Bias and Context in Israel

Tensions in Israel and Palestine continue to rise, and the news coverage of this subject has been predictably biased. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with biased journalism–obviously, it’s what we’re doing here. But there is a problem when that bias is left unstated, and the reader is left to assume it was an objective account of the news. That’s our focus for the day.

Yesterday, there was an excellent example of biased coverage on the Israel-Palestine issue from The Skimm, which offers a concise and snarky summary of the news each day in case you’re unfamiliar. And before we get started, I should say that The Skimm actually tends to be a bit better about providing balanced context than some of the more well-known outlets (say The New York Times or CNN, for instance). They deserve credit for that. But this particular story was a case study in how selective reporting and language choices can produce a deeply distorted narrative. Here’s the first part of their summary:

In the last month, a renewed dispute over a holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City (which Jews call Temple Mount, and Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary) has set off a wave of violence. Palestinian assailants have been attacking Israelis almost daily, often by knife stabbings, often in Jerusalem, and often by young attackers.

Now, there’s nothing terribly wrong with the first sentence. There are definitely other factors and incidents that have contributed to this recent wave of violence, but the dispute over the holy site has played a major role. Fair enough, let’s move on. (If you want to know more about this particular part of the escalation, I’d recommend this article by the way.)

Next, we learn that “Palestinian assailants” have been attacking Israelis. This is true, but it clearly implies that Israelis have not responded with attacks of their own. That is patently false. Consider this recent attack by an Israeli teenager who stabbed four people (all Arabs) and explained to police that he did it because he believes “all Arabs are terrorists”. (It’s also interesting to note that coverage of this attack often referred to it as a nationalistic attack, while Palestinian attacks are almost uniformly described as terrorism.) We could also look at the attack a few months ago when a group of Israelis set fire to an Palestinian home while a family slept inside, killing three people including an 18-month old infant. There was also this incident, where an 18-year-old Palestinian woman was shot and killed at a checkpoint in the West Bank by Israeli security forces. You get the idea. More recently, perhaps it can be said that Palestinians have been responsible for the lion’s share of attacks on civilians, but it kind of just depends when you start counting. In any case, it’s completely misleading to suggest that Palestinians have been perpetrating all of the violence.

The Skimm continues:

These attacks have resulted in many clashes with Israeli security; 9 Israelis and 41 Palestinians (including the assailants) have been killed in this latest wave of violence.

Now we learn there have been “clashes” with Israeli security, and ultimately 9 Israelis and 41 Palestinians have ended up dead form all of this. Let’s start with the term “clashes”. The term clash is a good one because it omits any notion of cause and effect. No one knows who started it or why, but somehow a clash broke out. In reality, what they’re referring to here are widespread Palestinian protests that are often suppressed violently by Israeli security using tear gas, rubber bullets, and more recently, live gunfire. It’s true that the Palestinian protests are not entirely nonviolent as they frequently involve stone-throwing and even molotov cocktails in some cases. And it’s surely regrettable that the protests aren’t entirely peaceful. But it must also be said that dispersing them with live ammunition that often proves fatal, is a clearly disproportionate response as we discussed last week.

Indeed, the live ammunition sheds light on why the death toll for Palestinians is so high relative to Israelis, despite Palestinians doing all the attacking. To help explain this odd disparity, the Skimm helpfully notes that some of the dead Palestinians were attackers… But of course, most of them were not. Many of the dead have just been protesters or random civilians that were killed by overactive security forces out of fear, like this Eritrean man who was shot this Sunday.

The Skimm then proceeds to discuss some of the recent history, but again, the results are disappointing:

Tension around this contested holy site and the subsequent violence is just the latest in a string of bad relationship karma between the two sides. In the last few weeks, the Palestinian president had an international mic drop when he announced that a peace framework that had been in place for decades is now off the table.

Here, they note that the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas unilaterally rejected the peace framework in his UN speech, implying once more that the Palestinians are the ones breaking the peace. What they say here isn’t technically false; it’s just deeply in need of context. Abbas did indeed declare that the Palestinians were no longer bound by the peace framework, known as theOslo Accords. Here’s the thing though, the Oslo Accords were signed 20 years ago between Israel and a Palestinian organization with the explicit and primary purpose of establishing a Palestinian state. Israel agreed to this and so did the Palestinians, but Israel is the one holding the cards (more on this shortly). So if Israel followed through on its commitment, there would already be a Palestinian state by now. Twenty years is a long time. The Oslo Accords were meant to give them a state, and it didn’t happen. So it shouldn’t really be that crazy or surprising that Palestinians would want to withdraw from this.

And finally, the Skimm sums up by mentioning that Israel has been building settlements on land the Palestinians claim as their own:

And there’s been revived tension over Israelis building settlements in areas that Palestinians claim will one day be a part of their state.

If you follow this issue closely, you’ll be able to spot some of the problems with this statement. Let’s begin with the term settlement. For me, it recalls idyllic images of the Oregon Trail in America, where adventurous pioneers set out to farm and build on previously unoccupied land (or, let’s be real, occasionally land they took from Native Americans). But in the context of Israel, building settlements explicitly means taking land that belonged to Palestinians and appropriating it for the use of Israeli Jews. And I don’t just mean belonged in some abstract, historical/religious sense. I mean a lot of times, Israel is demolishing Palestinian houses at the same time as building new settlements. Shockingly, this seems to make Palestinians upset.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian’s land claims for their possible future state are not nearly as vague as this summary might imply. Rather, they are based on the ceasefire lines that were determined after the last full-on war between Arabs and Israelis in 1967, known as the Six-Day War. We’ll skip over the details, but Israel basically dominated in this conflict and ended up taking over much more land than they had initially. Among its winnings, Israel took an area that was formerly ruled by Jordan, now referred to as the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, which was occupied by Egypt at the time. After the war in 1967, Israel proceeded to occupy these areas militarily, much in the way that the US occupied Iraq after the 2003 invasion. The key difference is that Israel then stayed for over 40 years. And today, they are still occupying the West Bank. (Gaza is still a problem too, but we’ll set that aside for now.)

Another key difference from the US’s occupation of Iraq, is that Israel is inviting its citizens (and prospective Jewish immigrants) to move into this occupied area and build on the land; that’s what people mean when they say building settlements.  Here’s a helpful map to show you what I’m talking about (the West Bank is the green area that looks like New Jersey on the third slide below):

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The slides above show the initial state of the Israel-Palestine area in slide 1, the original UN plan for the new Israeli state (this happened in the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust) in slide 2, how much Israel had acquired after its War of Independence in 1948 (slide 3), and finally the composition in the present day. Do you see how there are only pockets of green Palestinian land left in the present? That’s the effect of building settlements.

If all of that seems a bit too imperialistic for 2015, that’s because it is. Most people agree that colonizing occupied territory is illegal under international law, but that is what Israel has been doing. And it has progressed so far at this point, that many people see the very idea of two-state solution as politically hopeless. Palestinians generally want the state to be extended to the 1967 borders (slide 3) before the colonization process of the West Bank began. But now if that were to occur, it would require the politically influential Israeli settlers in the West Bank to be evicted and moved back to Israel proper. That’s one of the main reasons a two-state solution never seem to pan out. But it goes without saying that if Israel was committed to the peace process envisioned by the Oslo Accords, they would stop the settlement process that is actively taking more land.

Anyway, returning to back to the Skimm’s coverage, the next part of their summary wasn’t too bad. But by that point, it hardly really matters. After claiming that 1) Palestinians are initiating all the violence, 2) randomly clashing with security forces, 3) unilaterally breaking off peace negotiations, and 4) claiming land that may or may not be theirs, you can’t really have an honest discussion about the conflict. When news outlets continue cover the issue this way, they are doing a great disservice to everyone who reads it and expects it to be somewhere near objective.

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