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Another Escalation from the Palestinians

Israeli "Retaliation" and Double Standards

by JONATHAN COOK

The killing by Palestinian militants of two Israeli soldiers and the capture of a third from an army post close to the Gaza Strip set the scene for Israeli "reprisals" and "retaliation", according to the reports of BBC correspondents in Israel and Gaza yesterday.

The attack by the Palestinians, who sneaked through tunnels under the electronic fence surrounding Gaza, marked a "major escalation in cross-border tension" (Alan Johnston) that threatened to overturn "a week of progress on two fronts" (John Lyon): namely, the recent talks between Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Jordan, and between rival Palestinian groups Fatah and Hamas.

Thus, according to the BBC’s analysis, this attack ends the immediate chances for "peace" negotiations and provides the context for the next round of the conflict between the Israeli army and the Palestinians of Gaza. We are left to infer that all the suffering the army inflicts in the coming days and weeks should be attributed to this moment of "escalation" by the Palestinians.

We can ignore the weeks of shelling by the Israeli army of Gaza, the firing of hundreds of missiles into the crowded Strip that have destroyed Palestinian lives and property, while spreading terror among the civilian population and deepening the psychological trauma suffered by a generation of children.

We can ignore the deaths of more than 30 civilians, and dozens of horrific injuries, in the past few weeks at the hands of the Israeli military, including three children hit in a botched air strike last week, and a heavily pregnant woman and her doctor brother killed a day later as a missile slammed into the room where they were eating dinner.

We can ignore the blockade of Gaza’s "borders" by the Israeli army for months on end, which has prevented Palestinians in the Strip from trading goods at crossing points with Israel and from receiving vital supplies of food and medicines. As a captive population besieged by Israeli soldiers, Gazans are facing a humanitarian catastrophe sanctioned by Israeli government policy and implemented by the Israeli army.

We can ignore Israel’s bullying of the international community to connive in the starving of the Hamas-led government of funds and diplomatic room for manoeuvre, thereby preventing the elected Palestinian leadership from running Gaza. So desperate is the situation there that Hamas officials are being forced to smuggle in millions of dollars of cash stuffed in suitcases to pay salaries.

And finally we can ignore the violation of Palestinian territory by Israeli commandos who infiltrated Gaza a day before the Palestinian attack to kidnap two Palestinians Israel claims are terrorists. They have been "disappeared", doubtless to be be held in administrative detention, where they can denied access to lawyers, the courts and, of course, justice.

None of this provides the context for the Palestinian attack on the army post — any more than, in the BBC’s worldview, do the previous four decades of occupation. None is apparently relevant to understanding the Palestinian attack, or for judging the legitimacy of Israel’s imminent military "reprisals".

In short, according to the BBC, we can ignore Israel’s long-standing policy of unilateralism — a refusal to negotiate meaningfully with the Palestinians, either the old guard of Fatah or the new one of Hamas — with its resort to a strategy of collective punishment of Gaza’s population to make it submit to the continuing occupation.

In the skewed moral and news priorities of the BBC, the killing of two Israeli soldiers by Palestinian militants — the "escalation" — provides a justification for "fierce retaliation" against Gaza, with the inevitable toll on Palestinian civilians and militants alike. The earlier killing of tens of Palestinian civilians by the Israeli military, however, is not presented as justification for yesterday’s Palestinian retaliation against the army.

In other words, on the scale of moral outrage the BBC ranks the deaths of Israeli soldiers enforcing an illegal occupation far above those of Palestinian civilians enduring the illegal occupation.

There is another notable asymmetry in the BBC’s assessment of the "escalation". Participation by the military wing of Hamas in the attack is evidence, suggest the reporters, of the role of the Palestinian leadership in "escalating tension". But the killing by the Israeli army of a Palestinian family of seven on a Gaza beach on June 9, and many more civilians since, was apparently not an "escalation", even though it provoked Hamas to renounce a ceasefire it had maintained for 16 months in the face of continuous Israeli military assaults.

So how is the ordinary viewer to make sense of these events — the endless "cycle of violence" — with the BBC as guide. (And the BBC is no worse, and possibly better, than most of other Western broadcasters. At least its reporter Alan Johnston is based in Gaza.)

Not only do its reporters exhibit the biases associated with its institutional racism — as an organisation, the BBC chooses to identify with Israeli concerns before Palestinian ones — but they then compound this distortion by repeating uncritically Israel’s own misrepresentation of events.

The reporters, like so many of their colleagues, fall into the trap of presenting the conflict through the eyes of the Israeli government, the same government whose prime minister, Ehud Olmert, last week proudly displayed his ethnic chauvinism by setting the suffering of the Jewish residents of Sderot, who face a mostly non-lethal smattering of Palestinian home-made Qassam rockets, far above the rising death toll of Gaza’s civilians from the army’s constant aerial and artillery bombardment. "I am sorry with all my heart for the residents of Gaza," Olmert said, "but the lives and well-being of Sderot’s residents are more important than those of Gaza residents." In other words, a potential threat to a single Jew is more important than the deaths of dozens of Palestinian innocents.

Thus we learn without comment from the BBC that Olmert has denounced the killing of the two soldiers as "terrorism", even though the word cannot describe an attack by an occupied people on an occupying army. How is it possible for a few men with light arms to terrorise one of the most powerful armies in the world? What next: are we to listen sympathetically to claims by the US that its soldiers are being "terrorised" by Iraqi insurgents?

The defence that the BBC is simply reporting Israel’s position does not stand up to scrutiny. Is it even conceivable that we might hear a BBC reporter neutrally repeat a Hamas statement that the Israeli army is terrorising Palestinians by reckless shelling civilians in Gaza, even though the word’s usage in this case would better satisfy the dictionary definition? The shells most certainly do spread terror among Gaza’s civilian population.

We hear too without comment that Olmert is holding both Hamas and the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas responsible for the attack. The BBC dutily repeats Israeli claims that Abbas has the resources to fight "terror" even as the money to pay Palestinian security forces is held by foreign banks unwilling, at Israeli and American behest, to hand it over, and as Hamas and Abbas are locked in battle for control of the Palestinians’ shrinking government.

Does common sense not recoil from the suggestion that both Hamas and Abbas can be equally blamed for the attack when the two are bitter rivals for power? Or that either can be held accountable when Israel has refused to negotiate with them or treat them as the genuine representatives of the Palestinian people?

Again, would the BBC report with due solemnity claims by the Palestinians that they hold Olmert and Peretz personally guilty for the civilian deaths in Gaza over the past fortnight, even though in an enlightened world both should be standing trial for war crimes?

Instead, however implausible the Israeli version of reality, the BBC happily sows confusion on behalf of the Israeli army. Like other broadcasters, it credulously reports preposterous arguments seeking to exonerate the Israeli army of responsibility for the shelling of the beach in Gaza that killed a Palestinian family of seven. It treats as equally credible the army’s belated version in which Palestinian militants are said to have laid a single mine at a favourite seaside picnic spot in the futile hope of preventing the Israeli navy landing along the Strip’s miles of coastline. (In consequence, the BBC excludes the seven dead and dozens of Palestinian injured in that Israeli attack from its list of recent civilian casualties in Gaza).

And both BBC reporters note gravely Israel’s concerns that this is the first time Palestinian militants have broken out of the fenced-off Strip since Israel withdrew from Gaza nearly a year ago. Somehow the fact that the Palestinians have briefly escaped from their cage appears to make the attack all the more shocking not only for Israel but for the two reporters.

This attack in Israel, they tell us, is the most serious to date, with the implication that it is therefore illegitimate and part of the same "escalation". Even ignoring the fact that this attack was against Israeli soldiers besieging, imprisoning and shelling the Palestinians of Gaza, does the BBC not to pause to consider the double standard it is applying?

Was the Israeli army’s incursion into Gaza a day earlier to capture two alleged Palestinian militants not an equal escalation? Was it not an equal violation of Palestinian sovereignty? Of course not. The BBC knows, as do the rest of us, that the army never really left Gaza and the occupation never really ended. But you won’t hear that from any of its reporters.

JONATHAN COOK is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming "Blood and Religion: The Unmasking of the Jewish and Democratic State" published by Pluto Press, and available in the United States from the University of Michigan Press. His website is www.jkcook.net