What Americans Need to Know - but Probably
Won't be Told - to Understand
by Eduardo Cohen
As the Persian Gulf War was raging I had what I felt to be the particular honor, as an American Jew, of being sponsored by the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee on a fact finding mission to investigate Israeli human rights abuses carried out against Palestinians under emergency measures declared during the war. I had been reporting on US policy in the Middle East for more than ten years on KPFA and other California radio stations and I had been documenting and lecturing on anti-Arab racism in American popular culture and the news media.
After the delegation's week of fact-finding was completed, I decided to spend more time on my own to dig deeper into what Israeli occupation meant for Palestinians In the next two weeks my travels would take me from the sandy back roads, sweet smelling orange groves and fetid poverty ridden slums of Gaza to meetings with Palestinian and Jewish activists in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And from the stifling heat of Jericho, where I interviewed Saeb Erikat under house arrest, to some of the West Bank's most remote hills where the isolated rural villages were controlled by the Islamic political organization known as Hamas.
Coming back and talking with most Americans about what I had seen and learned there made me feel as if I had entered an episode of the Twilight Zone - an episode in which the main character can see a dangerous and foreboding presence that no one else can see. The protagonist points it out to them but as soon as they look, it has disappeared. They cannot see it.
And pretty soon the increasingly desperate and frustrated character even begins to doubt his or her own sanity.
But such was the gulf between what I had seen and experienced and what the American public perceived through the lens of the American news media. I couldn't help but conclude that the American public wasn't even getting a fraction of the information it needed to comprehensively understand and intelligently monitor its own government's policies in the Middle East.
Now, almost ten years later, little has changed and the gulf in perception is just as wide.
Perhaps that is understandable. The American news media are probably the most pro-Israeli in the world. Even the Israeli news media are more critical of the Israeli government than American journalists are. Perhaps this isn't surprising since the US is Israel's main benefactor and Israel receives more US aid than any other country in the world. But it is still disturbing to see how uncritically US news coverage seems to follow US foreign policy and how much the American news media protect Israel.
If one never leaves the United States or reads the foreign news media, it is easy to be unaware of this incredible gulf between how the US media perceive and report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it is viewed in much of the rest of the world. Even the next most pro-Israeli press, that of Great Britain, shows sharp contrasts with American reporting on Israel and the Occupied Territories.
In American coverage of the recent Camp David meetings the American press Prime Minister Ehud Barak made courageous concessions for peace, Palestinian unwillingness to compromise caused the meeting to fail.
Never mind that Barak's 'courageous concessions' consisted of allowing the Palestinians to have joint administrative responsibility over a couple of remote Arab neighborhoods of Arab East Jerusalem - pathetic crumbs tossed on the floor which Arafat was expected to gratefully pick up.
I had to read the British press to find out that, according to documents leaked from Camp David, Arafat reportedly made so many major concessions that they could endanger the possibility of a creating a viable Palestinian state.
According to a British newspaper, The Independent, Palestinian concessions at Camp David included the right of Israel to maintain a permanent military presence in the Jordan Valley, the presence of Israeli early warning stations on Palestinian territory, Israeli permission to fly over Palestinian air space, the right of Israel to use its army on Palestinian land if it fears a danger to the State of Israel, Palestinian agreement not to have an army, and permanent Israeli sovereignty over existing Jewish settlements - settlements which effectively cut off Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank and which, including the giant Jewish settlement of Ma'aleh Adumim, effectively cut the West Bank into two pieces separated by Israeli territory.
There are other important facts that I regularly see mentioned in newspapers from other countries that are rarely mentioned, if at all, in American newspapers and broadcasts.
In the British and European press, readers are often reminded that the very existence of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza is a clear violation of international law, specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention, and that the continued occupation of Gaza, he West Bank and East Jerusalem are in violation of UN Security Council Resolutions.
Readers of British papers are also reminded regularly that what the Americans often characterize as an 'inflexible' and 'radical' Palestinian demand for full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is exactly what is called for in United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 which, according to the Oslo Agreement, signed by Israel, is exactly the framework on which final resolution is supposed to be based.
Reporting on Camp David, American reporters obediently quoted Israeli Prime Minister Barak's statements questioning whether Palestinians are negotiating 'in good faith' but failed to report ongoing Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank that raise serious questions about Israel's 'good faith': continuing demolitions of Palestinian homes; confiscation of Palestinian water; expansion and construction of Jewish settlements in occupied territory; denial of building permits to Palestinian homeowners; and construction of Jewish 'security roads' which cut 1/4 mile swaths through Palestinian land. Not only have American reporters left out crucial information necessary to a comprehensive understanding of the conflict and the peace process, but for far too long they have demonstrated a mindlessly uncritical acceptance of even the most absurd Israeli arguments against making peace.
Foremost of these is the oft used Israeli argument that Palestinian authorities must guarantee an end to terrorist attacks as a prerequisite to any Israeli agreements. It has always been a laughable argument, except to American journalists.
If the United States government could not prevent the bombings at Oklahoma City and the World Trade Towers and the Israeli government could not prevent the assassination of its own prime minister, how can Yaser Arafat possibly guarantee the end of terrorist acts by Palestinian elements outside of his control?
There are other serious lapses in American coverage which make it difficult for Americans to understand, on an emotional level, the Palestinians' anger and frustration that are now boiling over in the streets of the Occupied Territories and even within Israel itself.
Recent violence has been attributed to Palestinian anger about the visit by Ariel Sharon, accompanied by 1,000 police and hundreds of supporters, to the sacred Islamic "Noble Sanctuary" where the Al-Aksa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are located. Although Ariel Sharon was described as a right-wing opposition leader hated by Arabs, Americans were offered little insight into exactly why he is so despised by Arabs.
What Americans are generally not told, but what Palestinians cannot forget, is that Ariel Sharon was held responsible, even by the Israeli Knesset, for the massacre of from 1,000 to 2,000 unarmed Palestinian men, women and children in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatila in Lebanon. During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which General Ariel Sharon directed, Israeli troops surrounded the two refugee camps and allowed in Palestinian-hating Lebanese Phalangists who then spent two days raping, brutalizing and hacking to death hundreds of unarmed Palestinian civilians while the Israeli Army stood guard.
Not only did American news media fail to include this critically important information, but many actually gave Sharon, who went to the site to demonstrate Israeli sovereignty, the opportunity to explain that he went there "with a message of Peace."
It is difficult for Americans to even imagine the frustration of Palestinians who see Jews arrive from the United States to act out Jewish James Bond fantasies in the Occupied Territories, sporting yarmulkes and 9mm submachine guns - weapons they would never be allowed to possess or walk around with in the streets of American cities - at the ready to draw Palestinian blood.
American Jews, who left behind in the United States more economic opportunity and religious freedom than most people in the world can even imagine, and whose parents, grandparents and great, great great grandparents never set foot in Israel, are allowed to invoke the Jewish "right of return" and claim land that Palestinian families have been living on and working for centuries. And all this while many Palestinians still carry the keys from the homes they lost in the 1948 war, and to which they have little or no hope of ever returning.
I sensed some of the frustration and anger that Palestinians feel when I spoke with a typical Palestinian farmer in the West Bank whose well of precious water, which he needed to irrigate his crops, had been confiscated by Israeli authorities so a nearby Jewish settlement could fill its swimming pools and water its green lawns.
I sensed some of what Palestinians felt when I interviewed more than a half dozen Palestinians whose homes had been dynamited or bulldozed by Israeli tractors because a teenage member of the family had tossed a rock at an Israeli troop carrier or because they tried to build an extra room without the building permit they knew Israeli officials would never provide.
It is almost ten years later and, again, the influx of settlers, the expansion of Jewish settlements, the building of Jewish roads, the demolition of Palestinian homes and the confiscation of Palestinian water all continue.
The factor of racism.
American papers and American news networks offer Americans little opportunity to understand how much racism remains as one of the greatest obstacles to peace.
I experienced some of the frustration that Palestinians must be feeling when I interviewed numerous Jewish-American settlers in the West Bank during the Persian Gulf War. Many of those I spoke with were from New York and, talking about Arabs, spouted some of the most hateful, racist diatribes that I had ever heard. I was reminded of the racism against Black Americans that I witnessed growing up in the American South. The images, often broadcast on American networks, of Palestinians chanting 'death to the Jews' have given many Americans the impression that Arab hatred of Jews may be the greatest obstacle to peace. But that could be a wrong and dangerously misleading conclusion.
In spite of those chants, my experiences in Gaza and the West Bank gave me some interesting insights into how deep those feelings go in at least some Palestinians who would be described here as fanatic or extremist.
Clearly there are virulently racist elements within the greater Palestinian community... but I found a real difference between Israeli racism against Arabs, based on a feeling of racial superiority, and Palestinian hatred of Jews which is an understandable Palestinian response to the policies of the Jewish government of Israel and a continuing Jewish occupation.
It is comparable to the difference between the hatred of Black Americans by Southern white racists during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States and the hatred many Black Americans felt towards whites as the result of the racist oppression they experienced. It is a important difference.
Making no secret of my Jewishness, I traveled unarmed, without any police or military escort, and accompanied only by a sole translator, into remote mountain and desert areas in Gaza and the West Bank controlled by the militant Muslim organization called Hamas and where Israeli authorities told me I would probably be killed.
I still remember the amazement of Palestinians there when they learned that I was a Jew investigating human rights abuses by the Israeli military and I was moved by how quickly I was invited into their homes to share tea with them. And I will never forget the tears of appreciation streaming down the cheeks of so many Palestinians who were so genuinely happy to meet a Jew who simply saw them as human beings and as equals and who was willing to acknowledge their suffering and listen to their side of the conflict. The only Jews they had ever seen in their villages were soldiers there to assert Israeli control.
Far away from any Israeli protection, in the heart of areas controlled by Hamas, I felt no danger whatsoever. It was difficult to return to Tel Aviv and talk to Jews who would never allow an Arab to set foot in their homes, except perhaps to clean them, and who would explain to me with no doubt in their minds that it was impossible to reason with Arabs because they didn't share the same faculties of thought and reason that "civilized human beings" possess. I left with the sharp impression that anti-Arab racism in Israeli society was the much greater obstacle to peace. And the evidence indicates that, ten years later, it hasn't changed.
I was introduced to Israeli racism before I even left the grounds of Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv. Outside the entrance in an area where travelers wait for collective taxis which usually whisk them away to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, a Jewish Israeli asked me where I was headed. "Jerusalem" I told him. "Where are you going to stay?", he asked. I told him that I planned to stay at the YMCA Hotel. "Oh, the one next to the King David Hotel?" he asked, assuming that I would be staying at the YMCA in Jewish West Jerusalem. "No", I responded, "I'm staying at the YMCA in East Jerusalem." His face immediately twisted into a look of profound confusion and puzzlement. "I don't think its going to be very clean" he warned.
He had almost certainly never been to the YMCA on Nablus Street but he had assumed it would be dirty simply because it was located in Arab East Jerusalem. That was just the first and mildest of many exposures to Israeli racism towards Arabs. Traveling through Israel I witnessed a deep, widespread and racist contempt for Arabs that I now see as possibly the most serious, but seldom mentioned, obstacle to finding a just and lasting peace.
Judging by statements by the Shas party's most prominent religious leader, not much has improved. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party which is the third largest party in the Israeli Knesset, recently described Palestinians as "snakes" whom God "regrets creating." Until just recently Shas had formed a major part of Prime Minister Ehud Barak's governing coalition.
The anti-Arab racism that exists in Israel is not without its counterpart in the United States. During that 1991 trip I visited the sacred Islamic site that includes the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Just a few months before, in October of 1990, 19 unarmed Palestinian civilians had been shot to death by Israeli police. I interviewed eye witnesses and photographed bullet holes left in the side of the mosque by Israeli gunfire. Victims even included Red Crescent ambulance staff attempting to provide medical assistance to the wounded.
In Great Britain, the conservative weekly news magazine, 'The Economist', used the term 'massacre' to describe the slaughter. They called it a massacre on their front page, in their editorial, and in the headline of their news story. The New York Times didn't report a massacre but described an outbreak of violence about which there were "confusing" and "contradictory" accounts.
But one of the most reprehensible displays of anti-Arab racism was provided by Time Magazine which characterized the massacre of 19 unarmed Palestinians with a headline which read "Saddam's Lucky Break." This indefensible murder of Arab civilians was described as a "propaganda victory" for Saddam Hussein and even implied that he had more responsibility for the killings than the Israeli police who had pulled the triggers. There is a slightly more subtle version of anti-Arab racism that continues to permeate our news coverage of the Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to this day.
It is characterized in Judy Woodruff's words on CNN talking about the recent violence in Israel and the Occupied Territories in which more than 76 Palestinians have now been killed by Israeli police and soldiers: "The uprising that has shut down much of Northern Israel is blamed for as many as 50 or more deaths." According to CNN then, it is the uprising, not the decisions of the Israeli security forces to shoot at Palestinians with steel-jacketed bullets and anti-tank rockets that is responsible for more than 50 dead Palestinians.
This racism is reflected in the Sacramento Bee headline "Riots Escalate in West Bank" with a smaller tagline mentioning "12 dead, hundreds hurt". It is present in the SF Examiner headline: "Death Toll Reaches 29 in Mideast Clashes."
In none of these samples is it made clear how people died and who did the killing. Now we know, at the time of this writing, that more than 76 Palestinians have been killed. We should all know, deep in our hearts, that if 29 or 55 or 76 Israelis had been killed by Palestinians, the headlines would be screaming at us from the headlines of almost every newspaper '29 Israelis Killed by Palestinians' or 'Arabs Kill 76 Israelis'.
The headlines would certainly not read 'Death Toll Reaches 29' or '76 Israelis Die in Mideast Violence' - headlines that fail to attribute any direct responsibility for the killing. A SF Chronicle story carried a headline which read, 'Palestinian Riots Spread Into Israel.' Three paragraphs into that story we are informed that 12 Palestinians have been killed. In a particularly egregious example, another Sacramento Bee headline reads, "Palestinian gunmen fire on Israelis" over a story that tells us that "twelve more Palestinians have been killed."
This is something that happens repeatedly in the American press and implicitly attaches one value to the lives of Israeli's and a lesser value to the lives of Arabs. Israelis are "killed" but Palestinians "die." I am not alone in noticing these disturbing disparities that work to camouflage Israeli responsibility.
Award winning British journalist Robert Fisk wrote in The Independent that when he reads that Palestinians have died in "crossfire" it almost always means that "the Israelis have killed an innocent person." So when he read on the Associated Press wire that 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durah was killed in Gaza when he was "caught in the crossfire", Fisk writes, "I knew at once who had killed him."
"Sure enough" Fisk confirms, "reporters investigating the killing said the boy was shot by Israeli troops." "So was his father - who survived - and so was the ambulance driver who was killed trying to rescue the boy."
This failure of American editors and reporters to clearly attribute responsibility for the killing of Palestinian victims is just one of many ways in which the American press continuously devalues the lives of Arabs. This almost constant devaluation of Arab lives is reinforced by a popular culture that has made it safe to openly make the most racist statements about Arabs without fear of castigation or even condemnation.
Just last month Bill Maher, host of ABC's Politically Incorrect, argued on his show that racial profiling "might be OK in some cases" like when you're on a flight to Israel and "some sweaty Arab" sits down next to you. Worse than the blatantly racist insult to Arabs was the fact that no one even noticed it.
Anti-Arab racism is almost certainly a factor in continued American disinterest concerning a US driven embargo that has, according to UN agencies and several high ranking UN officials, caused the deaths of over 1,000,000 Iraqi civilians and continues to cause the deaths of 4,000 to 5,000 Arab children every month.
It is telling that a policy that is killing as many as 5,000 Arab children each month didn't even merit a brief mention in the recent US Presidential debate. And despite the fact that Palestinian blood was literally flowing, as the Democratic and Republican presidential and vice-presidential candidates debated, from wounds inflicted by American supplied weapons including Apache attack helicopters, that too merited nary a mention by any of the candidates and neither of the two moderators.
A clear but unspoken racist double standard permeates US policy in the region as well as its coverage in the US news media. We are bombing and economically strangling the Arab nation of Iraq for invading Kuwait and seeking to develop nuclear weapons. But we have provided Israel with staggering and uninterrupted quantities of economic and military aid despite its even more violent invasion of Lebanon, its refusal to respond to countless UN security council resolutions, and its continued building of what is already one of the world's largest nuclear arsenals.
And it should certainly be clear by now which side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the "honest brokers" of the Clinton Administration are on. Despite the well known role of East Jerusalem as the cultural and intellectual center of Palestine, the Clinton Administration continues to support Israeli sovereignty over most of Arab East Jerusalem. And in spite of a long list of major compromises by the Palestinian negotiators, the administration blames only Palestinians for being inflexible and pressures them for yet more concessions.
The results of America's imbalanced policy choices are now playing out in the streets of Israel and the Occupied Territories and the time has clearly come for an American President and his policy advisors to realize the responsibility they share for the death of a 12 year old boy in his father's arms and the torrent of Palestinian blood that is now flowing.
President Clinton needs to be pressuring Israel, not the Palestinians to make more concessions for peace. As the larger and more powerful of the two entities, Israel clearly has more room to bend and it is the Palestinians, not the Israelis whose backs are truly against the wall. He could also make continued US aid contingent on Israeli compliance with international law and UN Security Council resolutions. Then all that would need to be negotiated, apart from a Palestinian right of return, would be when, not whether, Israel will return the occupied lands seized in 1967.
Because of the major role that the United States plays in life and death issues in the Middle East, American editors and reporters have a special responsibility to constantly examine the fairness of their reporting and how critically they examine information they present to the American people.
And they need to examine the possibility of their own racism and begin treating Palestinians and other Arabs as equal citizens whose lives carry just as much value as Jewish Israeli lives.
Israelis need to examine their own racism and their arrogance in using their military superiority to wring yet more concessions from a people who are struggling to keep a mere 20% of what was formerly Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza constitute 22% of original Palestine). They must realize that in forcing humiliating concessions on the Palestinians they are only planting the seeds of continued resentment, hatred and violence.
Above all, Israelis need to realize that the creation of an economically, politically and geographically viable Palestinian state is inextricably linked with any prospect they might have of a peaceful and secure future. The Israelis' apparent inability or unwillingness to recognize this basic truth may be the greatest single obstacle to a just and lasting peace.
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