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Journalists’ Coverage of Middle East Shallow and Distorted


DEARBORN, MI – Journalists in the “West” should feel a burden of guilt for much that has happened in the Middle East because they have, with their gullibility, sold a fictitious version of events.

Their constant references to a “fence” instead of a wall, to “settlements” or “neighborhoods” instead of colonies, their description of the West Bank as “disputed” rather than occupied, has bred a kind of slackness in reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Just as it did in Iraq when so many reporters from the great Western newspapers and TV stations used U.S. ambassador Bremer’s laughable description of the ferocious insurgents as “dead-enders” or “remnants” – the same phrase still being used by our colleagues in Kabul in reference to a distinctly resurgent Taliban which is being helped, despite General Musharraf’s denials, by the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI.

Much worse, however, is the failure to enquire into the real policies of governments. Why, for example, was there no front-page treatment of this year’s Herzliya conference, Israel’s most important policy-making jamboree? Most of the important figures in the Israeli government – they had yet to be electe – were in attendance.

The conference was the place where Ehud Olmert first suggested handing over slices of the West Bank: “The choice between allowing Jews to live in all parts of the land of Israel” – the “land of Israel” in this context included the West Bank – “and living in a state with a Jewish majority mandate giving up part of the land of Israel. We cannot continue to control parts of the territories where most of the Palestinians live.”

However, most speakers agreed that the Palestinians would be given a state on whatever is left after the huge settlements had been included behind the wall. Benjamin Netanyahu even suggested the wall should be moved deeper into the West Bank. But the implications were obvious.

A Palestinian state will be allowed, but it will not have a capital in East Jerusalem nor any connection between Gaza and the bits of the West Bank that are handed over. So there will be no peace, and the words “Palestinian” and “terrorist” will, again, be inextricably linked by Israel and the U.S.

There were articles in the Israeli press about Herzliya, including one by Sergio Della Pergola in which he warned of the “menace” to Israel of Palestinian birth rates and advised that “if the demographic tie doesn’t come in 2010, it will come in 2020.” Earlier conferences have discussed the possible need for the revoking of the citizenship rights of some Israeli Arabs.

Already this year, “Haaretz” has reported an opinion poll in which 68 per cent of Israeli Jews said they would refuse to live in the same building as an Arab – 26 per cent would agree to do so – and 46 per cent of Israeli Jews said they would refuse to allow an Arab to visit their home.

The inclination toward segregation rose as the income level of the respondents dropped – as might be expected – and there was no poll of Palestinian opinion, though the Palestinians might be able to point out that tens of thousands of Israelis already do live on their land in the huge colonies across the West Bank, most of which will remain, llegally, in Israeli hands.

All these details are available in the Arab press – and of course, the Israeli press, but are largely absent from our own. Why? Even when Norman Finkelstein wrote a damning academic report on the way Israel’s High Court of Justice “proved” the wall – deemed illegal by the Hague – was legal, it was virtually ignored in the West. So, for that matter, was the U.S. The academics’ report on the power of the Israeli lobby, until the usual taunts of “anti-Semitism” forced the American mainstream to write about it, albeit in a shifty, frightened way. There are so many other examples of our fear of Middle Eastern truth.

Is this really the best that we journalists can do? Save for the indefatigable Seymour Hersh, there are still no truly investigative correspondents in the U.S. press. But challenging authority should not be that difficult. No one is being asked to end the straightforward reporting of Arab tyrannies. We ae still invited to ask – and should ask – why the Muslim world has produced so many dictatorships, most of them supported by “us.” But there are too many dark corners into which we will not look. Where, for example, are the CIA’s secret torture prisons? I know two reporters who are aware of the locations. But they are silent, no doubt in the interests of “national security.”

And so on we go with the Middle East tragedy, telling the world that things are getting better when they are getting worse, that democracy is flourishing when it is swamped in blood, that freedom is not without “birth pangs” when the midwife is killing the baby.

It’s always been my view that the people of this part of the earth would like some of our democracy. They would like a few packets of human rights off our supermarket shelves. They want freedom. But they want another kind of freedom – freedom from us. And this we do not intend to give them. Which is why our Middle East presence is heading into further darkness. Which is why I sit on my balcony and wonder where the next explosion is going to be. For, be sure, it will happen.

Bin Laden doesn’t matter any more, alive or dead. Because, like nuclear scientists, he has invented the bomb. You can arrest all of the world’s nuclear scientists but the bomb has been made. BinLaden created al-Qaeda amid the matchwood of the Middle East. It exists. His presence is no longer necessary.

And all around these lands are a legion of young men preparing to strike again, at us, at our symbols, at our history. And yes, maybe I should end all my reports with the words: Watch out!

Robert Fisk’s new book is “The Conquest of the Middle East.”

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