Rebecca Mavin
Last updated: 27 July, 2014

“This failure to historicise the violence is problematic”

The international press have gone into overdrive: keen to document every facet of renewed Israeli-Palestinian violence. The past few weeks have seen a proliferation of articles discussing Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge”; Hamas’s use of civilian ‘human shields’; and – most devastatingly – the plight of Gazan children who have been injured and killed.

Of course, the necessity of monitoring and mapping the conflict as it evolves remains vital. This is why I initially began to spend an afternoon trawling through reports with the intention of writing on the contours of the Israeli Operation, or the irrevocable blurring of the lines between social life and violence in Gaza at times of conflict. However, it quickly became apparent that what was most striking about the information that I read was not its substance, but the skewed way in which the media continues to comprehend and present the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Fisk highlights the problem of institutional amnesia in the press”

There appear to be two main hurdles facing the media’s handling of the current crisis. The first was discussed by Robert Fisk in the Independent this week. Fisk highlights the problem of institutional amnesia in the press – or the constant replaying of the same story – which leads us to ignore the lack of progress in Middle Eastern Politics. His selection of media quotes – all describing Israeli air offences on Palestinian territory – turn out to date from 2008-9, but could just have easily have been describing current events. Or, those from 2012, 2007, 2004, and ad nauseum.  

This failure to historicise the violence is problematic. There is little use in recycling the same old tropes if we fail to recognise the wider tapestry of conflict, which is doomed to remain unresolved if it is not tackled holistically. The first point, then, revolves around asking why we’re so keen to watch this familiar news story play out on repeat; why we are so mesmerised by the finer details of each outbreak of violence, and so blind to the broader structures of power and grievance which allow it to keep on happening.

That’s not to say that recognising that Netanyahu’s towing of the hard-line, or Hamas’s ability to rile the Israelis at opportune moments would bring the current situation to a halt. But it would provide us with perspective on what is going on, how we should understand it, and what it means for the waning prospect of peace.

More frustrating is the problem of bias and objectivity in reporting. Of course, one reads the news knowing that it is imbued with ideological and political affiliations, but this conflict takes matters to unprecedented levels. We are faced with a cacophony of voices slating Israel’s imperialism and desire to kill children, or casually branding all Palestinians as terrorists. This filters down into the print press and social media, until one finds oneself buried under a jumbled mass of hidden agendas and propaganda.

It is tragic when, in a situation of prolonged conflict, the astonishing thing is not the violence, but the inability of observers and interlocutors to recognise that this is hardly a just war, for either side. This is as much a war for the control of discourse and minds as it is for the control of land, and the media is guilty of perpetuating it for as long as it continues to propagate unhelpful ideas: blind condemnation of Israel, blind support of Zionism, the demonization of Palestinian resistance, or the rampant fear of any criticism of the Arab cause.  All this does is produce a contradictory picture in which Israel is at once the blundering Goliath executing disproportionate attacks, and the reasonable state willing to negotiate a ceasefire. Palestine, by the same logic, is simultaneously rendered the defenceless underdog, and a hub of radicalism which cannot be tolerated. It defies sense, and it defies progress.

“This is as much a war for the control of discourse and minds as it is for the control of land”

Until the whole picture, with all of its contradictions and nuances, is appreciated; until the long, meandering historical development of this war is properly evoked at the right moments, then all we are left with is momentary reactions and empty rhetoric. It is patently apparent that those who wield political power – both in Israel/Palestine and elsewhere – are fully aware of the truth of this conflict and the legitimacy that selective information can provide them with, but are content to respond to each over-boiling of the Middle Eastern pot in hollow, recycled rhetoric.

Israeli-Palestinian issues have become a political shibboleth – a precarious vacuum from which turmoil intermittently emerges and progress never comes – and where narrative fictions abound and the truth is swept quietly aside.

The mere fact that we struggle with entering into a meaningful and balanced discussion is a point worth thinking about. What is most crucial for any observer is clear comprehension motivated by justice and empathy. And since – in this war and in any war – the lines between good and bad are notoriously difficult to sketch, then it seems that the most just, empathetic thing we can do is to come to a full understanding of the situation from which we can have a reasoned, multifaceted and critical debate about what to think and where to go next.