Israeli Propaganda – Never Had It So Good

Assaf Shariv, media adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, boasted to the Jerusalem Post last week that Israelis have been interviewed by the foreign press four times as much as spokespeople for the Palestinians and Lebanese. Shariv cited a poll of Sky News viewers that found that 80 percent believe Israel’s attacks on Lebanon were justified. A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Gideon Meir, added: “We have never had it so good. The hasbara [propaganda] effort is a well-oiled machine.” (Gil Hoffman, ‘Israel calls up media “reserves”,’ Jerusalem Post, July 17, 2006;

British and American journalists are certainly willing recipients of Israeli and US-UK propaganda. Thus, the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, “embarked last night on a mission to the Middle East to stitch together a peace plan”, the Guardian declared on July 24. (Ewen MacAskill, Ian Black and Brian Whitaker, ‘Rice finally sets out in search of ceasefire formula,’ The Guardian, July 24, 2006)

Unfortunately, “any deal put together by Ms Rice will take a minimum of a week to negotiate, allowing Israel the freedom to continue its war”. Perhaps this is a Natural Law of diplomatic negotiations, although honest journalists recognise that the timescale could be reduced – to the time it takes to make a phone call from the White House, to be precise – if peace, rather than US-Israeli interests, was on the Rice agenda. The Guardian writers sidled a little closer to the truth when they wrote:

“Agreement on a ceasefire will be harder to pin down. Ms Rice has made it clear that America does not want a quick fix ceasefire that keeps Hizbullah intact.”

Agreement is indeed made harder by the fact that the United States is backing Israel’s slaughter to the hilt – notably by supplying the state of the art missiles, bombs, attack helicopters and jets doing the killing. The Guardian noted that the world is witnessing “one of the slowest international responses to a crisis of such gravity”. The New York Times made a nonsense of that observation last Saturday:

“The Bush administration is rushing a delivery of precision-guided bombs to Israel, which requested the expedited shipment last week after beginning its air campaign against Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, American officials said Friday.” (David S. Cloud and Helene Cooper, ‘US Speeds Up Bomb Delivery For the Israelis,’ New York Times, July 22, 2006)

An arms-sale package last year approved Israel’s purchase of as many as 100 GBU-28’s, which are 5,000-pound laser-guided bombs intended to destroy concrete bunkers. The package also includes satellite-guided bombs. But still, Rice is on a “mission” to stitch together a “peace plan” according to the Guardian in its scruplously unbiased news reporting.

Dr. Doug Rokke, former Director of the US Army’s Depleted Uranium project wrote on July 24:

“The delivery of at least 100 GBU 28 bunker busters bombs containing depleted uranium warheads by the United States to Israel for use against targets in Lebanon will result in additional radioactive and chemical toxic contamination with consequent adverse health and environmental effects throughout the middle east.”

Rokke added:

“The use of uranium weapons is absolutely unacceptable, and a crime against humanity. Consequently the citizens of the world and all governments must force cessation of uranium weapons use. I must demand that Israel now provide medical care to all DU casualties in Lebanon and clean up all DU contamination.” (Rokke, ‘Depleted Uranium Situation Worsens Requiring Immediate Action By President Bush, Prime Minister Blair, and Prime Minister Olmert,’ July 25, 2006)

The British government’s feelings were made clear in a Daily Telegraph article (July 26) that reported Britain has been used as a staging post for major shipments of these bunker-busting DU bombs from America to Israel:

“Two chartered Airbus A310 cargo planes filled with GBU 28 laser-guided bombs landed at Prestwick airport, near Glasgow, for refuelling and crew rests after flying across the Atlantic at the weekend, defence sources confirmed. The airport has also been used by the CIA for rendition flights carrying terrorist suspects.” (Thomas Harding and Anil Dawar, ‘UK airport used to fly bombs to Israel,’ Daily Telegraph;

Continuing the required deception, Channel 4’s Jonathan Rugman declared:

“If you think in the last week the US has given up its role as honest broker in the Middle East then now, it seems, they’ve taken it back.” (Channel 4 News, July 21, 2006)

A Serious Escalation

On July 16, a BBC radio report described a “serious escalation” in the conflict. The report was not describing the killing, by then, of 130 Lebanese as a result of 2,000 sorties by Israeli war planes smashing bridges, roads, airports, oil refineries, and driving half a million people from their homes. Instead, the BBC referred to a Hezbollah rocket attack that day that had killed eight Israelis in Haifa.

A report on the attack by Channel 4 News was ironically titled ‘Lebanon burns’ ( special-reports/special-reports-storypage.jsp?id=2788). The irony lay in the fact that three minutes of the four-minute film focused on the Haifa attack, while some ten seconds were devoted to Israel’s subsequent killing of 16 people in Lebanon’s southern city of Tyre in a building used by rescue workers.

The Channel 4 piece began by describing how Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had warned that the attack on Haifa was “just the beginning”. Like the BBC, the Financial Times, the Daily Mail and other news outlets, Channel 4 omitted to mention Nasrallah’s caveat that Haifa was only the beginning “if Israel continues its attacks”. (See Jonathan Cook, ‘Israelis are dying – it must be an escalation,’ ZNet, July 17, 2006; showarticle.cfm?ItemID=10591)

A BBC online article covering the story was titled ‘Deadly Hezbollah attack on Haifa‘. Much milder language has been used to describe Lebanese civilian deaths, as journalist Jonathan Cook writes on ZNet:

“Those dead, many of them women and children, hardly get a mention, their lives apparently empty of meaning or significance in this confrontation.” (Ibid)

Sometimes there is no mention at all. One Media Lens reader posed a simple question to the BBC on July 17:

“The closing headlines included the information that 24 Israelis have died in the current conflict. But no mention was made of the 200 Lebanese reported as killed and as reported by Ch4 News at 7pm.

“WHY EXACTLY IS THIS?” (Email copied to Media Lens, July 26, 2006)

One Debby Moyse, Assistant Editor to the Head of BBC TV News, replied with standard BBC audacity:

“You are right to point out that the number of people killed, in the current conflict, in Lebanon was not in the closing headlines and it would have been better to have reflected both figures. However the reporting from Lebanon, seen in conjunction with the pictures of people fleeing the country, clearly reflected the impact of the six days of air strikes. Also taken in the context of the overall coverage, the effect of the conflict on each country was balanced…” (Ibid)

And so on.

Thus the indifference to the fate of the Lebanese civilians who fled their homes in the border village of Marwaheen on Israeli orders. As the villagers left in a convoy on July 15, Israeli jets attacked, killing 20 people, at least nine of them children. Robert Fisk wrote in the Independent of how the local fire brigade “could not put out the fires as they all burned alive in the inferno“. Fisk noted sardonically that another “terrorist” target had thereby been eliminated. (Fisk, ‘Hizbollah’s response reveals months of planning,’ The Independent, July 16, 2006)

The Daily Telegraph’s coverage of the atrocity was titled merely: ‘Iran blamed as Lebanon battle broadens.‘ (Harry de Quettevill, Daily Telegraph, July 16, 2006) The BBC and other media described these and other killings as “retaliation” for Haifa, even though Israel had been launching such strikes for four days before the Hezbollah attack.

Indeed, with great consistency, the media describe Israel as merely “responding” or “retaliating”. In a 2002 report, Bad News From Israel, The Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG) provided numerous examples stretching over several years:

“The trigger for the Israeli offensive was a massacre on the West Bank.” (ITV early evening news, December 13, 2001)

“Palestinian suicide attacks trigger more Israeli raids.” (BBC 1, late news, January 5, 2002)

The authors commented:

“On the news, Israeli actions tended to be explained and contextualised – they were often shown as merely ‘responding’ to what had been done to them by Palestinians (in the 2001 samples they were six times as likely to be presented as ‘retaliating’ or in some way responding than were the Palestinians).” 

The report focused on a particular phase of reporting. The BBC described events thus:

“This cycle of violence began six weeks ago when an Israeli cabinet minister was shot.” (BBC1 News 24, December 2, 2001; sociology/units/media/israel_excerpt4.pdf)

GUMG noted that this is also how the Israelis presented the sequence of events. The Palestinians, however, regarded the killing of the Israeli minister as a ‘response’ to the assassination of one of their political leaders. In a rare departure from the norm, the Independent described the sequence as follows:

“The most notorious assassination came at the end of August when Israeli helicopters hovering over the West Bank town of Ramallah fired two missiles through the office windows of the leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Abu Ali Mustafa, 64, decapitating him as he sat in his swivel chair. As the leader of an established PLO faction, who according to Palestinians, was a politician rather than a member of the PFLP’s military wing – he was the most senior figure to be picked off by the Israelis. Seven weeks later the PFLP sought revenge by infiltrating a Jerusalem hotel and assassinating Israel’s tourism minister, Rehavem Ze’evi, whose support for ethnically cleansing the West Bank and Gaza of Arabs had long made him an enemy of the Palestinians.” (November 9, 2001)

Exceptions of this kind aside, most media present a consistently biased version of events. Thus the BBC in 2001:

“Israel has been under intense pressure from the Americans to pull out of Palestinian areas it occupied last week +following the killing of the+ Israeli tourism minister.” (BBC1 late News, October 26, 2001 – GUMG italics)

“The assassination of an Israeli cabinet minister +led to the reoccupation+ of Palestinian areas.” (BBC News 24, November 3, 2001 – GUMG italics)

“Dozens of Palestinians and Israelis have been killed in a relentless round of suicide bombings and +Israeli counter-attacks+.” (BBC2 Newsnight 22:30, December 13, 2001 – GUMG italics)

“The Israelis had carried out this demolition +in retaliation+ for the murder of four soldiers.” (Channel 4 News 19:00, January 10, 2002 – GUMG italics)

In an almost child-like way, journalists take their lead from Israeli actions. A July 17 Guardian editorial reported that the sixth day of Israeli aerial attacks had killed 47 people and wounded at least 53. The editors noted:

“It is also worth remembering that the weekend’s chaos began three weeks ago, with the [June 25] provocative kidnapping of an Israeli soldier by allies of Hamas.” (Leader, ‘Middle East: On the brink of chaos,’ The Guardian, July 17, 2006)

The June 24 kidnapping of a Palestinian doctor and his brother by Israeli forces is thereby wiped from history. Inconvenient “chaos” is ignored more generally – for example, the fact that between January to May 30, 2006, according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, the Israeli military launched 18 assassinations, described as “targeted assassinations of militants“. Between March 29 to May 30, there were 77 air strikes on Palestinian population centres, government offices and other infrastructure, with nearly 4,000 artillery shells being fired by Israel over the same period. Between May 26 and June 21, more than 40 Palestinians were killed, 30 of them civilians, including 11 children and two pregnant women. None of these are deemed “provocative” by our media.

The Right Of Self-Defence

This preferential reading of recent history allows the media to portray Israeli actions as being consistently in “self-defence”. The Financial Times reported:

“The world’s big powers were at odds over Israel’s strikes on Lebanon yesterday, with US President George W. Bush invoking Israel’s right of self-defence and Russia and European Union officials accusing the country of ‘disproportionate‘ actions.” (Martin Arnold, Caroline Daniel and Daniel Dombey, ‘World powers split over strikes,’ Financial Times, July 14, 2006)

The Daily Mail wrote:

“Whatever provocation Israel has suffered and the murderous fanaticism of Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon is a cause of despair this brutally disproportionate action is an unworthy and ultimately self-defeating response from a great liberal democracy.

“Of course, any country has a right to self defence. But this deadly cycle of tit-for-tat offers no solution.” (Leader, ‘Stumbling to the brink of the abyss,’ Daily Mail, July 15, 2006)

Over the last month, there have been dozens of references of this kind in the British press to the issue of Israel’s right to self-defence. We have been able to find just one reference to the possibility that Palestinian violence, for example, might be justified on the same grounds.

Chris Hedges, formerly foreign correspondent for The New York Times and currently a senior fellow at the Nation Institute, has noted some of the missing context:

“This isn’t the first time that Israeli soldiers have been captured. We’ve had long and painful negotiations over kidnapped Lebanese, and Israel has made cross-border incursions into Lebanon to capture Lebanese for years and years and years. That’s something well known to Lebanese and probably not as well known to other people.” (‘United States and the Context Behind Israel’s Offensive on Lebanon,’ Democracy Now! July 17, 2006; ?sid=06/07/17/1423257&mode=thread&tid=25)

Hedges also recalled that massive aerial bombardment has not always been deemed the necessary Israeli response – in January 2004, Israel freed more than 400 Arab prisoners in return for an Israeli spy.

But kidnapped Lebanese and Palestinians do not exist for our media, just as Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli artillery in May and June are ignored in seeking the causes of conflict. The poverty, malnutrition and oppression within the giant open prison that is Gaza also do not exist as any kind of justification for actions in “self-defence“.

Conclusion – Purely For The Cameras

The public is relentlessly bombarded by the fraudulent media version of events: Israel is merely ‘retaliating’ in ‘self-defence’. Condoleeza Rice (often referred to, affectionately, as ‘Condi’) is an honest broker seeking peace. And, the icing on the propaganda cake, Britain is biased +towards+ Arabs. Patrick Wintour and Ewen MacAskill wrote in the Guardian on July 21:

“In private, the Foreign Office, which has a reputation as being traditionally pro-Arabist, is sceptical about the Israeli strategy and its impact on the wider Middle East.” ( syria/story/0,,1825645,00.html)?

We asked British historian Mark Curtis for his response:

“This is the traditional mainstream media view – ‘pro-Arabist’ being some nice, meaningless term. In fact, the record clearly shows that Britain has played it both ways – both strongly backing its favoured Arab dictators (‘pro-Arabist’) and at the same time arming Israel and supporting its aggression. Current policy is a good example. Traditionally, Britain has also armed both sides. Of course it is by no means against UK interests to have ongoing instability and conflict in the Middle East – the goals are control over oil and having pro-Western regimes in place, after all, not weird notions of peace or democracy, which are purely for the cameras.” (Email to Media Lens, July 26, 2006)

Curtis points to a dark, and for the mainstream media all but unthinkable, truth – when state goals are best achieved by exploiting an overwhelming military advantage, peaceful negotiation, diplomacy and compromise can come to be seen as threats to be crushed at every turn. From this perspective, the more vicious the killing, the more wanton the destruction, the better.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Ewen MacAskill
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Write to Jonathan Freedland
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Write to Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger
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Write to Observer editor Roger Alton
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Write to Jonathan Rugman
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Write to Paul Reynolds
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Write to Helen Boaden, head of BBC news
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