When a young Israeli friend was a raw recruit to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), one of his less onerous tasks was delivering the daily newspapers to the officers.
I asked him which were the most popular papers, and which were read by the Commanding Officer. To the first question, he rattled off a list, headed by the mass-circulation Yedioth Ahronoth, and Israel Hayom. The latter is a free-sheet, Israel’s most widely-distributed newspaper, which was controlled and indirectly owned by the U.S./Israeli gambling billionaire, Sheldon Adelson, until his death in January this year. Adelson was amongst the largest donors to Donald Trump’s campaigns – and a slavish acolyte of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Indeed, so close had been the relationship between Adelson and Netanyahu, that one of the sets of charges which Netanyahu faces in the Israeli courts (Case 2000) focuses on their relationship, and the actions which Netanyahu is alleged to have taken to limit the circulation of rival papers, and help Israel Hayom – and his pal Adelson.
To the second question, my friend answered: “That’s easy – Haaretz”
In British terms, it’s a quality broadsheet, small typeface, not many laughs, but as the U.S. Center for Research Libraries has commented, ”Haaretz is considered the most influential and respected [of Israeli newspapers] for both its news coverage and its commentary.”
In normal times, there’s remarkably little news in American news media, and little more in U.K. papers, about the daily indignities to which the Palestinians, in Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem are subject at the hands of the authorities, or of right-wing settlers on Palestinian land; nor of the routine brutality of the IDF and Israeli Police especially in the West Bank. The skewed narrative is thereby perpetuated – that the problem is almost always with the Palestinians, ‘their’ violence, ‘their’ unwillingness to come to a deal with the Israeli government.
Only when, as this month, is there really serious violence, or where it’s an Israeli citizen who is killed or injured, is there likely to be much notice taken. At the time of writing more than 243 Palestinians and 12 Israelis have been killed in the latest conflict; of those, many in Gaza were women and children. In a single air raid, Haaretz reports that three families totalling 38 people were killed; the majority were bound to be women, children, the elderly and infirm.
By contrast to the general treatment in the Western press of the Middle East, Haaretz does report properly on what’s been happening to the Palestinians in normal times, as well as occasions of extreme violence. I have subscribed to its English-language edition for the past two years, and read it every day. (It’s also brilliant for wider Middle East, and U.S. news.)
In this paper, beyond the world headlines when Hamas and the IDF are engaged, there’s a dismal, daily catalogue of the death or injury of Palestinians; yes, some of them will have been throwing rocks at IDF personnel, but it’s rare to read a report where the use of live fire in return would have happened in similar circumstances where it’s Israelis throwing the rocks, or in equivalent situations in the U.K. or Western Europe. One example: a 16-year-old Palestinian shot dead on May 5 in Nablus, allegedly for throwing a fire-bomb; another with him shot in the back and wounded. His auntie told Haaretz, “We know no one will investigate it… For Israel, he’s just another dead Palestinian.”
There’s one fundamental reason for the impunity felt by the IDF in dealing with the Palestinian community. Save only when the Palestinian dead are measured by the score or the hundred, the rest of the world switches off.
Beyond the confrontations with deeply frustrated young Palestinians, there is the relentless march of Israeli settlers into Palestinian lands. Where the Palestinian owners object to leaving land and houses which are theirs by all rights, and on which they and their families have lived and often earned a livelihood for generations, it’s extremely rare for the Israeli courts, the police and the IDF not to be the agents of evictions and clearances. It’s a process which has accelerated in the 12 unbroken years of Netanyahu’s premiership.
International law is clear about what the Israelis do. Their actions, almost without exception, are contrary to international law, and to their obligations as the Occupying Power of the West Bank and Gaza.
But none of this will change unless and until the United States shifts its approach. Even for a president with the good instincts of Joe Biden this is difficult, because of the understandably strong sense of responsibility the U.S. has always felt to protect the State of Israel, because of the umbilical cord which connects so many in Israel with the United States – and because of the astonishing political clout which the Israeli lobby, especially through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its associates. They are ruthless at using the funds at their disposal to campaign against any lawmaker whom they do not appreciate. The only ray of hope from this last two weeks is that at last a significant, and growing element amongst the Democrats are calling out the prevailing sentiment that the U.S. will always back Israel, right or wrong.
The United Kingdom’s power to influence events in Israel and the Occupied Territories is subsidiary to that of the United States; but the U.K. does not have to be a bystander – as it lamentably has during this conflict. We have the Presidency of the G7 this year. Do a word-search of the 87 paragraphs of the G7 Foreign Ministers’ meeting earlier this month – and put in ‘Middle East,’ Israel’ ‘Palestine’ or ‘Gaza’. You’ll get ‘0/0’ for each. Extraordinary in that in a communiqué which is a Cook’s Tour of every known conflict, these ministers were simply silent. This sadly rather makes my point.
It is correct that this G7 meeting concluded on May 5 – shortly before the serious fighting erupted - but maybe none of these Ministers, nor their advisers, had even noticed ‘another dead Palestinian’, killed earlier that day. Or had not spotted that in mid-April, three weeks before, the Israeli police had raided the al-Aqsa Mosque, just as Ramadan started, street violence erupted, and there were belligerent threats from Hamas. If Belarus could merit a full paragraph in the G7 communiqué, as it why couldn’t the Israel/Palestine conflict?
There is nothing inconsistent in a Conservative government adopting a balanced policy which is firmly on the side of Israel’s right to live in peace and security (the position of the Labour Party), and being far more assertive about the rights of Palestinians, the need for a Palestinian state, the end to illegal settlements on Palestinian land, the obligations on the Israelis to observe the rule of law. This need for a balanced approach is a key theme of a major, cross-party online conference, ‘Israel/Palestine: In search of the rule of law’, this week organised by the Balfour Project.
Moreover, the U.K. government, by adopting a more assertive stand on Palestinian rights and international law could do much to help the Biden Administration domestically, especially if the U.K. leads an international coalition of like-minded nations.
There are many Israelis, too, who believe that Israel’s long term future will only be secured when and if there is a respectful settlement with the Palestinians, entailing universal recognition of a State of Palestine. However, as commentators in Israel have pointed out, Netanyahu and Hamas need each other; both have a common interest in undermining more moderate forces on both sides, especially in Fatah, so as further to stall the chances of two states living peacefully side by side.
I can still see the forlorn faces of women who’d been waiting hours in the pouring rain to get through a checkpoint so they could go to work; or the looks on the faces of scared boys, 11 and 12, appearing in a military court on charges of throwing rocks, wearing manacles around their legs as well as handcuffs. It’s routine; it’s awful. But we all of us have to do more than express our outrage; we have to campaign much harder for a more vigorous U.K. policy on Palestine, for international law. Otherwise there will be many more ‘just another dead Palestinian’, of whom the world takes no notice.
Jack Straw is a former British Foreign Secretary (2001-06), Home Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons and Secretary of State for Justice.