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Change and continuity
By M. Zeyaul Haque

Media coverage of the latest outbreak of Intifadah in Palestine exposes deeply entrenched pro-Israel bias. Yet, there are hints of a welcome change.

‘Man changes’, wrote Goethe, ‘but remains the same.’ True to Goethe's profound observation, a lot has changed since the Ramadan War (‘Yom Kippur War’ to the Israelis), but a lot of things remain unchanged. Israel's arrogance, for instance. Or America's partisan peacemaking. Or the international media's values. These are the constants of an ever-changing world.

All through the last fortnight, we witnessed how BBC and CNN seemed to go by the assumption that the seven dead Israelis were more worthy of attention than the 110 Palestinians murdered by Israeli security forces and settlers in cold blood. Out of these 110 Palestinians, 26 were below 20 years of age. Hospitals were crammed with 4,000 wounded Palestinians, victims of indiscriminate Israeli firing. Out of these 1,000 were children.

Like some memorable images from World War I and World War II, or the mushroom cloud rising over Hiroshima, the image of a young boy in Palestine fatally wounded by Israelis, dying in his father's lap, would for ever be etched on millions of minds watching TV in that moment. The image was further reinforced by print media all over the world which published a panel of three to four frames from the moment the boy, 12-year old Muhammad al-Durra, and his father take cover, to the moment he is hit by gunfire, to his last breath in his father's lap. The father too was seriously wounded.

What was the boy's fault? Nothing. Was he throwing stones at Israelis? No. And his father? He was merely gesturing to the Israeli army not to shoot as they were unarmed. In that single moment, most people realised who created men like Osama ben Laden, Al Masari, Sheikh Yasin. It is the blatant injustice perpetrated by Israel and its Western mentors that is behind the rise of these men who want to avenge the monumental injustice against Arab people. 

Had it not been for that silent boy butchered in cold blood, the Intifadah would not possibly have taken place, despite Sharon's provocation. The boy's martyrdom set the entire Muslim world on fire, from Indonesia to Morocco. It was no longer a Palestinian issue, or even an Arab issue, much less an issue to be settled by Arafat or Sheikh Yasin. It became a global issue leaving little room for pro-Israel manoeuvres in Western capitals. A resolution had to be passed by the UN Security Council denouncing Israeli hamhandedness. Even America could not muster enough moral courage to veto it; its pro-Israel dishonesty had to be limited to mere abstention, which led to the passage of the resolution. Yet, US representative Richard Holbrook had the gall to say that the resolution was ‘one-sided.’

Holbrook wanted that some of the onus for the violence should be placed on Palestinians too. That, in Holbrook's view, would balance the resolution. That is like putting some of the onus for the Holocaust on Jews as well, because blaming Hitler and Nazis for Auschwitz and other death camps would be one-sided. 

Nobody in America or Europe said that it was the Israeli occupation that was at the root of violence and, it was Ariel Sharon, the villain of Sabra and Shatila, who sparked off the bloodbath.

As nobody in America or Europe is prepared to accept that it is the occupation that is at the root of Intifadah, the occupation would continue for quite some time to come. And as the source of trouble would be there for the coming years, such occasional outbursts of popular resentment cannot be ruled out for the foreseeable future.

That brings us back to the crux of the issue - Israeli occupation. Unfortunately (and quite understandably), the agreement in principle by Arafat and Barak in Egypt (with the encouragement of Clinton and Mubarak) does not address it, nor there is any hope of such a thing ever happening under the present international dispensation.

However, whatever little measure of peace could be brought with this ceasefire agreement is welcome, although Israel has already undermined it by nabbing eight Palestinians on mere suspicion of having been part of the Intifadah.

Israelis know that even a fragile ceasefire is better than armed conflict, yet real peace would not come as long as Israelis have everything and Palestinians nothing. America's partisan peacemaking has ensured that Israel builds and stockpiles nuclear weapons, missiles and warplanes while Palestinians (and other Arabs) are effectively prevented from doing that. This power imbalance is at the root of the Arab resentment.

A couple of years ago, just before the Oslo accords, this writer happened to meet Palestinian ambassador Khaled al Sheikh, an old India hand who had been visiting this country since Indira Gandhi's time. A senior PLO functionary, in his present posting he must have been here for a decade or so. The ambassador, otherwise a buoyant, cheerful person, looked pensive. In a slow, halting voice he observed, almost to himself: ‘This century (the 20th century) is going to close now. Our struggle began at the beginning of this century, and at its end we are still deprived of our rights.’ This is the feeling of most Palestinians even today, in the first year of the 21st century.

When the Intifadah was at its height, the Star TV studio (Delhi) called in the Israeli ambassador to enlighten viewers. Next day His Excellency Khaled al Sheikh came in. The presenter asked him as to why could not the Palestinians make some concessions for the sake of peace. The question betrayed the ignorance of media about the reality in Palestine.

Khaled al Sheikh explained the ‘concessions’ they had already made: Palestinian Authority territory, a conglomeration of unconnected Bantustans, is merely 22 percent of the historical Palestine. Even those Bantustans are hemmed in from all sides by Israeli territory, armed settler establishments and military posts. For a Palestinian, it could be easier to go to Israel than to another part of PA territory. If it is not concession, then the word must be redefined.

Ariel Sharon, when he was the defence minister of Israel, boasted that they had put Palestinians in so tightly controlled areas that they were like ‘cockroaches in a bottle.’ This rogue General was not very much wide of the mark. But that Israeli strategy is precisely the source of the trouble also.

Not much has changed since Al Nakba, the Jewish occupation of Palestine by forcing Palestinians out of their land and their homes 52 years ago. Yet, when we look at things more closely we remember Irish poet WB Yeast: ‘All changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born’. Yes, thing have changed a lot, albeit imperceptibly.

In earlier conflicts Europe was more aggressively lined up against Arabs. In the US, only Jews spoke and everybody listened. This time Arabs too took out parallel demonstrations whenever American Jews did that. CNN showed both of them. Earlier only Jews were heard. This time Arabs too made their opinion heard on the same TV networks. When an American Jewish business leader demanded that America should crush the Palestinian Intifadah instead of acting as a peace broker, an Arab American woman said citizens' tax money should not be spent by America on the murder of innocent Palestinians.

A sizeable section of the international media has come to realise that if they completely black out one side of the conflict their own credibility would become suspect. To keep their credibility, they have to allow some space to the weaker party also. This time international media was less unfair to the Palestinians, although India's national print media did not seem to take any great note of the happenings in Palestine. 

A certain degree of candour was visible in the entire reporting on TV. Earlier nobody mentioned Israel's lethal weapons and the unilateral disarmament of Arabs. This time round such references came up quite often. There was also some effort to question Israel's preposterous declarations.

One of the best moments (in terms of coverage) came when Edward Said administered a heavy dose of Tim Sebastian's medicine to Tim himself. BBC's Hard Talk anchor tried to suggest (as Israelis do) that the Palestinian leadership had put children in front in a cynical game of politics. A peeved Edward Said asked a counter question: Did Tim Sebastian really think that Arabs would get their children butchered so that the British could show all this on their television?

Amidst all this flux what remained unchanged was Time magazine's monumental propensity for misrepresentation. In a small story on the martyr Muhammad al-Durra, it quoted unnamed Israeli army personnel as claiming that the 12 year old was throwing stones. That it was an outrageous lie was evident when one compared this statement to an earlier Israeli army claim that the bullet that killed the boy was not fired from an Israeli gun. The same Time story suggests that al-Durra was caught in a crossfire between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers. If readers lose faith in Time's veracity, none but the magazine itself would be to blame.

Finally, in the gradually shifting power equation, the media has to adjust to new realities which has to reflect in its coverage. In all this, there is a lot to sustain hope for a more equitable future for today’s underprivileged.

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