[an error occurred while processing this directive]






BEIRUT: Not long ago, I came across an American colleague of mine in the Marriott Hotel in Cairo. After three years as Middle East correspondent for his east coast paper, my friend was leaving Egypt for the United States; American editors have a habit of moving their reporters to other beats the moment they have begun to understand the region.

So how were things on the paper, I asked? "Usual problems," he replied. "I've just been asked by my paper to stop referring to 'the right-wing Israeli government". My editor said he'd been getting lots of complaints from members of the Jewish community back home. So now we just call it 'the Israeli government'." He shrugged his shoulders.

I wasn't surprised. American media coverage of the Middle East has been largely pro-Israeli - and in their cartoons of Arabs almost racist - for decades and US reporting of the Israeli-Arab conflict, with honourable exceptions like the Christian Science Monitor, is bland to the point of tedium.

The State Department line on the Middle East, always skewed toward Israel, has been followed obsequiously by most American reporters. Only weeks after US diplomats were instructed to refer to the Israeli-occupied West Bank as "disputed" - rather than "occupied" - territory, American journalists began using precisely the same word. The explosive issue of Israel's expanding Jewish settlements on occupied land, in contravention of UN resolutions and the Oslo agreement, has been turned into an argument over real estate. In a nation where few people buy foreign newspapers or watch overseas satellite channels, American media coverage of the Middle East sets an overwhelmingly pro-Israeli agenda, a viewpoint which goes largely unchallenged in the US.

Bill Clinton's administration has to take account of major American newspaper and television coverage of the region - and its pro-Israeli bias. Yet now, with a catastrophe looming and American public opinion desperately in need of an unbiased coverage of events, the same David-and-Goliath story of Israel and the Arabs is being regurgitated by press and television. US journalists thus bear a heavy responsibility for their country's crumbling policies in the Middle East.

There is nothing new in this lop-sided reporting. After the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacre, when up to 2,000 Palestinian civilians were slaughtered by Israel's Phalangist allies, "Newsweek" magazine decided the death of Princess Grace of Monaco in a road accident was the more important story; a week later, their cover story reported "Israel in Torment" over the massacres; there was no reference to the "torment" of the Palestinian victims.

Not once were the Sabra and Chatila murderers called "terrorists", which they were by Israel's own definition of the word, presumably because they were allied to the Israeli army. The same double standards applied in later years: when Palestinians wickedly set off suicide bombs among civilians in Israel, the American press universally called the culprits "terrorists", which they assuredly were. But when an Israeli slaughtered 29 innocent Palestinian worshippers in a Hebron mosque, the American media called the murderer a "fanatic", an "extremist" or - a new and popular word now found increasingly in the American press - a "zealot". Even the assassin of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin - a Jewish student - was never called a "terrorist".

In this, American journalists have fallen into line with Israeli law. Only last month the family of a Palestinian named Khairi Moussa who was stabbed to death by an ultra-Orthodox Jew, was refused state compensation because, under Israeli law, an Arab killed by a Jew cannot be considered a victim of "terrorism", although a Jew killed by an Arab can be. (Needless to say, scarcely any space was devoted to this extraordinary court case in the pages of American newspapers). Similar attempts to play down Israel's responsibility for killings in the Middle East could be identified in 1996 when Israeli artillery slaughtered 106 Lebanese refugees sheltering in a UN battalion headquarters at Qana in southern Lebanon. The Israelis claimed they were firing at Hizbullah guerrillas 600ft from the base - not a single Israeli was hurt and the Hizbullah were firing at a hill to the south of Qana. But beneath a photograph of one of the 55 children massacred by the Israelis, 'Time' magazine reported that the small victim had been "killed in crossfire" - a palpable untruth.

In one of the most extraordinary reports of its kind ever written, the 'New York Times' played down the killing - five days before Qana - of four children and two women when an Israeli helicopter fired a missile into an ambulance in southern Lebanon; not until the sixth paragraph of his report next day did the paper's al-Quds correspondent, Serge Schmemann, tell his readers about the atrocity. Earlier paragraphs of his report, which he presumably thought more important, included news of a power failure in a bombarded Israeli town and a statistic of 24 dead in Lebanon "including one Israeli soldier."

The 'Washington Post's' reporter John Lancaster later investigated the ambulance attack, reporting that the driver was "disputing" (sic) Israel's claim - a false one as it turned out - that the vehicle was owned by the Hizbullah. But the paper did not question how Israel could break the rules of war by firing at a clearly marked ambulance. The 'New York Times' later ran a syndicated account from an Israeli paper of an Israeli soldier's life in Qana before the massacre: but the 'New York Times' deleted a paragraph about how the Israeli troops had stolen cars from their Lebanese owners and looted houses - thus even censoring the Israeli press.

'Time' magazine enthusiastically took up the use of the word "disputed" for the Jewish settlements on Arab land. By last year, it was able to report on how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "turns up the heat by okaying (sic) new houses (sic) in disputed (sic) territory." When Netanyahu ordered work to begin on a new settlement on a hill outside east al-Quds early this year, almost every American news outlet referred to the "disputed" hill as Har Homa - giving the location its Jewish identity but usually ignoring its Arab name, Jebel Abu Ghoneim. The use of the misleading word "disputed" has, sadly, turned up on the BBC, along with references to the settlements as "neighbourhoods" and "communities", as if their occupants were ordinary property buyers rather than fanatical, armed religious Jews who believe God gave them the territory. As long ago as 1995, Jerrold Kessel was reporting on a settlement "dispute" on CNN in which he referred to how Jews "feel themselves fully part of the landscape" and talked of "heritage claims going back hundreds of years." But these "heritage claims" were - and are - mightily different from one another; the Palestinian one is based on land deeds and documents of ownership, the Israeli one on theology and an apparent conviction that no lesser person than God had bequeathed Israel the Arab land.

History continues to be short-changed in the American media. Long after most of the world realised that the Oslo "peace process" was dead, US reporters continued to write about the probability of putting the peace "back on track" and wrote glowing articles about the supposedly tough-talking US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - even after she told a press conference in al-Quds that it was wrong to compare killing people with "building houses", her own bland reference to Jewish settlements on occupied land.

In Paris, 'Le Monde' was last month warning its readers that both Netanyahu and US House speaker Newt Gingrich were "dangerous" men. But in the New York Times, the increasingly messianic Thomas Friedman, an old colleague and friend of mine, was telling his readers there was "a potentially great statesman" inside Netanyahu who "deserves credit for the fact that there has been relatively little Palestinian terrorism (sic) these past two years."

After one terrible suicide bombing in al-Quds, the mother of a young Israeli girl victim wrote that it was Netanyahu's policies rather than the Palestinians who had killed her daughter. The 'Los Angeles Times' put the bombing on page one - and the mother's remarkable statement on page five. Academics may one day decide how deeply the American public has been misled by the persistent bias of the American media over the Middle East - and the degree to which this bias has led them to support US policies which may destroy America's prestige in the region. Meanwhile, US reporters are soon going to have to figure out a way of telling their readers and viewers how a "dispute" over "homes", "neighbourhoods" and "communities" is turning into war.

Robert Fisk

© 1999 Oppression.org. All Rights Reserved.
Site designed and maintained by Visual Artifax