Never let the facts get in the way of a good polemic

Never let the facts get in the way of a good polemic

Fairfax journalist Paul McGeough has written an op-ed in this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald on the recently released “Palmer Report” – the UN investigation into last year’s flotilla incident. As we noted yesterday, the report, while critical of Israel’s operational response, essentially vindicated Israel’s blockade of Gaza and was very critical of IHH, the Turkish Islamist group that organised the flotilla. A flotilla participant himself, as well as publicly sympathetic to its aims, McGeough had this to say on the first 3/4 of the report:

The panel headed by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer sharply criticises the flotilla organisers and suspects their motives – why so many passengers, why so many journalists, why so little aid? It stops well short of “they deserve what they got” but it describes the flotilla as a “dangerous and reckless act . . . exposing a large number of individuals to the risk that force [would] be used . . . and people [would get] hurt.”

More an opinion than a definitive finding in law, the report concludes that some passengers had prepared to resist violently any Israeli boarding party. “They had [cut sections] from guard rails; had manned fire-hoses; had donned life or bullet-proof vests and gas masks; and had taken up pre-arranged positions in anticipation of an attack.” Video showed passengers wielding metal bars, slingshots, chains and “there is some indication that they also used knives”.

[Emphasis added]

Of course, by using a phrase like “it stops well short of ‘they got what they deserve’ but…” McGeough is insinuating that the report did, in fact, say that “they got what they deserved”, but is cleverly avoiding any culpibility for the allegation. Likewise for the dismissive description of the report as “more an opinion than a definitive finding in law”. It is correct to say that the report was not a definitive finding in law — indeed, the report notes repeatedly that the inquiry panel was not a court of law — but that does not mean that the extensive inquiries made by the panel of experts on international maritime law should be dismissed as merely an “opinion”.

McGeough has certainly not been so callous when speaking about UN reports that, while substantially less legally definitive, were far more critical of Israel. For instance when writing about the UN Human Rights Council report on the same incident, which was hurriedly released just a few months after the flotilla was intercepted and did not have any Israeli participation or input, he apparently had no problem taking the findings as authoritative. He also proclaimed his support for the Goldstone report into Israel’s 2008 Gaza incursion, which was explicitly retracted by its author, Richard Goldstone, earlier this year.

What is instructive about this HRC report is its methodological similarity to detailed studies by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International of short-comings in Israel’s treatment of Palestinians … and in Palestinians’ treatment of Israelis.

Reading the HRC report brings to mind the lesson that Israel seemingly did not learn after its invasion of Gaza in 2008-09 – and how an examination of its conduct in the Goldstone Report turned out to be so damaging for its world standing.

In both sets of circumstances Israel’s folly was seen in time, so much so that what at first might have appeared to be a tactical success in fact was shown up as a strategic failure.

Ironically, in the time since McGeough wrote those words both the HRC report and the Goldstone report have been exposed for the crippling biases that Israel has always accused them of having. The Palmer Report had this to say on the HRC’s mission:

The conclusions reached in the Turkish report mirror those of the fact-finding mission established by the Human Rights Council. The Panel notes, however, that the reasoning of both reports rested on an analysis that the naval blockade formed an indivisible part of Israel’s land restrictions policy, a factual conclusion that the Panel does not share for the reasons described above. In addition, the Panel notes that the Human Rights Council fact-finding mission did not receive any information from Israel and did not have the opportunity to consider the Israeli report or the additional material that has been made available to the Panel.

In fact, the report belies a number of other claims that McGeough has made in the past. For instance, he wrote last October that:

The world had virtually ignored the siege of Gaza which, as David Shulman put it in The New York Review of Books in June, “is meant to isolate and punish – and in the most optimistic Israeli scenario, to bring down – the Hamas government.”

However, the Palmer Commission wrote that:

Israel was entitled to take reasonable steps to prevent the influx of weapons into Gaza. With that objective, Israel established a series of restrictions on vessels entering the waters of Gaza. These measures culminated in the declaration of the naval blockade on 3 January 2009. There were a number of reasons why the previous restrictions were inadequate, primary among them being the need for the measures to be legally watertight.

After criticising the Israeli Prime Minister for seeming to have “stopped reading” the report at page 57 — where, having established that intercepting the flotilla was indeed legal, the report criticises Israel’s execution of the interception — McGeough devotes the remainder of his article this morning to pages 57-61 of the 75 page report, where the Panel states that it has not recieved a satisfactory explanation from Israel for the loss of life during the interception, while remaining cogniscent that:

Israeli Defense Forces personnel faced significant, organized and violent resistance from a group of passengers when they boarded the Mavi Marmara, requiring them to use force for their own protection. Three soldiers were captured, mistreated, and placed at risk by those passengers. Several others were wounded.

The above paragraph was followed by the conclusions extensively cited by Paul McGeough that were critical of Israel’s operational planning. Naturally, McGeough only wrote about the latter paragraph and seemed to ignore the one that describes the violence directed at the Israeli soldiers.

McGeough’s musings on Middle East affairs mostly read as polemic rather than genuine analysis. His opinion of the Palmer report provides a perfect example of his tendency to ignore anything that could reflect favourably on Israel, while taking anything critical of Israel and running with it.

Worst of all, today’s article illustrates his unwillingness to admit that he has made mistaken allegations in the past, as demonstrated in several analyses of his reporting on the flotilla (see for instance, here and here). In a recent essay, seminal journalist Paul Berman wrote of his views on 9/11:

I am a little ashamed to admit that, ten years later, my thinking has advanced only in matters of detail beyond what I thought in those first hours. I am ashamed because, among any of us who consider ourselves journalists, it is a point of honor to update hourly and to self-correct twice a month. Only fanatics and street signs point forever in the same direction, and I have never wanted to be a fanatic or a street sign.

Unfortunately, while they share a first name and a profession, the similarities between the two Pauls do not extend to their approach to journalism.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz