Robert Fisk’s World: Wherever I go, I hear the same tired Middle East comparisons

On both sides of the Atlantic the experience has been weirdly repetitive

Saturday 10 January 2009 01:00
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It all depends where you live. That was the geography of Israel's propaganda, designed to demonstrate that we softies – we little baby-coddling liberals living in our secure Western homes – don't realise the horror of 12 (now 20) Israeli deaths in 10 years and thousands of rockets and the unimaginable trauma and stress of living near Gaza. Forget the 600 Palestinian dead; travelling on both sides of the Atlantic these past couple of weeks has been an instructive – not to say weirdly repetitive – experience.

Here's how it goes. I was in Toronto when I opened the right-wing National Post and found Lorne Gunter trying to explain to readers what it felt like to come under Palestinian rocket attack. "Suppose you lived in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills," writes Gunter, "and people from the suburb of Scarborough – about 10 kilometres away – were firing as many as 100 rockets a day into your yard, your kid's school, the strip mall down the street and your dentist's office..."

Getting the message? It just so happens, of course, that the people of Scarborough are underprivileged, often new immigrants – many from Afghanistan – while the people of Don Mills are largely middle class with a fair number of Muslims. Nothing like digging a knife into Canada's multicultural society to show how Israel is all too justified in smashing back at the Palestinians.

Now a trip down Montreal way and a glance at the French-language newspaper La Presse two days later. And sure enough, there's an article signed by 16 pro-Israeli writers, economists and academics who are trying to explain what it feels like to come under Palestinian rocket attack. "Imagine for a moment that the children of Longueuil live day and night in terror, that businesses, shops, hospitals, schools are the targets of terrorists located in Brossard." Longueuil, it should be added, is a community of blacks and Muslim immigrants, Afghans, Iranians. But who are the "terrorists" in Brossard?

Two days later and I am in Dublin. I open The Irish Times to find a letter from the local Israeli ambassador, trying to explain to the people of the Irish Republic what it feels like to come under Palestinian rocket attack. Know what's coming? Of course you do. "What would you do," Zion Evrony asks readers, "if Dublin were subjected to a bombardment of 8,000 rockets and mortars..." And so it goes on and on and on. Needless to say, I'm waiting for the same writers to ask how we'd feel if we lived in Don Mills or Brossard or Dublin and came under sustained attack from supersonic aircraft and Merkava tanks and thousands of troops whose shells and bombs tore 40 women and children to pieces outside a school, shredded whole families in their beds and who, after nearly a week, had killed almost 200 civilians out of 600 fatalities.

In Ireland, my favourite journalistic justification for this bloodbath came from my old mate Kevin Myers. "The death toll from Gaza is, of course, shocking, dreadful, unspeakable," he mourned. "Though it does not compare with the death toll amongst Israelis if Hamas had its way." Get it? The massacre in Gaza is justified because Hamas would have done the same if they could, even though they didn't do it because they couldn't. It took Fintan O'Toole, The Irish Times's resident philosopher-in-chief, to speak the unspeakable. "When does the mandate of victimhood expire?" he asked. "At what point does the Nazi genocide of Europe's Jews cease to excuse the state of Israel from the demands of international law and of common humanity?"

I had an interesting time giving the Tip O'Neill peace lecture in Derry when one of the audience asked, as did a member of the Trinity College Dublin Historical Society a day later, whether the Northern Ireland Good Friday peace agreement – or, indeed, any aspect of the recent Irish conflict – contained lessons for the Middle East. I suggested that local peace agreements didn't travel well and that the idea advanced by John Hume (my host in Derry) – that it was all about compromise – didn't work since the Israeli seizure of Arab land in the West Bank had more in common with the 17th-century Irish Catholic dispossession than sectarianism in Belfast.

What I do suspect, however, is that the split and near civil war between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority has a lot in common with the division between the Irish Free State and anti-treaty forces that led to the 1922-3 Irish civil war; that Hamas's refusal to recognise Israel – and the enemies of Michael Collins who refused to recognise the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the border with Northern Ireland – are tragedies that have a lot in common, Israel now playing the role of Britain, urging the pro-treaty men (Mahmoud Abbas) to destroy the anti-treaty men (Hamas).

I ended the week in one of those BBC World Service discussions in which a guy from The Jerusalem Post, a man from al-Jazeera, a British academic and Fisk danced the usual steps around the catastrophe in Gaza. The moment I mentioned that 600 Palestinian dead for 20 Israeli dead around Gaza in 10 years was grotesque, pro-Israeli listeners condemned me for suggesting (which I did not) that only 20 Israelis had been killed in all of Israel in 10 years. Of course, hundreds of Israelis outside Gaza have died in that time – but so have thousands of Palestinians.

My favourite moment came when I pointed out that journalists should be on the side of those who suffer. If we were reporting the 18th-century slave trade, I said, we wouldn't give equal time to the slave ship captain in our dispatches. If we were reporting the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp, we wouldn't give equal time to the SS spokesman. At which point a journalist from the Jewish Telegraph in Prague responded that "the IDF are not Hitler". Of course not. But who said they were?

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