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"A Vast Wasteland" of Slanted Coverage

The American Press and the Middle East

by JAMES ABOUREZK

In the May 3 edition of the International Herald Tribune (but not its domestic sister publication, The New York Times), Raja Shehadeh wrote a personal observation resulting from his experience as a human rights worker in Palestine. Here are two paragraphs from his article:

It was 1982 [when Shehadeh first met Sabri Garaib]. In the many years since then Sabri repeatedly fought the settlers in order to hold on to his land. He would go to the Military Objection Committee to counter claims challenging his ownership. He would appeal to the Israeli high court, using every recourse available. He would go to jail for fighting off settlers who tried to stop him from farming or for removing fences they’d put up. But the settlement kept growing all around his house, claiming his land one acre at a time.

Sabri died on April 18. He was 73. It had been several years since I’d gone to his house, and when I visited recently to pay my condolences to his family I was appalled by what I saw. The house was hemmed in on three sides, with only a few yards of space left for a garden between the house and a gigantic steel fence. To get to the front door, I had to pass through a metal gate that is operated from the army camp nearby and walk down a narrow walkway lined with more steel fencing. Two cameras placed by the army monitor all movement through the gate.

The point I’m trying to make here is that stories such as Sabri’s are told every day in the Israeli-occupied West Bank—but nowhere else. Not only is there a daily theft of land by the Israelis from the Palestinians, but if the American media would dare cover it, we would learn about the daily killings of Palestinians, living under a military occupation, the daily humiliation of Palestinians, the hardships, the disruption of normal life just because they are Palestinians, all of which go unreported here in America.

Unless we read CounterPunch, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Philip Weiss’ blog, Mondoweiss, or hear from friends in the West Bank, we Americans are spared the agony of stories about those trying to live under the Israeli boot. We, of course, cannot help but sympathize with the blind Chinese dissident whose wife and family are threatened if he makes too much noise. His story made headlines in America for several days, and that’s good and proper. But there are hundreds of such stories like his happening in the occupied West Bank every day that we never hear of…ever.

Part of the reason is that the American media has been housebroken when it comes to Israel’s illegal actions. Should just one reporter or one politician call attention to what is happening on a daily basis in the West Bank, or in Gaza, the entire weight of the Israel Lobby comes down on the poor soul who objects to such treatment. Editors and reporters have become conditioned to self-censorship.

The most recent example of what happens when journalists stray from the party line was Bob Simon’s story for CBS’s “60 Minutes” that highlighted the diminishing Christian community in the occupied West Bank, including in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. (The video can be viewed at www.wrmea.org.) While the story was being prepared for broadcast, Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren got wind of it. Apparently the first call he made was to the president of CBS in an attempt to kill the story. That failed, and the broadcast went on. Then Simon confronted Oren on camera, letting him vent about the story, which Oren said he was afraid would be a “hatchet job” on Israel. But to the American-born ambassador’s surprise and amazement, instead of backing down Simon told Oren that predicting how a story would turn out and trying to kill it was unheard of.

Oren did not look at all comfortable with Simon, and with CBS’s refusal to run in the other direction. My admiration for Bob Simon at that point increased by several orders of magnitude. It called to mind Mike Wallace’s story a number of years ago about the condition of Jews living in Syria. The Israel Lobby had taken up the issue of what they called the “mistreatment” of Syrian Jews, making it a clarion call for supporters of Israel to gain support for some kind of punishment of Syria as a result. So Mike Wallace took his “60 Minutes” crew to Syria to do a story on Syrian Jews. His conclusion, after his investigation, was that Syrian Jews were being treated no differently than Syrian Arabs. When that show ran on “60 Minutes,” even Wallace, who was Jewish, came under heavy assault for not toeing the party line.

Wallace’s response was to return to Syria and to do another story on Syrian Jews. His conclusion was the same: that there was no unequal treatment of Jews in Syria. That silenced the Israel Lobby, forcing it to find another cause around which it could rally.

Wanting to find out for myself, on my next trip to Syria I introduced myself to a Jewish shopkeeper in Souk Hamadieh and asked him about conditions for Jews in Syria. He had no complaints, and told me he had been urged to move to New York because those doing the urging thought he would get better treatment there. He did go to New York to look around, he said, but he didn’t like it there, so he returned to Damascus and to the shop that his family owned in the Souk. Each time I went to Damascus I stopped to visit him, until one day when his brother told me that he finally had moved to New York.

The New York Times is said to be the best newspaper in the world, but when it comes to Middle East coverage, it is one of the worst. Its correspondents in Israel are, and have been, severely conflicted.

Isabel Kershner, a Times correspondent in Israel, is married to Hirsh Goodman, who is a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, with connections to the Israeli military, who in February called for Israel to attack Iran. “Not because they are going to blow up Israel,” he told a Canadian synagogue audience. “They’ve got missiles that can reach the East Coast of America, but what happens if the ayatollah…wakes up one morning and destroys the Saudi fields and the Kuwaiti oilfields and the West is left with no energy?”

Ethan Bronner, for years the Times Jerusalem bureau chief, was moved back to New York in February of this year, but for many of his years in Israel, his son was serving in the IDF. Bronner, who has been lauded as an exceptional journalist, should not have been placed in a position where he had to write about an army in which his son served. But it took years for the Times to move him away from Middle East coverage.

Much of the American media depend on The New York Times for leadership in the sense of understanding which news stories are important and which are not. As things now stand, what happens to the hapless Palestinians is not considered worthy of press coverage, —certainly not by The New York Times (or, even worse, The Washington Post). Except for “60 Minutes’” recent departure from the Middle East coverage norm, there exists, in the words of former FCC chairman Newton Minow, a “vast wasteland” of either slanted or no coverage of what happens in the West Bank and Gaza on a daily basis.

What is important about such news coverage, or its absence, is that American taxpayers are unknowingly financing the brutality of the Israeli occupation of Palestinians. What might happen to the solidly pro-Israel Congress should their constituents discover that their representatives and senators are voting to send taxpayers’ money to finance Israeli brutality, land theft and the theft of valuable water, as well as other disgusting behavior that we are not told about by our media? My guess is that many of our members of Congress—not to mention Mitt Romney and Barack Obama—would suddenly discover Middle East human rights violations in the occupied territories, just as they have discovered them in China.

Israel controls 89 percent of the water from West Bank aquifers and diverts most of it to the settlements, where it irrigates lawns and swimming pools. As a result, the Palestinians consume less than a fourth of the water used by an average Israeli. Amnesty International reports that Israel has blocked infrastructure projects that would improve the water supply for Palestinians—perhaps because Israelis have found selling water to the Palestinians to be a profitable business.

Halper concludes, “The bottom line is that, in one way or another, Israel already controls the strategic land it needs to foreclose any viable, sovereign Palestinian state…” The one leader who could achieve a just peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, unite all Palestinian factions behind it, and guarantee that it would last, is Marwan Barghouti. Barghouti is currently serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison, sent there after a trial that “was a mockery,” according to Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery.

Barghouti has long favored a two-state solution based on Israel’s return to its 1967 borders. He is revered by Palestinians and widely respected abroad, even by New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who came to know Barghouti before he went to prison. In his April 4 column Friedman includes a quote from Haaretz noting that Barghouti “is the most authentic leader Fatah has produced, and he can lead his people to an agreement…If Israel wanted an agreement with the Palestinians it would have released him from prison by now.”

It seems clear that Israel does not.

JAMES ABOUREZK is a former U.S. Senator from South Dakota.  He is the author of Advise & Dissent: Memoirs of South Dakota and the U.S. Senate, a  memoir now available only on Amazon’s Kindle.  His e mail address is:  georgepatton45@gmail.com