by Abul Fadl (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 6, Muharram, 1419)
‘I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids - and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the body-less heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination - indeed, everything and anything except me.’ (Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man).
For anyone who doubts that, when it comes to the Israeli-Arab conflict, the western media are imbalanced, prejudiced and biased against the Arabs, the recent media blitz on Israel’s fiftieth anniversary offers some food for thought. Indeed, the flood of misrepresentations, stereotypical portrayals, both direct and subliminal, truncated forays into the history of the conflict, and imbalanced prognostic excursions into the future, amounts to nothing short of a pro-Israeli propaganda campaign.
The portrait of Israel that emerges from this glut of reporting is one that romanticizes the ideal experience in modern State-building. The charming images depict a beleaguered people and nation, surrounded by far more numerous enemies, subjected to the horrors of external aggression and terrorism, yet surviving through heroic determination, perseverance and sacrifices. Not only did the Israeli miracle manage to survive in the face of all these odds, it also managed to prosper despite its heavy defence burden.
Nevertheless, the audience is often not told whether Israel’s survival and prosperity would have been possible had it not been for the continuous western political and diplomatic support and massive injections of military and financial aid. This omission, obviously, conjures up the image of a resourceful, self-reliant, ingenious, hardworking people involved in a Herculean struggle and mission. This image is summed up by The Toronto Star (April 25, 1998): ‘Israelis’ accomplishments have come through their intelligence, grit and determination - and a sense of purpose born of 2,000 years of Jewish oppression and remembrances of the Holocaust.’
Western reports on ‘Israel at 50’ also contained a potpourri of most western dominant cliches and zionist myths about the Israeli experience, such as ‘the greening of the desert,’ Israel’s sense of insecurity stemming from being surrounded by hostile neighbours, and the ubiquitous ‘only democracy in the Middle East.’ Curiously enough, there is scarcely any reference to the fact that the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbours might also feel threatened by an Israel that occupies and/or expropriates their land; that undermines their prosperity through not only diverting their resources to defence spending but also actual direct and indirect damage caused by Israeli attacks on their territories; and that kills, imprisons and tortures their kinsmen and/or compatriots.
This directs attention to the fact that the media blitz is revealing not only for what it emphasizes but, more so, for what it hides and overlooks. Palestinian refugees are only referred to in passing. We are told that hundreds of thousands of them left their homes during Israel’s ‘War of Independence.’ But their experiences in exile are strangely invisible. Consequently, the pain, suffering and miseries of the millions of diaspora Palestinians are simply obliterated, effaced, and consigned to oblivion.
Instead, most reports turn to featuring on Israeli-Arabs, that is Palestinians living within the borders of pre-1967 Israel. This not only deflects attention from the experiences of Palestinian refugees but also gives the impression that the main issue of concern for the Palestinians is that of one of its segments’ full integration into the fabric of Israeli society. The main challenge facing Israeli-Arabs here is one of achieving equality under a political system that grants them ‘full political rights’ but discriminates against them for ‘security’ reasons (see, The Economist, April 25, 1998). It is behind such malicious smokescreens that the tragic experiences of the Palestinian refugees, whose homes had been in those areas of Palestine that the Israelis captured in 1948 thus driving them out into squalid refugee camps in neighbouring countries, are largely neglected.
In contrast to this stark, yet latent, delegitimation of Palestinian rights and suffering, we encounter a subtle legitimation of and justification for zionism through the repeated references and allusions to the tragic historical experiences of the Jews that culminated in the Holocaust.
Not surprisingly, the style and texture of the coverage in the ‘Israel at 50’ media blitz routinely turns to biased code words and metaphors that implicitly stigmatizes the contemporary Arab struggles against Israel as illegitimate and irrational acts of violence. In this context, Arab strugglers are portrayed as terrorists, suicide bombers, militants, and the like. By depicting Arab behaviour as verging on the atrocious and peculiarly odious, such portrayals are inspired by a ‘barbarity of the enemy’ notion and sublimate the idea that those involved in armed struggle against Israeli occupation deserved no mercy and virtually demanded extermination.
On the other hand, the media blitz’s tally of zionist atrocious behaviour is largely confined to the pre-Israel period. Here, only the Deir Yassin massacre of April 1948 figures prominently. But the massacre appears as an isolated incident rather than a link in a pattern of behaviour that both pre-dates and post-dates the establishment of Israel. Israel’s indulgence in State terrorism is absent from the scene. Episodes of mass murder which involved Israel, such as the repeated ruthless and massive assaults on civilian targets in Lebanon and elsewhere, the Sabra and Shatila massacre of September 1982, the Kafr Qassim massacre of October 1956, or the Qibya massacre of October 1953, are simply glossed over. In the Kafr Qassim case, for instance, 51 Arabs, including 29 women and children, were killed by Israeli police in what even an Israeli judge described as a case of ‘deliberate murder.’ The officer who ordered this ‘police operation’ was sentenced by a court to ‘a token fine of two cents.’
The ‘Israel at 50’ blitz, moreover, displayed an obsession with the various dilemmas facing Israeli society today. (See, for example, The Economist, April 25, 1998; and The Globe and Mail, April 27, 1998). As Israeli society limps forward into what some observers characterize as a ‘post-zionist’ phase, it finds itself marching closer toward the precipice of internecine conflict. Contributing factors derive from a plethora of unresolved tensions such as those between the various ethnic groups making up Israeli society, between State and religion, between zionism as a secular ideology and Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Judaism, and the like. Other contributing factors include the erosion of the pioneering zeal of early zionism and the increasing war-weariness of the younger generations.
It should be pointed out that most treatments of these issues demonstrated expressions of unrestrained Eurocentrism. For example, on questions of religion versus secularism, there was a virtual consensus in support of the latter. Furthermore, the genuine concern and obsession with Israel’s deepening dilemmas goes hand in glove with total disregard to the current quandaries and predicaments of the Palestinians and the Arabs. As such, it indicates a brazen pro-Israeli bias.
Beneath its dazzling sophisticated chicanery, therefore, the message behind the recent ‘Israel at 50’ media blitz is simple. When it comes to the mainstream media’s coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict, principles of fairness and objectivity are largely observed in the breach. Relying on widespread western ignorance and prevalent psychological barriers, the media continue to function as an instrument of distortion and a vehicle for reinforcing existing stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims. In the process, the suffering and tragic experiences of the Palestinians, if not even their very existence, become increasingly invisible.
Muslimedia: May 16-31, 1998