“We Are Reading Thinly Disguised Propaganda”

Richard Falk

Just like always, the corporate media’s coverage of the recent Israeli strikes against Gaza was blatantly one-sided. The truth is simple: Israel must end its occupation and its bombings and finally recognize the Palestinian people as equals.

A general view shows a construction site in the Israeli settlement of Elkana on November 19, 2019. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo announced that the US no longer considers Israel’s West Bank settlements a violation of international law, reversing several decades of American foreign policy. Amir Levy / Getty Images

Interview by
Daniel Falcone

Over the past few days, Israel has stepped up its bombing of Gaza, killing thirty-four Palestinians and leaving another eighty-plus wounded. A ceasefire temporarily ended the assault last Thursday, but violence escalated again after Israeli forces killed several Palestinian civilians in a “surgical strike.” The disproportionate force comes at a tumultuous time for Israel, with Benjamin Netanyahu facing corruption charges and the prospect that his long tenure as Israeli prime minister could be coming to an end.

To sort it all out, Jacobin contributor Daniel Falcone spoke with Richard Falk, professor emeritus at Princeton University and former United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied territories. Falk argues that the mainstream media has systematically misrepresented the terms of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, including the recent spark in violence. Israel, Falk says, will have to finally decide to accept Palestinians as equals for there to be any chance of peace. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Daniel Falcone

The mainstream press is presenting the renewal of violence as something implicating “both sides.” What is your analysis of the latest and ongoing coverage of the conflict in Gaza?

Richard Falk

[Politicians] and the media, even the UN, are treating this renewal of violence in a highly misleading way. The events are misrepresented in two principal ways: by treating Israel as defending itself without taking account of Israel’s own provocations; and by using language to suggest Israel is fully entitled to use force to uphold security as opposed to its “terrorist” adversary, which is stripped of any legitimate right to defend itself.

The immediate context of the latest cycle of violence was the targeted killing of Baha Abu al-Ata, along with his wife, on November 12, while he was sleeping in his home in a Gaza apartment building. Abu al-Ata was a commander in Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) alleged to be responsible for past rocket attacks on Israel, and supposedly engaged in planning further attacks. Two hundred rockets were fired from Gaza in response. Israel immediately responded to the rockets with drone missile strikes and air and military attacks, killing thirty-four Palestinians, and wounding more than eighty. As far we know, no Israelis were killed or injured by the attacks.

Israel’s response raises many international law questions of proportionality with respect to the use of force and collective punishment and, as significantly, issues of provocation. The timing of the assassination of Abu al-Ata was quite possibly a gesture by Netanyahu calculated to break the Israeli electoral impasse in his favor. The media has utterly failed to connect the outbreak of violence with the underlying desperation and vulnerability of the Gazan population or even with the domestic pressures in Israel to break the impasse that has blocked the formation of a new government.

Gaza is a territory “occupied” by Israel, and not a foreign country. Hence, Israel’s behavior is subject to the Geneva Conventions, especially Convention IV, governing belligerent occupation. Israel rejects these international law constraints altogether, unilaterally invoking its right to defend itself by periodically launching massive attacks on Gaza in 2008–9, 2012, and 2014, and by completely neglecting the duties to protect a civilian population living under occupation, which is the core legal framework imposed by the Geneva Conventions on an occupying power.

Until we have some awareness of this broader context, our understanding of the isolated incident cannot be properly interpreted, and feeds bias and one-sided commentary. Israel becomes the hapless victim of primitive rockets — which, in reality, are mainly symbolic efforts by Palestinians to offer a show of resistance to a wider pattern of oppressive and unlawful governance. Of course, the threat posed by these rockets does produce great anxiety in Israeli communities living near the Gaza border, and is unacceptable, but far worse is the anxiety experienced by the entire population of Gaza. Until that wider pattern of Israeli dereliction of its duties under international humanitarian law is brought into view, we are reading thinly disguised propaganda, sophisticated fake news, that confers impunity on the militarily strong side in this struggle and excessive accountability on the weaker side. Such a pattern is an obvious perversion of justice.

These concerns about media coverage vary from issue to issue and even context to context. The Israel-Palestine context is distinctive in several respects with regard to slanting the news in Israel’s favor. It is respectable to be an outspokenly pro-Zionist journalist, while being even neutral is viewed as discrediting, and being critical often invites intense professional pushback. Even a Zionist extremist like Alan Dershowitz is welcomed as a regular network guest on talk shows, while a media appearance by Noam Chomsky is a rarity. This is reinforced by the powerful and feared AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) lobby, which has a reputation for ending the political careers of those few in Congress who are perceived as somewhat critical of Israel or even cautiously supportive of the Palestinian struggle for basic rights. This has been reinforced, at least since 1967, by the consensus that the US special relationship with Israel is a strategic alliance that helps uphold American strategic interests in the Middle East.

Daniel Falcone

Where can one go for “intellectual self-defense?” In other words, where can people get reliable information on Gaza in the West?

Richard Falk

When it comes to reliable media coverage, I would suggest reading the digitized media widely and selectively, as well as what is written by Al Jazeera and other regional media outlets in the Middle East, including even the Israeli press, which is far more open than the American press. I receive a far better sense of the unfolding struggle between Israel and Palestine from Haaretz, or even the Jerusalem Post, than from the New York Times or the Washington Post. Is there anyone in the US mainstream media as critical of Israel policies toward the Palestinian people than Haaretz writers Gideon Levy or Amira Hass? Not likely.

A selective reading of online journalism gives a more informed and balanced picture of the violent interactions between Israel and Palestinian resistance, especially by refraining from automatically equating Palestinian resistance with terrorism in the struggle to secure their rights. Israel’s reliance on excessive force, especially in seeking to intimidate and humiliate the civilian Palestinian population of Gaza, should be considered state terrorism, and has over the years been responsible for immeasurably more suffering, death, and anxiety than the armed aspects of Palestinian resistance.

Israel’s refusal to act humanely and to minimize political violence is nowhere more evident than in its responses to the Great March of Return, where weekly, largely nonviolent protests demanding the long-denied Palestinian right to return to their places of family residence and national homeland have not been met by an Israeli accommodation, but rather by reliance on lethal force in the form of live sniper ammunition, causing Palestinian deaths and injuries almost every Friday for more than eighty weeks. Even “reliable” journalism has not given this remarkable societal initiative in Gaza, and Israel’s response, the commentary and attention it deserves. This, too, is part of the context that thoughtful and balanced media coverage should inform its readers about.

Daniel Falcone

Can you comment on the political end game for Israel domestically with regard to this latest surge in killing?

Richard Falk

Of course, politicians never acknowledge political motivations for their military aggressiveness in election periods. The impasse in Israel at present is unprecedented, and it’s accentuated by the seeming desperation of Netanyahu to avoid corruption charges.

Against such a backdrop, it seems reasonable to be suspicious of why Israel resorted to this high-profile targeted killing, knowing it would produce a violent response from the Palestinians, and that such a response would provide Israel with a political climate supportive of a more deadly Israeli assault on Gaza. This, in turn, would lead to more rockets being launched toward Israel from Gaza, and although intercepted by the Iron Dome, would still agitate Israeli fears and swing public opinion in Netanyahu’s direction as the unwavering guardian of Israeli security interests.

His opponent in the rivalry to lead the government, Benny Gantz, is also invoking as a positive credential his bloody record as an IDF (Israel Defense Forces) commander in past Gaza operations. It is an unfortunate reality that politicians in Israel regard such militarist reputations as adding to their qualifications for political leadership. This also means that it is politically helpful to ignore international law and civilian innocence in the course of dealing with Palestinian oppositional activities, even if they take a nonviolent form.

Daniel Falcone

What does the near future look like? What will it take for peace to be established?

Richard Falk

It is Israel’s apparent hope that, with Trump in the White House, this is the time to push for an end to the conflict, which means declaring an Israeli victory in the struggle and a political surrender from the Palestinians. An incentive of a better day-to-day life is given to the Palestinians, what is sometimes called “an economic peace.” This is coupled with a warning of worse things to come if the Palestinians refuse to bow down.

But as the Great March and the robust, global BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) campaign demonstrate, such a wish for an Israeli one-state solution is highly unlikely to receive formal blessings. Strenuous efforts to demonstrate that criticism of Israel is “the new anti-Semitism” exhibit a recognition that such a moral/legal challenge from below (as compared to diplomacy from above) poses a threat to Israeli ambitions. This scares the Israeli elite more these days than armed struggle or military confrontation.

What seems to be happening is that the core of the struggle to achieve a political compromise based on the equality of Jews and Arabs is shifting from intergovernmental diplomacy, including at the UN, to Palestinian resistance initiatives and global solidarity efforts — both political undertakings by people, not governments or international institutions. The two-state solution has surely died alongside Oslo diplomacy, except in the mouths of diplomats. And yet a one-state outcome reflective of Palestinian rights has not been born. Until such a birth takes place, there will be ceasefires and pauses in the violence, but nothing resembling genuine peace.

To establish peace, Israel will have to make a major decision to accept a coexistence of equals and give up its apartheid matrix of control that has been fragmenting the Palestinian people (as occupied, as refugees, as discriminated minority in Israel) ever since 1948. This kind of solution can only occur if pressure from within and without mount to the point that Israelis recalculate their interests, coming to the conclusion that they are better off living in peace with Palestinians than keeping them permanently confined in a variety of iron cages.