Telling the Full Story on Israel
As Americans, our opinions must be based on what we know, and what we know comes from the papers. Both overt and subtle editorializing, prioritizing and slanted reporting are unjust to the people and the situation being described, and to the reader. But while we must all demand even-handed reporting by the media, we must understand, as some do not, that questions of media bias are rarely one-sided, simple and black-and-white.
Sameer Doshi ’02 wrote an opinion piece on April 6, “Media Not Impartial on Mideast,” that thoughtfully makes clear the shortcomings of the American media in reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I have heard both the American Jewish and the American Arab communities complain loudly of the hatefully unfair reporting of The New York Times, CNN and others. Yet if the reporting is so overtly pro-Israel as Doshi describes it, one is hard pressed to understand what the American supporters of Israel are complaining about. If the reality on the ground is really so one-sided, it is a wonder that Jews and supporters of Israel around the world do not hide their heads in shame and murmur a silent prayer of thanks that the media are unfair in their reporting. The answer is clear. They are not.
American media sources are somewhat fickle. It is true, and unconscionable, that Palestinian lives are not worth as much as Israeli lives in the American media. It may be prejudice; it may be simple journalism (with over five times as many dead, a Palestinian casualty is not big enough news). I stand with the Palestinians in denouncing the media for this disparity.
However, American news sources are remarkably unsophisticated in their understanding of the reality on the ground, in a way that seems consistently to paint Israel and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) as black as can be—rather than admit the grayness of the situation. The restrictions and humiliations inflicted on Palestinians that have often been described are, unfortunately, quite accurate. Nor can anyone debate the disparity in numbers of dead and wounded, or the sad, inevitable results of a clash between violent Palestinian demonstrators and the Israeli army. American media have given extensive coverage to the ugly realities of closures and occupation, checkpoints and restricted freedom. But it would be irresponsible to call attention to these facts in the international media without considering the context and the reason.
Several weeks ago the world was outraged at the total closure imposed on several West Bank cities including Ramallah. The closure lasted for a few days, causing the Palestinian people significant and unacceptable discomfort and humanitarian and financial loss.
What the American media either ignored or buried was that while the closure was in place, Israeli authorities apprehended a terrorist cell in Ramallah led by a member of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat’s personal guard, which admitted responsibility for eight separate lethal attacks and confessed that they had been on their way to lay several bombs in Jerusalem’s civilian centers. Then another cell of four Palestinian terrorists, including a Palestinian policeman, were apprehended trying to leave Hebron, also on their way to carry out an attack. The IDF termed the closure a success and it was lifted. The following day a Palestinian walked out of Bethlehem down to the road from Jerusalem and riddled an oncoming car with bullets, killing its driver, and two bombs were discovered and dismantled on a civilian highway. Can we really consider a call for more attention to Palestinian suffering if the media ignores the reasons that make it necessary?
International law, including U.N. resolutions and the Geneva conventions, deserve the high respect they are given by the general public, but they do not address the complicated realities of the Middle East. As morally problematic as closures and restrictions are, they are extremely effective in preventing terrorist attacks and bloodshed. Israeli authorities estimate that through its sometimes-questionable techniques, the defense apparatus has prevented upwards of 4,100 specific incidents in the past seven months.
It is easy to condemn closure and to call in the television crews. So long as the Palestinian Authority gives free hand to these terrorists and indeed aids in attacks, it will be far less easy to find a better solution. To focus on Israeli closures without admitting that they are, in the harsh environment of the Middle East, the only thing that saves scores of lives, is no less unfair than to fail to report on the closures at all.
I am an Israeli, but I will never deny nor stop protesting the way every single Palestinian’s life has been altered by the conflict with Israel. I am disappointed to find that not everyone is as generous. Some Palestinians and their supporters would insist, as Doshi does, that most Israelis “continue to live uninterrupted lives,” contrasting them with the Palestinians who have all known someone killed in the intifada, who have all been touched by the violence. They are perhaps unaware of the literally dozens of bombs that have been set in marketplaces, on buses at busy junctions or at a bus stop where high school students wait for their ride to school.
Perhaps they do not understand that while the Israeli standard of living is much higher than the Palestinian one, we may be as imprisoned by fear of being killed by a sniper on the road or by a mortar fired into a back yard as a Palestinian is by trenches dug across roads. Perhaps they do not understand that Israelis are as human as Palestinians, and that we all weep when our sons, daughters or ten-month-old infants are caught in the crosshairs of a sniper’s scope and then blown into pieces.
If we are stronger, are we less human? If we respond with force to violent hatred, are we in the wrong? If international law does not protect us, must we be held accountable for not respecting it? The Palestinians and their supporters are rightfully indignant at the arbitrary way in which the Palestinian plight is belittled by the American press. But to respond by calling for a one-sided, simplistic understanding of the facts on the ground is just as irresponsible and just as criminal.
Avi Heilman ’03 is a computer science-Mind, Brain and Behavior concentrator in Dunster House. He is a member of Harvard Students for Israel and the Society of Arab Students, and is a resident of Israel.