The Palestine Spin

Palestinian civilians running to safety during an Israeli strike on January 17, 2009 (AFP Photo / Mohammed Abed)
Media coverage of the Confrontation of Palestine that supposedly re-opened in the 20th century a millennia-old conflict between the Jews and the Arabs,

has been mostly spin, spun out of spin which, in turn, had been spun out of misperceptions and disinformation.

The confrontation of Palestine

An article penned for Komsomolskaya Pravda by its roaming female war correspondent Darya Aslamova has caused a stir among the newspaper-reading class of Moscow.

Having appeared in two installments on Monday and Tuesday of this week, the piece is titled ‘Are victims of the Holocaust capable of committing genocide?’ It states that such a turn of events is quite possible in the near future if we don’t apply the name to the instances of ethnic cleansing and atrocities committed during Israel’s wars of the not-so-distant past.

A response from the Russian Jewish Congress mockingly called the article ‘the most Zionist piece ever written’ and explained that Aslamova, well-known as a ‘bad girl’ who became famous in the early 1990s after publishing a book that revealed the most intimate flaws of powerful Russian men with whom she had had affairs, is naïve and honest in her ignorance about the Arab-Israeli conflict and thus isn’t qualified to report on the Gaza war and to analyze after-war politics.

In defense of a colleague whose courage in many armed conflicts in the past 15 years can only be truly understood by someone who has a bit of war reporting experience, I would say that her very female style of reporting has never been in conflict with her sharp wit and sound judgment. And, unlike her opponents, she has just arrived from Gaza where she stayed throughout the Israeli war with Hamas.

The disturbance caused in some minds here by her article is an inevitable consequence of the topic she has chosen. The latest war in Gaza was an integral part of the conflict that has been burning hot for six decades and had burnt slowly long before that, the conflict that predates both Israel and Hamas. For the sake of convenience and historical truth I’ll call it here ‘The Confrontation of Palestine,’ a permanent war and peace roundabout which is also one of the most media-spun conflicts in human history.

The spin at work

British anti-war activists accuse the BBC, and through it – the whole of the British ‘official’ mainstream media – of covering up the true background of the Palestinian Confrontation. They mean that very few of the people alive at the moment remember that the state of Israel was created by the British with the help from the Americans after WWII, by settling European Jews on Palestinian territories taken from the Palestinians against their will.

The coverage of the war in Gaza, therefore, totally lacked background information. The picture was realistic and terrible in its details. The comments and reports sounded as if they were borrowed from another TV outfit, completely pro-Israeli in most cases, even when criticizing Israel. A British friend told me he quit watching early in the conflict and switched to the internet.

A column written by a British writer quotes an opinion survey showing that many modern Britons think that the Palestinians are occupying Israeli lands, and some are sure that the Palestinians are refugees from Afghanistan…

The coverage of the Gaza conflict by U.S. TV channels seen in Bangkok and Moscow via satellite was as full of gruesome detail as that by their British colleagues (so much for the truth of the matter), while the commentaries caused an urge to emulate that British friend and immediately go online in search of truth.

In Russia, as Darya Aslamova noted in her article, many high-profile opposition figures, human rights champions and critics of the ‘modern Russian imperialism,’ as well as some TV personalities, somehow found themselves on the Israeli side or became part of Israeli-orchestrated media spin. She extensively quotes from them, so there is no doubt about her words, and it all looks really strange, given that everyone knows the count of civilian casualties among the Palestinians, as well as among the Israelis.

The background that was left out

The media spin around the Confrontation of Palestine didn’t originate with the Gaza war last month. For starters, the very claim of the Israelis at ‘righting a two-thousand-year-old historical wrong by creating a Jewish state in Palestine,’ is only loosely based on the religious and cultural legacy of the Palestinian Jews of ancient times. Ethnically the European and American Jews who came to settle in Palestine in the 1930 – 1950s have nothing to do with their supposed ‘ancestors.’

The European Jews are mostly the descendants of the Khazars who adopted Judaism in the first centuries A.D. and were then driven out of the Steppe of modern Kazakhstan and Southern Russia by the Mongol invasion in the 13th century, all the way to the lands that are now Poland, Hungary, Austria and Germany.

The idea of a separate state which the Jews could call their own and where they could build their home according to their religious and cultural tradition seems eternal, and probably is. However only in the late 19th century it took a concrete shape of a plan to set up a Jewish state somewhere on an unsettled or scarcely populated piece of land.

And immediately certain groups in the Zionist movement came forward with the idea of Palestine: ‘the Jews need to go back triumphantly to the place from which they were banished two thousand years ago. Only there the Jewish state can exist.’ In the beginning of the 20th Century there were already Jewish settlements in Palestine, under the protection of Britain.

By the time the decision to form a Jewish state was made by the leading nations of the world, and various locations, much better suited for a new country than Palestine, were offered to the leading Zionist organizations, the official Jewish public opinion was already firmly set on settling in Palestine. Britain received a League of Nations’ mandate for the creation of a new country for the Jews – in Palestine.

There were problems though: the area was quite densely populated for a rural region, and the Arab-speaking peoples that lived in Palestine before Israel, despite their common language, were very different ethnically. Due to that they were not very good friends and neighbors for each other. Implanting an Israel in their midst was like setting up a Jewish enclave in the middle of today’s Afghanistan. The Jewish state, from Day One, was fated to become a warrior state. Palestine, from the same day was destined to be a land of permanent warfare and suffering.

Another well-forgotten fact is that the main driving force behind the final decision about the creation of Israel after many decades of procrastination was the universal sense of guilt felt by many Europeans and Americans in the first years after WW II and the Holocaust. The Germans still live with that sense of guilt today. Other Europeans, especially the Britons, together with the Americans, paid for the fact that they had unwittingly allowed the Holocaust to happen, with their support for the creation and prosperity of Israel.

The only side that had no say in 1947-48 were the Arab-speaking Palestinians – the Arabs as much as the direct descendants of other Semitic peoples who had lived on their lands for the previous several thousand years only to be driven away by the newly-formed Jewish state.

The Palestinians had no say because the Europeans of the time still had an almost untroubled colonial mentality – and they created a colonial state for the Jews. For Europe it was the moment of triumph: the ‘Jewish problem’ was solved in the best way possible: the Jews now had the state they’d dreamt of for centuries, and it had been the Europeans who gave it to them.

In those days public opinion simply wasn’t ready to see the suffering of the Palestinians that started immediately. Let’s not forget that it was long before equal rights were given to African-Americans and exactly at the moment when Britain was losing its colonies and was not yet ready to accept it.

Later, when the colonial system fell apart and some of the new-born nations in the Arab world chose socialism and became ‘Soviet satellites,’ more so in the eyes of the West than in reality, Israel became the main ‘defender of democratic values and freedom in the Middle East.’

Those times have long since passed, but the close partnership with the West, together with the old feeling of guilt on the part of the West, still stands. The Arabs have long since forgotten about Socialism, but the West still sees its own enemy in every enemy of Israel. And the spin goes on and on.

Counter-spin is still a spin

My Arab-speaking colleagues tell me there is a lot of ‘counter-spin’ coming from Hamas and its supporters. There is nothing new in that: the centuries-old anti-Jewish spin (they poison the wells and eat our new-born babies) gets mixed with the more modern versions (they want to conquer the whole Middle East and destroy Islam) and pieces of truth about the atrocities (often real ones) of the Israeli troops in Gaza.

At the receiving end of the Israeli spin we find Americans and Europeans who are mostly indifferent to the point of yawning at the horrible pictures of Gaza routinely showing on their TV screens, like their grandfathers were yawning in the late 1930s over newspaper reports of atrocities against Jews in Germany and on the occupied territories. These viewers, by night drained of all strength by work and crisis, would need huge numbers of local casualties and mountains of corpses to feel shock and wake up to reality.

On the same receiving end we find the Palestinian Arab-speakers, mostly much less sophisticated than Europeans or Americans, naïve but firm in their perceptions of right and wrong, strong in their religious faith, ruled partly or in turn by fanatics of armed struggle and corrupt officials of a non-existent state. They are totally immune to Israeli spin. That is why guns are used to persuade them much more often and with a more guaranteed result than TV talk shows. That is why the Hamas spin finds positive responses among them – and they prove that by electing Hamas candidates to the Palestinian Authority.

Weathering a spin

For a journalist, media spin is like a quiet whirlpool on a lake: it comes at you unnoticed and sucks you in. At first you don’t even notice what happened, and you continue your work in good faith that you are doing your professional duty correctly. But in every spin there is a fault, and finally you stumble upon it. There are angles in the Gaza war that cannot be interpreted as anything but what they are, for instance the following two:

Shooting missiles at random at densely populated areas, even if these lands used to belong to your ancestors and were forcefully taken by the new settlers from your parents, is definitely a sin. On the other hand, as Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan have shown quite clearly, precision bombing is definitely a myth.

Maybe the Arab-speaking civilians of Palestine, dying in the Israeli raids, together with Hebrew or Yiddish-speaking civilians in Israel, on whose homes the Hamas missiles land, are the only true victims of the latest stage of the Palestine Confrontation. They definitely matter more than politicians and spin doctors on both sides of the fence.

Maybe for their sake journalists should sometimes break the surface of the deep and murky waters of the informational ocean we daily swim, take a gulp or two of fresh air and look around to check if we aren’t being driven by somebody’s pet undercurrent into another whirlpool of spin.

Evgeny Belenkiy, RT.