Gaza Coverage Offers Many Questions, Few Answers
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The week of the great Gaza disengagement is over -- and what did we learn?
We learned that even a right-wing government in Israel is capable of taking initiatives for peace as well as for war, and that its army and police can act in a disciplined and non-violent manner despite a history of complaints of excessive force and human rights abuses.
We learned that Israel is as divided as the United States, fragmented along many political and religious fault lines.
We learned that not all Israelis are believers in American democratic values, nor are they the legendary pioneers and Kibbutzniks who made the desert bloom. Many are true believers in messianic missions that put biblical beliefs above international law.
We learned that there are Jewish fanatics (who some in the Israeli Defense Force called "lunatics") who are driven by as much hatred and fundamentalist dogma as anyone on the "other side." And many of them are not natural born "Sabras" either -- but hostile transplants from Brooklyn with all the self-righteousness of born-again Israelis.
We learned that Jews also commit violent acts of terror, as in the unprovoked killing of Palestinian workers, or the assaults on soldiers with acid.
We learned that the TV media can occasionally cover events outside the United States, that don't just affect Americans, with some depth -- for more than a sound bite -- even when Michael Jackson or Madonna aren't around.
Note the emphasis on "some depth," because the coverage was deeply flawed and all too characteristic of the simplistic way TV news covers politics.
TV Thrives on Conflict
Conflict, drama and the plight of "sympathetic" victims are the mainstays of television narratives. Initially the settlers played that role, in what was pictured as a tragic dilemma that forced good people to lose their homes and faith in their leaders.
CNN compared their protests to the passive resistance of the American civil rights movement, with many stories featuring crying women and beleaguered men of God. Israel itself was pictured sympathetically as a country that was doing the right thing, against its own interests.
As it became clear that many of the resisters were not settlers at all, they were turned into vague "sympathizers" or "activists" standing up for their country and religion. Only later, when some turned violent, did the news frame change, making it clear that many had aggressive agendas.
Even as the Israeli media branded them "infiltrators" and right-wing extremists, CNN offered up images with little historic context or background. One "BREAKING NEWS" title said "Protesters Throw Things."
We never really learned who "they" were, what they believed, or who was funding them.
Or, for that matter, who is funding the billion-dollar disengagement, which rewarded most of the families who did go willingly from their state-sanctioned, subsidized communities with $400,000 apiece, presumably to be paid, eventually, by US taxpayers.
Why? The Unasked Question
Most importantly, we never really learned why this was happening, and how Ariel Sharon -- once called the "King of the Jews" by some, and the "Butcher of Beirut" by others, for the atrocities committed in 1982 Lebanon under his watch -- suddenly turned into a peace activist. All he would say is, "The changing reality in this country, in this region, and in the world required another reassessment and changing of positions."
Israeli writer Hillel Schenker was mystified. "So why is he doing this?," he asked in the Nation . The bestselling book Boomerang by journalists Ofer Shelah and Raviv Druker claims that he wanted to divert attention from corruption scandals involving himself and his sons -- something that Sharon categorically denies.
His senior adviser, lawyer Dov Weisglass, lists a number of reasons: concern when senior pilots and officers in elite combat units became refuseniks, declaring that they could no longer serve in growing "immoral occupations."
Did you hear any of these factors reported in the coverage?
The Unreported Legal Issues
What about the legal aspects -- or does law and UN resolutions matter only when Washington wants them to matter, to find a legal pretext to invade Iraq? As the respected Lebanese journalist Rami G. Khouri explains:
The Israeli colonization of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, the Golan Heights and other occupied Arab lands is a crime, by at least three compelling measures. It is explicitly prohibited by international law and the 4th Geneva Convention's proscription of an occupying power moving its civilians into the lands it occupies. It is condemned by name in dozens of UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions. And it is rejected by the bilateral policies of the entire community of nations, which refuses to acknowledge Israeli sovereignty in the occupied lands.
I watched hours of coverage, and heard little US mention of the way the ongoing occupation violates international law, or even on the debate over legality. I saw little about reported new land grabs by Tel Aviv in Jeruslem, while these costly-to-maintain settlements in Gaza were being surrendered. Could it be that some "facts on the ground" were just being traded for others?
A Media Circus?
Palestinian Human Rights activist Mazin Quemsiyeh labeled the coverage a "media circus:"
There has been a media circus fed by a huge Israeli government PR effort to drum up sympathy for the 'painful' relocation of settlers from Gaza (To these questions, we can add others. What role did Condoleeza Rice play behind the scenes in forcing Sharon's hand? Could she be trying to eke out a victory for President Bush's badly-battered foreign policy in Israel, in positive contrast to the continuing debacle in Iraq? She knows how important progress there is to the Administration's worldwide crusade against militant Islam.
Does the growing scandal of Israel lobbying group AIPAC -- which has been found to have passed on secrets from US government officials to Israel -- have anything to do with this? Could the Saudis be using their economic clout quietly, with threats of an oil boycott? Who and what is pulling the strings?
We have heard a lot about issues of war and peace, but very little about the interests in play.
What is really going on behind the scenes?
Yes, this region has always been a labyrinth of intrigue, but after a week of hot footage and emotional storytelling, we are left with more questions than answers. Did the coverage engage or disengage you? What do you know now that you didn't before?
If you think you can trust the mass media to tell us the whole story, think again.