An annual fixture of international media coverage is Christmas in Bethlehem. One can almost use how this story is written as an index of what’s happening with press coverage and the situation on the ground.
But for me this yearly ritual also has some personal significance. About 20 years ago it was one of the first stories my wife covered as a foreign correspondent. On arriving in the town a few days before the big event, she was only able to get the cooperation of city hall if she accepted a ‘guide’ who was, of course, a Fatah militant. His task was to propagandize her, meaning to make outrageous statements which a naïve journalist would accept and propagate to a huge Western audience.
For some reason, the usual rule of journalism is very often suspended and correspondents have a tendency to assume that no one–at least no Palestinian, Israelis are another matter–would ever lie to them.
Why is that? Because of the following factors, based on my experience of observing this happening:
The journalist–this is true for the new foreign correspondents or those being sent from home just to do stories for a little while–is so disoriented by a lack of experience.
Being in a foreign culture and not knowing the language, the correspondent suspends the usual critical faculties. This can happen for an extended period.
The journalist subconsciously thinks it would be racist to think that a Third World person would lie. This can happen–it might be more likely to happen–if the journalist really does have contempt for Palestinians or Arabs. In that case, out of guilt feelings or fear of exposing this attitude, he will lean over backwards to seemingly do the opposite.
Ideological sympathy for the underdogs, the allegedly oppressed, or romanticized and political support for revolutionaries.
All of the above.
What is needed here is some good old-fashioned journalistic detachment, a striving for objectivity and cynicism.
Here is what happened in my wife’s case. At one point, standing in Manger Square, she saw some construction being done on the other side.
She asked her guide, ‘What’s that?’
He replied, ‘Those are interrogation chambers being built by the Israelis to question and intimidate Palestinians.’
She went closer and saw they were portable toilets being built for the pilgrims to the event.
When she returned home and told me the story, I said, ‘Welcome to the Middle East!’
Fast-forward today and Dalia Nammari ‘Merry scene in Bethlehem; mortar shells fired in Gaza,’ December 25, 2008. Nammari is not coming from abroad so can be expected to know better than colleagues who have arrived from North America.
This year, there is some upbeat news:
‘Christians were celebrating Bethlehem’s merriest Christmas in eight years yesterday, with hotels booked solid, Manger Square bustling with families, and Israeli and Palestinian forces cooperating to make things run smoothly.’
So perhaps Israel is not so bad after all? One theme in the article, and rightly so, is the contrast between the West Bank and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip:
‘The festivities in the West Bank town contrasted sharply with Hamas-run Gaza. While revelers in Bethlehem launched pink fireworks from a rooftop, militants fired more than 80 rockets and mortar shells at Israeli towns and villages, sending people scrambling for bomb shelters.’
So far, so good. But with the AP, one always knows the fun cannot last:
‘The latest attacks, and an Israeli air strike on rocket-firers that killed one person and wounded two, appeared to have buried an unwieldy six-month cease-fire that expired last week.’
Point of fact: did the cease-fire ‘expire’? Expire can either mean to die, in other words the cease-fire was finished, or to come to an end because of a deadline. But the ceasefire did not sort of expire of its own accord. In fact, as was widely reported elsewhere and openly announced by Hamas, it was Hamas that ended it. So we aren’t told that the ceasefire’s end and the resulting violence and casualties were due to Hamas, not both sides. Minus one point.
After more nice anecdotes about how well things are going for the Bethlehem celebrations, we come to this remarkable paragraph:
‘Bethlehem has suffered from the Israeli-Palestinian fighting of recent years, and is now surrounded on three sides by concrete slabs and fences – part of a barrier Israel has built against Palestinian suicide attackers, some of whom came from Bethlehem. The Palestinians see the barrier as a land grab and say it has strangled the town’s economy.’
This is extraordinarily misleading. First, Bethlehem itself has remained pretty quiet and to my knowledge there hasn’t been a single violent incident there since Fatah forces seized the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of Christianity’s most important holy sites, intimidated the Christian clerics there, and used it as a fortress to fire on Israeli forces.
Oops! Forgot that little event, didn’t we? Might that be of some significance? Imagine if a group of Christians took over a major Muslim holy site and used it for a military base, throwing around the holy objects and beating up the clerics there?
You think that might be remembered as something important?
Second, while it is nice to mention the purpose of the fence, how has its existence strangled Bethlehem’s economy? That economy is based on tourism. If violence is reduced, the town does better.
In fact, might the existence of the fence have something to do with the fact that the Christmas celebration went so nicely? Minus another point.
Clearly, there is a pattern. Most of the media simply doesn’t seem to make such connections.
Then there is this atrocious paragraph:
‘Emigration has cut the town’s Christian population to an estimated 35 percent to 50 percent of its 40,000 people, compared with 90 percent in the 1950s.’
So the emigration just sort of happened. In fact, while obviously the violence and instability was a cause of emigration, one might ask a simple question: why is it Christians that are leaving in disproportionate numbers? Much of the answer is fear of radical Islamism and intimidation from neighboring Muslims. Another point off for not mentioning that.
The article continues, after praising Israel-Palestinian security cooperation: ‘Safer times mean the Palestinians have counted over 1 million visitors to Bethlehem so far this year, up more than 20,000 from 2007.’
Why is the situation safer? This is in part due to the Palestinian Authority trying harder to ensure law and order but it is also due to Israel building the fence and decisively defeating the 2000-2004 war against it using terrorism and led by the Palestinian Authority itself and Hamas. Minus still another point.
‘The situation is dramatically different in Gaza, controlled by the Islamic militant group Hamas, which seized the territory by force in June 2007. An Israeli blockade prevents Gazans from leaving the territory and causes shortages of fuel and basic supplies.’
Ironically, this article coincides with Arab press reports that Hamas is instituting Islamic law punishments in Gaza. The Christian community in Gaza has been driven out by Islamist terrorists. Hamas constantly–even during the ceasefire–has attacked Israel. It indoctrinates young people to be suicide bombers and openly proclaims its genocidal goals toward Israel.
So the only specific problem is the Israeli blockade?
And even that blockade has frequently been lifted, imposed only after serious attacks perpetrated directly by Hamas or with its permission. On the great majority of days since Hamas took over there has been no blockade.
Making Israel appear to be solely responsible for Gaza’s problems, exaggerating those problems, ignoring the plight of Gaza’s Christian minority: three points off.
The article states:
‘Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni…said in a speech yesterday, ‘There is a point where every country and every leadership says–and this is what we say tonight as well – enough is enough.’
Hmm, does that apply also to media coverage?
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs 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).