Nazareth hit the international headlines for the first time in this vicious war being waged by Israel mostly on Lebanese civilians. Reporter Matthew Price, corsetted in a blue flak jacket in Haifa, told BBC viewers that for the first time Hizbullah had targetted Nazareth late on Sunday. “Nazareth is a mostly Christian town”, he added, managing to cram into a single sentence of a few words two factual mistakes and a disturbing hint of incitement.
Whatever the precision of its rockets (and Nazareth’s residents are certainly worried enough about that), Hizbullah struck not at Nazareth but at a site some distance from Nazareth — a site of strategic significance to Israel, though I cannot say more than that as we are now officially under martial law in the country’s north.
Matthew Price was also wrong about Nazareth being a “mostly Christian town”. During the 1948 war in which Israel’s army ethnically cleansed much of the surrounding area of Palestinians, Muslim villagers fled to Nazareth in search of sanctuary. Today, two-thirds of the city’s 75,000 inhabitants are Muslim — or at least they are by the religious classification system imposed on all citizens by the Israeli authorities.
Which brings us to the nasty element of incitement from our BBC reporter.
Several Israeli armaments factories and storage depots have been built close by Arab communities in the north of Israel, possibly in the hope that by locating them there Arab regimes will be deterred from attacking Israel’s enormous armoury. In other words, the inhabitants of several of Israel’s Arab towns and villages have been turned into collective human shields — protection for Israel’s war machine.
Before the strike close to Nazareth late on Sunday night, several Arab villages in the north had been hit by Hizbullah rockets trying to reach these factories. No one at the BBC saw the need to mention these attacks nor the fact that “mostly Muslim” villages had been hit. So why did the strike against Nazareth — and its mistaken Christian status — became part of the story for the BBC?
Because Israel wants to portray Hizbullah, and its leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, as a crazed Islamic militia, as fanatical Muslims who hate Jews and Christians with equal vehemence. This is all part of Israel’s claim that it is fighting George Bush’s “war on terror”. Predictably, the BBC obliged by regurgitating this piece of racist nonsense.
If anybody still doubts that Israel is shaping the news agenda of broadcasters like the BBC, here was as good as the proof.
According to the jingoistic Jerusalem Post, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and the army are delirious at their success in dictating the headlines and tone of foreign news broadcasts.
Ehud Olmert’s media adviser, Assif Shariv, told the Post that the international media were interviewing Israeli spokespeople four times as much as spokespeople for the Palestinians and Lebanese. Another government adviser, Gideon Meir, boasted: “We have never had it so good. The hasbara [propaganda] effort is a well-oiled machine."
Which may explain why we know so little about what is happening in Lebanon and Gaza — and why we know so little about what is happening inside Israel too.
To remind you, I, like other residents of northern Israel, am under martial law. As are the foreign journalists — and in addition they are required to submit their copy to the military censor. So all I can tell you, without breaking the law, is that you are not hearing the entire picture of what has been happening here in the Galilee.
Certainly, a piece of news that I doubt you will hear from the foreign media, although bravely the liberal Hebrew media has been drawing attention to the matter, is that the “only democracy in the Middle East” has all but silenced al-Jazeera from reporting inside Israel.
The reason is clear: until recently al-Jazeera had been running rings around the local and foreign press.
Al-Jazeera is the Arab world’s most serious and popular news gatherer, and essential viewing for anyone who wants to get a realistic idea of the news from both sides of the border. When I heard the missile strike close by Nazareth on Sunday night, al-Jazeera told me what had happened a full half hour before the Israeli media, and a day before my colleague Matthew Price.
How do they do it? Because most of their staff in Israel are Israeli citizens, as well as being Palestinian Arabs. Their journalists belong to the forgotten fifth of the Israeli population whose citizenship is Israeli but whose nationality is Palestinian.
So not only do al-Jazeera’s reporters know the northern patch of Israel like home ground (because it is home ground) but they are also not cravenly waiting for the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and army’s spokesman to tell them what is going on.
Watching al-Jazeera has been a revelation: it has dedicated a substantial portion of its coverage to events inside Israel as well as in Lebanon, in stark contrast to Israeli broadcasters who rarely use any of the footage from Lebanon.
Similarly, al-Jazeera faithfully translated Ehud Olmert’s speech word for word into Arabic, and then included a lengthy analysis from a local correspondent for its viewers. Israeli broadcasters, on the other hand, repeatedly mistranslated the televised words of Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah into Hebrew and English, removing context and his calls for negotiation.
Similar misrepresentations of Nasrallah’s position in the foreign media presumably reflected their over-reliance on the Israeli broadcasters.
But al-Jazeera’s coverage inside Israel — the Arab world’s best chance of being exposed to the Israeli point of view — is being effectively shut down. In the past two days, its editor has been arrested on two occasions and another senior journalists taken in for questioning. According to its reporters, they cannot move from their office without being followed by the Israeli security services.
Why are they receiving this treatment? Because, according to Israel’s only serious newspaper, Haaretz, the country’s Hebrew media have been inciting against them. In particular Reshet Bet radio station, one of several wings of the Israeli media loyal to the government, has been telling lies that al-Jazeera is revealing classified information, namely the location of rocket strikes.
Is the claim true? According to Haaretz again: “Other TV networks, including Israeli news services, made similar reports without suffering from police intervention.”
Freedom of the press rarely means much when governments go to war. The local media usually consider it their patriotic duty not only to strip of vital context the information they offer their viewers but they often falsify the record too. Much of Israel’s media are clearly doing both jobs with some accomplishment.
But the fact that some in the Israeli media see it as part of their job to silence journalists not as craven as themselves is the real eye-opener. Maybe they realise al-Jazeera just makes them look like propagandists.
Nabila Espanioly, the director of a charitable organisation in Nazareth promoting women and children’s interests, makes a point worth remembering as the foreign and Israeli media huddle in the shelters of Haifa and Nahariya interviewing terrified “Israelis”.
In fact, they are talking not to Israelis but to Israeli Jews. The fifth of the Israeli population who are not Jewish but Arab are rarely to be found hiding in public shelters because the authorities neglected to build any in their towns and villages.
In other words, although the Israeli army has sited several important weapons factories and military intelligence posts close to Arab communities in the north, the Israeli government has not offered the Arab residents any protection should there be fall-out — quite literally in the case of the Katyusha rockets — as a result.
This is another tiny facet of the discrimination endured for decades by the country’s Arab population that so rarely surfaces in media coverage of Israel.
Similarly oblivious to the ironies, the Israeli and foreign media have been running heart-warming stories about how “Israelis” are opening their homes and hearths to their compatriots fleeing the north. Again for “Israelis” substitute “Israeli Jews”.
No one I know here in Nazareth believes they would find much of a welcome in Tel Aviv or Beersheva should they go looking for one. Which leaves them with nowhere to run should they need to.
The only Arab communities out of the line of Hizbullah fire are those in the southern Negev belonging to the Bedouin. But that is not much comfort. Most of the Negev’s 150,000 Bedouin have been forced to live in squalid tents and metal shacks by an Israeli government that bulldozes anything more permanent. The authorities also deprive many of the Bedouin communities of water and all public services. So sweating it out with the Katyushas may be the better option.
A final footnote — one to ponder in the quieter moments after the worst of the suffering is over. Those Israeli Jews fleeing for their lives as they head south to the quiet — so far at least — of Tel Aviv and beyond offer a small echo of events nearly six decades ago when 750,000 Palestinians were forced to leave their homes by the Israeli army.
Israeli Jews have always taken the view — and happily tell any outsiders as much — that the “Arabs” lost the right to their homes in the war of 1948 because they “fled” (in fact many were forcibly expelled, but let that drop for the moment).
The Israeli government has adopted much the same view, even refusing to allow the 250,000 of its own Arab citizens who are classified as internal refugees — their ancestors fled the fighting in 1948 but have citizenship because they stayed inside what is today Israel — to return to their original homes and land.
So how exactly should we regard those Israeli Jews now fleeing from Nahariya and Haifa? Should they lose their homes, their land and their bank accounts just as the Palestinians did in 1948?