Parallax and Palestine
Burhan Himouni was still in diapers when his mother sent him out with his father and uncle to buy dessert. As their car stopped at a busy intersection in downtown Hebron during the evening rush hour, the Israeli Air Force fired two missiles. The intended target was Burhan's uncle, Muhammad Sidir, who the Israelis say is a local leader of Islamic Jihad. But a helicopter gunship is not a very precise weapon for assassination, and while Sidir was only slightly wounded, 2-year-old Burhan was beheaded by the blast, which also blew his father's legs off. Shadi Arafi, a 13-year-old Palestinian in a passing taxi, died of shrapnel wounds from the same explosion.
Chances are, you've never heard of Burhan Himouni or Shadi Arafi. Their deaths back in December didn't make any of the US network news broadcasts. In the Washington Post, the incident got a few sentences deep inside the paper, neither of which mentioned the boys by name. The New York Times account ran to nearly twenty paragraphs, including interviews with eyewitnesses and a statement from an Israeli army spokesman saying Israel "deeply regrets such loss of life," as well as a quote from Burhan's mother expressing grief and incredulity: "A targeted person? My son?" But even this thorough reporting was buried under the headline "In a New Incident, Two Palestinians Are Killed at Israeli Checkpoint," with Burhan appended as a lengthy afterthought to the story's four-sentence account of how two laborers were shot when their car failed to stop at a checkpoint.
Here in London, though, little Burhan's death was big news. Israel's botched assassination attempt made several front pages; the Nine O'Clock News, the BBC's half-hour evening broadcast, devoted nearly two full minutes to the killings. Passionate, angry, yet absolutely straight, correspondent Orla Guerin's report ended with a shot of Burhan's mother looking on while the morgue drawer clicked shut on her son's shattered body.
In astronomy, the change in the appearance of a single object when seen from two different vantage points is known as parallax. Always present to some degree, in the weeks following the attack on the World Trade Center the divergence in British and American views of the Middle East has become acute in ways that are both revealing and suggestive. "All the differences in the way Britain and America view the conflict have come to the surface," says Avi Shlaim, author of The Iron Wall, a history of Israel's relations with its Arab neighbors. "Most Americans only know the Israeli side of the story," says Shlaim, a Baghdad-born Israeli who teaches at Oxford. The resulting blindness, he adds, makes for an American approach that is irrelevant at best and often disastrous.
American media indulgence toward whatever government is in power in Israel is an old story. Edward Said's Covering Islam and The Question of Palestine both came out more than twenty years ago. But US support for Israel, though constant, is subject to cyclical variations in intensity. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center the United States seemed prepared to at least consider whether a policy of blanket endorsement of Israeli actions was either just or prudent. Such readiness may have owed more to the Bush Administration's need to keep the Arab members of its anti-Taliban coalition on board than to any fundamental shift in policy. Still, Colin Powell's much-heralded speech seemed to indicate an opening to new attitudes. Even his choice of words, his reference to "occupied territories" rather than the "disputed territory" of the Clinton years, seemed to hark back to the relatively more evenhanded era of Bush senior.
When did that window slam shut? Rosemary Hollis, who follows events in the Middle East for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, hasn't the slightest doubt. "With the bombings on December 1 and 2 in Haifa and Jerusalem," any movement to put pressure on Ariel Sharon's government stopped in its tracks, says Hollis. That is, as far as the American government and American media were concerned. In Britain, where the outrages of early December were also front-page news, the underlying perception that Sharon himself is the major obstacle to negotiations or peace remains unchanged.
Britain and America may be shoulder to shoulder in Afghanistan, but Israeli attempts to open a second front on the West Bank played very differently in London than in New York or Washington. So did the assassination of Rehavam Ze'evi, Israel's tourism minister, whose calls for the expulsion of Palestinians were widely reported here, and whose death was seen as the regrettable but predictable consequence of Israel's embrace of what it prefers to call "targeted killings" as a tactic. Here, Israel's assassinations of Hamas and Fatah militants in January, which led Hamas to abandon its observance of Arafat's Christmas cease-fire, were seen as deliberate provocations.
The American view of the conflict is "shaped by a false paradigm of equivalence," says Chris Doyle of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, a pro-Palestinian lobbying group. "America acts as if there was a moral equivalence between the occupiers and the occupied, and a military equivalence between a nuclear power and teenagers throwing stones."
To Avi Shlaim, the differences in perspective are, in large part, due to the differences between British and American Jews. Most American Jews, says Shlaim, are both very pro-Israel and, as a community, very politically active. British Jews may be equally pro-Israel, but they are much less high-profile in their support, and in political activity generally. Shlaim contrasts the Board of Deputies, the main Jewish lobbying group in Britain, which tends to restrict itself to domestic issues, with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, one of the most potent foreign policy lobbies on Capitol Hill.
In recent weeks criticism of Israeli actions has become so widespread in the British press that some of the country's defenders have reverted to the traditional accusations of anti-Semitism--a defense made easier by the uncontestable fact that not all of Israel's critics in the press have been fastidious about distinguishing Jews from Zionists, or for that matter between those Palestinians who accept Israel's right to exist and those for whom ending the occupation means the end of Israel. The New Statesman, for example, guaranteed that little attention would be paid to a recent discussion of Tony Blair's increasingly uncritical support for Israel by putting the words "A Kosher Conspiracy?" on the magazine's cover, which was further adorned by a picture of a gold Star of David piercing a supine Union Jack.
But as Rosemary Hollis points out, "the reasons for differing perspectives on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians don't have to be dark and devious. Differing accounts have their own internal coherence and their own momentum. In Europe, we tend to accept the framework of 'land for peace' laid out in UN Resolutions 242 and 338--and to take the view that more land [for the Palestinians] would lead to more peace. We want a viable peace, and tend to take the view that the closer any deal is to the 1967 line, the better chance it has of surviving."