18 May 2009

Democracy in Israel with No Freedom of the Press?

©Khalil Bendib

Stop The Press! This is What Israeli Democracy Looks Like
By Nima Shirazi / The Rag Blog / May 18, 2009

Telling the truth can be dangerous business.
Honest and popular don't go hand in hand.
- Lyle Rogers and Chuck "The Hawk" Clarke, Ishtar (1987)

Last Tuesday, prominent Israeli journalist Amira Hass was arrested by Israeli authorities upon entering Israel from Gaza. Hass, a correspondent for the daily Ha'aretz, had been living and working in Gaza for months, reporting on the lives of Palestinians and revealing many devastating truths about the brutalized and besieged community.

Journalists are forbidden to enter Gaza, upon orders from the Israeli military. Clearly, where there are reporters, there may be reports. Where there are reports, there may be knowledge. And when there is knowledge, especially about the Israeli policy of constant aggressive oppression of the Palestinian people, there is sure to be outrage. Truth and dissent are the eternal enemies of history's oppressors, therefore it is no surprise that Israel wishes to suppress knowledge and publicity of its own indefensible actions.

International press organizations have long condemned Israel's media ban. Recently, in November 2008, journalists were prevented from acquiring travel visas required to cross into Gaza at the Erez checkpoint - the only entrance to the territory from Israel. Steve Gutkin, the Associated Press bureau chief in Jerusalem and head of the Foreign Press Association, said that the length of the media ban was unprecedented and that there was no "plausible or acceptable" explanation for the ban.

The Foreign Press Association condemned the closure, saying: "We regard this as an unconscionable breach of the Israeli Government's responsibility to allow journalists to do their jobs in this region," further explaining that "the international media serve as the world's window into Gaza providing vital coverage of all aspects of Gazan life to news consumers around the world."

At a time when Israel had sealed off almost all commercial and humanitarian crossing into the Gaza Strip, the reason was perfectly clear:

"This is Israel's policy, to not show what's going on in Gaza," said Conny Mus, a reporter for Dutch television.

Once the Israeli military began dropping bombs on the residents of Gaza in late December 2008, the freedom of the press to its job was even further curtailed as Israel instituted a complete media blackout. In its attempt to prevent reporters from telling the truth about the massacre in Gaza, the Israeli military defied a ruling from its own Supreme Court that would allow reporters access to the Strip. John Ging, Gaza operations director for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, agreed: "For the truth to get out, journalists have to get in."

In defense of limiting press freedoms, Former spokesman for the Israeli army, Nachman Shai, claimed that full news coverage helps "the enemy," confuses and "destabilizes" the Israeli public. "Today, Israel is trying to control the information much more closely," he told the New York Times. Israel was intent on controlling public opinion based on its own propaganda, a decision made clear by Aviv Shir-On, deputy director general for media in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who told the Times during the winter bombardment, "We are trying to coordinate everything that has to do with the image and content of what we are doing...We have talking points and we try to disseminate our ideas and message."

The Foreign Press Association released another statement, as the Palestinian death toll in Gaza increased horrifically, condemning Israel's restriction of the press: "The unprecedented denial of access to Gaza for the world’s media amounts to a severe violation of press freedom and puts the state of Israel in the company of a handful of regimes around the world which regularly keep journalists from doing their jobs."

Controlling the message is vital for Israel and its apologists because truth, morality, and justice are inherently anathema to Zionism. It is through this control that, for decades now, the word Palestinian has been nearly synonymous with the word terrorist, and therefore any resistance to colonialism, imperialism, military occupation, and economic hegemony is deemed irrational, unprovoked, inhuman terrorism. By controlling this message, the Zionist propagandists are able to pull off an astounding slight of hand on reality: the oppressed becomes the oppressor, the culprit becomes the victim, illegal colonization is cultural liberation, aggressive expansion is righteous reclamation, genocide is self-defense, apartheid is security, and ethnic cleansing is peace.

Zionism must rewrite the past in order to somehow gain legitimacy as anything but a wholly racist ideology. In so doing, the Bible becomes a land deed and the displacement, dispossession, and disenfranchisement of an indigenous population becomes the unhappy, though inevitable, consequence of religious nationalism. Without erasing or ignoring the historical and cultural narratives of Palestinians, Israel cannot hide from the painful truth about its ugly past.

This is precisely why, last month, Itamar Shapira, a docent at Yad Vashem, was fired for making reference to the 1948 Deir Yassin massacre and the subsequent Palestinian Nakba during his guided tours. He had pointed out the ruins of the Palestinian village, which can be seen from the grounds of the Holocaust memorial, to a school group. The group's teacher complained to his superiors and his job was terminated. Shapira, a tour guide for three and a half years, told Ha'aretz, "Yad Vashem talks about the Holocaust survivors' arrival in Israel and about creating a refuge here for the world's Jews. I said there were people who lived on this land and mentioned that there are other traumas that provide other nations with motivation...The Holocaust moved us to establish a Jewish state and the Palestinian nation's trauma is moving it to seek self-determination, identity, land and dignity, just as Zionism sought these things."

Officials at Yad Vashem, called the "Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority," claim that Shapira was acting unprofessionally by relating the Holocaust to other historical events. It is the policy of Yad Yashem to classify the Holocaust as a singular and unprecedented occurrence in human history, never to be compared to anything else ever, thereby classifying Jewish suffering as unique and unlike anything any other group of people has ever, or will ever, endure. By promoting this "superiority of suffering," Yad Vashem is able to deflect all criticism or even acknowledgement of the injustice of Israeli national history and, as a result, the truth of Palestinian history - both past and present - is not only ignored, but denied.

Shapira identified this policy of selective education at Yad Vashem, saying, "It is being hypocritical. I only tried to expose the visitors to the facts, not to political conclusions. If Yad Vashem chooses to ignore the facts, for example the massacre at Deir Yassin, or the Nakba, it means that it's afraid of something and that its historic approach is flawed."

Obviously, ignoring facts is the age-old modus operandi of the Zionist enterprise, as evidenced by the "land without a people for a people without a land" propaganda put forth by Zionism's very first advocates. The whitewashing of historical truths continues to threaten the validity of the Palestinian cultural narrative as newly proposed legislation by Israel's far-right, ultranationalist party clearly proves. Yisrael Beitenu, the party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, is attempting to ban any commemoration of the 1948 Nakba by Israel's Arab citizens, which make up about 20% of the Israeli population. In its effort to promote ethnosupremacism, the party wishes to punish those that mark the anniversary of Palestinian displacement - when over 700,000 Palestinians were forced from or fled their homes during the Zionist effort to establish a Jewish state on Palestinian land - with jail terms of up to three years.

"The draft law is intended to strengthen unity in the state of Israel and to ban marking Independence Day as a day of mourning," party spokesman Tal Nahum told Ha'aretz. This type of mandatory unity is deliberately undemocratic and unrepresentative of the whole Israeli population - an unsurprising proposal from a political party that has suggested loyalty oaths for Arab citizens, has specifically denied support for Palestinian self-determination and national sovereignty by not endorsing efforts to establish an independent Palestinian state, and which has been described by many as fascist.

In other undemocratic news, the homes of Israeli peace activists working with the anti-militarist organization New Profile were raided by police, resulting the confiscation of computers and numerous arrests on suspicion of incitement and assisting draft dodgers. Gideon Levy, a stalwart voice for justice and truth in Israel, wrote in Ha'aretz,

The public reacted to the raid with typical indifference; it came just as we were busy enjoying the cheesy Independence Day holiday, complete with songs of self-praise about Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East. But a democracy that raids the homes of political activists is no democracy. Democracies are tested by how they treat the fringes of society.

Locking up three and a half million Palestinians in the occupied territories and denying them basic human rights has already undermined Israel's pretensions of democracy, but now dangerous cracks are appearing in our Jews-only democracy.

These so-called cracks include, not only the attempt to silence any and all dissent from Israeli peaceniks, but also the (sometimes fatal) shooting of Palestinian and international activists who dare protest the illegal Apartheid Wall that serves to annex even more land in the West Bank. Levy exposes the double standard of the Israeli authorities when it comes to the treatment of peace activists versus that of settlers: "Israel Defense Forces has never shot and killed settlers during a protest, even though they are much more violent than anti-fence protesters."

Reporter Amira Hass' arrest came right after her publication of a new article describing why the Israeli government is intent not to promote peace and justice - citing the socio-economic benefits of continued Israeli occupation, land theft, and control over natural resources.

According to Ha'aretz, "Hass was arrested and taken in for questioning immediately after crossing the [Gaza] border, for violating a law which forbids residence in an enemy state." This explanation can only be followed with a question: How long will it be until Avigdor Lieberman, who dwells in the illegal West Bank settlement of Nokdim, will be arrested on similar charges? Once again, the oxymoronic paradox of Israeli democracy is clear. Colonial expansion is encouraged; reporting the truth is criminal.

Fittingly, Hass' arrest occurred a mere two days after Freedom House, a US-based NGO that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights, downgraded Israel's press status from "free" to "partly free." The organization, co-founded in 1941 by Eleanor Roosevelt, justified its reclassification by citing the Israeli government's actions during the recent Gaza attacks, "including the barring of foreign and local journalists from Gaza, alleged attempt to influence media coverage within Israel and alleged heightened self-censorship by local media outlets."

Government Press Office head Daniel Seamans, who described Freedom House as a "useless and ridiculous" organization, said that the Israeli government's decision to prohibit journalists from covering Operation Cast Lead in person was a strategic move. Had the foreign press been allowed into Gaza, he said, "their reports would have had a harsh effect on world public opinion and endangered our ability to meet our goals." Limiting press freedoms in order to strategically control the message and public opinion? That's called propaganda.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs' own website has this to say:

Israel is still a young, developing democracy. Although some members of the public question the motives of the press in criticizing the state during wartime, in general, Israeli society comprehends that a free, robust press is crucial to the existence of a strong democracy and a value worth fighting for. Instilling recognition of the dangers of trying to place restrictions on the press, and an understanding by the public of the role played by the Israeli media even under trying conditions, are part of Israel's challenge in meeting its vision to become a true democratic nation.

Clearly, this is a challenge Israel has yet to overcome and, as such, is not even considered a truly democratic nation by its own government.

George Orwell famously wrote, "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." When journalists and human rights activists face imprisonment - or worse - for doing their jobs, but still do it anyway, we know, not only that Orwell was right, but how vital and necessary it is for the truth to be told in order to fight the forces of repression and silence. Yes, the risks of retribution or fear of intimidation for opposing injustice may be great, but, in the immortal words of Ishtar's Rogers and Clarke, "being human, we can live with the pain."

[Nima Shirazi was born and raised in Manhattan. He now lives in Brooklyn and writes the weblog Wide Asleep In America under the moniker Lord Baltimore, where this article was also posted. He can be reached at wideasleepinamerica@gmail.com.]

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