'Spin' in the American media has a multitude of flavors. It works to
interpret the Israel-Palestinian conflict for its readers by encapsulating
'news' within conveniently simplistic explanations. What is all the fighting
about? It's not about a political conflict over land expropriation, much of
the American media would insist: it's just that those Palestinians are a
naturally violent people. Why have some Palestinians resorted to suicide
bombings? In large sections of the American media, the properly political
answers to such questions are rejected in favor of farcical racial and
religious caricatures: Palestinians don't value life; Palestinians are
driven by an all-consuming hatred; Palestinians are brainwashed religious
fanatics and anti-Semites; etc.
American media spin of the conflict is constantly evolving. Every few days, new angles for denouncing Palestinians and dismissing their political struggle are tried out and modified in the mainstream press. These appear alongside successful older canards: propaganda claims which have proven to be effective in the past are continually repeated, and form a fertile space alongside which new propaganda points can take root.
Recent weeks have seen the redeployment of an old PR campaign, in which the Palestinian people are portrayed as suffering from 'lawlessness.' This resuscitated explanation of the situation in the Occupied Palestinian territories has many functions, chief among which is to divert attention away from the extreme violence of an ongoing Israeli Military Occupation. The idea of Palestinian lawlessness would have us believe that to really understand the troubles Palestinians are facing, we have only to look at the Palestinian leadership. Beyond its use in concealing the daily violence of a 36-year-old Israeli military Occupation, the claim of lawlessness bolsters Israeli demands for the removal of Arafat, by portraying him as an incompetent, ineffectual, or irrelevant leader.
The answer to all the woes of Palestinians, in this argument, is simple: regime change will magically transform their lives for the better. Ignore all that other business: the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians inside walled cantons, the wounding of tens of thousands of civilians, the deliberate daily destruction of Palestinian homes and civil infrastructure, the creeping expansion of illegal Israeli settlements and the constant daily influx of armed Israeli colonists - the very existence of such projects are tidily brushed aside by this propaganda device by which we are to focus the bulk of our attention upon Arafat, and the bulk of our hopes on his removal from office.
Recent headlines in the American Press that offer lawlessness as an explanation of events in the Occupied Palestinian Territories include:
"Slaying in Gaza highlights
lawlessness" (SEATTLE TIMES 3/3/04)
As should be evident from these headlines, lawlessness is the conclusion we are told to arrive at from a wide variety of events, including a rape, a political resignation, and a murder. It should also be evident that while rapes, political resignations and murders also take place with some frequency in Israel, we are not treated to a barrage of headlines warning of the imminent collapse of Israeli society or the descent into chaos in Tel Aviv, nor is it ever suggested that such crimes are somehow attributable to personal failures of Ariel Sharon.
All the same, this image of a growing lawlessness was interjected widely and repeatedly throughout American media coverage of the conflict in recent weeks:
"..a chilling sign of
increasing lawlessness in the Gaza Strip" (from "Advisor to Arafat Slain in
Gaza", AP 3/2/04)
"...fears of growing lawlessness" (from "Gunmen kill advisor to Palestinian leader," AP 3/2/04)
"...feeding fears of growing lawlessness and chaos in Palestinian areas" (from "Murder raises fears in Palestinian areas," AP 3/2/04)
"...deepened fears of a slide into lawlessness" (from "Palestinians fear Gaza chaos," REUTERS 3/1/04)
"...frustrations over rising lawlessness in the West Bank's largest city...accusing Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority on Friday of letting Nablus descend into lawlessness" (from "Mayor of largest West Bank City resigns," AP 2/27/04)
The latter quote was from one of dozens of articles that claimed that the Mayor of Nablus had resigned in protest over Arafat. In fact, he himself attributed the current state of affairs in the West Bank first of all to the Occupation. He said: 'It's clear that we are living in a state of chaos and social collapse. First, this is because of the occupation, because it is to its benefit to ruin this society. Part of the occupation's strategy is to prohibit the Authority from being present or from performing its duties.' (from 'One ring in a chain of chaos: An interview with Ghassan Shaka'a', PALESTINE REPORT 12/3/03)
Lawlessness is a predictable effect of Israel's sustained and deliberate destruction of Palestinian civil infrastructure and indeed of all aspects of Palestinian economic, political and cultural life. And there are certainly critiques that could be made about the strategies by which the Palestinian leadership has attempted to respond to Israel's relentless campaign to impoverish and isolate Palestinians. But any real concern for the Palestinian people would include a strong and vocal denunciation of the illegal Israeli military practices that have been devastating Palestinian society for decades.
Instead, what we find in many American media reports about Palestinian lawlessness is, in effect, a simultaneous justification and concealment of Israeli Occupation, coupled with an enthusiastic campaign to demonize and depose Yasser Arafat. Were there any real concern for the dangers arising from lawlessness, critiques of the Palestinian Authority would have been overwhelmed by critiques of Israel's daily and routine violations of the most fundamental doctrines of international law. Israeli movement of hundreds of thousands of armed settlers into the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israeli overflights and bombardment of Lebanon and Syria, public incitement to ethnic cleansing by Israeli officials at the highest levels of government, not to mention Israeli practices of collective punishment, torture, use of human shields, daily military targeting of children and unarmed civilians, and the current project to erect a wall (incarcerating millions of civilians based on their!
ethnicity while annexing over 55% of their land for exclusive use by another ethnic group): all of these criminal practices are examples of lawlessness on an appalling scale, representing dangers not only to their primary victims (Palestinians, and to a lesser degree Israelis), but to the very idea of international law and human rights.
Given the unprecedented violations of international law being pursued by Israel, the decision of much of the American press to repeatedly invoke Palestinian lawlessness is not only hypocritical: it's also offensive and irresponsible. If there were any substance other than demonization behind this national outburst of editorial anxieties about Palestinian lawlessness, then we would be seeing a flood of articles in praise of deliberations at the International Court of Justice over the legality of Israel's 730-kilometer long wall inside the West Bank.
It is quite correct to point out that lawlessness can have a devastating impact on a society. But a far more systematic kind of lawlessness is being forced upon Palestinians every time the United States abuses its veto power to obstruct international intervention in response to grave Israeli violations of international law. There have been many hundreds of such votes, in which the US stand alone with Israel against virtually every nation on earth, to prevent critique of Israeli crimes and to block intervention on behalf of Palestinians civilians. In the virtual absence of media commentary denouncing this decades-old and ongoing pattern of American stonewalling at the United Nations in defense of Israeli lawlessness, how are we to understand the flood of editorial hand-wringing over Palestinian lawlessness?
While millions of Americans struggle to make sense of what is happening in the Middle East, the American media is doing a grave disservice to its readers by feeding them such simplistic and one-sided 'explanations'. Although Arafat, like any other national leader, must bear some degree of responsibility for the circumstances of the people he represents, blaming Arafat alone for all the sufferings of the Palestinian people under Israeli Occupation is like denouncing someone for stealing a pen at the bank while an armed robbery is taking place.
The next time you see one of these warnings about the dire consequences of Palestinian 'lawlessness', ask yourself - and then ask the editor - why they don't also express concern about the dangers arising from Israel's own lawlessness. Thank them for their concern for the Palestinians suffering under Israeli military occupation, and then ask them why they are silent about the occupation itself, silent about Israeli violations of international law and of human rights law, and silent about an unwavering American policy of defending Israel's 'right' to engage in practices which are clearly illegal and whose impact on millions of innocent Palestinians can only be described as catastrophic.