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.