Edward Said and others on Israel

May 23, 2002


1. "How do you define a massacre?" (Asharq Al-Awsat, May 18, 2002)
2. "Crisis for American Jews" (By Edward Said, Al Ahram Weekly, May 16-22, 2002)
3. "A Jewish view of the Jewish state" (Asharq Al-Awsat, May 21, 2002)
4. "Worse than CNN? BBC News & the Mideast" (Counterpunch, May 16, 2002)


[Note by Tom Gross]

Several people have asked me to occasionally provide anti-Israeli articles.

I attach:

(1) "How do you define a massacre?" by Ramzy Baroud (May 18, 2002). This article, from Asharq Al-Awsat, an influential Saudi paper which is published in London, expands on the usual revisionism about the Christian militia killing of civilians at Sabra and Shatilla, and about the recent fighting in Jenin, vastly exaggerating the death count in both cases. Contradicting what the official Palestinian authorities now say, Baroud suggests that "Men and women [were] shot in their homes while sitting down for dinner, when gazing at heaven asking for mercy for the sake of the little ones." He says that "Palestinians are not quick to name Israel's killings massacres, but massacres name themselves."

(2) "Crisis for American Jews," by Columbia University professor Edward Said, published in Al Ahram Weekly (May 16-22, 2002). Among the factual inaccuracies in the article, Prof. Said says that after Paul Wolfowitz was booed at a recent rally in Washington, "he was unable to continue his speech" and had to leave the platform. This is not true.

(3) "A Jewish view of the Jewish state" by I. Heichler, published in Asharq Al-Awsat (May 21, 2002). Heichler, a retired U.S. diplomat, tells us he is a refugee from Nazi Austria, and then says "Palestine's native population [suffers] horrors reminiscent of [the] experience at the hands of the Nazis half a century ago". (Please note that the text of the article reads clumsily at certain points, and it appears that Asharq Al-Awsat have edited the piece badly and may have also removed parts.)

(4) A lengthy essay by the British-based journalist Paul de Rooij, in the magazine Counterpunch, entitled "Worse than CNN? BBC News & the Mideast". De Rooij claims that BBC news coverage may be "even more pro-Israeli" than CNN.



How do you define a massacre?
By Ramzy Baroud
Asharq Al-Awsat
May 18, 2002

A popular search term for Internet search engines must be "Palestinian massacres". Why not? There are many of them. Some old and unforgettable, others new, and some are yet to come to an end.

20 years later, thousands of the Sabra and Shatilla massacre victims are yet to be accounted for. Should we count them as dead or missing? How long will be for the missing be classified as dead? Now you know why when we refer to that infamous West Beirut carnage, orchestrated by Israel and carried out by its allies, we still say: ".. where 2,000 to 4,000 were killed," for thousands are yet to be accounted for.

"How do you define a massacre?" An angry reader asked me in a message where he defended Israel's killing of hundreds of Palestinians in the Jenin refugee camp as self-defense. You have to be a Palestinian journalist to be asked that question.

How does one define a massacre?

I honestly never sat down with a dictionary, to search for a definition. Pretty strange for someone who wrote about massacres carried out against his people starting 20 years before he was born.

The word massacre is chilling, yet very telling, in a gruesome way that is. Little ones buried under the rubble of their homes, some burned and others decomposed. That's a massacre.

Men and women shot in their homes, near their homes, while opening the door for a crowd of angry soldiers, while closing the window to avoid the eyes of a sniper; while sitting down for dinner, no matter how simple; when gazing at heaven asking for mercy for the sake of the little ones. That's a massacre.

No, Palestinians are not quick to name Israel's killings massacres, but massacres name themselves, they come uninvited, they occupy sections of our collective memory, soon to be added to an ever expanding list of massacres, starting over 53 years ago and still flowing as the present becomes history.

An Arab journalist criticized Al- Jazeera recently. "I am just afraid that by showing images of massacres over and over again, people will become so accustomed to such tragedies," he noted. The man (I made little efforts to remember his name) received a rebutting question: "so should we stop reporting on Israeli massacres?"

How silly his question appeared with such a response, yet how frightening the idea is: Getting accustomed to such tragedies. Living in a refugee camp most of my life, witnessing the horrors of the occupation in Palestine; then disfigured bodies of frail Iraqi children dying from sanctions and leukemia, and reading and reporting on horrendous crimes committed against the most innocent of this world, the children, I still can hardly feel accustomed to massacres.

"A friend shared this photo with me. I am not sure if you viewed it yet," someone wrote me earlier today. Although I am hesitant to e-mail attachment with the numberless viruses lurking all over the Internet, I still viewed the image.

The attachment was titled "Angelic face."

It was yet another picture from Jenin. It was of a young girl, as old as mine, maybe yours. She was half buried in the sand. Dead. Her face reflected innocence. But the beauty appeared as if she was a fossil being excavated.

I couldn't help but wonder, did her mom sew that special dress for her? Was it a birthday gift she received while surrounded by refugee children in Jenin with a few candles and a cake - "Happy birthday dear."

But what's her name? How old was the "Angelic face"? Did her parents survive? How was she killed? Was she in so much pain? Did she suffocate under the sand?

Oh, I hope it was quick and painless. Is this all that I am capable of doing, of saying. Is this what I, we, the whole world, humanity, are able to come up with: Wishing that Palestinian children's deaths were quick and painless.

Those who overcome their hesitance and opened the attachment to see the Angelic face, must have deleted the photo a few minutes later. You know, no one likes a crowded e-mail box. But will the image ever be deleted from our memories? Will Jenin also be deleted, or will it remain? Remain as what? A massacre? But how do you define a massacre?

I still don't have the proper answer, and I am little interested to search for one. I was hoping that the United Nations would investigate and let us know, so that I could reply to that angry message. But they failed to do so, because Israel didn't grant the UN fact-finding mission a permit to reach the camp.

I guess that Jenin would only remain a massacre in the eyes of Palestinian school kids who will chant on an April day of every year under a wavering Palestinian flag, in some remote refugee camp, the name of Jenin, its martyrs, the Angelic face, the massacres, all of them, starting with the old, to the new, and to the ones that are yet to come.



Crisis for American Jews
By Edward Said
Al Ahram Weekly
May 16-22, 2002


Why is American Jewish support for Israel more fanatical than even anti-Arab sentiment among Israelis? Edward Said explains

(Caption of the photo which accompanied the article in Al Ahram: Edward Said in Lebanon Throwing Stones at Israel)

A few weeks ago, a vociferous pro-Israel demonstration was held in Washington at roughly the same moment that the siege of Jenin was taking place. All of the speakers were prominent public figures, including several senators, leaders of major Jewish organisations, and other celebrities, each of whom expressed unfailing solidarity with everything Israel was doing. The administration was represented by Paul Wolfowitz, number two at the Department of Defence, an extreme right-wing hawk who has been speaking about "ending" countries like Iraq ever since last September. Also known as a rigorous hard- line supporter of Israel, in his speech he did what everyone else did celebrated Israel and expressed total unconditional support for it but unexpectedly referred in passing to "the sufferings of the Palestinians." Because of that phrase, he was booed so loudly and so long that he was unable to continue his speech, leaving the platform in a kind of disgrace.

The moral of this incident is that public American Jewish support for Israel today simply does not tolerate any allowance for the existence of an actual Palestinian people, except in the context of terrorism, violence, evil and fanaticism. Moreover, this refusal to see, much less hear anything about, the existence of "another side" far exceeds the fanaticism of anti-Arab sentiment among Israelis, who are of course on the front line of the struggle in Palestine. To judge by the recent antiwar demonstration of 60,000 people in Tel Aviv, the increasing number of military reservists who refuse service in the occupied territories, the sustained protest of (admitted only a few) intellectuals and groups, and some of the polls that show a majority of Israelis willing to withdraw in return for peace with the Palestinians, there is at least a dynamic of political activity among Israeli Jews. But not so in the United States.

Two weeks ago the weekly magazine New York, which has a circulation of about a million copies, ran a dossier entitled "Crisis for American Jews," the theme being that "in New York, as in Israel, [it is] an issue of survival." I won't try to summarise the main points of this extraordinary claim except to say that it painted such a picture of anguish about "what is most precious in my life, the state of Israel," according to one of the prominent New Yorkers quoted in the magazine, that you would think that the existence of this most prosperous and powerful of all minorities in the United States was actually being threatened. One of the other people quoted even went as far as to suggest that American Jews are on the brink of a second holocaust. Certainly, as the author of one of the articles said, most American Jews support what Israel did on the West Bank, enthusiastically; one American Jew said, for instance, that his son is now in the Israeli army and that he is "armed, dangerous and killing as many Palestinians as possible."

Guilt at being well-off in America plays a role in this kind of delusional thinking, but mostly it is the result of an extraordinary self-isolation in fantasy and myth that comes from education and unreflective nationalism of a kind unique in the world. Ever since the Intifada broke out almost two years ago, the American media and the major Jewish organisations have been running all kinds of attacks on Islamic education in the Arab world, Pakistan and even in the US. These have accused Islamic authorities, as well as Arafat's Palestinian Authority, of teaching youngsters hatred of America and Israel, the virtues of suicide bombing, unlimited praise for jihad. Little has been said, however, of the results of what American Jews have been taught about the conflict in Palestine: that it was given to Jews by God, that it was empty, that it was liberated from Britain, that the natives ran away because their leaders told them to, that in effect the Palestinians don't exist except recently as terrorists, that all Arabs are anti-Semitic and want to kill Jews.

Nowhere in all this incitement to hatred does the reality of a Palestinian people exist, and more to the point, there is no connection made between Palestinian animosity and enmity towards Israel and what Israel has been doing to Palestinians since 1948. It's as if an entire history of dispossession, the destruction of a society, the 35 year old occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, to say nothing of massacres, bombardments, expulsions, land expropriations, killings, sieges, humiliations, years of collective punishment and assassinations that have gone on for decades were as nothing, since Israel has been victimised by Palestinian rage, hostility and gratuitous anti-semitism. It simply does not occur to most American supporters of Israel to see Israel as the actual author of specific actions done in the name of the Jewish people by the Jewish state, and to connect in consequence those actions to Palestinian feelings of anger and revenge.

The problem at bottom is that as human beings the Palestinians do not exist, that is, as human beings with history, traditions, society, sufferings and ambitions like all other people. Why this should be so for most but by no means all American Jewish supporters of Israel is something worth looking into. It goes back to the knowledge that there was an indigenous people in Palestine all the Zionist leaders knew it and spoke about it but the fact as a fact that might prevent colonisation could never be admitted. Hence the collective Zionist practice of either denying the fact or, more specially in the US where the realities are not so available for actual verification, lying about it by producing a counter-reality. For decades it has been decreed to schoolchildren there were no Palestinians when the Zionist pioneers arrived and so those miscellaneous people who throw stones and fight occupation are simply a collection of terrorists who deserve killing. Palestinians, in short, do not deserve anything like a narrative or collective actuality, and so they must be transmuted and dissolved into essentially negative images. This is entirely the result of a distorted education, doled out to millions of youngsters who grow up without any awareness at all that the Palestinian people have been totally dehumanised to serve a political- ideological end, namely to keep support high for Israel.

What is so astonishing is that notions of co- existence between peoples play no part in this kind of distortion. Whereas American Jews want to be recognised as Jews and Americans in America, they are unwilling to accord a similar status as Arabs and Palestinians to another people that has been oppressed by Israel since the beginning.

Only if one were to live in the US for years would one be aware of the depth of the problem which far transcends ordinary politics. The intellectual suppression of the Palestinians that has occurred because of Zionist education has produced an unreflecting, dangerously skewed sense of reality in which whatever Israel does it does as a victim: according to the various articles I have mentioned above, American Jews in crisis by extension therefore feel the same thing as the most right-wing of Israeli Jews, that they are at risk and their survival is at stake. This has nothing to do with reality obviously enough, but rather with a kind of hallucinatory state that overrides history and facts with a supremely unthinking narcissism. A recent defence of what Wolfowitz said in his speech didn't even refer to the Palestinians he was referring to, but defended President Bush's Middle East policy.

This is de-humanisation on a vast scale, and it is made even worse, one has to say, by the suicide bombings that have so disfigured and debased the Palestinian struggle. All liberation movements in history have affirmed that their struggle is about life, not about death. Why should ours be an exception? The sooner we educate our Zionist enemies and show that our resistance offers co-existence and peace, the less likely will they be able to kill us at will, and never refer to us except as terrorists. I am not saying that Sharon and Netanyahu can be changed. I am saying that there is a Palestinian, yes a Palestinian constituency, as well as an Israeli and American one that needs to be reminded by strategy and tactics that force of arms and tanks and human bombs and bulldozers are not a solution, but only create more delusion and distortion, on both sides.



A Jewish view of the Jewish state
By I. Heichler
Asharq Al-Awsat
May 21, 2002

As a Jewish refugee from the Nazis who narrowly escaped the Holocaust, I feel free to express negative views of the Zionist experiment, Israel's policies, and one-sided US support of Israel without fear of being instantly branded a Jew-hater. Jewishness, I insist, does not require I may belong to a minority, but I count myself among the Jews who oppose the Zionist movement. Perhaps it was in part because of Nazi insistence on defining me as a member of a different, "non-Aryan" race that already as a boy I came to regard Judaism as first and foremost a religious faith and community. As a young teenager in Nazi-occupied Austria, I was offended by what struck me as parallels between Nazi and Zionist definitions of the Jews as an ethnic group.

When I first read The Jewish State, the "bible" of the Zionist movement written by founder Theodor Herzl (comparable in its political influence to Uncle Tom's Cabin), I came across the naive, romantic slogan coined by this Austrian Jewish journalist, "People without land, come to the land without people!" That sentence alone persuaded me to regard the Zionist experiment in Palestine as based on a hopelessly unrealistic premise, doomed to create the tragic, insoluble problem which now confronts us daily in news, in order to keep the issue alive as a weapon to use against Israel. Today the population of the territories occupied since 1967 is growing much faster than that of Israel, and there is no obvious solution to that equation.

If I could envisage a reasonably quick and comprehensive solution to the crisis in Israel/Palestine, I would not have entitled this piece "The Insoluble Problem." I do believe that certain steps are possible to mitigate the crisis, but here, too, I am pessimistic that moderate or even drastic changes in American policy will improve our relations with the region, at least over the short term.

I advocate that we adopt a much tougher stance, using our massive assistance program much more effectively as leverage to insist on Israeli compliance with UN resolutions and our long- standing demands that settlement construction cease. Already existing settlements in the occupied territories should be dismantled. As for our dealings with the Palestinian side, ther to steady deterioration of Jewish-Palestinian relations and to a dead end. One could ask whether Israel might have done better to face the wrath of the world and openly annex the conquered lands back in 1967 rather than render their occupation irreversible through the back-door method of building all these settlements. Instead, Israel has succeeded only in creating three classes or, better yet, "castes" of people: Jewish citizens of Israel; Palestinians with citizenship rights in Israel proper; Palestinians living in the occupied territories without any apparent rights or protection against arbitrary measures taken against them by the Israeli authorities. Is it possible to imagine a surer recipe for anger, hatred and violence?

In the event of withdrawal, Israel must repatriate the settlers, daunting though the size of the problem (200,000 people) makes this task.* But they cannot be left behind without facing almost certain slaughter.

I am deeply skeptical that the Palestinians find not only the PLO, Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, al Qaeda, El Sendero Luminoso and so on and so forth, ad infinitum, guilty of terrorism, but equally so the government of Ariel Sharon with his brutal and futile efforts to impose "peace" on the Occupied Territories, equally guilty the increasingly brutal Israeli military which is harassing, maiming and killing innocent people, including women and children, wantonly razing civilian homes, tearing up their streets and roads, keeping people pent up and prevented from going where they need to go in order to earn a livelihood. Can there be a more cruel historical irony than Jews inflicting on Palestine's native population forms of harassment, suffering and horrors reminiscent of what their forefathers were condemned to experience at the hands of the Nazis half a century ago?

A plague on both their houses, I say-Arab and Israeli terrorists both in their pursuit of policies and actions which create no solutions but only more rage, more violence, m must be automatic, even at the expense of American interests in the Middle East and around the world. I fear that the consistent US "tilt" toward Israel, our unwavering support of Israeli policy, stems from fear by our elected officials of a specter called "the Jewish vote." I fervently hope that this "Jewish vote" is a political myth, that in reality there is no such bloc vote. Having suffered Nazi hatred and persecution at first hand, I am like the child "once burned, twice careful," and I worry that, fed by blind support of Israeli policies and actions by many American Jews, and by powerful lobbies like AIPAC (the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee) and even the terrorist gang known as the Jewish Defense League, Anti-Semitism may increase rapidly in America.

I fear that blind Jewish support of Israel will sooner or later give rise to suspicions of divided loyalty. It may seem absurd (for now), but as a retired US Foreign Service officer, I have nightmarish visions of Jewish state.

(The author of this commentary, a retired senior diplomat, was born in Austria in 1925 and lived under German rule there from 1938 to 1940. He then managed to escape with his immediate family to the United States. Mr. Heichler served in the US Army during World War II, becoming a US citizen in 1944. He entered the Foreign Service in 1954 and retired as a minister-counselor in the American Foreign Service in 1986 after serving at seven posts abroad, in addition to Washington DC.)



Worse than CNN? BBC News & the Mideast
By Paul de Rooij
May 16, 2002

The news coverage of major international events varies considerably from country to country. Arguably, the news available in the UK is more diverse than in the US. One does find a greater breadth of perspective, as well as more accurate reporting. However the main broadcaster, the BBC, has a spotty record when it comes to the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Occasionally the BBC produces programs that are commendable for their depth and willingness to challenge the viewers. For example, it produced a laudable documentary about the Sabra and Shatila massacres that implicated Ariel Sharon in the war crimes. It is unlikely an American TV network would ever have produced such a documentary; it would be too worried about facing a barrage of criticism, possible litigation, and a loss of advertising revenue. A different dynamic is at play at the BBC since it doesn't depend on advertising revenue, and the pro-Israeli groups in the UK aren't as well organized as in the US. The pressures the BBC faces, instead, are intense lobbying and government direction the UK Foreign Office has some say in the news coverage, the appointment of key staff, and even in its budget. But though different, these pressures are also having an effect, and it is increasingly evident that BBC coverage now favors an Israeli agenda.

The main problem with the BBC's reporting is not with the reporters on the ground. These are on the whole very good journalists who take considerable risks. Orla Guerin, John Simpson, and others report from the refugee camps, and witness and describe the violent aspects of occupation. The problem with the coverage resides primarily in the way this news is packaged in London or by the commentator in the Jerusalem studio, and how it is framed in the extended news program, Newsnight. The text versions of the news, BBC Online and TeleText news, offer an even clearer picture of the bias at work therein the liberal use of quotation marks indicates that preferred version of events.

The coverage is always stripped of its historical context. Although Palestine was a former British colony and the UK bears a considerable responsibility for the calamity that affected the native population, one never hears any historical references to that. From the coverage, one would hardly know that Britain signed away Palestinian land to create a Jewish homeland virtually no one has heard of the Balfour Declaration. The subsequent disasters that overcame the Palestinians in 1948 are never offered as an explanation of current events; even the conquest in 1967 is seldom referred to. In contrast, current events from other former colonies do appear with some historical framework, e.g., Zimbabwe. During the crisis in Bosnia or Kosovo the BBC offered extended coverage and historical background it even lent airtime for humanitarian donation appeals. The message conveyed was clear: the Serbs were the bad guys.

The neglect of context has a lot to do with the pressures put on journalists to produce many reports within a limited time frame. They have limited time to prepare, and cannot become experts in the field. A 24-hour news service demands a constant stream of brief items that cannot afford to give any background. Standing up against such pressures is something that one would hope a non-commercial broadcaster like the BBC would do, but it appears to be more concerned with emulating CNN.

The BBC is also overly concerned with its ratings. These invariably compare its news coverage to the "factoid press". The constant drive to expand its market share makes it adjust its programs to appeal to the lowest common denominator not unlike the commercial media and this requires context-less brief news items. Only shocking events make it into the factoid news.

Only when someone is killed is news obtained from the area. Unquestionably, Israeli deaths are deemed more important than Palestinian deaths; much more extended coverage is devoted to the suicide bombing casualties than to incidents where greater numbers of Palestinians are killed. Also, BBC TeleText and Online news refer to Israelis as having been "killed," thus denoting intent, whereas Palestinians invariably "die"; these media always enclose massacres and assassinations with quotation marks. Israeli killings and violent acts are always labeled "retaliation", thus justified. Increasingly, Palestinian violence has been labeled "terrorism" it has never been labeled "resistance". Although the term "terrorism" is often applied to Palestinian violence, the term "state terrorism" is never applied to Israeli acts of aggression.

Israeli war planners know the proclivity of the news media for reporting deaths, and they have tried to keep the death toll in check thereby reducing the flow of news while increasing the number of injuries, literally into the tens of thousands. BBC programs featured the masses of injuries due to landmines in Angola and Cambodia, but it has never reported on the masses of maimed Palestinian youngsters.

The more mundane aspects of the violence engendered by occupation are never reported. The BBC has never reported that Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are subject to arbitrary ID paper confiscation, thereby losing the right to residence in Jerusalem and losing their homes. Similarly, house demolitions, torture, or arbitrary imprisonment without charge, trial, appeal or representation are not the BBC's going fare.

The BBC obviously watches its language. Last year Robert Fisk (Independent, August 4, 2001) reported that the news editor had ordered journalists to refer to the assassination of militant leaders as "targeted killings". Although the editor Malcolm Downing denied issuing such a directive it is clear from the news output since then that the terms for Israeli assassinations parallel the Israeli rhetoric. During the recent Israeli incursions into the occupied territories, we witnessed an increase in the dosage of weasel words like, "alleged" and "unconfirmed". Initially, reports would indicate that women, children or bystanders were killed too the so-called collateral damage.

However, this has given way to the generic terminology of "targets or militants" with no indication of the identity of those killed.

Israeli embassy staff is known to exert pressure on the BBC's choice of words. It usually comes in the form of a question like "isn't the word settlement wrong here?" Most senior journalists withstand this type of pressure, but inexperienced journalists may be susceptible to such tactics. Constant prodding of this type does have an effect.

It is rare for the BBC to refer to the West Bank or Gaza as "occupied territories". A clear litmus test of the bias of a news source on this subject is whether it uses the word "occupation"; in the case of the BBC it is virtually non-existent. Similarly the nature of the settlements remains ambiguous. When David Sells interviewed some settlers they were portrayed as a loving group of people having fun with the kids. The documentary ignored the settlers' usual daytime activities involving the violent confiscation of Palestinian land. The status of the settlements is seldom described as illegal under international law. The fact that since Oslo there are 43 new settlements, with a 45% expansion of land (excluding the "Jews-only bypass" roads), and a doubling of the number of settlers has never been mentioned on BBC news.

The comfortable terms balance and objectivity are often the justification to neuter news emanating from the area. For the BBC balance means that there must be some reporting of the Israeli side, some from the Palestinian, and some from either Americans or British officials. Furthermore, no reporting should offend the sensitivities of the Israelis. The end result is that the reportage is fraught with contradictions. It is not possible to connect the violence perpetrated against the Israelis with the violence and injustice of the occupation; since the latter is not acknowledged Palestinian violence is simply seen as criminal, whereas Israeli violence always has redeeming characteristics.

In BBC Online several articles dealing with Palestine contain a "Click here for a different viewpoint" all these point to articles written by Israeli embassy officials. In no other conflict does one find such an alternative view. This warped notion of balance irks the BBC journalists whose work has been so affected.

The constant reference to "cycle of violence" equates the Israeli violence to a response to Palestinian violence, diminishing the fact that Israeli violence is disproportionate and used to oppress the native population. This context-free reporting thus renders the violence unintelligible BBC coverage doesn't answer why there is any violence at all. Again, contrast this coverage with the coverage in Kosovo. Here the Serbs were condemned for oppression and violence, and the Kosovar response had a rationale. The Serb claims of Kosovar terrorism were ridiculed, and Serb violence was viewed as unprovoked and unjustifiable. The few times Serbian officials appeared on the BBC they were grilled about the latest outrage, and their claims of retaliation for terrorist acts were clearly rejected. It is therefore obvious that the BBC is using a different reporting handbook in the Middle East.

However influential, the Israeli PR machine faces a difficult task to defend its untenable position, and has been forced to adapt its strategy. Repeating a lie too often reduces its effectiveness over time, and therefore propaganda has to change its tune. There are distinct techniques used to deflect criticism and reinterpret events during the past few years. These are: "blame the victim", "reflective accusation", "parallel universe", "shades of gray", and "reaping the fruits". The defense of last resort is the "smear". These have been similarly reflected in the BBC coverage.

A few years ago the BBC repeatedly grilled Palestinian spokespersons about the cynical use of children to confront soldiers (blame the victim), accusing them of the deaths of many children. Kirsty Wark, a Newsnight interviewer, repeatedly questioned Hanan Ashrawi in an indignant tone. The consequence was that no topic other than this could be discussed. The enhanced version of this tactic is to accuse the victim for things that the Israelis themselves are doing (reflective accusation), e.g., during the Jenin incursion Israeli spokesmen were quoted as saying that Palestinians were "threatening Israel's very existence." The fact that it is the Palestinians who are being killed doesn't make the interviewers stop the Israeli spokesmen. No matter how ridiculous an Israeli statement it is never questioned.

We now witness a few more variants of these defenses. "Parallel universe" refers to reporting where the Israeli viewpoint is presented without any reference to the Palestinian reality. A good example is Kathryn Westscott's "Viewpoint: Were Israel's incursions a success?" (BBC Online, Mar. 15, 02). Israelis are interviewed, but no reference is made to the causes of Palestinian violence, e.g., the occupation. Thus Israelis are outraged at the suicide bombings, but no reason whatsoever is given for their cause.

The "shades of gray" defense pertains to the ploy indicating that reality is beyond simple solutions like ending occupation anyone taking such a position is ridiculed because they can't answer the demands by the reasonable Israelis seeking peace. Similarly, unpalatable aspects of Israeli occupation cannot be labeled as crimes because reality is so much more complicated. A good example of this is Barnaby Mason's "Analysis: 'War crimes' on West Bank" (the quotation marks are in the original) indicating that it isn't a black and white issue to determine if war crimes were committed. The usage of war crimes, without the quotation marks, is reserved for official enemies like Iraq.

Similarly, the "reaping the fruits" defense pertains to exploiting the fact that there hasn't been any reference to occupation for many months, and therefore the viewer may not know that the Palestinians live under occupation. (A survey indicates that about 90% of the UK's population is unaware of this.) Working on this premise Israeli PR can claim that any violence threatens their very existence the violence on the West Bank becomes violence against Israel. Violence is entirely stripped out of its context for the aims of the propagandist, which is reflected in the BBC coverage.

Common to all techniques is that lies and half-truths have to be planted repeatedly. It is usually more costly to disprove a statement than to put forth one's own message. So, a steady flow of lies bogs down the ineffective Palestinian message. In time these lies become accepted and can be exploited by the "reaping the fruit" tactic.

The defense of last resort has been to question the motives of the questioners or reporters, ultimately smearing them. Fortunately, BBC news, unlike CNN, hasn't debased itself to follow this line until now primarily because the questions are already posed within the Israeli framework: they do the questioning. The smears that do occur are not evident to the viewer. Israeli embassy staff labels any journalist who has produced a piece with a balanced assessment of Palestinian issues as a "Palestinian spokesman." This sometimes attains the desired result that the journalist is advised to do a dedicated piece on Israeli issues.

Another source of bias is the sequence of interviewees on the extended news program, Newsnight. First, an Israeli spokesperson rattles off a series of accusations, like "Arafat is irrelevant." The interviewer then turns to a Palestinian spokesperson asking the question just posed by the previous spokesperson the interview agenda is set by the pro-Israeli camp. A variation on this formula is to have the BBC offer an introduction, invariably with an Israeli point of reference, and then continue as in the previous version. If a pro-Palestinian source attempts to change the nature of the question, by stating that "this is not the issue", then the common rebuff is "answer my question."

In Newsnight or the main News, it is also important to note that the last word in an interview has been an Israeli or sometimes an official American or British one. The question is posed in the Israeli framework, the Palestinians are forced to answer this question, and the final word is that of an Israel spokesperson. It is a thankless task to attempt to explain the Palestinian situation to a British audience, let alone an American one.

The choice and handling of the spokespersons is another important issue. There are several polished Israeli spokespersons quickly rattling off their main points, and the BBC interviewers find it impossible to interrupt them. The most aggressive of them is Ranaan Gissin, who immediately takes control of the interview however objectionable what he has to say is. The choice of Palestinian spokespersons is rather limited, and not all of them are effective. Invariably they are interrupted and on occasion even shut off. In contrast, during the Kosovo crisis, academics and professionals in the area were brought on the program because their insights were useful. Given that it is difficult to secure access to some of the more eloquent Palestinian spokespersons due to the travel restrictions between Ramallah and Jerusalem, the BBC has yet to interview some of the eloquent academics, e.g., Edward Said, Riad Malki, or Arab-Israeli politicians, e.g., Azmi Bishara. Few attempts are made by the BBC to clarify the Palestinian message. The BBC also never refers to leading Israeli peace activists or critics, Uri Avnery or Michael Warshawski have never appeared on any of its programs.

Another curious BBC practice is to interview Richard Perle or James Rubin, ostensibly as American commentators. Perle is always described as a "former" Under Secretary of Defense. It is never revealed that he is a pro-Israeli right wing hawk lobbying for Israeli interests and advocating the demolition of Iraq. His commentary is hardly the American viewpoint, official or otherwise. Rubin, another "former," is also put forward in the guise of obtaining an unofficial American opinion, but the topic on hand is always Israel. His opinions are usually indistinguishable from Perle's.

The absurd has its place on BBC news too. During recent bombing in Gaza the reports stated that "a Palestinian naval installation" was destroyed although they don't have a single boat. Similarly, the buildings of the "military" were bombed. It is rather odd to describe the police in military terms, intimating that Palestinians have an army perhaps capable of attacking Israeli tanks or helicopters. The description of the targets in this fashion has more to do with justifying Israeli action than objective journalism. It is easier to accept Israeli bombing if the opponent is seen as a military target.

The BBC would like to be known for its objectivity and high quality journalism. However, it is obvious that it is not impervious to the same pressures found in commercial broadcasting networks, and in the case of the Israel/Palestine issue its coverage has shown a definite bias. It is a dark blot on whatever reputation it claims to have.

But the BBC can take steps now to return to a proper journalistic role and apply a true sense of balance. First, given that the Israeli side employs a large body of capable and well-funded propagandists, the BBC should rectify this imbalance by seeking and even amplifying the voice of the more effective Palestinian spokesmen. Second, it should improve its contextual information and avoid jargon obviously tilted to the Israeli side. A litmus test of balanced interviews is to find its interviewers being as tough with the Israeli spokesmen as with the Palestinians. The BBC may once again deserve to be considered an objective news organization the day an interviewer questions an Israeli spokesman about the massacre at Jenin with the same indignant tone used to question Hanan Ashrawi.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.