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Truth is a scarce commodity as propaganda war gets into its stride

4 April 2002

Truth, as Winston Churchill notoriously said, must be protected by "a bodyguard of lies". But Churchill, who once described pre-1948 Palestine as a "hell-disaster", could never have known the deception, dishonesty and sheer fantasy of today's propaganda in the Middle East. Is the conflict here a "war against terror" or a struggle against Zionism?

Anyone who does not know the cost of trying to answer that question has only to refer to a document recently published by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which asks the question: "Is anti-Zionism different from anti-Semitism?"

Here's part of the answer: "Just as anti-Semitism denies Jews their rights as individuals in society, anti-Zionism attacks the Jewish people as a nation ... It is no coincidence that the recent censure of Israel in international forums and the media has been accompanied by a sharp increase in anti-Semitic incidents." The message is simple: to criticise Israel risks the charge of racism; better, therefore, to keep to the safe line that Israel is fighting a "war against terror" rather than reoccupying the land of a subject people.

As usual, the Israelis are initially winning the propaganda war. The evil campaign of Palestinian suicide bombers and the eloquence of at least some of Israel's spokesmen easily crush the efforts of a colonised and occupied people whose corrupt leader, Yasser Arafat, appoints his own cronies as press officers, men who are often uneducated and incomprehensible in English.

Marwan Kanafani, Mr Arafat's man in Gaza, speaks good English but comes across as a used-car salesman. His man at the UN rants and raves like a Nasserite. Mustafa Barghouti who may or may not be on Israel's latest "wanted list" announced yesterday that the Israeli reoccupation of Palestinian cities was "the worst crime of the 21st century". Ruthless and brutal the Israeli invasions have been, but at least one event in the United States in the autumn of last year suggests his remarks are ridiculous.

The Israelis produce spokesmen who seem calculated to appeal to an American audience. Ranaan Gissin and Dore Gold come across as tough, uncompromising figures in the US. In Europe, however, they look respectively like a New York taxi driver and an undertaker. Mr Gissin's performance on the BBC earlier this year trying to reassure the world that Ariel Sharon had "paid the price" for being personally responsible for the 1982 Sabra and Chatila massacre was positively creepy.

Far better was the public performance of Uri Dromi, Yitzhak Rabin's former spokesman and a one-time Israeli Air Force C-130 pilot, who used to come across as a thoughtful, intelligent and sometimes troubled man who believed in the State of Israel but acknowledged its flaws.

The "nice-cop/bad-cop" routine of Mr Sharon and Shimon Peres also serves its purpose in the outside world. If Mr Sharon appears suspect not least because of his ghastly role in Sabra and Chatila the Labour Party's Mr Peres, holder (with Arafat, let us quickly forget) of the Nobel Peace Prize, gives the present very extreme Israel government a humane face.

Mr Peres appears to present the friendly, humanistic, honourable Israeli government which the world wants to believe in. Journalists who ask Mr Peres soft questions which means just about all of them have to forget that it was he who launched Israel's "Grapes of Wrath" operation, which led to the 1996 massacre of 108 Lebanese civilians at a UN camp in Qana.

The government in which Mr Peres serves is, after all, the same government that is building illegal colonies on Arab land for Jews, and Jews only, at a greater speed than ever; destroying the physical symbols of the Oslo agreement; and re-occupying the West Bank. If Mr Peres was opposed to these ruthless policies, he could leave the Sharon government. But he chooses not to do so.

In the present conflict, the Israeli Army's use of the "closed military area", which bans journalists from any district where Israeli soldiers are misbehaving or killing the innocent, has dissuaded many reporters from entering the newly-occupied Palestinian cities.

Thus Israel can boast of its army's highly professional and moral soldiering, supposedly risking the lives of its men to protect the innocent, while castigating journalists who do break the military rules for their eyewitness reporting of the lack of discipline of Israeli troops and their reckless killings. Rotting bodies in the streets of Bethlehem and Ramallah are portrayed as Palestinian propaganda providing few journalists see the bodies with their own eyes.

Thus the false news of a Catholic priest killed in Bethlehem on Tuesday was condemned by an Israeli spokesman as a Palestinian lie even though the inaccurate story was originally put out by a Catholic church agency and then broadcast on Israeli as well as Palestinian radio.

In his latest bunker-prison, Yasser Arafat rages against journalists who ask about suicide bombers as if it is somehow indecent to mention the massacre of Israelis and the role of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a satellite of Mr Arafat's own Fatah movement.

Far more culpable is the Israeli press, usually so courageous in denouncing Israel's role in atrocities, but which has largely left its readers ignorant of Palestinian suffering. In Tuesday's edition of Ha'aretz, Aviv Lavie remarked that Israeli journalists "cease collecting facts and asking questions, and instead turn to beating the war drums yesterday, Ma'ariv's editor, Amnon Danker, ran a front-page article devoted to smashing, killing, trampling and destroying it's time to say goodbye, at least in the meanwhile, to a free press".

On the same day, The Jerusalem Post ran a haunting full page of passport-sized snapshots of the more than 60 Israeli men, women and children killed by Palestinian suicide bombers over the previous month. It was a page of memory and pain. But the paper has no plans to run a similar page of photographs of the innocent Palestinians who have been killed by Israel's supposedly "elite" army.

Robert Fisk
Published in the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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