“Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”
— Holocaust survivor Elie Weisel, Nobel Peace Prize address, 1986
The media’s role is to inform and enlighten, to be the eyes and ears of the people, and to monitor power. However, in their coverage of the Palestine-Israel quagmire they have consistently favored the partisan views of the United States and Israeli governments at the expense of the Palestinian experience. And they have failed the public in understanding this longest of Middle East conflicts, which is at the heart of so many of the problems in the region.
Not only is Israel waging a military campaign in the occupied territories, but a second battle is being waged through the American media to ensure continued U.S. support for its expansionist policies.
Israel’s colonizing aims, begun in the 1900s, were laid out in the doctrine of Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of Revisionist Zionism, now the ideological cradle of today’s ruling Likud Party.
In his writings, “The Iron Wall” and “The Iron Law,” Jabotinsky set out the Zionist rationale for carving a Jewish state out of most of Palestine through force. He wrote, “Zionism is a colonizing adventure and therefore it stands or falls by the question of armed force.
“It is important to build, it is important to speak Hebrew, but unfortunately, it is even more important to be able to shoot. …”
When the 1947 United Nations Special Committee on Palestine partition plan granted 55 percent of Palestine to the future Jewish state, Jews owned 6 percent of the land in Palestine, but they made up only 32 percent of the population. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, Israel expropriated approximately 4.2 million acres of Palestinian land, about 78 percent of historic Palestine.
The dispossession continues today, with settlement enterprises covering about 42 percent of the remaining 22 percent. Palestinian cities, towns, homes, orchards and businesses have been systematically destroyed and repopulated by more than 650,000 illegal Jewish settlers.
Israel’s defenders say that the causes of violence go far back in history. However, the raison d’etre of Palestinian violence is not rooted in some inherent hatred of Jews, or historical animosity, or religion. It is about the land.
Without this historical context, today’s news events seem episodic and inconsequential.
After the 1967 Six Day War, Jewish organizations undertook a propaganda campaign to ensure Israel’s legitimacy and cement its relationship with the United States. It included the conflation of Israel with the Holocaust and victimhood and the writing of a mythical history of Palestine as an unpopulated desert that “good” Israelis made bloom.
That uncontested and false tale reverberated in Prime Minister Golda Meir’s outrageous 1969 claim that, “There was no such thing as a Palestinian; they never existed.”
In 1982, the narrative changed with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. The indiscriminate bombing of Beirut and the death of more than 17,000, mostly civilians, turned the Arabs into victims and the Israelis into victimizers and temporarily sullied the carefully crafted story.
To regain control of public opinion, the American Jewish Congress sponsored a 1983 conference in Jerusalem with the goal of devising a strategy for reselling Israel. Top executives, journalists and academics from Israel and the United States developed talking points that are recognizable in today’s rhetoric, which stresses the following ideas:
* Israel’s strategic importance to the United States.
* Israel’s physical vulnerability.
* Israel’s shared cultural values with the West.
* Israel’s desire for peace.
Participants also understood the importance of an all-out campaign to convince the public that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are not an obstacle to peace. Thousands of illegal Jewish settlements constructed on Palestinian land are a testament to the effectiveness of that strategy.
The conference also produced the Hasbara (propaganda) Project. Its goal was to guarantee that the United States did not waver in its economic and military support, and to make it almost impossible to critique Israel’s actions.
News organizations have come to expect pressure if they go outside the level of acceptable discourse regarding Israel. Hence, they avoid potentially troublesome subjects and punish journalists who expose them. For example, Ariel Sharon, then minister of defense, filed a libel suit after Time magazine accused him of encouraging the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. The lobbying group Americans for a Safe Israel filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission requesting that NBC’s license be revoked over its reporting of the invasion.
CBS faced much the same criticism in 2012 after correspondent Bob Simon’s “60 Minutes” report about Palestinian Christians living under Israeli occupation aired. The report challenged the Israeli narrative that Islamic extremists were making Christians’ lives difficult; instead, they complained about the hardships of living under occupation.
The American-born Israeli ambassador, Michael Oren, pressured the president of CBS News to quash the program. It aired only after the ambassador received the time he demanded for a rebuttal. A full-page advertisement in The Wall Street Journal excoriated Simon.
Alternative narratives such as Simon’s are often dismissed as anti-Israel or given the most intimidating and feared of all labels — anti-Semitic. The fear of this slur has been a potent rhetorical device to shield Israel from fault, and has proven fatally effective. The accusation has destroyed the careers and reputations of journalists, academics, politicians and entertainers.
Helen Thomas, a respected member of the Washington press corps, had her 57-year career end after she publicly questioned U.S. support for Israel. An onslaught of well-orchestrated denunciations forced her retirement in 2010. Thomas later remarked, “You cannot criticize Israel in this country and survive.”
President Jimmy Carter, before and after publication of his book, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” received his share of intimidation and vitriolic accusations of anti-Semitism. Ran Baratz, communications director appointee for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, accused President Obama of “modern-day anti-Semitism” after the United States reached an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program in July 2015.
Masterfully, Israel has marketed a number of myths that have become a part of the media lexicon. One of the most glaring fabrications sold to Americans is that the struggle is between two peoples with equal resources and claims. In reality it is a conflict between the colonizer, Israel, and the colonized, Palestinians.
Israel, the size of New Jersey, has an estimated defense budget of $20 billion. It has 4,170 tanks, 1,500 large artillery pieces, 10,185 armored fighting vehicles, 2,000 combat airplanes, 15 to 20 warships, five submarines, 200 to 300 nuclear weapons, 175,000 regular troops and 430,000 reserves.
Palestinians have none of these. And unlike Israel, Palestinians have few organized groups to tell their story or to lobby for them before the U.S. Congress. Yet Tel Aviv continues to perpetuate the myth of vulnerability.
Another persistent fallacy is that of gratuitous violence. Words matter; they manage perceptions.
Violent Jewish settlers are referred to as extremists, while Palestinians reacting to occupation are called terrorists. Palestinians “attack,” while Israelis merely “retaliate.”
With a compliant U.S. press, Israel’s propaganda network has successfully linked the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in the United States to Palestinians’ continued rebellion in the territories.
In 2015, Netanyahu suggested a relationship between the carnage in Paris and the Palestinian struggle for freedom, saying “Behind these terrorist attacks stands radical Islam which seeks to destroy us, the same radical Islam that struck in Paris and threatens Europe.”
In another unchallenged remark, the prime minister contended that “ISIS and Hamas are branches of the same political tree.” Whatever one may think of Hamas, it is not the Islamic State. It is an internal resistance movement in a singular battle with Israel.
The association of terrorism with Arabs, Muslims and the Middle East has created an unhealthy climate of indifference and fear in many Americans’ minds.
The media are replete with anti-Arab stereotypes, exemplified by the popular TV program “Homeland,” based on the Israeli series Hatafim (Prisoners of War). Middle Easterners rarely are presented in their full humanity, making them vulnerable to aggression. Racist remarks and vitriol directed at Muslims have become acceptable political theater and commonplace in the rhetoric of some American politicians.
News organizations unquestionably proffer another fiction: that Washington has been an “honest and neutral” interlocutor in Palestine-Israel peace negotiations.
Israel’s viability has been based on the $500 billion in aid it has received from the United States since 1949 and the $6 billion it continues to receive annually. American administrations have vetoed all but one U.N. Security Council resolutions critical of Israel. Essentially, the United States has been financing the occupation and rewarding colonial policies.
America has more often than not been an obstacle to peace because of its bias in favor of Israel. The 2000 Camp David meeting is a poignant example. The press praised Prime Minister Ehud Barak for proposing the “most generous offer ever made” to the Palestinians while rebuking President Yassir Arafat for failing to accept Barak’s offer.
Had the press published maps, the prime minister’s proposed Palestinian state would have looked like a collection of balkanized enclaves. All Jewish settlements and roads in the West Bank would remain, and Israel’s control over Palestinian borders, air space and water would stay intact. Palestinians would have been encircled by hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers on small disconnected islands, or Bantustans, much as they are today.
To further understand the imbalanced standard of reporting, it is useful to look at whose voices are heard.
Pro-Israeli syndicated columnists Thomas Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, George Will, Jonah Goldberg, Max Boot and David Brooks — whose son serves in the Israeli army — dominate newspapers’ op-ed pages. Wolf Blitzer was the editor of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s journal Near East Report before joining CNN as its chief political anchor. Such prominent magazines as The New Republic, Atlantic Monthly and Commentary are Israel-centric.
The occupation — with its curfews, 500 checkpoints and harassment by the Israeli army — has made access by journalists to the Palestinian experience almost impossible.
The Committee to Protect Journalists lists the West Bank as one of the worst places to be a journalist. Palestinians who are allowed on rare occasions to speak or write in the mainstream media have to use language acceptable to Israel and America.
Israelis who oppose their government’s policies are excluded as well. Ignored are the growing number of Israelis refusing military service in the occupied territories.
One such group, Breaking the Silence, founded in 2004, has published the chilling stories of abuse and devastation told by 700 former soldiers who served in combat units in the West Bank and Gaza. Peace movements such as Women in Black — Israeli women who gather every Friday on main squares in some cities with signs that read, “Stop the Occupation” in Arabic, Hebrew and English — have received inadequate coverage in the United States.
News companies give little attention to how the rest of the world has responded to the occupation.
The global human rights campaign represented by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement is growing internationally. The European Union recently announced that some goods produced on land seized by Israel in the 1967 war must be labeled “made in settlements.”
A Palestine Media Watch survey of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and USA Today revealed that of 680 op-ed columns on Palestine and Israel published between September 2000 and December 2005, 214 were written by Israelis and 86 by Palestinians.
A 2004 study of the Associated Press coverage disclosed that Israeli children’s deaths were covered at a rate of 7.5 times greater than Palestinian children’s deaths.
A six-month study of The (Portland) Oregonian by Americans United for Palestinian Human Rights observed that its headlines had reported Israeli children’s deaths to Palestinian’s at a rate of 44 to 1.
The treatment of Palestinians in Israeli prisons is hardly ever reported. The number of Palestinian political prisoners per capita is the highest in the world. More than 9,000 Palestinians are imprisoned by Israel (4,000 without trial). Amnesty International and numerous human rights organizations list torture in Israeli prisons as a major concern.
The right of return for millions of Palestinian refugees, the unequal allocation of water resources, the concrete wall of separation built on Palestinian land are among the myriad of crucial but unexplored news stories.
The media’s tone deafness to the Palestinian condition has contributed to Americans’ support of policies that are contradictory to their interests. Uncritical U.S. support for Israel has fueled anti-Americanism and radicalism throughout the Middle East. What is best for Israel has not always been best for the United States.
American government officials and media rarely ask whether Israel is strategically important to the United States as was once believed during the Cold War years. Close scrutiny suggests it is not.
Gen. David Petraeus, while head of the U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March 2010, “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR (Area of Operations). …
“The conflict foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the AOR. …”
The Anti-Defamation League was so alarmed by the general’s testimony that it issued a statement condemning it.
News organizations must be held accountable for their lack of skepticism and reliance on officially constructed realities. Journalism functions best when it questions and challenges power.
American politicians and journalists must wake up to the fact that the strife in the Middle East is rooted in the Western and Israeli colonial and imperialist policies of the past and present. Unless acknowledged and reversed, anti-American sentiment and the tumult will continue unabated.
The urgency to speak up and to witness the corrosive reality of the occupation of Palestine and to address its ethical dimensions is greater than ever.
Inside and outside of Israel, neutrality and silence in the face of injustice is not an option.
M. Reza Behnam, Ph.D., a scholar specializing in the politics and cultures of the Middle East, is the author of the award-winning book, “Cultural Foundations of Iranian Politics.”