The West has its reasons for validating Israel's violence; human rights are not an issue

30 October 2000

Richard Falk, professor of international relations at Cornell, once wrote that western foreign policy was formulated "through a self-righteous, one-way moral/legal screen [with] positive images of western values and innocence portrayed as threatened, validating a campaign of unrestricted political violence".

Of course, the media follow this, reporting most of humanity in terms of its usefulness to western interests (the "international community"). The one-sided slaughter in the Gulf in 1991 was a vast video game with "miraculously few casualties". Last year's cluster-bombing of civilians in Yugoslavia was a "humanitarian intervention". This is not new. In the 1950s, the uprising in Malaya was reported as a heroic British stand against Soviet/Chinese-backed aggression. Only in its secret files did the Foreign Office admit there was no external threat and "the war is very much in defence of [the] rubber industry".

The Middle East is the cockpit and product of western power. The United States, with Britain at its side, has two strategic goals: to maintain the supply of oil from the Gulf states and to shore up, at any cost, its proxy in the region, Israel. That is the unerring policy; human rights are not an issue. Saudi Arabia, the main oil supplier and Britain's most important weapons customer, has one of the most repressive regimes on earth; and Israel, by its own record, is a terrorist state.

Nor is the law a factor. Israel's violent occupation of Palestinian land since 1967 (like its occupation of southern Lebanon) is as illegal as Saddam Hussein's violent occupation of Kuwait and Suharto's violent occupation of East Timor - the United Nations has said so year upon year. However, viewed through the "one-way moral/legal screen" of western policy, Israel is above the law, and its violence is validated. The intellectual and moral contortion this position requires is not dissimilar to that achieved by the drones who apologised for Stalinism.

Yet in the current reporting of the Middle East, the drones win. They refer unnecessarily to something called the "peace process", while a veiled racism is directed at a people demanding freedom in their homeland. As Robert Fisk pointed out in these pages (16 October), the Israeli regime continues to set the news agenda, cultivating its image of being "under attack". With honourable exceptions, the western media go along with this contortion. Thus, in the current crisis, the illegal occupiers, a huge nuclear-armed military force, who have most of the guns and all of the tanks and helicopter gunships, are "brutally murdered", while those defending their homes are "killed" or "left dead" or "have lost 100 of their own". While Yasser Arafat conspires to "inflame" the Palestinian "mob", no one apparently gives orders to the Israeli military snipers who routinely blow the heads off children.

In the Independent on Sunday, a headline says "Two truths, one tragedy", bestowing moral equivalence on invader and victim. The liberal warrior-commentators who demanded the right of safe return for the Kosovar Albanians last year now deny precisely that right to four million people who have been waiting, some of them more than half a century. Instead, their uprising against their oppressors has "betrayed the Israeli peace movement", and they have scorned Ehud Barak's "offer" of "a partial handover of East Jerusalem", neglecting to mention that the "handover" would amount to an outer suburb and exclude entirely the present Arab quarter. Security Council Resolution 242, which has demanded Israel's "immediate" withdrawal from the occupied territories for 33 years, has been virtually airbrushed.

Tim Llewellyn, a former BBC Middle East Correspondent, wrote a reflective piece in the Observer recently in which he left the reader in no doubt that the issue was not one of "two truths, one tragedy", but of straightforward justice for the Palestinians. He described the "peace agreement" that was concluded in secret at Oslo as "a misleading and humiliating farce for the Palestinians". But honourable exceptions aside, has the sum of the BBC's coverage of the Middle East ever told that truth? The aim, at times almost a fetish, has been to "balance" oppressor and oppressed, illegal occupier and the occupied, those with Cobra gunships and those with stones. "According to the security forces," a BBC reporter told us last week (he meant the Israeli occupiers), "the time for restraint was over . . ." Restraint? All but a few of those killed have been unarmed Palestinians, many of them teenagers and children. The same reporter said he had been "assured" by the Israelis that their helicopter gunship attacks on Ramallah were "pinpoint . . . extremely accurate".

On Newsnight, the Israeli ambassador is allowed to dish out his propaganda unchallenged; the other "guest" is James Rubin, formerly Madeleine Albright's mouthpiece and an Israel backer. No challenge to him. No challenge to Netanyahu. No challenge to Robin Cook when he says: "We must get the peace process back on track . . ." No mention that the Oslo accords were designed by the United States to corral the Palestinians in enclaves, surrounded by Israeli-controlled borders, while settlers, many with American voices, were allowed to appropriate more and more Palestinian territory.

Watch how those from the BBC's in-your-face school of interviewing fall into respectful compliance when faced with the sophistry that seeks to justify one of the longest and most brutal occupations of the modern era. The truth is that only when Israel withdraws to its 1967 borders will there be true peace and justice. The sheer courage of the Palestinian uprising leaves that beyond doubt.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library