Why Americans Don't Understand Palestine

The media has consistently emphasized Israel's perspective on the Gaza conflict.

If a man from Mars descended to observe Israel’s attack on the Gaza strip, he would have seen one group of humans trapped in a densely populated area, largely defenseless while a modern air force destroyed their buildings at will. He might have learned that the people in Gaza had been essentially enclosed for several years in a sort of ghetto, deprived by the Israeli navy of access to the fish in their sea, generally unable to travel or to trade with the outside world, barred by Israeli forces from much of their arable land, all the while surveyed continuously from the sky by a foe which could assassinate their leaders at will and often did.

This Martian also might learn that the residents of Gaza—most of them descendants of refugees who had fled or been driven from Israel in 1948—had been under Israeli occupation for 46 years, and intensified closure for six, a policy described by Israeli officials as “economic warfare” and privately by American diplomats as intended to keep Gaza “functioning at the lowest level possible consistent with avoiding a humanitarian crisis.” He might note that Gaza’s water supply is failing, as Israel blocks the entry of materials that could be used to repair and upgrade its sewage and water-treatment infrastructure. That ten percent of its children suffer from malnutrition and that cancer and birth defects are on the rise. That the fighting had started after a long standing truce had broken down after a series of tit-for-tat incidents, followed by the Israeli assassination of an Hamas leader, and the typical Hamas response of firing inaccurate rockets, which do Israel little damage.

But our man from Mars is certainly not an American. And while empathy for the underdog is said to be an American trait, this is not true if the underdog is Palestinian.

Among the chief milestones of Washington’s reaction to Israel’s military campaign were: President Obama stated from Bangkok that America supported Israel’s right “to defend itself” and “no country on earth would tolerate missiles raining down on its citizens” while national-security aide Benjamin Rhodes added “the reason there is a conflict in Gaza is because of the rocket fire that’s been launched at Israeli civilians indiscriminately for many months now.” Congress took time off from partisan wrangling about the fiscal cliff to pass unanimously two resolutions, in the Senate and House, expressing its “unwavering commitment to the security of the State of Israel” and backing its “inherent right to protect its citizens against acts of terrorism.” Its members could further inform themselves by attending a closed briefing by Israel’s ambassador Michael Oren on November 28, the only figure invited by the House Foreign Affairs Committee to testify.

As the fighting continued, Walter Russell Mead, a prominent political scientist, conveyed impatience with the just-war tradition seemed to inhibit Israeli air attacks, which by then had killed and wounded scores of people. Mead asserted that Americans would back an Israeli response of “unlimited ferocity.”

When Republican governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell, not known for his foreign-affairs opinions, issued a statement backing Israel’s response to “unwarranted and random violence,” he was assumed to be signaling his presidential aspirations. The polls seemed to back him up: Americans told pollsters they supported Israel’s actions against the Palestinians in Gaza by 57 percent to 25 percent, though the percentage of backers were somewhat lower among Democrats (41 percent), and the young (45 percent).

One explanation for such sentiments is that most Americans take foreign policy cues from political leaders, and no prominent American politician is willing to publicly express sympathy or compassion for Palestinians at the expense of Israel. Since roughly the time of John F. Kennedy, the politically ambitious have understood that expressing a wish for even-handedness between Israel and Palestine would threaten one’s career. Whatever their private views might be, by the time they get to Congress legislators learn that uncritical support for Israel is the “smart” political choice.

The spectrum of Congressional debate is shaped by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, whose leaders vet potential candidates from across the political spectrum for their willingness to promote AIPAC-sponsored views on the Middle East, and ensure the access of those who agree to the lobby’s superb national fundraising networks.

Those who stray are punished. Among notable victims was Illinois Senator Charles Percy, a moderate Republican once considered by many a possible future president. But after Percy refused to sign “the letter of 76” senators opposing President Ford’s call for a reassessment of U.S. Middle East policy, and described Yasser Arafat as relative moderate among Palestinians, he faced well-funded opponents in the primary and general elections, and an outsider from California spent more than $1 million in negative ads against him. As J. J. Goldberg, editor of the Forward, noted a decade ago, “there is this image in Congress that you don’t cross these people or they take you down.” Given the absence of any publicly Palestine-sympathetic politicians at the national level, it may be surprising that support for Israel’s strikes is not higher than 57 percent.

There are of course reasons beyond AIPAC’s campaign-finance heft for Congress’s Israel support. Christian Zionism is a significant factor, particularly in the Bible Belt. Former House Republican leader Dick Armey declared that his “number 1 priority in foreign policy is to protect Israel” while Tom Delay, his successor, described himself as “an Israeli at heart.”

Other factors count as well. After 1967, Israel earned respect as a Cold War ally, with a military which could dominate Soviet allies in the region. Its creation in 1948 was widely viewed as partial moral compensation for the enormity of the crimes of the Holocaust—a view probably held by most Americans, including those opposed to many of Israel’s current policies.

Furthermore, Palestinians have often had poor leadership in their national struggle. When success required international support, their use of terrorism rendered that problematic. Palestinians are hardly the first national-liberation movement to use terror as a tactic, but neither the Zionist Irgun and Stern Gang, nor the Algerian FLN, nor the IRA seemed as dependent on terrorism to gain attention. This made it easier for its enemies to define the Palestinian national movement as “terrorist” tout court and allowed Israel’s backers to tie their denial of Palestinian aspirations to America’s “war on terror”—however dissimilar the two projects were.

A free and responsible press could challenge this political monoculture. But while there was more varied commentary about this Middle East war than previous ones, major journalistic organs failed dramatically at providing Americans information to understand the conflict. On November 19, the New York Times published an editorial outlining its view of the Gaza war. Its core passage described the outbreak of conflict:

Hamas, which took control of Gaza in 2007 and is backed by Iran, is so consumed with hatred for Israel that it has repeatedly resorted to violence, no matter what the cost to its own people. Gaza militants have fired between 750 to 800 rockets into Israel this year before Israel assassinated one of its senior leaders last week and began its artillery and air campaign.

This summary mirrors precisely the oft-voiced Israeli hasbara point “We withdrew from Gaza, and they started firing rockets.” But the Times ignored entirely the virtual occupation of Gaza that Israel has maintained over the territory since its withdrawal, an occupation which intensified after Hamas won a Palestinian election, then prevailed in a struggle against the PA for control of the strip. The Times “balanced” its assessment with mild extraneous criticism of Israel for “marginalizing” the Palestinian Authority and isolating itself diplomatically. But the Israel-dominated reality Gazans had faced for the prior six years is left out.

Yes, it is true that Hamas is hostile to Israel and that its charter is anti-Semitic. It is also true that Hamas leaders have expressed interest in a long-term negotiated truce—a concession many observers feel is prelude to accepting a two state solution. By failing to acknowledge that Israel had been blockading Gaza and its people, the Times gave its readers no way to understand why the people under Hamas rule might support resistance against Israel, including firing rockets, or why millions of people throughout the Arab and Muslim world support them.

On the same day in the Washington Post, Richard Cohen accused Hamas of not caring about human life, including that of Gazans. He too dwelled on the anti-Semitism in the Hamas charter, and mentioned the 2005 Israeli “pullout” from Gaza. He chided Israel for building settlements, but also could not bring himself to mention the blockade Israel has imposed on Gaza.

Neither, writing a few days hence, could his Post colleague David Ignatius. Like Cohen, Ignatius is a centrist, sometimes critical of Israeli actions. But about Gaza he hewed tightly to Israeli propaganda guidelines:

The Israelis withdrew from Gaza in 2005, only to have Hamas fire about 12,000 rockets and mortars at the Jewish state. The Israel Defense Forces invaded in 2008 (Operation Cast Lead) and a ceasefire followed. But in the years since, Hamas and other militias fired more than 3000 rockets and mortars, despite periodic cease-fires. On November 14, the Israelis got fed up and retaliated. . . they assassinated Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari.

Again, no mention of the blockade, no reference to Israel’s denial of Palestinian access to everything from the fish off their seacoast, to the opportunity to go to universities run by their compatriots on the West Bank, to their best arable land, to the equipment that would allow them to mend their broken water system. Palestinian resistance to the occupation is presented as simple bloody-mindedness. It is less surprising that Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, whose views track more closely with Israel’s right-wing government, would take the identical line: Israel withdrew, got rockets in return.

Does not publishing this kind of narrative, again and again, constitute a kind of journalistic malpractice, an abrogation of a major newspaper’s responsibility to inform? To imply that the Palestinians have no cause to resist, when rather plainly they exist in circumstances no people on earth would tolerate, is not really different from an actual lie. Israel can lie about Gaza if it wants, as governments do. But should major U.S. newspapers do so in their editorial and opinion pages?

It is hardly as if such journalistic distortions come without cost to Americans. Faced with a vast region of critical strategic importance, American readers are being deprived of information essential to understanding what is going on. The Arab world is radicalizing rapidly, often in anti-American ways, and one stream feeding the radicalism is U.S. diplomatic and moral support for Israel’s cruel blockade of Gaza.

This is not to say that media coverage of the Israel Palestine issue has not improved. Now, perhaps for the first time, Palestinians appear on network talk programs (Chris Hayes) and major radio outlets (NPR). It is important that Yousef Munayyer can be heard telling Democracy Now radio host Amy Goodman that to claim Israel is not occupying Gaza is like saying your goldfish are not under your control if you are not actually in the tank swimming with them.

The internet also has transformed the U.S. media landscape, on no issue more than Israel-Palestine. Nevertheless, most Americans do not seek news from specialized platforms. At a time when American politicians labor under all the constraints discussed above, the media’s omission of critical contextual information violates its mission to inform and educate.

In the very recent past, Americans paid a heavy price for ignorance about the Arab world—many of its leaders having been led to believe that an Iraq invasion force would be welcomed with rose petals. There are now ample reasons to fear that they are being misled again.

Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.