Harsh images, harsher realities

This morning, like most days, I woke up to images of terror and grief brought into my Chicago living room from far away Gaza by the miracle of satellite television. In a sadly routine event, Israeli occupation forces had once again raided a refugee camp with tanks and armored bulldozers spitting fire like machines straight from the apocalyptic movie “Mad Max.”

But this was no movie. A teenager was killed in the Israeli attack, and at least twelve more children injured. Their night was pierced by an armed assault that left ten more houses in rubble and dozens more homeless, to add to the millions of Palestinians cast out by Israel over five decades. Thanks to the satellite, this is the reality of Israel that is witnessed every day by Arab families all over America and in livings rooms across the Arab world.

The US-based media, by contrast, routinely ignore or downplay violence against Palestinians. National Public Radio, for instance, a highly respected service with seven million listeners per week, treats the injury of an Israeli as far more important than almost any other imaginable event. The mass terror experienced by Palestinians is often just ignored, as if it never happened.

Over time, listeners hear report after report about Israelis being killed or injured, or simply being afraid, while reports on Palestinians, such as those in Gaza, are fleeting or non-existent (This is a pattern I have documented at my website http://www.abunimah.org).

The cumulative effect of such biased reporting, reproduced throughout the US-based media, is to give credence to the Israeli government’s position that “little Israel” is “besieged” by Palestinians, and that were it not for “Palestinian attacks,” peace would long ago have come to the land.

Now, cut to Cairo where Israel’s ambassador recently issued an official protest to the government of Egypt about a newspaper photo-montage of Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres which depicted his head atop a body wearing a Nazi uniform, and carried a headline stating “Scandal: Peres, the butcher of Qana and messenger of the great criminal Sharon, is in Cairo today.”

“The depiction of Peres in this way,” said the ambassador, “represents incitement and hatred which has no place in Egypt and the Middle East.” The use of Nazi imagery is no doubt provocative to Jews and may be distasteful. The extent and depravity of Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians can stand on its own without such depictions. I can also see why Peres might not like the written headline, but I can’t see anything in it that is not based on fact and that does not represent the feelings of a large number of people.

But all of this is a little bit beside the point. The most interesting thing about the picture and the headline is that they appear not in a major Egyptian newspaper, such as Al Ahram, but in a small publication aligned with a Nasserite opposition party. Probably most Egyptians, and certainly the vast majority of the people in the Arab world would never have heard of “Al Arabi.” I hadn’t until the ambassador’s protest brought it to my attention.

The obscurity of “Al Arabi” is in marked contrast to, say, the Passover sermon of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of Israel’s most prominent religious and political leaders, in which he called for the “annihilation” of the Arabs. So my first reaction on hearing the news of the ambassador’s demarche was to ask myself: “Is this the best the Israelis can do? Is there nothing more important or impressive to complain about?”

The protest smacks of utter desperation on the part of Israel which is trying to claim that it is “incitement” that is causing ill will and conflict in the region, rather than Israel’s actions and policies. According to this view, it is the Arab media and governments that are whipping up anti-Israeli feeling.

In line with this thinking, major Zionist organizations in the United States complain constantly about purported “anti-Semitism” in the Arab media and about Palestinian school textbooks which allegedly depict Israel in a negative (and perhaps truthful) light. If we follow the logic behind this, we are to assume therefore that if Egypt cracked down on the opposition press, and the Palestinian National Authority rewrote its textbooks to suit Israeli tastes, Israel would be able to continue confiscating land, building settlements, demolishing houses and killing people in an atmosphere of mutual love and respect. The bulldozers that have not for one day stopped coming to destroy orchards and livelihoods would be greeted with rose petals and welcoming parties instead of stones and protests.

We are also not supposed to wonder if there is a contradiction between Israel and its partisans who crow constantly that Israel is the “only democracy” in the region, demanding that Arab governments crack down on the opposition press. It appears that Israel, not unlike some other repressive regimes, believes that press freedom means that you are free to say whatever you like providing you agree with the government.

Of course all of this is ludicrous. It is not the cartoon images in fringe newspapers that overwhelmingly shape perceptions of Israel, nor the maps in school textbooks, but the images that appear everyday on television and the real experiences they depict. Those pictures are far more damaging than a thousand cartoons depicting Peres as a Nazi. And they are the pictures that Israel has the power to change, not by calling for a crack down on the media, but by stopping its brutal repression of the Palestinian people.

This conflict has, from early on, produced mutual expressions of recrimination and ill will between Arabs and Israelis. Israel’s efforts to cast Arab versions of these sentiments as the driving force behind the conflict is an attempt to change the subject from Israel’s brutal occupation and to invert the actual relationship between the conflict, Israel’s policies and the feelings they produce.

As long as Israel insists on waging war against Palestinian liberation, it can expect to see its image continue to deteriorate not just among Arabs, but worldwide. Already the European Union is talking about suspending some of the overgenerous trade privileges it grants to Israel, which would be an appropriate response to policies that any member of the EU might be instantly expelled for contemplating.

Peres, who enjoys an entirely baseless reputation as a “dove,” will undoubtedly be dispatched to Europe’s capitals to try to put a more pleasant face on Israel’s behavior and stop the political hemorrhaging. He will find that the images coming from the satellites overwhelm his efforts and cost him far more sleep than a few caricatures in a dusty corner of the Egyptian press

Mr. Ali Abunimah contributed this article to the Jordan Times.

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