Middle East conflict triggers commentator’s war.jpg

Middle East conflict triggers commentator’s war


Israel was contemplating a possible ground offensive last week, as its army continued firing rockets against targets in Lebanon. The raids were in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers and the murder of another six soldiers by Hezbollah, a terrorist organisation with close links to Iran and Syria.

The conflict in Lebanon now means that Israel is effectively fighting a war on two fronts – the other being against Hamas, in Gaza, following the earlier kidnapping of another Israeli soldier.

The crisis triggered a print war between opposing journalistic factions, who drew completely different conclusions about unfolding events in the Middle East. The animosity between these groups seems almost as great as that between the principal protagonists themselves – Israel and Hezbollah. However, there is nothing new in this divide, the mere mention of Israel has always evoked a myriad of reactions: hatred from most Muslims throughout the world, strong and unwavering support from most Americans, and more reticent and qualified support from most Europeans.

Among British Jews (who tend to be more critical of Israel than American Jews), the issue of the Jewish state is a complex one, which unleashes an unravelling of emotions akin to the peeling of an onion. Many British Jews support Israel, borne out of a suspicion that much anti-Israeli feeling stems from anti-Semitism. But, many are also dubious about Israel’s methods and policies. Others, I suspect, criticise Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians for fear that failure to do so will unleash another bout of anti-Semitism.

Recent events have been a field day for newspaper columnists. Commentators, who would usually broadly agree on other international questions – for example on the immorality of Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe – inhabit parallel universes when it comes to Israel. Pro-Israeli commentators view the conflict as one provoked by its enemies. They claim that Hezbollah terrorists are fighting a proxy war on behalf of Syria and Iran – both countries eager to test the mettle of the new Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert. Israel’s critics, on the other hand, claim that Olmert used the incursions as a pretext to destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure and forestall the possibility of a painful peace settlement with the Palestinians.

The Independent newspaper features reports from Robert Fisk, the Lebanon-based British war correspondent. Fisk has never been a friend of Israel, so it comes as no surprise that he describes Israel’s conduct in Lebanon as “an outrage”. The following is a quote from Fisk, writing in The Independent last week: “Israeli jets killed another 17 Lebanese and wounded 53 more, taking the total death toll here to 196 against Israel’s rising total of 24. The obscene exchange rate of death thus now stands at more than eight Lebanese for every Israeli.”

Fisk seems to imply that we can pinpoint the heroes and villains from the number of casualties on either side, that somehow Israel’s lower death toll makes it the bully of the piece, in a David and Goliath type struggle. This is a continuation of the argument, used by many anti-Israeli commentators, who refer to Israel’s disproportionate response. If Hezbollah kill six soldiers, should Israel restrict its retaliation to killing six terrorists? Is anything greater than this, a disproportionate response? It is a difficult argument to follow. Was the British response to the invasion of the Falklands – when more people were killed than the entire population of the islands in question – also disproportionate? Needless to say, any civilian deaths in Lebanon and Israel are absolutely tragic, but, unfortunately, they are inevitable given the type of war Israel is waging.

Of course, very little journalism from the battle lines is completely impartial or objective. Even television news organisations find balance difficult to attain. Watch the American news programme, CNN, and listen to the comments of Jewish journalists, presenters and anchormen (like Wolf Blitzer and Larry King), and it is difficult to deny that they lean (albeit in subtle ways) towards support for Israel.

So, I do not criticise Fisk for his lack of balance, but I abhor his virulently anti-Israeli views nevertheless. Unfortunately, Fisk also has some unsavoury supporters. Praise for Fisk has come from David Duke (the neo-Nazi former member of the Ku Klux Klan), who refers to Fisk as “the intrepid British journalist, who dares to report many of the gory details about Zionism”. Even Osama bin Laden has praised Fisk’s supposed “neutrality” in reporting the conflict. (I am not linking Duke and bin Laden directly with Fisk, merely pointing out that extreme anti-Zionist rhetoric can attract some nasty bedfellows).

Fisk is, if nothing else, consistent in laying the blame for the region’s problems at Israel’s door. But, I was more surprised by an article from Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Also writing in The Independent, she accuses Israel of anti-Arab racism: “As we witness the bombardment by Israel of Lebanon and Gaza – a grotesque overreaction – and, as the death toll of Arab civilians mounts, you have to ask how the Israelis can do what they do. My only answer now is to conclude that it is racism. No political or territorial struggles can convincingly explain or excuse the maddened onslaught by the Israeli state.”

This casual labelling of the Jewish state, one that grew out of racial genocide, as racist defies belief. It is a worrying proof of the continuum that links the left and right in their stance towards Israel. It should cause grave concern to all supporters of Israel.