Monday, January 12, 2009

Few in U.S. See Jazeera’s Coverage of Gaza War

Moeed Ahmad, left, and Morad Rayyan, Al Jazeera Internet editors, worked on a map.

I look at Al Jazeera from time to time, to get a different perspective of the news. At times, what I read bothers me: The argument that this is a purely defensive war, launched only after Hamas broke a six-month ceasefire has been challenged, not just by observers in the know such as Jimmy Carter, the former US president who helped facilitate the truce, but by centre-right Israeli intelligence think tanks.

I do not have much respect for Jimmy Carter, and admit that in good part it is because he is critical of Israel. His use of apartheid rankled. Palestine: peace not apartheid was the title of his 2006 book. Yet to oppose the Israeli government's actions is not in itself anti-semitism. I know that. What bothers me is that to oppose such actions gives support to Hamas and its ilk, whose stated purpose is to destroy Israel.

Yet I have to look at the issues as objectively as I can manage.

In a conflict where the Western news media have been largely prevented from reporting from Gaza because of restrictions imposed by the Israeli military, Al Jazeera has had a distinct advantage. It was already there.

Israel learned to manage the news. It learned the lesson, and is applying it this time. What happens too often is that the media shows scenes of human suffering, and those are the issues that dominate the public mind.

The near-total blackout in the United States is no doubt related to the sharp criticism Al Jazeera received from the United States government during the initial stages of the war in Iraq for its coverage of the American invasion. Officials like Vice President Dick Cheney and the defense secretary at the time, Donald Rumsfeld, said the network’s reporting was inflammatory, irresponsible and frequently misleading.

And in Israel, where news media commonly quote from material on Al Jazeera, the network is frequently criticized for inflaming the Arab public by running unfiltered and out-of-context videotape showing blood and gore in battle zones.

Al Jazeera officials respond that they are being blamed for accurately reporting what is going on in the world from an Arab perspective.

Interesting phrase: an Arab perspective. In an op-ed piece in the NY Times, Mideast Dream Team? Not Quite, Roger Cohen (Now, I have nothing against smart, driven, liberal, Jewish (or half-Jewish) males; I’ve looked in the mirror.) writes: It’s important for Obama to get his message right from day one. With the Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya networks broadcasting 24-7 images of the carnage in Gaza, where there are more than 800 dead, mobilization in the Arab world is intense. Rage against Israel, and behind it America, bodes ill. Change is needed, and not just in the intensity of U.S. diplomatic involvement with Israel-Palestine. Some fundamental questions must be asked.

Fundamental question do need asking; simply supporting what the Israeli decides is not an independent foreign policy. Cohen asks: should the Middle East be seen only through the terrorism prism? ignore Israeli West Bank settlements? policy toward reconciling Fatah and Hamas? beyond terrist wings, can elements of Hamas and Hezbollah be coaxed toward mainstream? do we really understand the Al Jazeera Middle East?

All realpolitik questions that need answers.

Asking these questions does not alter America’s commitment to Israel’s security within its pre-1967 borders, which is and should be unwavering. It does not change the unacceptability of Hamas rockets or the fact the Hamas Charter is vile. But it would signal that the damaging Bush-era consensus that Israel can do no wrong is to be challenged.

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