By David Edwards
Readers will recall the famous perceptual illusion in which the brain switches between seeing a young girl and an image intended to represent an ‘old crone’. The picture of course remains the same, but our minds flick between the two interpretations, unable to perceive both images at the same time.
The ‘mainstream media’ – that curious collection of elite-run, profit-maximising business interests sometimes known as ‘the free press’ – performs a similar perceptual trick. In reviewing comparable crimes by the West and its official enemies, it is able to flick between perceiving virtue in ‘our’ criminality where only wickedness is found in ‘theirs’. Indeed, though ‘our’ crimes may be as bad, as cynical, or worse, ‘their’ crimes are consistently perceived as being far uglier.
Not that ‘our’ crimes are completely ignored. A Sunday Times editorial reviewed the life and career of former Israeli prime minister and general Ariel Sharon, who died on January 11:
‘His Unit 101 slaughtered 69 civilians in the Jordanian town of Qibya in 1953 and as defence minister he was blamed for the massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Israel’s Christian Phalange allies in 1982. He was forced to resign from his post.’ (Leading article, ‘The old warrior who turned to peace,’ Sunday Times, January 12, 2014)
The Sunday Times described these as mere ‘black marks’, much as 9/11 and Halabja were ‘black marks’ against bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, perhaps. Otherwise, Sharon was one of Israel’s ‘great nation-builders’, ‘a military hero’; ‘He leaves an important legacy.’
The ‘black marks’ were noted with minimal information, not even a rough idea of the number of victims at Sabra and Shatila. Up to 3,500 civilians were brutally massacred on September 16-17, 1982. Peter Hart of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting writes:
‘An official Israeli investigation known as the Kahan Commission found that Sharon had personally decided to send right-wing Christian paramilitary forces, known as the Phalangist militias, into Palestinian refugee camps immediately after Palestinians had been (falsely) accused of assassinating the Lebanese President-elect Bachir Gemayel, a Phalangist leader. The fact “that the Phalangists were liable to commit atrocities… did not concern [Sharon] in the least,” the Commission found.
‘After the massacre began, Israel assisted the killing by firing flares over the camp to provide illumination for the Phalangists (New York Times, 9/26/82). Recently declassified Israeli documents (New York Times, 9/17/12) show that when US officials pressed Sharon to order the militias out of the camps, he retorted, “If you don’t want the Lebanese to kill them, we will kill them.”‘
The dead included infants, children, pregnant women and the elderly, some of whom had been raped and mutilated. As Hart indicates, the Israeli government investigation found that Sharon bore ‘personal responsibility’ for the atrocity.
According to Menachem Klein, a politics professor at Bar Ilan University, near Tel Aviv, Sharon’s founding of Unit 101, a ‘retribution squad’ in the 1950s and 1960s, set the pattern for modern Israeli military strategy named. Israel-based journalist Jonathan Cook explains:
‘In Israel’s early years, Unit 101 carried out reprisals against Palestinian fighters across the armistice lines, in an attempt to deter future enemy raids into Israeli territory. In practice, however, the price was paid as much by civilians as fighters.’
‘Today, Sharon’s military philosophy is reflected in the Israeli army’s Dahiya doctrine – its policy in recent confrontations to send Israel’s neighbours in Gaza and Lebanon “into the dark ages” through massive destruction of their physical infrastructure.’
An example was Sharon’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, although it was not included among the Sunday Times’ ‘black marks’, nor even mentioned. In The Nation, Max Blumenthal describes the invasion, which cost the lives of 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians, most of them civilians:
‘Sharon sent Israeli tanks rumbling towards Beirut without the approval of the rest of the cabinet, whom Sharon had deliberately deceived. Many of them were outraged, but it was too late to turn back.
‘Against fierce Palestinian resistance, one of the Middle East’s most vital and cosmopolitan cities was laid to ruin. Sharon’s forces flattened West Beirut with indiscriminate shelling, leaving streets strewn with unburied corpses. With each passing day, disease and famine spread at epidemic levels. In August, the day after the Israeli cabinet accepted US special envoy Philip Habib’s proposal for the evacuation of the PLO, Sharon’s forces bombarded Beirut for seven hours straight, leaving 300 dead, most of them civilians. The Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling wrote that the raid “resembled the attack on Dresden by the Allies toward the end of World War II.”‘
For the Sunday Telegraph, these horrors were ‘controversial methods’ to ‘secure his country’s future’. And anyway, Sharon ‘ended his career with a more complex image, as a tough-minded statesman searching for peace. His example offers hope’. Apparently with a straight face, the editors concluded: ‘as Ariel Sharon’s career showed, peace through dialogue is possible’.
For The Times, Sharon’s military record was ‘marked by two shocking episodes’. Again, just the two black marks: the massacres in Qibya, and Sabra and Shatila, which were ‘the harsh aspects of Sharon’s career’. He was ‘uncompromising and divisive’, but The Times’ concluded:
‘Though an unlikely harbinger of peace and negotiation, that, finally, is what he was.’ (Leading article, ‘Warrior Statesman; Sharon’s military and political record was uncompromising and divisive; yet he was finally an unlikely advocate of peace and negotiation,’ January 13, 2014, The Times)
The Independent on Sunday published an article entitled, ‘Ariel Sharon: A hawk who might just have liberated the Palestinians.’
Middle East peace envoy, Tony Blair, said:
‘His strategic objective never wavered. The state… had to be protected for future generations. When that meant fighting, he fought. When that meant making peace, he sought peace with the same iron determination.’
Peter Hart reports numerous, similarly ‘hollow’ attempts to ‘portray Sharon as a peacemaker’ in the US media.
Not ‘A Single Scintilla of Evidence’
The Guardian refused to unreservedly damn Sharon as it reflexively does official enemies such as Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Gaddafi and Assad.
Senior Guardian commentator Jonathan Freedland opined that Sharon ‘was silenced by a stroke that left him lodged in the limbo between life and death. That state of ambiguity was strangely fitting for a figure who, after decades painted as either black or white – reviled by his enemies as the “butcher of Beirut”, loved by his admirers as “Arik, King of Israel” – ended his life an unexpected shade of grey’.
The Guardian editors wrote that it was ‘tantalising to speculate that the illness of a man who had spent so much of his life at war may have robbed the region of its greatest chance for peace’. They added:
‘There may be nostalgia for his decisiveness and strength, and we may applaud the withdrawal from Gaza, but we cannot cheer his role in creating the settlements, or his long-held belief that the fight against “terror” can be waged only with bullets and bombs.’
The reality is far uglier than either article suggests. Writing for The American Conservative, Scott McConnell argues that Sharon actually sought to provoke ‘terror’:
‘There is reason to believe that Sharon felt that provoking the Palestinians to violence could be of strategic benefit for Israel…
‘I’ve heard other Israeli politicians argue in this vein, implying that they would actually welcome Palestinian violence, because militarily Israel is far stronger and can damage Palestinian society far more in the context of war than peace.’
Noam Chomsky concurs:
‘There is a long history of Israel provocations to deter the threat of diplomacy… The effort to delay political accommodation has always made perfect sense… It is hard to think of another way to take over land where you are not wanted.’ (See our Media Alert: ‘The BBC, Impartiality, And The Hidden Logic Of Massacre,’ February 4, 2009)
Thus, Permanent War has facilitated a key aspect of Sharon’s legacy, the relentless spread of illegal settlements. Blumenthal describes Sharon as ‘the visionary behind the settlements’. Sharon told Winston Churchill’s grandson:
‘We’ll make a pastrami sandwich out of them. We’ll insert a strip of Jewish settlements in between the Palestinians, and then another strip of Jewish settlements right across the West Bank, so that in twenty-five years’ time, neither the United Nations nor the United States, nobody, will be able to tear it apart.’
Writing for The Jerusalem Fund, Yousef notes that Sharon ‘presided over the single largest period of expansion in the Israeli settler population, some 75,000, since the Menachem Begin era’. This, indeed, makes it hard to portray Sharon as a man of peace.
Avi Shlaim, Emeritus Professor of International Relations at Oxford University, a leading scholar on the Israeli-Arab conflict, comments:
‘President George W. Bush famously called Sharon a man of peace. Sharon was nothing of the sort. He was a man of war through and through, and he called his autobiography Warrior, not Diplomat. His approach to diplomacy reversed Clausewitz’s dictum; for Sharon, diplomacy was the pursuit of war by other means. For the last 40 years, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been my main research interest, and I can honestly say that I have never come across a single scintilla of evidence to support the notion of Sharon as a man of peace.’
Chomsky takes a similar view:
‘Well, you know, there is a convention that you’re not supposed to speak ill of the recently dead, which unfortunately imposes a kind of vow of silence because there’s nothing else to say — there’s nothing good to say… He was a brutal killer. He had one fixed idea in mind, which drove him all his life: a greater Israel, as powerful as possible, as few Palestinians as possible — they should somehow disappear — and an Israel which could be powerful enough to dominate the region. The Lebanon War then, which was his worst crime, also had a goal of imposing a client state in Lebanon, a Maronite client state. And these were the driving forces of his life.
‘The idea that the Gaza evacuation was a controversial step for peace is almost farcical. By 2005, Gaza had been devastated, and he played a large role in that. The Israeli hawks could understand easily that it made no sense to keep a few thousand Israeli settlers in Gaza using a very large percentage of its land and scarce water with a huge IDF, Israeli army, contingent to protect them. What made more sense was to take them out and place them in the West Bank or the Golan Heights — illegal… The farce was a successful public relations effort.’
Chomsky concludes of Sharon:
‘But his career is one of unremitting brutality, dedication to the fixed idea of his life. He doubtless showed courage and commitment to pursuing this ideal, which is an ugly and horrific one.’
Thus, where comparable crimes by the West’s enemies elicit outrage and bitter condemnation, the crimes of a leading ally are whitewashed as ‘harsh’, ‘controversial’, mere ‘black marks’ against an otherwise ‘pragmatic’ and honourable nationalist serving his people. Though the facts demand a sceptical interpretation of the ‘almost farcical’ move in the direction of ‘peace’, the ‘mainstream’ finds overwhelming evidence of benevolent intent. Language magically transforms the ‘crone’ of ‘unremitting brutality’ into the lovely aspect of compassion. War is peace!
For people with eyes to see – notably, people without a career in journalism to jeopardise – it could hardly be more obvious that the ‘free press’ functions as an arm of state propaganda. The public mind is under constant attack by a vast illusion machine bending reason and reversing truth to present the interests of a tiny, ruthless elite as ‘the national interest’.