Parallax and Palestine

Parallax and Palestine

The divergence in British and US views on the Middle East has become acute.




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.”

The US position, says Hollis, is “never mind the geography. Whatever the parties agree to is what we should support.” Hence Madeleine Albright’s dismissal of the relevant UN resolutions as outdated, “contentious” and irrelevant. The result was the debacle at Camp David in 2000, where, says Hollis, “Bill Clinton’s eagerness for a deal overrode the viability of the deal.” Or in Shlaim’s words, “the myth of the generous offer.”

That myth–that Ehud Barak offered Yasir Arafat a Palestinian state on a silver platter–is remarkable both for its durability in American commentary and for its near-total absence in Britain. There are exceptions. Conrad Black, the right-wing Canadian who owns both the London Daily Telegraph and the Jerusalem Post, is a dependable cheerleader for Israel’s right-wing Likud Party. Black’s papers used to berate the Barak government regularly for being too generous to the Palestinians, and his wife, columnist Barbara Amiel, who argues that “super-liberalism led to suicide bombers and intifadas in Israel,” is quick to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

It is no longer respectable, even in the United States, to pretend that Palestinians simply don’t exist. Instead we ignore them. The absence of Palestinian voices, and of any sustained effort to depict the reality of life under Israeli occupation, is the single most striking difference between British and American coverage of the conflict. Deborah Sontag’s heartbreaking portrait of the complexity of Palestinian responses to the second intifada in The New York Times Magazine was as remarkable for its rarity as for its scrupulous and attentive reportage. Joe Sacco’s comic-book depictions of life under occupation (collected in the book Palestine and available from Fantagraphics) are an outstanding marriage of art and journalism, but he, too, has few competitors.

Even the exceptions tend to prove the rule. Ali Murad Abu Shaweesh was 12 when Israeli soldiers shot him in the back. Ali was killed on the same day last June that Sharon refused to let the Israeli foreign minister, Shimon Peres, meet with Yasir Arafat, yet his death also went unnoticed by American television news. But not entirely unnoticed, since the Israeli soldiers, who taunted the Palestinian boys over loudspeakers outside the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, goading them to come out and throw rocks, did so under the gaze of Chris Hedges, a reporter for the New York Times.

“Children have been shot in other conflicts I have covered–death squads gunned them down in El Salvador and Guatemala, mothers with infants were lined up and massacred in Algeria, and Serb snipers put children in their sights…in Sarajevo–but I have never before watched soldiers entice children like mice into a trap and murder them for sport,” Hedges wrote. His account, coolly factual yet full of passionate intensity, was written not for his own paper but for Harper’s Magazine, which sent Hedges to Gaza on his vacation. Yet reports of this kind appear regularly in the British press–and in the Israeli press as well.

It is perhaps too much to expect Americans to listen to their British allies about Israel and Palestine. Besides, Tony Blair is far too comfortable being the tail on the American dog to risk serious disagreement. But Charles Glass, an American writer and journalist currently based in Jerusalem, has a more modest proposal: Listen to the Israelis. A confessed news junkie, Glass reads the US and British coverage of the Middle East online, and finds himself “wondering if they are talking about the same country. If I want to know what’s really happening here, I read Ha’aretz.”

Though Ha’aretz is a left-leaning paper, its military affairs editor, Ze’ev Schiff, has been a staunch defender of Israel’s armed forces for decades. But when, in mid-January, the Israelis demolished fifty-eight Palestinian homes near Rafah in Gaza, Schiff denounced the action as “nothing more than superfluous violence against civilians, among them children and the elderly, which will only serve to encourage revenge attacks by desperate people.” Unlike the demolitions, Schiff’s condemnation was news, making the New York Times and even the Daily Telegraph. Which is progress of a kind. But far short of the day when the Palestinians themselves can also be heard, and when the lives of Palestinian children count as much as those of Israeli children, or Americans.

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