Many people in the media have such a romantic view of Israel that they lose all objectivity. For example, they would have no trouble believing an allegation of an Arab attack on defenseless Israeli civilians. But they act as if Israeli attacks on Arab civilians were impossible.
Syndicated columnist Paul Greenberg has written, “There are terrorists and there are terrorists. There are those who choose their targets carefully for political effect. They’re low, but they’re several steps above the ones who scrupulously avoid military targets and assault a whole people indiscriminately, like Yasser Arafat’s child murderers and Meir Kahane’s rhetoric. ” Greenberg’s point is that, except for a fringe character like Kahane, no Israeli would ever “assault a whole people indiscriminately; ” that when Israel is forced to engage in violence, it is always surgically targeted against the guilty.
Faith Without Evidence
This is an article of faith that requires no evidence for most journalists. During the late Persian Gulf war, Iraq’s inexcusable Scud missile attacks on Israel brought the predictable outpouring of selective indignation from the news media. Television and newspaper coverage was intense. The networks showed the damage to an apartment house and automobiles, as the mayor of Tel Aviv charmingly reminded American viewers that such is life in Israel.
The ubiquitous Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s then deputy foreign minister, fully exploited the opportunities presented by live television interviews after the attacks. He said they again demonstrated why his country cannot deal with the Palestine Liberation Organization and repeated the canon that Israel is surrounded by hostile countries.
During the war, a National Public Radio newsman could scarcely control his amusement as he reported that Iraq justified the Scud attacks by saying that Israel’s military reserve allows no distinction between civilians and soldiers. That journalist’s scorn is typical of the double standard that characterizes coverage of Middle East events.
Yet neither Saddam Hussain nor PLO extremists are unique in overlooking this distinction. The Israelis have been doing the same thing for more than 50 years, with more deadly weapons, in such places as southern Lebanon.
In 1978, after a major Israeli incursion into Lebanon, Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur bluntly told the press, “For 30 years, from the War of Independence until today, we have been fighting against a population that lives in villages and cities. ” Gur cited as examples of Israel’s previous campaigns against civilians the bombing of villages on the east side of the Jordan valley and the shelling of towns in the Suez Canal area in the years after the Six-Day War. These acts of terror drove more than a million and a half Jordanians and Egyptians from their homes.
“The Israeli army has always struck civilian populations.”
At the time of the Israeli general’s statement, Israel’s most respected military journalist, Ze’ev Schiff, wrote, “The importance of Gur’s remarks is the admission that the Israeli army has always struck civilian populations, purposely and consciously. The army, he said, has never distinguished civilian [from military] targets … [but] purposely attacked civilian targets even when Israeli settlements had not been struck.”
This is the policy that Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister, critically dubbed “sacred terrorism.” (A book of extracts from Sharett’s diary, Israel’s Sacred Terrorism, is available from the AET book club.) The doctrine is found in the thinking of Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and in the military actions approved by both major governing blocs. In 1981, when the Labor Party criticized then Prime Minister Menachem Begin for his bombing of Beirut, which killed civilians indiscriminately, he responded by listing some of the civilian attacks perpetrated by previous Labor governments. “There were regular retaliatory actions against civilian Arab populations,” Begin said.
According to the Jerusalem Post, former Laborite foreign minister and ambassador to the UN Abba Eban justified the attacks on civilians by arguing “there was a rational prospect, ultimately fulfilled, that afflicted populations would exert pressure for the cessation of hostilities. ” This would seem to qualify those Israeli attacks as purposeful terrorism waged against Arab civilians by any reasonable notion, but not by the de facto definition observed by mainstream American media, which inherently excludes Israel.
American commentators seem ignorant of or blind to Israeli attacks on civilians-such as those carried out repeatedly in Egypt, Gaza, and Jordan in the 1950s and 1960s, and, with even greater frequency, against civilians in the occupied territories and Lebanon in the 1970s, 1980s and today. Nor do US observers or “terrorism experts” seem to be aware of the abuse of Muslim and Christian civilians during the 1948 war, such as the mass expulsions at gunpoint of the inhabitants of Lydda, Ramle and a large number of other Palestinian villages. (See Benny Morris’s new book, 1948 and After: Israel and the Palestinians.) It took the fullscale invasion of Lebanon and the ghastly bombardment of Beirut in 1982 to get the media to notice, even briefly. Since then, they have lapsed into their previous pattern.
The Power of the Biased Media
The power of the biased US media over public opinion was well demonstrated by the coverage of the Scud attacks. The New York Times quoted Steven L. Spiegel, a UCLA professor and long-time apologist for Likudist policies in Israel, as saying, “Through television, millions of Americans … watched Israelis put on their gas masks … and they experienced just about everything the Israelis did…. I think many Americans will have a lot more sympathy for some of Israel’s security problems after this.”
It is also safe to say that Americans would have a lot more sympathy for the security problems of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians if the major US media would provide even a modicum of information and photo coverage of Israeli policies to turn these civilians, through terrorism, against their leaders and each other.
In fact, the media’s ignoring of the decades-long Israeli terror campaign against Arab civilians is something more than careless reporting. It betrays a systemic bias which implies that Arab, particularly Palestinian, deaths, no matter how gruesome matter little, while the endangerment of Israeli Jews is an intolerable crime that takes precedence over all other considerations such as journalistic balance, elementary fair play, and the right of the American public to have access to all of the facts in order to make its own, informed decisions.
Sheldon Richman is a writer and editor based in the Washington, DC area.