall or simply lacking an impossible-to-obtain building permit. These are the mere repetitious details of oppression, not as emotional or evocative as Jewish pain.
Although the media in the U.S. and in Europe have gone silent about Palestine’s death throes, they seldom miss an opportunity to lecture the Palestinians: Israel is taking a step of surpassing courage in Gaza ("the most significant and painful steps toward peace ever made in the Middle East" trumpeted one newspaper with spectacular hyperbole), and the future now depends entirely on whether the Palestinians behave. "Behaving" means not disturbing the Israelis, not disturbing the media’s sense that peace is just around the corner if only the Palestinians cooperate. "Behaving" means not mentioning, certainly not complaining about, Israel’s massive consolidation and expansion across the West Bank while the world watches Gaza.
"Behaving" means, essentially, surrendering. The new, post-Gaza media spin goes something like the dictum recently laid out on a Fox News Sunday talk show: Israel is out of Gaza, the separation wall has put an end to terrorism, the Palestinians have no remaining leverage and must therefore give up all their demands and "reach an agreement" — meaning, surrender to whatever Israel dictates. Although this is a rightwing prescription, there is little enough difference between the right and the left on this issue that one is probably safe in assuming that something like this formula will become the new truth for the entire spectrum of the mainstream media in the U.S.
Those media commentators and editorialists most inclined to wag fingers at the Palestinians are the ones most likely to ignore what is going on in the West Bank. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl, one of many, devoted an entire column just before the disengagement to his disappointment that the Palestinians had somehow not risen to the occasion. "Palestinian leaders," he pronounced with breathtaking myopia, "appear more focused on using U.S. mediators to extract concessions from Israel than they are on formalizing agreements with the Jewish state" — all the while managing never to mention the West Bank or the multiple steps Israel is taking there to smother Palestine. The latest issue of the Atlantic Monthly carries a 20,000-word article on "How Yasir Arafat Destroyed Palestine" without ever mentioning settlement expansion in the West Bank, the extent of the separation wall, the destruction of Palestinian property, or any of the other ways in which Israel has destroyed Palestine. So goes the phenomenon of Palestine’s disappearance from everyone’s field of vision.
These examples are merely the tip of an iceberg called "the Jewish state": a framework for thinking and public discourse that sees everything Israeli as good, everything Palestinian as bad or, at best, as not worthy of attention, that sees all developments in the region solely in terms of how they affect the existence and survival of Israel as a Jewish state. Thus, Israel is always innocent, always the victim, always needing to defend its existence, whereas any Palestinian action, even non-violent resistance to Israeli aggression, is viewed in terms of how it might affect Israel’s future. Almost inevitably, those who think in these terms will view anything the Palestinians do as threatening to that future.
The media are the principal purveyors of this "Jewish state" frame of reference and therefore the principal purveyors of the frame that regards the Palestinians and their plight as just so many repetitious details. The details of Palestinian oppression are always judged in relation to the media’s sense of the importance of Jewish suffering. The media go silent on the daily Israeli killing of Palestinian civilians, including children — in sniper shootings, in missile attacks, under bulldozed homes, "collaterally" in targeted killings of militant leaders. The killings take place in an atmosphere of what Human Rights Watch recently characterized as total impunity. Media silence and the western indifference that this silence spawns help create this atmosphere, in which Israeli soldiers have license to kill almost whenever they please.
Studies of U.S. and British media coverage show repeatedly that Palestinian civilian deaths receive little media attention while Israeli deaths get disproportionate coverage — leaving the impression that Israelis are dying at rates far higher than Palestinians, when in fact throughout the intifada Palestinian deaths have consistently outnumbered Israeli deaths by three or four times. Few media consumers know the true story of these disproportionate Palestinian deaths. Journalist Alison Weir, director of IfAmericansKnew.org, has done extensive content studies of reporting in major mainstream newspapers and television networks and has found consistently that the media underreport Palestinian deaths by a factor of anywhere from three to 14. During the first year of the intifada (October 2000 through September 2001), for instance, Weir found that, despite the much higher Palestinian death rate, the media covered all Israeli deaths at rates three to four times greater than Palestinian deaths, and reported the deaths of Israeli children at rates up to 14 times greater than Palestinian child deaths. The disparity was just as pronounced in a similar study done by Weir of deaths and how they were reported during 2004, the third year of the intifada.
An in-depth 2004 study of British television treatment of the conflict, including both content and the impact of coverage on audience understanding and attitudes, showed similar distortions. In an article describing the book-length study (Bad News from Israel, by Glasgow University researchers Greg Philo and Mike Berry), a former BBC Middle East correspondent wrote that British radio and television coverage of the intifada was "in the main, dishonest — in concept, approach and execution." Tim Llewellyn, who reported from the Middle East for ten years for BBC, endorsed the book’s conclusions by observing that in his experience "the broadcasters’ language favours the occupying soldiers over the occupied Arabs, depicting the latter, essentially, as alien tribes threatening the survival of Israel, rather than vice versa."
The Glasgow researchers studied British television broadcasts for two years and found that Israelis were quoted or appeared in interviews more than twice as often as Palestinians; that news broadcasts provided no historical information on the origins of the conflict or on the Palestinians’ dispossession in 1948; that the occupation — the word itself as well as the concept of Israeli control over Palestinian territories — was never mentioned in broadcasts; that Israeli settlements and other features of the occupation such as land confiscations were never described as having a role in imposing the occupation. The researchers’ survey of television-watching audiences in Scotland and England found widespread ignorance and confusion about the conflict. Gaps in audience knowledge closely paralleled the gaps in news coverage. Most viewers, not knowing the history and only rarely if ever hearing the word "occupation" used, did not know who was occupying whom. Only an astounding ten percent understood that Israel is occupying Palestinian territory and not the reverse, and most thought the Palestinians always initiated the fighting. As Llewellyn concluded from the study’s findings, the result of television’s "distorted lens" is that "the Israelis have identity, existence, a story the viewer understands. The Palestinians are anonymous, alien, their personalities and their views buried under their burden of plight and the vernacular of ‘terror.’"
One hears these revelations with despair. How is a frame of reference so longstanding, so set in concrete, so much a part of the mindset of the public and the media and politicians ever to be changed? George Lakoff’s formula for reframing the Democrats’ position in the face of the right’s massive investment of money and time toward putting their point of view forward is a very long-term one, which Lakoff measures in terms of years. Science tells us, he says, that the fundamental structure of thought is often deeply lodged in the brain and cannot be changed simply by hearing facts. Before facts will make sense, "they have to fit what is already in the synapses of the brain. Otherwise facts go in and then they go right back out. They are not heard, or they are not accepted as facts, or they mystify us."
Some of this helps explain why media coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict ignores the Palestinian point of view; it simply does not fit with the media’s ingrained thinking — or with the expensively financed and eminently successful lobbying and propaganda campaign of organized supporters of Israel. All this in turn is a major reason why the public does not know the Palestinian narrative; it is not part of the accepted, politically correct public mindset. Israel as oppressor does not fit the image of innocence and morality drummed into all of us, Israel as massively strong does not fit the picture of victimized Jews with which we have all grown up, Israel’s soldiers as killers do not fit the concept of "purity of arms" that we have all been told is instilled in the Israeli military, Israel as perpetrator of ethnocide against a powerless people does not fit the victim-of-genocide image that is embedded in the brains of most Americans.
How to change the images before it is too late? Discussing the difficulty progressives have in reframing the conservatives’ message, Lakoff points out that conservatives can appeal to an established frame and so their message need only be short and punchy to be instantly understandable, whereas progressives, with no such accepted framework to rely on, must go into long, more elaborate, and less appealing explanations. A conservative on television, he notes, can use two words, "tax relief," and be instantly understood, but the progressive must go into a paragraph-long discussion of his own view on taxes. This aptly describes the Palestinians’ difficulty: Israel and its supporters can say "Jewish state" or "threat to Israel’s existence" or "anti-Semitic" and be understood and empathized with instantly. The established framework is that the conflict is all about Israel’s survival; we have all been led to believe for half a century that the Arabs want to destroy Israel as a state and kill Jews, and so the "frame" accepts that Israel — with massive U.S. aid, of course — must defend itself at all costs, that Israel’s security is all-important. No further explanation is needed. In reality, the issue is not Israel’s survival, which is not in danger, but the Palestinians’ survival and the threat to the Palestinians’ existence as a people and a nation. But in order to put this point across, Palestinians must, as a Palestinian woman once put it, "go into books and books of history just to explain why falafel is not an Israeli dish."
The day when a Palestinian can refer to the "threat to Palestinian existence" and be immediately understood and empathized with is far off. The process of changing a mental framework where books of history are required to explain the Palestinian story will necessarily be an extremely long and perhaps impossible one. Lakoff, who is trying to formulate an agenda for the Democratic Party for 2008, claims he believes that for progressives it won’t take as long to change minds and establish a progressive political frame as the thirty years the Republicans took to establish their framework, but even he acknowledges that the process of establishing a new framework is a long one requiring the constant repetition of new facts.
No one has even started repeating the facts on behalf of the Palestinians yet. Lakoff’s time frame for Democrats — set somewhere vaguely between 2008 and thirty years hence — is hardly encouraging for the Palestinians. In fact, one must assume that in the absence of some dramatic and currently unforeseeable change in the situation, the tight boundaries that constrict thinking and limit public discourse on the Palestinian issue will only grow stronger. The growth of the framework that surrounds the conflict — a notably Israel-centered frame from the beginning and one that has always more or less ignored the Palestinian side of the equation — has been a cumulative process over decades, going back not just half a century to Israel’s creation but a century or more to the rise of Zionism, and such a structure of assumptions and misperceptions will not likely be easily undone. Indeed, the likelihood is very remote that anyone among the Palestinians themselves or the minuscule number of their supporters will ever be able to rearrange the thinking of those in Israel, among the American public, in the U.S. media, in Congress, and in the policymaking councils of the current or any future U.S. administration where the life and death of Palestine are ultimately determined.
Palestinians themselves will not disappear, despite Israel’s best efforts, and they will not give up their struggle — not now, after successfully fighting for sixty years against a concerted multinational attempt to make them disappear. But Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, this Israeli violence, is destroying any possibility of Palestinian nationhood, while the media ignore the occupation, politicians ignore Israeli violence, and western publics know and care little about any of it. Palestine and Palestinians are terrorized and murdered in darkness. No one helps them, few note their dying. They are helpless, facing the power of a massive Israeli military machine and a propaganda machine abetted by the major western media.
KATHLEEN CHRISTISON is a former CIA political analyst and has worked on Middle East issues for 30 years. She is the author of Perceptions of Palestine and The Wound of Dispossession. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org