At the end of his opinion piece in the New York Times about the Palestinian prisoners’ strike, Marwan Barghouti was originally described as “a Palestinian leader and parliamentarian.” After 24 hours of outrage and condemnation, an editor’s note conceded that further context was needed, pointing out that Barghouti had been convicted on “five counts of murder and membership in a terrorist organization.” News of the clarification spread like wildfire on social media. It was described in glowing terms as yet another historic victory of good over evil and of the Jewish people over its eternal enemies.
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It was another example of the time-tested Israeli ritual of accentuating the insignificant at the expense of the essence, the results of which are well known in advance. First you manufacture righteous indignation over a minor fault in an article or the problematic identity of its writer, then you assault the newspaper or media that publicized it and cast doubt on its motives, then you demand to know how this was even possible and who will pay the price. In this way, the Israeli public is absolved of the need to actually contend with the gist of the article or public utterance, in this case Barghouti’s claims that he was physically tortured, that almost a million Palestinians have been detained over the years, that their conviction rate in the Israeli military court system is absurdly high, whether it’s really wise to hold as many as 6,500 security prisoners in custody at one time and so on.
The guiding principle of this perpetual war waged by Israel and its supporters against the so-called hostile press - to paraphrase a legendary John Cleese episode about a visit by German visitors to Fawlty Towers - is “Don’t mention the occupation!” After one spends so much energy on protestations and exclamations of how unthinkable, how outrageous and how dare they, there’s very little enthusiasm left to consider eternal control over another people or the malignant status quo that many Israelis view as the best of all possible worlds or how is it even possible that someone who is defined by former Israeli Ambassador and current deputy minister Michael Oren as a terrorist and a murderer on a par with Dylann Roof, who killed nine African American worshippers in a church in Charleston, is considered by many people around the world, including those at the New York Times, as an authentic leader whose words should be read and heard.
In an interview with IDF Radio on Tuesday, Oren put the ingenious diversionary strategy on full display. He described Barghouti’s op-ed as nothing less than a “media terror attack.” To this he added a pinch of conspiracy theory with a dash of anti-Semitism by claiming that the Times purposely published Barghouti’s article on Passover, so that Israeli and Jewish leaders wouldn’t have time to react. Then he approvingly cited the wise words of his new oracle, Donald Trump, describing the publication of the article and its content as “fake news.” And for his grand finale, Oren intimated that the proper Zionist response would be to close down the Times’ Israel office, no less.
In this way, anyone who wants to address Barghouti’s claims substantively, even if it’s to criticize them, is seen as collaborating with a terrorist and enabling terror. It’s the same system by which anti-occupation groups such as Breaking the Silence are tarred as traitorous, backstabbing informants so that no one dares consider the actual testimonies they present about the hardships of occupation and the immorality of forcing the IDF to police the West Bank. What’s hilarious, however, is that so many Israelis and Jews are convinced that articles such as the one written by Barghouti, which most readers probably view as yet another tedious polemic about an intractable Middle East conflict, somehow causes more harm to Israel’s image than a senior government official who compares a news article to a terror attack and who recommends closing down the offices of the most widely respected news organization in the world, a la Putin or Erdogan.