What's the use of the word 'balance' in such an asymmetric war?

Actual context should have a bigger say in the BBC's coverage

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The war raging in Gaza is the third in six years. War is probably the wrong word to describe the confrontation between Israel and Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement that rules the Gaza Strip, given the huge asymmetry of power between them. Nor does "asymmetric warfare" adequately convey the full measure of inequality between the two sides.

The biblical image of David and Goliath comes to mind, except that the roles have been reversed: a tiny and vulnerable Palestinian David faces a massively armed and overbearing Israeli Goliath. It is this asymmetry that makes the notion of "balance" problematic.

Invariably, the allegations of bias in the BBC's coverage come from both the supporters of Israel and of the Palestinians. Listeners and viewers have complained in equal numbers that the corporation's coverage was biased either towards Israel or towards the Palestinians.

BBC bosses say that if complaints are coming from both directions, they must be striking the right balance. But lack of balance is only one of several charges levelled at the broadcaster. Failure to put current events in their proper historical context is another.

Twelve days ago, some 5,000 people protested outside the BBC's headquarters, demanding an end to pro-Israeli bias in its reporting. The demonstration was staged by Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War, CND and others. A further 45,000 people signed an online petition, claiming that the corporation's reporting of Israel's aerial bombardment of Gaza was "entirely devoid of context or background".

The importance of context was also noted in a 2006 report commissioned by the BBC governors from an independent panel, chaired by Sir Quentin Thomas, to assess its coverage. While exonerating the BBC of the charge of systematic bias, the Thomas report found "identifiable shortcomings, particularly in respect of gaps in coverage, analysis, context and perspective".

The report noted the "failure to convey adequately the disparity in the Israeli and Palestinian experience, reflecting the fact that one side is in control and the other lives under occupation". It also stated that "given this asymmetry, the BBC's concern with balance gave an impression of equality between the two sides which was fundamentally, if unintentionally, misleading".

To counter this tendency, the report recommended that the BBC "should make purposive, and not merely reactive, efforts to explain the complexities of the conflict in the round, including the marked disparity between the position of the two sides".

The BBC's coverage of the current crisis reflects a serious attempt to rectify some of these shortcomings. Reporters regularly highlight the unequal nature of the struggle in Gaza and the devastating impact of the Israeli offensive on the enclave. Israeli spokesmen still receive more than their fair share of airtime but, as civilian casualties mount, they are challenged more robustly.

Nevertheless, presenters too often stick to the "justified but disproportionate response" paradigm, espoused by the UK government. Pressure on the BBC governors by Israel's vocal supporters in Britain continues to play its part in inducing self-censorship and inhibiting criticism.

This last issue is one faced by the media in general. Israel is infinitely stronger than Hamas not only in military terms but also in its capacity to wage the propaganda war. It is sometimes said that history is the propaganda of the victors. Because it is the stronger party, Israel is better placed to impose its narrative not only on the past but also on the present. And to me, as a revisionist Israeli historian, this narrative appears fundamentally flawed.

The origins of the current war in Gaza is a case in point. As always, Israel claims to be acting in self-defence, blaming the victims of its military aggression for their own misfortunes. Yet the basic cause for this war is the 47-year-old Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories.

True, in 2005 Israel carried out a unilateral disengagement of Gaza. But, under international law, it remains the occupying power because it continues to control access to the strip by land, sea and air. An occupying power has a legal obligation to protect civilians in the areas it controls, yet Israel has been shelling and killing them.

Israel claims its most recent incursion into Gaza was a response to Hamas rocket attacks. Here are some facts that do not fit comfortably into the narrative of a peace-loving nation that is up against a fanatical, murderous terrorist organisation. In 2006, Hamas won a fair and free Palestinian election and formed a government, seeking a long-term ceasefire with Israel. Israel refused to negotiate.

In 2007, Hamas and Fatah formed a national unity government with the same agenda. Israel resorted to economic warfare to undermine this government and encouraged Fatah to stage a coup to drive Hamas from power. Hamas pre-empted the coup with a violent seizure of power in Gaza.

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In flagrant violation of international law, Israel then imposed a blockade (still in force today) on the 1.8 million inhabitants of Gaza. Four months ago, Hamas reached an accord with Fatah, and another national unity government was formed, this time without a single Hamas-affiliated member but with the old agenda of negotiating an end to the conflict with Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hysterically attacked it as a vote for terror, not for peace. He used the abduction of three Jewish teenagers on the West Bank as an excuse for a violent crackdown on Hamas supporters there, although Hamas had nothing to do with it. The Hamas rocket attacks were a response to this provocation.

The last thing Netanyahu and his right-wing colleagues want is a united and moderate Palestinian national leadership. Undermining the unity government is one of the undeclared objectives of the current assault. Israel's spin doctors trumpeted its acceptance and Hamas's rejection of an Egyptian ceasefire proposal. Hamas, however, could not accept this proposal because it left the savage siege in place.

It is difficult to resist the conclusion that Israel's real objective in unleashing this offensive is to bomb Hamas into a humiliating surrender. Israel's ultimate aim seems to be not a just peace but the reimposition of the status quo with a fragmented Palestine and with itself as an imperial overlord. The BBC may be forgiven for having difficulty in explaining this staggeringly unequal conflict in all its complexity. It is an extremely tough conflict to cover well.

Avi Shlaim is emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University and the author of 'The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World'

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