“There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz but was that their [the Palestinians] fault? They only see one thing: We have come here and stolen their country.”
–David Ben-Gurion, one of the founders of Israel and the first Prime Minister
Now that Israel’s bombardment of Gaza is off the front page and the Gazans are left to deal with the aftermath outside of world media attention, it makes sense to step back and review how the Israel-Palestine conflict is depicted in U.S. mainstream media. This depiction shapes how the U.S. public views the recent events in Gaza. It also shapes how the public understands what constitutes a just resolution to the conflict.
The nature of U.S. mainstream media coverage of events in Gaza and of the Israel-Palestine conflict renders Americans grossly misinformed. U.S. media representations are largely absent of historical context and omit the fact that for decades Israel has committed human rights violations against the Palestinian people and occupied their land. The media lens in mainstream U.S. coverage (print and television) obscures core issues and creates a false framework of the conflict. In the U.S., the Israel-Palestine conflict is framed as “a cycle of violence” between two adversaries of equal power engaged since millennia in a conflict based on religious and ethnic difference. Not a single element of this frame is true.
Myth Number 1: The conflict has been ongoing since millennia.
The conflict is less than 100 years old. Before 1900, Jews, Christians, and Muslims lived together in the Holy Land mostly peacefully in a quiet agrarian society. While some European Jews immigrated in the late 1800’s to what was then Ottoman Empire-controlled Palestine, their numbers were small. In 1917, as World War I was coming to a close, the British government became the colonial power in control of historic Palestine (the area known today as Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip). With the 1917 “Balfour Declaration” the British made clear their support for a Jewish state in Palestine. After 1917, immigration of European Jews to Palestine escalated, increasing each year as time wore on. Many of these new immigrants were in flight from anti-Semitism in Europe.
As the Nazis came to power in Germany in the early 1930’s and began their oppression and later genocide of European Jews, the numbers of European Jewish immigrants to Palestine increased dramatically. Through these early decades of the 20th century, between the British commitment to creating a Jewish state in Palestine and as more European Jews flooded in, tensions between the European newcomers and the native Palestinian Arabs began and increased over time. After the genocide and near annihilation of European Jewry by the Nazis during World War II, the movement to make a Jewish homeland in Historic Palestine found understandable sympathy. The fly in the ointment was the fact that another people already lived in that land.
In 1948 the state of Israel was established by these European Jewish immigrants, adherents of an ideology called “Zionism.” There were different opinions among Zionist leaders as to how to deal with the native Palestinian Arabs. Some advocated peaceful co-existence and others advocated dispossession and expulsion. There were also positions in between. In the end, the more regressive positions prevailed. In their writings, Zionist leaders like David Ben-Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, were explicit and unapologetic about their aim to expel the native Palestinian Arabs and take their land.
The 1948 nation building of Israel was premised on dispossession of the natives, including a premeditated campaign of ethnic cleansing and massacre. In 1948, Zionist military forces expelled about 750,000 Palestinians from 78% of Historic Palestine into the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and exile abroad. After statehood, these Zionist forces became the Israeli army. In 1967, again through military means, Israel took control of the remaining 22% of historic Palestine (i.e., the West Bank and Gaza Strip). The Palestinians driven into the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1948 (as well as those already there) came under Israeli military occupation in 1967, where they remain today 41 years later. Thus, in 1948 Israel proper was created on 78% of historic Palestine and since 1967 Israel has occupied the remaining 22% of historic Palestine.
Myth Number 2: The conflict is a cycle of violence between adversaries of similar power
The Israel-Palestine conflict is between two parties vastly unequal in power. Israel, the nuclear-armed occupier, has the fourth most powerful army in the world and cutting edge military weaponry. The Palestinians, an occupied and stateless people, are largely unarmed. The Palestinians have no army, no air force, no planes, no tanks, no gunships, and no nuclear weapons. This is why we see pictures of Palestinians throwing stones at tanks. If you possessed anything more powerful, would a stone really be your weapon of choice against a tank?
Myth Number 3: The conflict is based on religious and ethnic differences
The Israel-Palestine conflict is about possession and control of a small piece of land approximately the size of New Jersey. Israel believes itself entitled to all of the land because in the Bible God promised all of historic Palestine to the Jews. Since 1967, in violation of international law, Israel has moved 500,000 of its citizens into the West Bank. These settlers are connected to Israel through Israeli-only roads that crisscross the West Bank. West Bank Palestinians are not allowed to use these roads and must take circuitous routes on older roads in order to go around Israeli settlements, often adding hours to their journeys.
Regarding the “peace process,” Israel’s talk of making peace has been a rhetorical screen. Behind this screen each and every Israeli government since 1967,whether its flavor was left, right, or center, has continued the campaign begun in 1948, of land grab, human rights violations, and imprisonment of the Palestinians into multiple separate enclaves within the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Since 1967 every Israeli government has continued a national construction project (based on a plan created in the late 1960’s by Labor Minister Yigal Allon)to separate, isolate, and enclose every Palestinian city and most towns and villages by surrounding them with Israeli settlements. Today, that project is essentially complete. In addition to the settlement building, Israel’s construction of the Wall (86% of which is in the West Bank rather than along the 1967 border) and ongoing annexation of land and water resources have created facts on the ground establishing Israel’s dominance over all of historic Palestine. Today, Israel’s mission of total dominance is near completion.
In 1988, the Palestine Liberation Organization (as representative of the Palestinian people) agreed to recognize Israel, forego claim to 100% of historic Palestine, and accept a nation on 22% of their original land (i.e., on the West Bank and Gaza Strip). Israel has never agreed to this. Israel has made clear that it wants a future Palestinian state to be a version of 80% of 22% of 100%. Such a “state” would be a non-contiguous series of disconnected cantons. Israel’s Wall cuts deep into the West Bank and incorporates into Israel West Bank settlements and aquifers. This is the desert after all, and water is treasure. The Wall and settlements segment the West Bank and make a contiguous Palestinian state unlikely, if not impossible. Israel also wants control over exit and entry from that 80% of 22% of 100%. An analogy for this: imagine that in each of the rooms of your house you can do as you wish but that someone with guns controls all the hallways between the rooms. Is this a viable structure for life?
What holds all this in place and allows it to continue is that Israel has the multibillion dollar per year financial support and diplomatic cover of the most powerful nation in history, the United States. The U.S. has agreed to provide Israel with $30 billion dollars in military aid over the next 10 years and has provided billions upon billions of dollars in aid to Israel in the past. For decades, Israel has been the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid and receives one-third of the total U.S. foreign aid budget. The U.S., a veto-wielding member of the United Nations Security Council, has also vetoed each and every resolution put forward by the United Nations in response to Israel’s multiple violations of international law. In each of the U.N. votes on these resolutions against Israeli government actions, year after year, the U.S. and Israel (and a few small Pacific Island nations) stand alone against the rest of the international community in siding with Israel against international law and world opinion.
All of the facts above are available from easily accessible public sources. The facts are not in dispute. However, they have been obscured by a web of misinformation that hides the truth. Because the facts are what they are, when Israel is criticized, its proponents, who cannot rely on facts to support their cause, resort to personal attacks and charges of “anti-Semitism.” Their charges of anti-Semitism presuppose that all criticism of Israel as a state actor and all efforts to hold Israel, which is after all a nation state like any other, accountable for its actions are inherently anti-Semitic. When the truth cannot be bent to their narrative, proponents of Israeli government actions, no matter what those actions are, resort to the cudgel of anti-Semitism to silence and censor criticism of the actions of the state of Israel. So far, this method of silencing critics has proven highly effective in the U.S. Publicly criticizing Israel has cost academics their jobs and members of congress political office. These examples keep the rest of us in line as well.
Decades of misinformation and a mythical story (i.e., a land without a people for a people without a land), as well as the daily falsehoods we continue to be fed, can make the situation in Israel-Palestine seem more murky, complicated, and relativistic than it actually is.
When the American colonists were dispossessing the Native Americans, there was violent resistance. A people being dispossessed will resist. They resist because of their dispossession (not because they are crazy, evil, or filled with hate because of their religion). And, of course, violent native resistance hurts the occupier and harms innocents. However, when the occupier casts itself as the victim and says it is acting only in “self-defense” against native “attack”, it has turned logic on its head. Israel’s propaganda campaign over the last 41 years, casting itself as the only and perpetual victim, has been extremely successful in making this bizarre topsy-turvy spin seem logical and correct. It is yet another example of the effectiveness of saying the same thing over and over again until people start believing it is true.
There are many situations in history where two opposing perspectives are not of equal moral weight. The colonial campaign China continues in Tibet, the former British Empire’s actions around the globe, the apartheid system in South Africa, Belgium’s enslavement and killing of 10 million Congolese for natural resources, the genocide of the Jews by the Nazis, the genocide of the Armenians by Turkey all come to mind. The moral equation in Israel-Palestine is as simple and clear.
While discussion of U.S. national interest and geopolitical strategy take up much space in newspapers and conversation among the pundit class, the dimension of morality, the concern with doing the right thing, rarely enters our public discourse. In the end, the situation in the Occupied Territories of Gaza and the West Bank calls on our moral sense. It calls on our humanity, compassion, and sense of fairness. Our silence and complicity in Israel’s dispossession of the Palestinians and its ongoing human rights abuses over decades is a moral lapse of huge proportion.
Americans have a larger stake in this issue than citizens of other countries because we foot the bill to the tune of $8 million a day in aid to Israel. All of us who pay U.S. income taxes funded the recent atrocities in Gaza. We paid to drop white phosphorus on civilians. We paid to level homes, clinics, and schools. We paid to kill children and whole families as they slept in their beds. We are complicit in the bloodbath in Gaza. We are complicit in children starving to death laying next to their dead mothers buried in rubble as the International Red Cross documented in Gaza. We fund acts of state terror in which people watch their beloved daughter, son, father, mother be literally torn apart. We pay for a military machine that maims, kills, and holds captive an unarmed civilian population of men, women, and children, enclosing them in prison-like cantons within the West Bank and Gaza. For decades, we have been paying for the slow annihilation of a society and people who have done absolutely nothing to us.
So what can we do as individual citizens? Call your congresspeople to demand an even-handed U.S. policy in Israel-Palestine. Call the Obama White House to do the same. Learn about the growing Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign against Israel (modeled on the anti-apartheid campaign against South Africa). Don’t buy Israeli products. Tell your local grocer you won’t shop there until they stop carrying Israeli products. Educate your neighbor. Educate yourself. Watch the documentary film “Occupation 101.” Read “The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine” by Israeli historian Ilan Pappe. Read the writings of Palestinian intellectuals Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi. Go to www.endtheoccupation.org to find a political group in your area working for justice in Israel-Palestine. Most of all, do something. Do not be silent. Do not be complicit.
A.M. Khan is an Indian American psychologist by day and an activist and beginning documentary filmmaker by night. She welcomes correspondence on her work and can reached at: email@example.com.