Truth and context in short supply
Over many years of Australian “60 Minutes” (Nine Network) reporting on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, truth and context have generally been in short supply.
Its June 25 episode was a typical morass of misrepresentation and manipulation – centered upon reporter Liam Bartlett’s message that “Israel’s continuing provocation” of settlement building and its “ongoing land grab” is creating “more hate, more violence, more death”.
The report did what most such deceptive exposés do – focus on the way vital security measures unavoidably inconvenience Palestinians living in the West Bank.
But these allegations are invariably exaggerated or grossly misrepresented, because 95% of Palestinians live under their own self-government – the Palestinian Authority – and do not encounter Israeli soldiers or settlers on a daily basis.
In spite of the facts that settlements cover less than 1.9% of the West Bank (never stated), and no new settlements have been established in almost 20 years (one has been announced but not yet built), a graphic appeared where giant dots representing settlements popped up on a map of the West Bank to show viewers their supposed destructive effect on the prospects of a Palestinian state.
Bartlett introduced viewers to two 15-year-olds – Yair Myer, who lives in the settlement of Tzofim and Laith Alayassa from Bethlehem.
Over visuals from a settlement, Laith complains about all the advantages the settlers enjoy but he doesn’t.
The report included obligatory shots of the small section of the security barrier made out of concrete.
Bartlett also claimed that “travel for Palestinian families between different places on the West Bank is severely restricted by Israeli checkpoints” and Laith “is confined mostly to the streets of Bethlehem.”
If you live in Bethlehem, are other Palestinian Authority cities off limits? No they aren’t! Moreover, in January, US documentary filmmaker, Ami Horowitz, posted a video of himself being driven “hundreds of miles” throughout the West Bank in a Palestinian registered car and never encountering a checkpoint.
Yehuda Shaul of the extreme left Israeli NGO “Breaking the Silence” showed Bartlett around Hebron to explain why Jews living there are causing the next generation of Palestinians to hate Israel.
Shaul inverted the reality to suggest that Israelis can move freely throughout the city but Palestinians cannot.
A Hebron settler explained that it is actually Jews who are restricted to a few Hebron streets, but Bartlett had already characterised the settlers as “hardcore”, framing them as the problem. The religious significance of Hebron as the resting place of Judaism’s patriarchs and matriarchs went unmentioned.
Palestinian incitement and glorification of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel violence were not mentioned. Nor were viewers confused by such irrelevances as the three Israeli offers of a Palestinian state or the thousands killed in the Second Intifada that preceded the introduction of the security barrier, etc.
Israeli minister Tzipi Hotovely was briefly included to give the government’s side, whilst an imploring PA adviser said it is about “independence. It’s about freedom. It’s about our ability to govern ourselves. We aspire to establish a model of a state, we truly do.”
And if that wasn’t bad enough, Bartlett’s online article was even more noxious. He called the Palestinian conflict “the axis upon which the majority” of “Middle Eastern politics” revolves, while accusing Israel of “apartheid”. While he acknowledged 40 Israelis were murdered over the past 18 months, he said Israel killed “over 250 Palestinians” during that time without noting that most were killed whilst perpetrating terrorist attacks.
ABC TV “Insiders” host Barry Cassidy (July 2) assumed viewers automatically knew the intricacies of why Israel is not an apartheid state when interviewing Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon.
Cassidy said, “you obsess about foreign policy and talk about a boycott on Israel. You’ve said of Israel that they practise apartheid in pretty much the same way as South Africa did?”
Surprisingly Rhiannon, who is never shy in expressing extreme anti-Israel views, merely replied “I am not the only one that says that about Israel”.
Thankfully, later on in the program, guest Gerard Henderson said Israel is a democracy and that “20 per cent of Israelis are Arabs who live freely in that society… this is just an appalling anti-Israel comment – what you expect now from the extreme left.”
Al Jazeera’s agenda
The dramatic decision by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and UAE to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar saw a rise in media discussion on why ABC and SBS rely so heavily on the Qatari Royal Family owned Al Jazeera news service, that has been dogged by claims it runs a pro-extremist editorial agenda.
In the Australian (July 3), AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein noted that Australian journalist Peter Greste – a former Al Jazeera employee imprisoned by Egypt as part of a thinly-veiled political row with Qatar – “said that he and his colleagues at Al Jazeera were not aware of any connection between the network and terrorist organisations or the Muslim Brotherhood, but that there may be some truth in that at a higher level, a management level (there was) and of the Egyptian edition politically they seemed quite aligned with the Brotherhood.”
The editorial agenda was not limited to Al Jazeera Arabic, Rubenstein wrote, noting how in 2015 two former employees of Al Jazeera America, Shannon High-Bassalik and Matthew Luke, filed separate lawsuits alleging pervasive antisemitism and sexism in the newsroom. High-Bassalik also said journalists at the network were instructed by management to attack Israel in their stories, including through the use of inflammatory taglines and captions.
In the same edition, an Economist article said, “in its early days the station distinguished itself with intrepid-reporting, heated debates and unsparing coverage of autocrats, save its Qatari hosts… But the station has also welcomed, and championed, extremist viewpoints. It broadcast messages from Osama bin Laden and allowed Yusuf al-Qaradawi, an Islamic theologian, to advocate violence on his own talk show. The bureau chief in Beirut once hosted an on-air birthday party for a militant convicted of killing four Israelis.”
It also noted that former Al Jazeera correspondent Aktham Suliman accused the network of taking positions “not based on journalistic priorities, but rather on the interests of the foreign ministry of Qatar.”
In the Daily Telegraph (July 21), AIJAC’s Gareth Narunsky discussed Al Jazeera’s agenda, and noted that former Cairo bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy is claiming that the network is “a propaganda channel for Islamists and an arm of Qatari foreign policy” as part of his lawsuit against the network.
Stripped of context
The ongoing political power play between Hamas and Fatah, which has seen the Palestinian Authority severely cut back on financial aid to Hamas-run Gaza in recent months, was only of interest to ABC Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill to the extent that it allowed her to present yet another report on the challenges faced by Palestinians in Gaza needing medical treatment.
While presenting Palestinian suffering, her nine-minute report on ABC TV “7.30” (July 13) allotted no more than 30 seconds to the geopolitical background of the history of the PA – Hamas feud.
McNeill limited her political analysis to stating that Hamas “the designated terror group is coming under new pressure. The Palestinian Authority, led by President Mahmoud Abbas is now trying to squeeze Hamas by decreasing services to the Strip like electricity, salaries and now, healthcare.”
There was no discussion on what the end game is, only that “denial of healthcare is increasingly used to punish civilians in Gaza” – the rest of the focus was on personal stories.
The report included her regular expert, UN Gaza Aid chief Robert Piper criticising Israel, Fatah and Hamas, while the bulk of the story apportioned blame to the Palestinian Authority for not endorsing and paying for needed treatments for Gazans outside of Gaza, and condemning Israel for not issuing security approval to Gazans needing treatment.
Although the report noted that the PA failed to answer her questions, an Israeli statement was read out explaining that Hamas has “repeatedly exploited the humanitarian approach to promote terror attacks in Israel.”
McNeill knows only too well this is correct, expressing shock on her Twitter account in April when it was revealed that two Palestinian sisters, one trying to enter Israel from Gaza for cancer treatment, were found with explosives hidden in medicine containers. Yet McNeill did not report on that at the time or include it in this story either.
In contrast, the Age and Canberra Times (July 16) ran a far more informative piece from Washington Post Middle East correspondent William Booth whose opening paragraph succinctly explained everything – “Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is pursuing a high-risk campaign in the Gaza Strip to squeeze his own people so hard that they might force the Islamist movement Hamas to surrender control of the isolated coastal enclave.”
And unlike McNeill’s narrow focus, Booth noted that Abbas has “slashed salaries for its employees in the seaside territory, withheld permissions for medical patients to leave and, most dramatically, cut payments for the electricity provided by Israel.” His report noted that Israel is concerned it will pay the price with Hamas responding by firing rockets at Israeli civilians.
Start ‘er up
The mantra of Israel as a start-up nation to be emulated by Australia continues to be a theme for stories in the local media.
A visit to Australia by an Israeli delegation that included Hebrew University President Professor Menahem Sasson to participate in a Sydney University workshop on commercialising medical and scientific research was widely covered.
This included a July 17 Australian Financial Review piece noting that over $US20 billion in revenue has resulted from commercialisation linked to Hebrew University’s medical and science research.
The Australian (July 19) reported on his praise for Israel’s culture of encouraging questioning of accepted practices and ideas and noted the university’s Nobel prize winners.
SBS TV “World News” (July 18) also covered Sasson’s visit but focused mainly on 16-year-old high school student Sarit Sternberg who is part of the university’s program for gifted students and discovered a virus that can be used to kill the biological weapon anthrax.
Sternberg was also interviewed on ABC Radio National “Drive” (July 19).
In a nuanced and considered analysis, Deloitte’s Juliet Bourke, who visited Israel on an Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce study tour, said the country “takes a long-term perspective on investments (e.g. government incubator licences last for eight years) and plays to win the big game – such as focusing on global customers rather than a domestic market of only 8.5 million” and suggested that Australia could “learn to be a little less risk-averse,” Australian Financial Review “Boss” (July 2017).
As reported last issue, ABC Radio National “Counterpoint” (June 16) ran an interview with ANU Professor Amin Saikal, whose opinions on the history and legacy of the Six Day War displayed a questionable grasp of historical reality.
AIJAC’s Colin Rubenstein corrected the record on the show the next week.
Rubenstein said it is important to understand the “real historical context”.
Egypt’s Nasser had blockaded the Straits of Tiran, demanded UN peacekeepers be withdrawn from the Sinai and then sent almost 100,000 troops there, whilst Arab leaders promised a “war of annihilation”.
Post-war, the Israeli cabinet voted to offer the return of territories conquered “in this defensive war” in exchange for peace, security and recognition which the Arab League “categorically” rejected.
He explained that UN Security Council Resolution 242 passed in 1967 called for territorial withdrawal conditioned on peace and security.
He dismissed the notion that the occupation and settlements are the reason there is no peace, noting that before 1967, Egypt and Jordan could have created a Palestinian state when they controlled Gaza and the West Bank respectively.
Today, he said, there is still a refusal to accept the “legitimacy of a Jewish state” and the Palestinians don’t yet have their equivalent of Egyptian President Sadat “who is prepared to go to Jerusalem and make peace,” noting the rejection of Israeli offers of statehood made in 2000 and 2008.
SBS’ partial correction
Following an AIJAC complaint to the SBS ombudsman, the public broadcaster has partially corrected a podcast (June 8) marking the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War.
The podcast’s chronology of the lead up to the war claimed that “in late May of 1967, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the straits east of the Sinai Peninsula opening into the Red Sea would be closed to Israeli ships. Israel issued threats, and Egypt mobilised its military forces along the two countries’ border….”
SBS’s Ombudsman agreed it was “inaccurate as its timeline was not in the correct order”.
The podcast was amended to now state, “In May 1967, Egypt, reacting to false intelligence from the Soviet Union that Israel was massing troops on its borders, began massing its troops in the Sinai. Once aware of that, Israel then warned Egypt against further provocations but Egypt responded by closing the vital Straits of Tiran, and removing UN peacekeepers from the border. Tensions built further on May the 30th, when Jordan signed a defence pact with Egypt, later joined by Iraq. But, on June the 5th …”
Disappointingly, the Ombudsman dismissed serious allegations raised by AIJAC that included “several alarming omissions” and a lack of context regarding the causes of the war and the events in its lead-up giving “the impression that Israel alone was a dishonest and irresponsible actor and was the sole aggressor in the Six Day War.”
AIJAC expressed concern that it is now difficult to complain successfully about even egregious lack of balance in stories at SBS given a 2014 change in SBS’s Codes of Practice, which now state, “the decision as to whether it is appropriate for a range of views or particular views to be included within a single program or story is a matter for editorial discretion.”
Simon’s house of waffle
Someone else prone to context-free waffle is columnist Simon Bevilacqua who examined the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War in the wider context of what became known as the Summer of Love.
Bevilacqua noted that the famous global broadcast “Our World” which included the Beatles “All You Need Is Love” peace anthem was hit by the loss of the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and East Germany. And why?
According to Bevilacqua, “They withdrew in protest at Israel’s pre-emptive airstrikes on Egyptian airfields and ground offensives into the Gaza Strip and the Sinai in the second week of June 1967. Israel seized the Gaza Strip and the Sinai from Egypt; the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan; and the Golan Heights from Syria. Known as the Six-Day War, most Arab nations fought with Soviet weaponry while Israel’s arms were Western.”
Not only did Bevilacqua not give any detail concerning what prompted Israel’s actions, he didn’t explain that the war was partly engineered by those peace-loving Soviets who had fed Syria and Egypt false intelligence that Israel was mobilising for war, Hobart Mercury (June 24).
In the freezer
An Israeli settlements building freeze seems never to be news. Only when the freeze ends, does the media seem to even bother reporting there was one.
So it was with a story by UK Times correspondent Gregg Carlstrom on a move by an Israeli government finance committee to allow a group of Israelis to assume ownership of a number of buildings currently inhabited by five Palestinian families in the east Jerusalem suburb of Sheikh Jarrah that were owned by Jews prior to 1948.
Buried in the story was the statement that, “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quietly slowed down settlement construction in the occupied territories earlier this year, a step that drew strong criticism from his right-wing coalition partners. The freeze ended last month when Israel broke ground on a new settlement in the West Bank, the first in 25 years.”
The truth is that the Israeli media has reported numerous unannounced Netanyahu Government settlement slow downs and unofficial freezes over the years to meet putative Palestinian preconditions for peace talk and US demands. The most famous freeze – and the only one publicly announced as such – was the ten-month moratorium in 2009-10. But, as in that example, the Palestinian Authority has either refused to actually negotiate or won’t negotiate on substance and ends the talks with the building freeze eventually lapsing, Australian (July 6).