Covering Palestine

The Palestinians’ is one of the longest anti-colonial revolts of recent times. Of its various phases, the al-Aqsa intifada is among the bloodiest. Since September 2000, the Israeli army and settlers have killed 3,000 Palestinians, including 500 children. Rarely has the price of a people’s struggle for self-determination been so great; rarely has it been so misrepresented in the face of what is an illegal, belligerent, and foreign occupation.

This is not an editorial you will see in mainstream western media. It is the Palestinian "narrative" of the intifada. There is also the Israeli narrative. This says the intifada resulted from Yasser Arafat’s decision to take up arms against the Jewish state in September 2000 after refusing a Palestinian state in Gaza and most of the West Bank; that 1,000 Israelis have been killed as a result of that decision, 400 of them from suicide bombings inside Israel; that these indiscriminate killings prove the conflict is not about occupied land but about Israel’s existence as a Jewish state.

As journalists we have to air this Israeli narrative; it is held by the greater part of Israeli Jews. I think we do air it.

The question is why we so rarely air the Palestinians’ narrative–that theirs is a national liberation struggle against a fairly classic form of settler colonialism. After all, it is a view held not only by the Arabs, but also by many in Europe, and the greater part of what used to be called the Third World.

How is it that in covering the Israeli narrative, we "cover" the Palestinian one–in the sense of "concealing" it? The answer, I think, has to do with the questions we ask or, rather, what the dominant news agendas of our time want us to ask.

Take that meta-narrative of our age: "the war on terrorism". I have yet to meet any serious journalist, diplomat or analyst who believes you can explain the current clutch of Israeli policies in the occupied territories as a "war on terrorism", if only because so many of those policies–settlement expansion, land confiscation, assassination, the deliberate concentration of Palestinians into smaller areas of their land–long preceded 9/11, often by five decades or more.

Everyone (off the record, of course) knows that the "war on terrorism" paradigm, when applied to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is an ideological construct. It is "disinformation", or what used to be called state propaganda. Yet we are under increasing pressure–from the dominant news agendas of our media, certain of our publics and sometimes our editors–to frame or at least refer to this paradigm in our reporting. Nowhere is this pressure clearer than when we try to report a phenomenon that has become the signature of the latest intifada: suicide bombings.

I’ve often been asked to write about suicide bombers or their families in terms of their individual psyche, their vision of paradise, their sexual hang-ups, the Koranic license given to "martyrdom", as if this will expose some fanatical, Islamic "essence" behind the phenomenon. Why, am I asked, do the majority of Palestinians support suicide attacks against innocent Israeli civilians?

I am rarely asked: why did the majority of Palestinians not support them until the outbreak of the intifada? Why did it take until 1994 before the suicide bomber was an accepted part of the arsenal of the Palestinian struggle, even among the Islamists? Why, until the early 1990s, did Hamas and Islamic Jihad rule that suicide bombings were forbidden theologically?

I am not asked these questions for one simple reason: because in posing the questions in this way I would have to address the phenomenon historically rather than ideologically, to assert another narrative than that governed by the dominant news agenda. For that is what dominant news agendas do: they privilege certain questions over others. That is why they are agendas of power.

But as journalists we have to ask those other questions. This is because the Palestine-Israel conflict is not simply a struggle over land. It is a struggle over narratives: what for Israeli Jews in 1948 was a war of independence was for the Palestinians al-Nakba–the great catastrophe of their nation. What for Palestinians is the legal right of any refugee to return to their homes is for Israeli Jews the mortal threat of the extinction of a Jewish state.

Both narratives are "true" in the sense that both are deeply held by the two peoples to the conflict. And both must be aired if we are to give validity to our reporting, if the conflict is to make sense to our readers, if, in the end, we are to do justice to both peoples. The imbalance is that we currently do more justice to that people that has the power to assert its narrative, its questions, and its agenda over the other.