I sometimes despair of my journalist compatriots, particularly when it comes to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
Questions of proprietorial bias, poor governance and puerile obsession aside, we have what passes for a free media in the UK. And, in this liberal society of ours, we are right to defend its position when the political climate hots up. But the TV media’s reporting of the 45-years-long conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians is so hopelessly skewed towards the former that some media organisations, even the BBC, are in danger of becoming apologists for a rogue state that has perpetrated one of the most blatant and enduring injustices of the last 100 years.
Let’s just get a sense of the context here. Since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began in 1967, the Palestinians have been deprived of anything approaching statehood. Indeed, under Israeli rule, they have the status of non-citizens, deprived at will of their livelihoods, their land, their homes, their freedom of movement across their own territory, their dignity and often their lives – indeed, any hope they might have for the future.
Israel and its settler community has constantly chipped away at the Palestinian territories, stealing land and changing the ‘facts on the ground’ to make the barely-vaunted two-state solution nothing more than a vacuous holding position that disguises the inevitable.
The facts on the ground speak for themselves. Israel continues to appropriate and colonise Palestinian land for settlements in contravention of international law. In addition to East Jerusalem, the string of illegal settlements and the land effectively annexed by the ‘Separation Wall’ – which taken together constitutes around a third of the West Bank – Israel has declared its intention to also annex a further third, the territory along the Jordan Valley. Gaza, meanwhile, has been under blockade for five years.
Palestinian hopes for eventual freedom are being strangled to death.
Given that this conflict is essentially one about land, it’s hard to see how these actions alone could do anything but ferment the Palestinians’ desire for violent retribution. Indeed, their scatter-gun response to an occupation that would send most people insane with rage is inevitable and understandable. Though they are entitled under international law to defend themselves, any attempt to do so is used to blame the victim for their plight and provokes further punishment.
During this conflict, Israel has imprisoned more than 730,000 Palestinian men, women and children, mostly in Israel itself, breaking the Fourth Geneva Convention and article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Some are held in administrative detention, without charge or trial, with a few kept in solitary confinement.
It seems to me there are some moral and political dilemmas which soften the media’s response, but these are hardly insurmountable. It is easy to understand the state of Israel’s right to exist. But, what about the Palestinians’ right to exist? And who are we to lecture them about how they defend themselves?
As a people, the Palestinians face an existential crisis as grave as anything our nation has faced, and attempts to pursue peaceful means through political dialogue have often been torpedoed by the Israelis before they can build any sort of momentum.
Faced with the Nazi threat to Britain during the late 1930s, how would we have responded if nations thousands of miles from the fray had lectured us against the use of violence to defend ourselves? We would have told them to go and boil their heads.
Then there is the assertion that the act of criticising Israel is a de facto expression of anti-semitism. But criticising Israel for dispossessing an entire people is surely no more anti-semitic than action against sexual predators within the priesthood is anti-Christian, or fighting the terrorists trained in Afghanistan is anti-muslim.
And, anyway, a crime against humanity is a crime regardless of any ideological or religious connotations. Just to be clear on this, I have no problem with the existence of a state of Israel. I just have problems with the state of Israel we currently have.
Israeli occupation public relations
By concentrating almost exclusively on the tit-for-tat exchanges of rockets, mortar fire and Israeli troop movements, the media plays into Israel’s public relations game. That is: to present itself as the injured party that is simply defending itself and its innocent citizens while, at the same time, avoiding any mention of its dehumanising occupation of Palestinian land – the occupation that gives rise to the violence in the first place. Israel’s robust military actions are graced with a narrative of self-defence that they do not deserve.
But Israel cannot easily answer questions about the occupation, their continued expansion of settlements and their ultimate ambitions for the land. Merely asking the question will shed more light on the conflict than the recounting of rocket fire and the obvious plight of the victims on each side. Yet the journalists so rarely, if ever, ask the question, and so the whole point of the conflict is missed.
Operation Defensive Shield
This happens even at the higher end of the news market, where you would expect some analysis. Indeed, one of the most pitiful examples of journalistic interrogation on this issue that I can remember was conducted by Newsnight’s very own henchman Jeremy Paxman in 2002.
In a segment discussing the Israeli Defence Force’s attack on Jenin – in which, during ‘Operation Defensive Sheild’, significant parts of that city were flattened – Paxman brushed aside the Palestinian Authority spokeswoman’s comments about the occupation and focused, instead, on the insurgent resistance that allegedly provoked Israel’s military adventure. With the exception of Jeremy Bowen’s commentary, the fact that this often continues to be the BBC’s news template for the issue is an abdication of professional duty.
There were no such difficulties with the UK media’s coverage of South Africa’s apartheid regime during the Seventies and Eighties: the context of the conflict between the racist government protecting the white minority and the suppressed black majority was made clear for all to see. But this has not been the case with the coverage of Israel.
And so, when today’s journalists fail to ask the question and, thereby, miss the crux of the matter so entirely yet again, one can only scream at the television: “It’s the occupation, stupid!”