Truth is the victim as the same old double standards prevail

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Why do we always get taken in by the same lies? Don't reporters carry history books, even a cuttings file, to remind them of what they wrote in the last Arab-Israeli war? Even the quotes - the meretricious, cliché-soaked statements - are the same.

Why do we always get taken in by the same lies? Don't reporters carry history books, even a cuttings file, to remind them of what they wrote in the last Arab-Israeli war? Even the quotes - the meretricious, cliché-soaked statements - are the same.

Let's go back to June 1982. Southern Lebanon. A UN ceasefire is in place between Yasser Arafat's PLO guerrillas and Israel. In London, a Palestinian tries to assassinate the Israeli ambassador; his potential killer belongs to the anti-Arafat Abu Nidal faction, intent on provoking an Israeli invasion of Lebanon.

Israel bombs Arafat's men in Lebanon. After several days under attack, they fire Katyusha rockets over the border into Israel. And what happens? Israel invades Lebanon because it is under "terrorist" attack and suggests - wait for it - that "Arafat cannot control his men".

Sound familiar? There's more. By the time cameras were recording the thousands of civilian casualties of the Lebanon war, the Israelis were asking why the "terrorists" were hiding behind the civilians. Why did the Palestinians use children in their war? Israel said it did not intend to kill children, even the ones I found in the Makassed hospital in Beirut, their bodies still on fire from the phosphorus shell that killed them, and blamed their deaths on the PLO.

And duly, I recall, most journalists in 1982 fell in line with the narrative laid down by the Americans and the Israelis, just as they do today. As usual, the slaughter of Palestinian children is blamed on the Palestinians. The death of Arab civilians is the fault of the Arabs. Arafat cannot control "his people". Arabs are turned into "terrorists", as opposed to the folk who are killing the Arab civilians and children whose deaths, of course, are the responsibility of their own grieving parents.

No, we should not get romantic about the corrupt, venal Palestinian officials who tried to rule their little statelets in 1982 - and in 2000. In 1982 we listened to the PLO drivelling on about the "Zionist death wagon" and the massacre of thousands of civilians around a town called Jezzine. The "massacre" turned out to be myth - as most journalists suspected and reported. The PLO would claim they were fighting for the Lebanese - a complete lie - and that this was the most important battle since Stalingrad, a parallel as laughable as it was grotesque. But the PLO's "propaganda machine", in reality so preposterous, was of such inefficiency that no one would take it seriously.

But at least, in 1982, Arafat would talk to the press. At least the PLO could field a few English speakers. Today, Arafat refuses to talk to foreign correspondents, let alone in English, and fields a bunch of officials (apart from Hanan Ashrawi) whose inability to speak good English renders them almost incomprehensible. Claims that Palestinians were not firing at Israeli soldiers were destroyed by video which clearly showed that Palestinian policemen, far from directing traffic, were shooting at their opposite numbers on the Israeli side.

And yet again - the record shows it all too clearly - journalists in 1982 found themselves browbeaten by a supposedly outraged Israel which claimed reporting was hopelessly biased towards the Palestinians. This ridiculous assertion was taken so seriously in the US that the New York Times allowed an Israeli lobby group to "monitor" its reporting. Journalist Tom Friedman had remarks about Israel's "indiscriminate" artillery fire censored from his reports, while the US media used the word "terrorists" (always Arab "terrorists") like a punctuation mark.

But it is the traditional double standard that marks the propaganda victory of one side over the other in the Middle East. When Israel sent its Lebanese Christian militias into the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in 1982, those militias massacred up to 2,000 Palestinian civilians. Not only did Israel say this was "a mistake". They attacked journalists who reported the murders as "anti-Semitic".

Similarly, the killing of Palestinian children by Israeli troops now. On any other story - in Kosovo, East Timor or Belfast - the killing of so many children by "security forces" would engender outrage on the part of journalists. If Serb "security forces" were killing Albanian youths at this rate last year, Nato would have gone to war weeks earlier.

Yet today, we hear the usual weasel words. We hear of Israel's "tough response", its "robust" action, its "restraint". No, the Israelis are not the Serbs. Nor are they the Indonesian army. But journalists are the same. So fearful of creating "controversy" by telling the truth according to real journalistic standards, so vain that they must avoid all criticism, so lacking in resolve that they must announce that the 12-year-old Palestinian shot by the Israelis in Gaza was "killed in crossfire", that they are actively taking sides. And if a massacre follows, will we tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? I doubt it.