Toughest Foreign Storyby Rick Salutin, The Toronto Globe & Mail, October 20, 2000
For half a century, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been the most distorted area of our foreign news coverage. Yet it's not that confusing; no more so than, say, South Africa during apartheid. It, too, was complicated, but the political and moral issues involved seemed clear. Not so with the Mideast. Let me give some examples.
War. As in, "Is this war? It certainly feels like it." (Marcus Gee in The Globe and Mail). No it doesn't. Wars occur between countries with armies. Here you have one country and one army: Israel. Palestinians run local government and police; they have no tanks, army or air force. They don't even control the airport. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said what Israel has done so far "doesn't amount to anything. It is not one in a million of what we can do if we are really at war." Exactly. His "nothing" is incomparably more than the best Palestinian effort. The equation is absurd. The National Post said "Israel could easily win an all-out war with the Palestinians." They could easily win an all-out war with my local Starbucks, too.
Ceasefire. As in endless calls for. Between who? Kids throwing stones and helicopters firing rockets?
Geography. An audience member on CBC's Counterspin asked why Palestinian parents let their kids out on the streets, implying Israeli parents wouldn't. But, hey, the reason you don't see Israeli kids throwing stones at tanks is that no streets in Israel are occupied by a foreign army. The more than 100 deaths have been on Palestinian territory.
The UN. American columnist George Will sums up the United Nations as "that nest of anti-Israeli regimes" because, I suppose, General Assembly votes on the Mideast tend to run about 150-2, the two being Israel and the U.S. The National Post says "the Palestinians prefer to deal with the UN . . . while the Israelis trust only the Americans." That's another weird equation: One country equals the whole UN? The very notion of the U.S. as mediator is bizarre. When the recent violence broke out, both presidential candidates robotically declared support for Israel.
Whose point of view? CBC Radio's Dick Gordon asked an Israeli, "Do you ever think it might get out of control?" But for Palestinians, it's always out of control. The New York Times' David Shipler said Arab leaders "reportedly" make "private remarks" disputing historical Jewish ties to Jerusalem's Temple Mount, which "touches the deepest Israeli fear." About being seen as legitimate inhabitants of the land in Arab eyes. That doesn't equate, either: anxiety over having your emotional attachment questioned versus actual daily checkpoints, expulsions, kidnappings, demolitions . . .
Peace. As in the Oslo accords, or Camp David. This is peace in a very narrow, negative sense. Even after many years of bloody intifada,Palestinians did not get a state, or the right to return to their homes, or restitution for property. They got "the mere scrap of a sham state" (Edward Said); a Bantustan, like the puppet black states South Africa set up to try to retain control, "cantonized" into four or five parts with Israeli land and forces in between, controlling movement, borders and water resources; with Israeli colonists remaining on the best land. Still, most of them accepted this mingy peace and even rejoiced: It was a victory, and could lead to something better. But the follow-up to the initial agreement was grim. Under governments both left and right, Israel sent hundreds of thousands of new settlers, delayed withdrawals or reneged and confiscated more land. The element of hope that underpinned a crappy peace eroded.
Concessions. As in "Can Barak make any more concessions than he already has?" (CBC Radio's Michael Enright), or "the superlatively generous offers made by Mr. Barak" (National Post). This is the most imaginative and distorted term in recent coverage. It's true at the end that Israel offered concessions on Jerusalem, but they were minor: a few suburbs, one of which could be called Palestine's capital, instead of Israel's earlier insistence on an utterly "undivided" city. It's as if Palestinians had first demanded all of Jerusalem, then "conceded" to Israel a few neighbourhoods. He gave in, in some small measure, on Jerusalem, but in the context of a hideously one-sided "peace" to start with, followed by years of Israeli reneging, then reneged a bit on the reneging, and is hailed as the great conceder. It would have taken something at least a little grander to swallow all the rest. The last straw, wrote a Palestinian, was not Ariel Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount on the anniversary of the 1982 Beirut massacre for which he was responsible, but the huge Israeli force that fired on those protesting against his visit. They weren't even allowed to voice their anger. At a certain point, nothing, with hope intact, becomes preferable to something, with all hope foregone.
So: no war, no peace, no ceasefire, no real concessions. You can see why it's a hard story to follow.
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