What Rates a Headline in the Middle East?

It was an all too familiar scene in Afula on Monday. Screams, sirens and blood stained ground. When Hiba Daraghmeh detonated the explosives strapped around her just outside a shopping mall, she took the lives of three innocent people in a most brutal fashion. Most of the American public knows about this, as it quickly became headline news across television screens and photographs of the horror graced the front page of most top American newspapers. On the same day, in what seemed like another world, relatives of 13-year old Khaled Naser were in mourning. He had been shot to death earlier that day by Israeli troops. His fate wasn’t worth a headline, for it was suicide bombings that the press focused on in recent days as threats to a new Mideast peace proposal.

Within 48 hours from Saturday, May 18, there were five suicide bomb attacks in Israel and the Palestinian Territories. This sudden surge in attacks was pointed to by all major US media as having the potential to derail President George Bush’s new Mideast “road map”. The Chicago Tribune headlined on May 20 with “‘Road Map’ In Peril.” USA Today declared it “In Tatters”, and the Washington Post announced “Peace Plan in Jeopardy.” A previous Post headline stated that “Bombings Undercut Peace Plan.” In response to a bombing in the Jerusalem suburb French Hill (which is technically in the occupied West Bank) on Sunday, in which seven Israelis lost their lives, Israeli Prime Minister cancelled a planned trip to see President Bush where the two were to discuss the road map plan. Reuter’s ran a headline that day declaring, “Suicide Bombing Threatens Peace Plan”. Sharon’s cancellation was accepted by the American media as a reasonable response to a surge in terrorist attacks and Palestinian factions were seen as attempting to stop what otherwise was an ongoing process. As a result, the American public is being told that Palestinian militants, if not the Palestinian Authority, is the only thing blocking the way to peace.

On May 1, the very day that President Bush unveiled his road map plan, the Israeli army launched a major invasion deep into Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Backed by heavy armor and helicopter gunships, the Israeli forces fought their way to a five-story apartment where a suspected militant lived in the crowded Shijaia neighborhood. A major gunbattle ensued with bullets crashing into adjacent homes, lasting from 1am until 5pm when the Israelis finally blew up the building. In the end, 13 Palestinians including two young children and an elderly man laid dead. One of Sharon’s spokesmen, David Baker, defended the attack, claiming that “these activities will continue wherever and whenever they are needed, without a connection to other outside considerations.” (Washington Post, May 1, 2003)

While Palestinian officials were quick to point to the Gaza attack as a demonstration that Israel was out to sabotage Bush’s road map, few in the American press picked it up. Absolutely no major American media made any allusion to this incident when discussing the recent spate of suicide bombings. Israeli attacks continued however, including an assassination of a top Hamas commander on May 8 and large scale incursions into Khan Younis and Beit Hanoun where dozens of homes were demolished with many injured and scores left homeless.

The Israeli method of “shoot-first” claimed several lives unnecessarily in the same period. On May 8, Israeli snipers outside Khan Younis without warning shot and killed a mentally disabled man. On the same day, Zaher Hamad al-Shouli, a daily sight at the Israeli checkpoint outside Nablus was shot dead while carting goods across. Also in Khan Younis on May 12, two farmers were shot while working in their field, killing one. Two days later, Israeli soldiers at the Netzarim checkpoint shot three Palestinian policemen to death while they were on duty at their usual post. According to the Palestine Red Crescent Society, between Bush’s announcement of the road map on May 1 and Monday’s suicide bombing, 58 Palestinians were killed, including ten children. In almost every one of these instances, Palestinian claimed Israel was attempting to disrupt the peace process. The American media paid little attention.

In fact, in the time leading up to the road map announcement and afterwards, Sharon’s government made several announcements pertaining to reservations with the plan, and no official acceptance ever came across. Several key provisions in the road map have for long not been up for negotiation for Sharon’s government, such as compensation for Palestinian refugees and the restriction of settlement activity in the occupied territories. Even when Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Sharon last week to discuss settlements, the Israeli Prime Minister stated in the New York Times (May 14, 2003), “In my mind this is not an issue on the horizon right now.” The week before, on May 8, London’s Independent dedicated a full article to note that Sharon would refuse to negotiate anything until the Palestinian Authority renounced the demand for a “right of return” for Palestinian refugees. While Palestinian Prime Minister Abbas publicly dropped all reservations to the US-backed plan, Ariel Sharon’s government has raised no less than fifteen concerns that they say bar its immediate implementation. Quietly in the background, Sharon dispatched Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon to visit the US in the beginning of May to actively campaign against Bush’s road map and any notion of an independent Palestinian state. Just before his trip, the messianic Minister Elon declared in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz that Islam “is on the way to disappearing.”

While the American media noted Sharon’s balking on Bush’s plan, including a New York Times editorial on May 7 sighting it as a “delaying tactic”, it has not been headline news. Few American papers have given much space to the obstructions Sec. Powell faced on his meeting with Sharon, or that Sharon was supposed to meet with President Bush to protest parts of the road map that he disliked. In the meantime, Abbas’ concessions have gone ignored. Once Powell left Israel last week, the Israeli government sealed the borders of the Gaza Strip from all internationals, preventing UN and aid workers from entering. This too got scant attention in the press and no mention on the nightly news.

Now in the wake of the much-publicized terror attacks, the American press with front page news and breaking television alerts has potentially led the public to believe that it only the Palestinians who are not only blocking peace efforts, but are the sole perpetuators of violence. Not one major paper tied the spate of Hamas bombings to Israel’s continued assassination of Hamas leaders, including the recent killing of Iyad Bek two weeks ago. This would not be the first time it looked as if Sharon was trying to provoke Palesitnian militants. On July 23, 2002, the very day Hamas and Islamic Jihad were due to announce a first-ever unilateral cease-fire, an Israeli jet dropped a 500-lb bomb on the home of a top Hamas commander, Saleh Shehade, killing him and 16 others, including nine children. No major US media made the suggestion that perhaps the recent bombings were just what Sharon hoped for, to give him an excuse to further forestall any peace effort. Only the Chicago Tribune’s report of Monday’s bombing included the fact that Israel refused to accept Bush’s plan in its opening paragraph.

As the US has proved so pivotal in determining the course of the vicious Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the American public deserves press coverage that gives equal weight to all events in the region. When only suicide bombings garner headline coverage, average Americans are easily led to believe that most if not all Palestinians are against peace and wish to continue attacking civilians. There is also a responsibility to inform readers and viewers of all aspects when making inferences. The American media was quick to assume that the recent bombings could hurt the peace process, but they gave little note to the numerous obstructions that Ariel Sharon’s government has placed, or the Israeli army’s continued unprovoked attacks on Palestinian cities. Without a better balance and deeper coverage of this topic by the press, Bush’s road map will probably fail and Americans wont understand what the real causes were.


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