The Never-Ending Story

circles[1]The conflict rumbles on as if on a loop – just when we all thought that it had gone quiet the incendiaries start flying back and forth again.

I am not (thankfully) speaking bombs and bullets but rather the war of words about the foreign media coverage of the recent Gaza conflict.

This latest outbreak began with a piece by Matti Friedman a former Associated Press staffer, accusing the international media of playing a starring role in fomenting hatred of Israel and Jews, and to failing to treat the story as anything other than a series of caricatures with Israel playing the villain and the Palestinians the victim. He also accused his former boss – Steve Gutkin – of burying a highly significant story about a peace offer made some years ago by then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert during negotiations with the Palestinians, because it ran counter to the AP’s predetermined view of the Israelis as the rejectionists.

In reacting to Friedman’s initial piece I found myself – as a former Middle East based journalist and UN staffer – recognizing certain aspects of his thesis. I also felt he was right in suggesting that some journalists reporting from Gaza abandoned objectivity and that Western news organizations had wilted before Hamas’s implicit and explicit censorship.

Steve Gutkin also responded to Friedman’s piece describing both the general thesis and specific allegations as ‘hogwash’. He maintained that as AP’s onetime Jerusalem bureau chief he was motivated by a desire to tell a difficult and complicated story objectively and without bias, adding also that he did categorically did not bury a piece, as was alleged .

The row between the two (now former) AP journalists has mushroomed with a further piece by Friedman and Gutkin, and an added intervention by a third former member of staff, on what may or may not have occurred and why. This argument is best left to those who were most closely involved in what occurred at the time.

But it is worth examining the opposing viewpoints of the two main protagonists, to highlight their shared mistaken understandings concerning the media coverage of Israel and the Palestinians.

Beginning with Matti Friedman, who describes the ‘global mania’ of news organizations in covering Israel, which he says is rooted in a ‘hostile obsession with Jews.’ He blames news organizations for elevating the Israeli-Palestinian story to disproportionate levels of coverage – seemingly out of malice – thus drowning out other more urgent and deserving issues from around the world.

I do share some of his frustration that tragedies and outrages elsewhere are woefully under-reported in comparison to the copious coverage afforded to Israel and the Palestinians. But Friedman also misjudges a number of issues to support his belief that it’s all about malevolence towards Jews, which it is not.

To begin with, just because there is excessive coverage does not mean it is all ill-intended. Added to which there are a range of factors driving the extent of the coverage of Israel (and by extension the Palestinians), many of which have little to do with hatred but much more to do with familiarity and convenience.

In an earlier post on my blog, I asserted that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ‘is simply the Bible and Koran brought to life 24/7 on-line, on TV, Radio, and in print. Billions of people around the world, overwhelmingly Christians, Moslems, and Jews, know of the ‘Holy Land’ from their holy texts’. Added to the ancient story, Jews – individually and communally – have played an influential and often tragic role in the Christian and Muslim worlds over the course of centuries. The Jewish presence has been a fellow traveler, beneficiary, contributor and victim in the development of Western (and Middle Eastern) societies. In our ever shrinking world this translates into a fascination among many for Israel and for Jews.

For some it induces infatuation, for many others it results in hatred. The media did not originate this situation, which predates the internet, TV, Radio, and even newspapers. Journalists consciously or unconsciously are the influenced by the currents of history that swirl around them – they are not removed from world they describe – they are part of it.

There are also other less esoteric factors which feed the modern media’s thirst for the ‘Israel story’, including the freedom of the press and the relative lack of danger to journalists compared to elsewhere in the region. Added to which, Israel’s size, and modernity in everything from communications to hotel services makes it a prime destination for headline hungry journalists. While Friedman sees all this attention as a bad thing, it can and does play to Israel’s advantage. When Israelis are under attack –  be it by missiles from Gaza, suicide bombers on buses, or fanatics driving diggers at civilians –  the cameras of the world are pointed in its direction. Atrocities – be they in Congo, the Bangladesh/Myanmar border, Southern Sudan and elsewhere, invariably take place in the absence rather than the presence of the mass media.

Of course there are those, including educated and influential individuals who have an obsession with this little corner of real estate at the far end of the Mediterranean, not because they care about the fate of the Middle East, human rights or even indeed the well-being of Palestinians but rather because they are consumed with hatred – for Israel and ‘Zionism’ (as conveniently differentiated in their own minds from Jews). Sadly, in my experience this is becoming more common.

I recently encountered such sentiments from a former BBC colleague – once an editor, who now teaches (!) journalism. In a number of Facebook comments he compared Israeli actions in Gaza those of the Nazis, wrote of Israel as a sick society, and spoke of the apparent power of the Israel lobby in getting a well-known BBC radio presenter to tone down his normal aggressiveness when interviewing an Israeli official. This is not an argument against Israeli policies, it amounts to a diatribe against the very essence and existence of the country.

Some take this lowly standard as representative of all journalists or indeed anyone who questions Israeli policies including its military actions in Gaza or settlement construction in the West Bank.

Let’s be clear – criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic. That would make most Israelis self-hating Jews. I also know many fine journalists whose reports cast Israel in a negative light, but who are motivated by sound critical thinking, sharp observation and legitimate questioning. Over the years Israeli governments have taken wrong, misguided, and immoral actions, which have been deserving of comment and condemnation.

The attention and criticism of Israel are varied in their sources and their intentions. Matti Friedman is right to be vigilant but he is wrong in thinking that this is all to Israel’s detriment, or a modern manifestation of an ancient hatred.

On the other side of the debate about the media coverage, Steve Gutkin also overstates and simplifies. Firstly he says that the job of journalists when he was in Jerusalem was not to ‘frame’ the roles of Palestinians and Israelis but rather to, ‘simply bear witness to what we saw unfolding before our eyes’.

The media are not accountants with microphones; their job is not just to record statistics and events on a never ending list. This is akin to suggesting that history is just a series of dates with events attached. The act of witnessing is not a sterile activity carried out far removed emotionally and psychologically from the action. It is influenced from where events are seen, by whom, and the ‘baggage’ that the witness brings.

Gutkin himself talks of his own influences including most importantly his belief in ‘humanity’ as somehow freeing him of the clutter of bias. He fails to see that his viewpoint is also partial and in its own way – tribal, rooted as it is, in particular values and assumptions.

The ‘respectable’ news organizations – to which AP belongs – have the job of interpreting the ‘facts’ and framing them, with as much fairness and objectivity as possible. This often means explaining differing narratives containing contradictory versions of the same events. I argued in my blog and continue to insist that the overwhelming majority of news organizations failed to do that in the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas. They mostly stuck to a particular predetermined view and were guided by it – of Israeli might and cruelty, versus Palestinian weakness and suffering. And while elements of that description are true, it did not reflect the whole story. Contradictory narratives don’t make for simple story-telling but they represent a truer version of what often occurs.

Gutkin also shrugs off too easily the connection between some of the reporting from Gaza and the ensuing outburst of anti-Semitism witnessed – most obviously – in Western Europe. The media was certainly not the sole or necessarily the major cause for the racism that consumed the streets of Paris, London, Berlin and elsewhere. But its willingness to fall in with a single reading of events combined with irresponsible emoting by some, did help ignite the dry tinder of anti-Semitic sentiment that had built up within many countries.

Steve Gutkin states by way of conclusion that that the ‘real danger (to Israel) does not come from the media reporting the news’ but rather from journalists like Matti Friedman and others who are sparing Israel criticism and thus leading to the demise of the two-state solution.

This is nonsensical in a multitude of ways. The Middle East is a state of huge upheaval as mutually loathing groups go about killing each other with varying degrees of barbarity. The only thing that unites ISIS, Assad, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, Iran and others is their shared hatred of Israel – and this – not anything else –  represents the greatest threat to Israel.

There are indeed some supporters of Israel who won’t countenance any criticism of the country or its policies, and who freely use the bludgeon of anti-Semitism to quell any dissident views. But these apologists for wrong Israeli policies – such as the settlements on the West Bank at the expense of Palestinians – don’t call the shots. Israeli Prime Ministers are the ones responsible for driving the country towards the looming  political disaster of a one-state solution.

The ‘story’ of the Israelis and the Palestinians has become a global template for much more than the two peoples fighting over a patch of land. It is a stage for different and competing truths set amid an ancient backdrop and fuelled by very modern passions. Discussion of how it is reported reflects these same currents.

In an effort to bring balance and closure to this issue, it’s seem certain that Steve Gutman and Matti Friedman are unlikely to agree on much when it comes to the treatment of Israel by the media, and much like the conflict itself their argument will run and run.

Looking back at Gaza

Gaza entry exitAs the firing subsides in Gaza and Israel (at least for a while) so the post-mortem on the attendant aspects of the conflict has begun. Adding a substantial contribution to the already much discussed issue of the media coverage of the conflict and of Israel in general is a lengthy piece by a former Associated Press staffer, Matti Friedman in which he politely lambasts his former employer along with other foreign media organizations for bias and fuelling the fires of anti-Semitism that have flared around the world.

As a former correspondent (for the BBC) in Israel and the Palestinian Territories as well as a UN official based in Jerusalem the piece piqued my interest and caused me to reflect also upon my own experiences.

There is much that Matti Friedman writes that resonates, when he describes the disproportionate coverage that Israel receives, and the way that the foreign media has broadly speaking accepted a narrative of the conflict which prescribes given roles to Israel (as the guilty party) and the Palestinians (as the victims).

Firstly to deal with what he accurately pinpoints as ‘the global mania’ with Israeli actions. I alluded to the interest that the ‘Israel-Palestinian story’ gets in a previous post, describing the way in which it is perceived (often unconsciously) by many through the lens of history, along with much accompanying religious and cultural baggage.

The story of the Jews in particular has all the ingredients for a blockbuster; including drama from before the time of the Pharaohs to the current day.  There is much tragedy, some hope and ultimate victory in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The history of the modern State of Israel contains elements so unlikely that they seem to belong to fiction rather than fact.  On the basis of one (much debated) narrative – a ragged group of survivors and idealists founded a country (amid tragedy for the Palestinians), reviving a long dead language, fighting off its enemies while forging it into one of the most prosperous and dynamic nations on earth.

Very few around the world remain impartial when confronted with this on-going drama, particularly when it is set amid current global religious and ideological passions.  At times of crisis and combined with other elements it brings out both the anti-Semites (in their droves) and philo-Semites. Personally I prefer neither to be hugged nor kicked on the basis of my identity, but it seems that many people around the world are incapable of seeing Jews as ‘normal’ individuals.

These passions feed into the way in which the story is reported. Israel’s own choices have also opened it up to differing consideration from many other countries and conflicts around the globe. During the recent Gaza conflict the Israeli authorities facilitated the movement of international journalists in and out of the territory. This allowed high-profile reporters and presenters to come and go during the conflict and for news organizations to rotate their staff during the hostilities.  (This contrasted with the Israeli decision to close off Gaza to foreign reporters during a previous round of fighting in 2008- 2009, and for which it was rightly condemned by news organizations).

The Israeli actions enabled high profile presenters such as Jon Snow from the UK’s Channel 4 News to anchor the programme from Gaza and then to return to London to further excoriate the Israeli authorities with passion and emotion during a news broadcast. That may seem unfair (and unprofessional), but it is also the price of having a free society.

It was also notable during the recent military conflict that Israeli military fire came close to the hotel where journalists were staying in Gaza (and from where some missiles were launched by Hamas) but left them unscathed. This reminded me of my own experiences as a correspondent reporting during Second Intifada in the West Bank and Gaza as well as at other times, when we would ring up the IDF to inform them of our positions to avoid being hit.

Journalists could roam through Gaza with relative freedom (considering this was after all a war zone) to witness the deaths and destruction wrought by the conflict. They cannot be criticized for reporting on what they saw – most especially the numerous civilian men, women, and children killed by Israeli army actions. I know from personal experience how difficult it is to remain detached when faced with the body of a young innocent killed in a conflict. The media are right to pose questions about the use of Israeli force, how it was deployed and how much care was, or was not, taken to avoid civilian casualties.

Israel must be held to account not in comparison to elsewhere in the Middle East but rather to other Western armies operating under similar conditions. And yet in reading and watching the coverage out of  Gaza it seems the media held Israel to an altogether different standard. Civilian casualties were often portrayed as the consequence of deliberate Israeli vengefulness and bloodletting.

I have seen for myself how Western armies operate during conflicts in the Middle East, the Balkans and elsewhere, and tragically there is no such thing as a clean conflict. I still have the photos I took in an Afghan village of what remained after a US air strike destroyed a family compound killing about fifty civilians in pursuit of one Al Qaeda operative. While there has been some questioning by the media over the extent of civilian casualties (numbering in their tens of thousands) in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, it has been muted by comparison to Gaza.

Where Matti Friedman is entirely correct is in the failure of news organizations and their correspondents to point out the controls and ‘pressures’ both implicit and explicit exerted upon them in Gaza by the all-pervasive and tightly run Hamas media operation. This inaction can only be seen as – at best – moral cowardice by media organizations.

It was also notable in what remain unobserved. One senior BBC correspondent wrote after a week of reporting in Gaza that ‘he saw no evidence.…of Israel’s accusation that Hamas uses Palestinians as human shields.’ This is a very strange statement to make. Firstly, just because the journalist didn’t see it doesn’t mean it didn’t occur, particularly when missiles aimed at Israel were emerging from built up areas inside Gaza. Secondly, knowing Gaza’s physical geography it’s safe to conclude that if Hamas operatives did come out from the territory’s packed urban confines, they would have been quickly struck by an Israeli drone or aircraft fire. If they weren’t in the open they were by definition sheltering in civilian neighbourhoods – thus they were using human shields (similar to the way other guerilla forces  – such as the Taliban – operate).

The Gaza situation sits in stark contrast to Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East, where Western journalists have become targets, and where danger severely constrains their ability to report. One only has to consider the monstrous murder of James Foley by crazed ISIS fanatics or the death by Syrian army missiles of Marie Colvin in Homs to understand how risky reporting from these areas has become. Word of journalists being abused and kidnapped in Iraq and Syria are kept quiet by media organizations, and I know of former colleagues exceptional in their bravery, who having suffered unreported close shaves now understandably choose not to return to these areas.

The openness and relative safety for journalists of Israel and by extension Gaza have made it the ‘convenient conflict’.  As a correspondent I benefited from the almost unrestrained access to report, excellent communications infrastructure (fast internet, well equipped TV studios, large local news bureau), short distances between locations (vital for breaking news), good air links between Tel Aviv and the outside world, as well as the decent hotels with well stocked bars. All these factors made this corner of the Middle East a journalist’s utopia.

For the same reasons it has made it a convenient place for international political and humanitarian organizations to function. During my time with the UN in Jerusalem, there were approximately 23 separate agencies and organizations working in the oPt (occupied Palestinian territory). It was – a former senior official told me – the greatest per capita concentration of UN resources in the world – more than Iraq or Syria with millions displaced, more than Congo or the Central African Republic wracked by conflict, gross human rights violations and disease.

So what can be concluded from all this? Is this – as Matti Friedman suggests – connected to deeply rooted anti-Semitism? My answer is that I don’t know.

I do know that if Israel is to remain a free society, then it has to allow the media to operate without interference.  On this point during the recent conflict, it remained true to its democratic roots. But in that same vein, it must also account for the Palestinian civilian casualties, and explain to the fullest extent how it operated, and if more could have been done to avoid those deaths.  Israel has in the past instituted State Commissions of Inquiry in the wake of conflicts to examine its conduct, notably after the First and Second Lebanon Wars. It would do well to similarly examine the recent Gaza conflict.

But just as importantly, the (Western) media must also account for itself and for its own conduct including apparent omissions and failures in the reporting of the conflict. It must question where reporting may have ended and emoting began, if it held Israel to a standard apart from all others, and why it allowed Hamas a free pass in controlling the flow of information.  Its coverage had consequences in fuelling the passions (and hatred) of many on the streets of Paris, London and elsewhere towards Israel, and by extension towards Jews.

The media is instinctively averse from turning the lens of scrutiny upon itself, and will – in all likelihood – veer away from any self-examination. It is better at calling out the wrong-doing of others, than admitting to its own faults. But whatever it chooses to do or not, the picture it painted of Gaza 2014 and its consequences are already etched in the consciousness of many around the world, and will serve as a further chapter in this never ending story.

More is less – on social media and the war in Gaza

Social-Media-Icons-cloudDespite the summer heat there’s a blizzard blowing; not one involving snowflakes and cold, but rather consisting of hot air and bile. I am referring to the avalanche of tweets, Instagram images, and Facebook messages that are filling cyberspace on the subject of events in and around Gaza.

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is a subject as mentioned in my previous blog which, (to paraphrase Abba Eban  a former Israeli Foreign Minister), never misses an opportunity to become an opportunity, for debate filled with much passion, but little sense.

Numerous (often unverifiable) postings are circulating that purport to present the ‘reality’ of the situation in Gaza and Israel. Twitter is abuzz with images under various partisan hashtags including #gazaunderattack and #israelunderfire. The aim of these postings is to deliver sharp and often shocking messages to back up one or other of the competing narratives.

The late publisher of the Washington Post, Philip Graham is attributed with saying that, ‘journalism is the first draft of history’. If that is true, then social media is the semi-legible half-considered scrawls that precede words being committed to paper.

While the openness of the internet is a welcome antidote to the old days when governments were able to tightly control the flow of information, the over-abundance of data is creating a fog of confusion for those struggling for something more than partisan propaganda. This situation is also negatively impacting the way in which the formal – old style – media operates.

When I began working as a radio reporter in the early 1990’s radio features were edited using razor blades and sticky tape. They were dispatched for broadcast from far flung places by post or over crackly phone lines. Deadlines were hours or days away, allowing time to cultivate contacts over relaxing and reimbursable drinks.

Within a few short years the arrival of satellite and digital technology transformed the methods and pace of the work. Suddenly stories could be filed with relative ease from virtually any dusty backwater with a rudimentary technical aptitude and a few small bags of equipment. Rolling radio and TV news networks meant that deadlines were constant with little time to digest latest developments, let alone a hurried lunch. We reporters working on news networks became the ‘satellite monkeys’ or ‘the gob on the stick’, filling broadcast time from our makeshift studios on rooftops, in fields, or wherever we happened to find ourselves. Despite these limitations and frustrations, reporters worked according to an established order determined by editorial standards.

But today, social media has created an environment where dis-informational anarchy reigns. It is illustrated in all its (lack of) clarity with the current situation in Gaza. Pictures, video, clips and messages often parading as facts are being uploaded for immediate consumption.

This has created a situation in which the image has become the story. Type ‘gazachildren’ into a search engine, or Twitter and you will be confronted by nightmarish images of dead and injured infants. You cannot discuss, explain away, or respond in any reasoned sense, in the face of such pictures. They numb conversation leaving only outrage and shock in their wake. The problem lies in the fact that they mostly come without context; in identifying the casualties, the circumstances of their deaths, and in describing the nature of the conflict itself. For the most part these images are stripped of anything which might explain – while not diminishing – such deaths.

Added to that, is the fact that many of the images being circulated are unverifiable and of uncertain provenance. Some are being disseminated with the deliberate intent to deceive. The BBC’s Jon Donnison was caught out in unwittingly tweeting an image he believed to be from Gaza but which was in fact originally from Syria.

The unreasoned hysteria in discussing events in Gaza and Israel, combined with the flood of immediate postings from the conflict zone, has resulted in a ‘race to the bottom’. This means publishing the most immediate, striking, provocative and shocking image that can be found to reinforce a given point. These range from the gruesome to the bizarre, including a tweet I recently saw, seemingly suggesting Israel’s responsibility for a bleeding horse lacking milk for her foal.

The military conflict in and around Gaza is particularly intense, as is the media war. It is – in all senses – asymmetric, pitting wildly differing forces against each other, both of which differ in their aims, tactics and standards. In the military sphere it is lives that are being lost and shattered. In terms of the media, it is journalistic integrity, reliability and understanding that are the main casualties in this battle for hearts and minds. In their place have come hate, prejudice and hysteria which are now spilling far beyond the Middle East to the streets of Europe, and elsewhere.

Fear and Loathing – the fight for sanity in the Middle East and beyond.

couple-arguing[1]

The saying goes that the first casualty of war is truth – but when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians it seems that it’s sanity that goes out of the window as the firing begins. This conflict is the political equivalent of LSD – distorting the senses of all those who come into contact with it, and sending them crazy.

For the first time in decades I find myself neither living the conflict nor working on matters concerned with it. But despite the five thousand miles between Washington and the Middle East, it is still able to exert a grip upon my attention and emotions, distracting me from work every few minutes to check online, on the latest developments. To paraphrase – you can take the boy out of Israel but you can’t take Israel out of the boy.

As I study the latest pictures on the internet, I try to identify where the missiles have struck in Israel, the location of the Iron Dome batteries, and the areas that have been hit in Gaza. My upbringing and experience of more than ten years living in Israel mean that I am not, and will never be, an impartial observer to the conflict or anything concerning the country and its neighbours. I feel guilty about not being there with friends and family, while at the same time harboring relief that Lysette and the girls aren’t enduring the fear of missiles falling from the sky.

But what I continue to find fascinating (and not in a good way) is how that this conflict manages to elicit such strong emotions and opinions even among people who are far removed from it by background, experience or location.  And also how each new outburst of violence seems to be accompanied by increasingly stronger reactions. This stands in contrast to other parts of the world where the longer the conflict the greater the disinterest. While tens of thousands of civilians have died as a consequence of war in Syria, South Sudan and elsewhere, and while countless millions live under brutal oppression in North Korea and Iran, it is this diminutive triangle of real estate at the far end of the Mediterranean that rules the air-waves and the op-ed pages. Where people have failed to come out and demonstrate at the injustices being wrought in Aleppo, Pyongyang, Juba and Tehran, crowds have gathered in recent days to give vent to their anger, outrage and hatred (overwhelmingly directed at Israel).

When I was a journalist I concocted a theory to explain the disproportionate attention and passion afforded to Israel and the Palestinians. It is simply the Bible and Koran brought to life 24/7 on-line, on TV, Radio, and in print. Billions of people around the world, overwhelmingly Christians, Moslems, and Jews, know of the ‘Holy Land’ from their holy texts. They have imbibed the ‘notion’ of this place as an idea or representation of faith and identity, and have it as frame of reference. It may not bear any relationship to current realities, but it acts as a license for people to feel strongly about the here and now. Add to that, millennia of bloody history between the monotheistic faiths, as well as among them, post-colonial carve-ups, post-colonial guilt, anti-Semitism, philo-Semitism, Arab nationalism, Zionism, oil, water, demography, geography, Islamism, Islamophobia, secularism, fundamentalism, global power plays, local disputes, and much, much more – and you have the perfect cocktail for hallucinogenic properties of the this conflict.

And like an ageing hippy whose brain cells are addled from too many drugs, so every new outburst of conflict brings less coherence and makes the possibility of any reasonable discussion ever more impossible. Seemingly obvious and innocuous points such as the fate of civilians caught in conflict, the importance of intent in carrying out actions in war, the inexcusability of racism and more, are all lost in the foam-filled ranting of the impassioned. Nuanced views (such as in this recent piece in the Independent) are few and far between, and only seem to open up their proponents to abuse.

When conversations are reduced to screaming matches it is better to remain silent. I have been to Gaza more times than I can count, spent half a year living in Asheklon, spoken to Hamas’s leaders as well as much of Israel’s current leadership. But all this stands for nothing in the midst of the psychosis that has gripped people in the Middle East and far beyond, regarding this latest spasm of violence.

By way of conclusion, I remind myself that I was never interested in hallucinogens, and don’t intend to start ingesting them now.

Let me know why you think this conflict gathers such attention and if anything can be done to make any discussion of it more measured and less hysterical.