NONE DARE CALL IT NEWS COVERAGE By Barry Rubin
I realized something important when reading a relatively marginal feature story from the Associated Press. It shows us that Palestinians don’t really exist as a society but only as a set of victims. By definition, all—or to be fair, almost all, of their problems are said to come from Israel. Yet since the continuation of the conflict and their difficult situation comes first and foremost from within Palestinian politics and society, this kind of interpretation makes it impossible to understand why there is no peace, no Palestinian state, and no end of violence.
In Karen Laub, “Amid poverty, a Renaissance villa in the West Bank,” November 26, 2008, provides a great opportunity to talk about the problems within Palestinian society. The story is about a Palestinian tycoon [who] has created a tranquil paradise on a Holy Land mountaintop, with a replica of a famous Renaissance villa, sculpted gardens and a wrought-iron pavilion that once belonged to a nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.”
We are immediately told, however, that this is to be compared, not to the impoverishment of his own society but rather to guess-who:
Do you think Cubans are fighting for healthcare or freedom from Communism?
“But even one of the West Bank’s richest men cannot entirely shut out Israel’s military occupation, army bases and Israeli settlements occupy hills surrounding the 100-acre estate.”Note that the mere existence of Israeli installations nearby is the “terrible” thing that allegedly cancels out this individual’s Garden of Eden. Not that there is any direct effect, but the message is that all Palestinians are a subject people, no matter how rich they are. He may never meet an Israeli, he may live in a situation where he can accumulate wealth and act as a lord, he may live under Palestinian Authority rule but—we are told—this is deceptive. Because nothing matters but Israel’s presence, even if it is barely in sight.
I have learned not to take even the most basic claims of AP for granted so I do not assume that there are “army bases” or settlements in the area.
Only afterward however are we informed that maybe, just maybe, there is something wrong with this conspicuous display of wealth in the Palestinian context:
“And some say such a display of wealth, the honey-colored Palladian mansion is visible for miles, is jarring at a time of continued economic hardship. At the foot of the mountain in Nablus, unemployment runs at 16 percent and the mayor says 40 percent of the 180,000 residents live in poverty.”
Jarring? How about asking the most basic questions, the kind that would be asked in covering any other society on earth?
The person in question is Munib Masri. The Masris are a large clan closely associated with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA). We are given the bare facts—he was close to Arafat, he formed a development company. But the points are made with the greatest possible delicacy:
“Critics say some of the profits were made possible by a lucrative telecommunications monopoly the company held for several years.”
We are not told from whence this monopoly came—from the PA. The word corruption is never mentioned. Such a lack of curiosity about the sources of his wealth does not accord with journalistic practices in covering other stories.
Indeed, the story of the telecommunications monopoly is one of the best-known stories of corruption among Palestinians. How PA and Fatah factions competed over the loot, how Arafat intervened directly into the issue.
But for AP it is a story untold. The story should be as follows:
–The Palestinian upper economic and political class cares nothing for its own people.
–In its fourteen-year rule of the West Bank, the PA has focused on looting it rather than on raising living standards and providing good government.
–Billions of dollars in international aid donations have disappeared, probably paying for a large portion of Masri’s mansion.
–The PA’s failures are blamed on Israel both by the PA itself, Western governments, and the international media.
–Palestinian suffering is not primarily due to Israel but to their own leaders.
–A lot of Israel’s success has been due to Jews around the world making both investments and donations. Palestinians have not been forthcoming in supporting their own “state,” a point well-known in Palestinian circles. (An exception here, of course, is in backing Hamas’s terrorist campaign in recent years.)
–Anyone who keeps their eyes open will see other huge, albeit less impressive than this one, mansions in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Even other members of Masri’s own family have been criticized for their ostentation. While this estate may be the most extreme case, it is hardly an exception in that regard.
–Wealthy Palestinians do not give charity to help their poorer cousins. The PA doesn’t even have a comprehensive tax system. Thus, the international community is left to support the Palestinians, and their oversized security apparatus.
–Violence sponsored by the PA was responsible for destroying the chance for their people to work in Israel, hitherto a major aid to their economy; the destruction of infrastructure; and the hesitation of investors, who are also put off by the PA’s corruption and incompetence.
–Intransigence and the failure to reach a compromise solution stem from the Palestinian leadership, including Masri’s buddy, Arafat.
Meanwhile, despite the hints in this article about a stifling Israeli occupation, Masri has no difficulty in proposing huge projects costing more than a half billion dollars. I suspect that these projects will never materialize but will be scams for ripping off foreign aid money.
“Masri remains optimistic, even though independence appears no closer than when he first returned to the West Bank.”
Hm, I wonder why they haven’t achieved it yet. I sure won’t learn it from AP coverage.
And to switch to the broader picture, consider another Karin Laub effort, “Abbas ads make appeal to Israelis,” November 21, 2008.
The subtitle is, “The Palestinian’s ads detail withdrawal terms first offered in a 2002 Arab Peace Initiative.” Well, if the ads detail the terms, Laub certainly doesn’t.
The 12-paragraph story never gets around to telling us what’s in the offer and why Israel has a problem with it. The only reference to that point says, “An Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza and parts of Jerusalem would bring them recognition by the Arab world.”
Of course, Israel has already withdrawn from all of Gaza, but at any rate it would have been easy for Laub to mention that the terms are for Israel to leave all of the West Bank and all of east Jerusalem, not one centimeter less. She merely had to insert the word “all.” The point is that the way it is worded makes the offer seem more attractive than it is.
But that’s not the worst part. Laub doesn’t mention that the plan also demands that all—there’s that word again—Palestinians who ever lived in any part of what is now Israel and all their descendents must be allowed to return to Israel. That’s a few million people.
To distort points of fact about the terms is scandalous and shameful. A couple of decades ago, AP would have issued a correction. But that’s not the way things are done nowadays, is it?
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is only paraphrased as saying “its positions on key issues such as final borders, the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees are not acceptable.”
There’s no explanation as to why it is, presumably lest Israel’s rejection be understood as a rational response.
And as always there is no mention of Palestinian refusal to meet Israel’s needs. As always, we aren’t even told about such things, which Abbas’s adds don’t mention: end of incitement to terrorism, a declared end to the conflict, no foreign troops on Palestinian soil. One might think that an ad campaign by the PA would say something about Palestinian positions.
The article concludes, “Many Israelis are also skeptical about a peace deal, in part because the embattled Abbas no longer speaks for all Palestinians.”
Thank goodness that while it is impermissible to criticize the PA or Fatah, at least the media can talk about Hamas. We are then given a decent description of it as an “Islamic extremist group” which staged a “violent 2007 takeover, two years after a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the territory,” and its firing of “thousands of rockets and mortars on Israeli border towns since the pullout.” The article then notes, “Israelis fear a West Bank withdrawal could bring more attacks.”
Of course, that’s in the last paragraph. But two more reasons for Israeli skepticism should also be added: the failure of the PA to keep its past promises and its demands that Israel give everything without offering anything itself.
Can we coin a phrase here? Much of the coverage can be called “anti-news” because it is deceptive nature. Perhaps there should be little labels affixed, like those on cigarette packs: Warning! Reading this article can be hazardous to your intellectual health.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA and other GLORIA Center publications or to order books, visit http://www.gloriacenter.org.