Better to be accurate than dramatic, in war and journalism


The Israeli tendency to misread and misinterpret events in the Arab world has taken a turn for the worse in recent months, and continues to degenerate into sometimes fantastic analyses of Palestinian sentiments and goals. This now includes common expression of Israeli fears that the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, aims basically to destroy the state of Israel. This was expressed recently by the very respected and otherwise wise Israeli analyst Zeev Schiff, who writes for Haaretz newspaper. He recently wrote that the most recent public opinion poll in Palestine by Ghassan Khatib’s Jerusalem Media and Communications Center should be interpreted to mean that the Palestinians increasingly seek “the destruction of the state of Israel” or “effectivelyéan end to the state of Israel.”  He based this on the fact that 41 percent of Palestinian respondents said the goal of the current intifada is “complete liberation of Palestinian land.”

Such Israeli attitudes have fuelled a strong, steady, and growing trend to support greater use of Israeli military force against the Palestinians (with some fascinating results that Schiff and others should analyze, including the following rather intriguing bit of reality: in the first six months of the intifada, the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths was around 7:1; since Sharon’s election it has dropped to around 4:1, and in the last month it is around 2:1, i.e., the longer Sharon applies his military tough-guy tactics, the faster is the rate of Israeli deaths in relation to Palestinian deaths. If I were an Israeli, even an Israeli journalist, I’d smell a story worth pursuing hereé).

Israelis today seem broadly unable or unwilling to recognize that they are engaged in a conflict in which the actions and attitudes of both sides constantly mirror one another. Schiff correctly notes a trend of rising Palestinian support for the intifada — from 70 to 79 percent of respondents between December and June — as well as greater Palestinian approval of suicide attacks against Israelis (from 26 percent in March 1999 to 69 percent today).

His big mistake is to fail to appreciate that this hardening of Palestinian positions is totally a direct consequence of the actions of the Israeli government and people in the last nine months, including military attacks, hundreds of dead Palestinians, injured Palestinians now counted in the tens of thousands, the demolishing of scores of homes and the uprooting of tens of thousands of olive trees, massive collective punishments such as closure of entire towns and regions of Palestine, and continuing expropriation of occupied lands and expansion of Israeli colonies and their associated apartheid-style road system. Such Israeli actions have a cost, and the cost can be counted in the results of the Palestinian public opinion polls: to miss the connection is to be blind.

It is very logical and even predictable that when a fanatic like Ariel Sharon asserts total and unique Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, for example, many Palestinians will respond by saying they want to liberate all of Palestine. The reason — and the lesson — here is very simple: Israeli attempts to de-legitimize the Palestinian historical presence in Palestine will result swiftly in an identical Palestinian counter-de-legitimization of the Israeli state and the historical Jewish links with this land. You get what you give.

The Israeli people, by the way, reflect an identical hardening of views as the Palestinians. Most notably are the election of the extremist Ariel Sharon as prime minister with one of the largest majorities in Israeli history, and very strong support by the Israeli people for the use of massive military force against the Palestinians.

It is factually wrong, politically destructive, and culturally malicious for Schiff and other Israelis to portray the Palestinians as a people who suddenly, unilaterally, decided to forget their political commitment to coexistence with Israel through a negotiated peace accord, and instead aim to destroy Israel. The fact is, the vast majority of Palestinians still wishes to negotiate a peace accord that would see Israeli and Palestinian sovereign states coexist side-by-side, including a  resolution of the Palestine refugees issue that is fair to all concerned. Israelis who fail to correctly read the hardening of Palestinian responses in public opinion polls as a counter-response to recent Israeli policies are momentarily clouded beyond coherence by the emotional angst of the present mini-war they are engaged in. They do a disservice to their readers and to their own credibility by fomenting inaccurate and slightly fantastic interpretations of the aims of the other side. They engage in a very destructive kind of intellectual dishonesty by painting a picture of the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict that disregards the impact of Israeli actions on Palestinian attitudes.

Such faulty journalism and distorted morality may be explained by the impact of the current mini-war; it may be understandable as the cost of battle, but it remains unacceptable and unhelpful. Those who engage in it should be aware that perpetuating this sort of attitude will only ensure that the war goes on, expands, intensifies, and causes ever more terrible suffering for all concerned. It’s probably more useful to be accurate than to be dramatic, in war as in journalism.