From Jerusalem to Washington, Myth Disguised as News

After members of Congress and their staffs peruse the newspapers from their home states or districts, they’re likely to take a quick look at the one daily newspaper they all read: the Washington Post. The WaPo shows up on most desks in the executive branch too, from the West Wing on down.

But these are busy people. Unless they see a subject of special interest, they just scan the headline and the lead paragraphs. Few take a special interest in the Israel-Palestine conflict. So most of what they know—or think they know—about the current state of that conflict comes from WaPo headlines and leads. Let’s take a look at the story the WaPo gave them in one recent week.

Before studying any story, though, it’s a good idea to know something about the storyteller. The WaPo’s woman on the scene is Janine Zacharia. She covers the whole Middle East from her home base in Jerusalem. So it’s not surprising that most of her stories deal with Israel. She knows her home city well, since she started her career there as a reporter for the rather conservative (by U.S. standards) Jerusalem Post. She knows one of the city’s languages, Hebrew, fluently, but has only “some knowledge” of Arabic (according to her official bio).

Clearly, Zacharia’s perspective is Jewish-Israeli-centric. That’s not evidence of any bias. It’s just a fact worth noting.

And now to the story. Imagine yourself inside the Beltway, skimming quickly, and see what lessons you come away with:

Eight Palestinians Killed in Strikes by Israel, Jerusalem, March 23: “Eight Palestinians, including four civilians and four militants, were killed Tuesday in two separate Israeli military strikes in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian spokesmen said. Israeli officials said the strikes were a response to the most serious escalation in rocket and mortar fire from the coastal territory since the 2009 Israeli offensive that sought to end such attacks.”

Blast Fractures Jerusalem Calm, Jerusalem, March 24: “A bomb detonated at a Jerusalem bus stop Wednesday, killing a 59-year-old woman, injuring 38 people, and shattering the relative calm that had pervaded the city for several years. The attack came as tensions have escalated between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and it prompted vows of reprisals from Israeli politicians who warned that they would take the necessary steps to restore the country’s security.”

More Rockets and Mortar Shells Fired From Gaza Strip Into Israel, Tel Aviv, March 25: “Sirens sounded throughout southern Israel on Thursday, warning residents to take cover as at least 10 rockets, missiles, and mortars were fired from the Gaza Strip and Israel launched an air strike to destroy a rocket launcher. The Israeli response was relatively muted, showing that at least for the moment, military officials were still weighing how to halt the projectiles from Gaza that left schools closed in several Israeli cities for a second day and sent residents scrambling for shelters.”

Israelis Put in Place Anti-Rocket System, Jerusalem, March 28: “Israel on Sunday deployed a still experimental anti-missile system to protect residents within striking distance of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, a clear sign that Israeli leaders do not believe that rocket fire from the territory will abate soon. An initial battery was deployed around the southern city of Beersheba, 25 miles from the Gaza border, as increased Palestinian rocket fire sent Israelis scurrying into shelters all across southern Israel in recent days.”

Does it all sound familiar? It should. Americans who pay any attention to the Middle East know the mythic tale all too well: Palestinians attack Israel. Israel strikes back in self-defense and looks for new ways to protect its security. End of story. What more is there to say?

Plenty, as it turns out. To start with, how about a journalist for one of the world’s most influential newspapers asking the obvious question, “Why have rockets started flying from Gaza in larger numbers lately?” In one of her pieces Zacharia briefly notes one common theory: It’s all about breaking up the growing pressure for Hamas-Fatah reunification. There may well be some truth to that.

But there’s a less speculative answer, documented by the leading Israeli security analysts: “Hamas does not seem to want large-scale clashes yet. The organization actually has good reasons to believe that Israel is the one heating up the southern front. It began with a bombardment a few weeks ago that disrupted the transfer of a large amount of money from Egypt to the Gaza Strip, continued with the interrogation of engineer and Hamas member Dirar Abu Sisi in Israel, and ended with last week’s bombing of a Hamas training base in which two Hamas militants were killed.” All of this before the escalation in rocket fire from Gaza.

Zacharia mentions in one article, just in passing, that “Israel is technically in a state of war with the radical Islamist group Hamas.” Let’s skip over the pejorative word “radical.” (Why isn’t it “radical” for Israel to occupy another people’s land for 43 years and move half a million of their own people into that land?) Let’s focus on “technically.” That would give both Hamas and Israeli leaders a good laugh. As far as they are concerned, this is war. When one side fires, the other side is likely to fire back. Duh!

Though Zacharia ignores that context, she is quick to link the Jerusalem bus bombing—committed by a person or persons still unknown—to the conflict in Gaza that was started, she implies, by Palestinians. She treats it all as part of the same challenge to Israel “to restore the country’s security.” There was nothing worth reporting, apparently, about how Palestinians feel desperate to protect their own security.

Zacharia did think it worth reporting though, the very next day, about another volley of rockets from Gaza—again devoid of context, as if they were a bolt out of the blue—and a comment that “the Israeli response was relatively muted.” Muted relative to what? The massive Israeli onslaught against Gaza in late 2008 that killed over 1,000 Palestinians? To see what this “relatively muted” response looked like, check out the photo in this article, which also notes reports that Hamas is talking with the Israelis about a cease-fire.

Zacharia does note, near the end of one article, that “Hamas has at times worked to prevent attacks into Israel.” But she wrote nothing about the ongoing Hamas calls for a cease-fire, nor about the same calls now coming from Islamic Jihad in Gaza. That wouldn’t fit her plot line. She just wants to make sure we know that the “relatively muted” response is only temporary, while Israel is “still weighing” new (and presumably more violent) ways to stop those “Hamas rockets” (which are mostly, in fact, fired by factions opposed to Hamas).

Israelis get a more sophisticated view. They can read this, for example, in an editorial in Ha’aretz: “In this testosterone-rich competition, there will always be more check marks on the Israeli side. But Israel is clever enough to act like the threatened party and to hide its deadly performances.” If you read only Zacharia’s reporting in the WaPo, you would never imagine that the editors of Israel’s most prestigious newspaper could see it that way.

You would know only that “increased Palestinian rocket fire sent Israelis scurrying into shelters all across southern Israel in recent days,” so it makes perfect sense for Israel to build a high-tech missile-defense system—for “security,” of course.

Janine Zacharia’s version of the Israel-Palestine conflict carries a special weight because it has so much influence inside the Beltway. But there’s nothing unusual about it. You can find the same mythic tale in any of the most prestigious U.S. newspapers, on their editorial pages as well as their news pages.

We can’t expect the media to change its ways voluntarily in the foreseeable future. The myth of Israel’s insecurity will continue to be the official story in the U.S. mass media and thus the foundation of U.S. discourse and policy about Israel—unless proponents of peace and Palestinian independence, who are such persuasive critics of Israel’s actions, start training their verbal guns directly on that myth.

Otherwise, most Americans, no matter how much they know about Israeli violence and oppression, will forgive most of it as unfortunate but necessary for national security. If we protect our national security at all costs, by any means necessary, they’ll think, why shouldn’t the Israelis do the same?

We can take one big step toward a more sane and humane U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict—a policy that might some day actually lead toward peace—by reading the mass media carefully and demanding real journalism, not just the old familiar myth disguised as news.

Author: Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.