The challenges which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represents for diplomats, and for the news media, are changing. Addressing them is complicated by a lack of political will, and, as always, the absence of obvious solutions. All this is made even more difficult by the fact that the attention of policy makers, correspondents, and military strategists is currently focused further east, in Syria and Iraq.
For the last two years, I have been researching different aspects of the reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for my new book, Headlines from the Holy Land. My interest goes back much further than that, though. From 2002-2004, I lived and worked in the Gaza Strip as the BBC’s correspondent there.
When I was asking the questions for a daily news report, they needed to be few, and brief. Efficient newsgathering requires focus, especially in a conflict zone. With a short time to deadline, there will never be the leisure to listen to lengthy recordings – especially when they may also require translation. Even the tiniest fact of any incident of violence between Israelis and Palestinians may well become a matter of dispute. ‘I can’t think of any other situation where you have a relatively straightforward scenario and have both sides vehemently disagree with what’s going on,’ says Crispian Balmer, Reuters bureau chief in Jerusalem from August 2010 to 2014. You need sometimes to keep it simple if you are going to get it on air at all.
On the days when there was more time to talk, different patterns emerged. It was as if asking a sixth or seventh question led into a whole new area of discussion. Frequently, it seemed to me, that discussion began to focus on the land which was being fought over – the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea – as not so much an agricultural or economic commodity as a spiritual one.
One looks in largely in vain, however, for this to be addressed in the diplomacy which has sought to solve the conflict, or in the reporting which has chronicled that diplomatic activity. In the book, considering especially the text of the 2003 ‘Roadmap’ – or the ‘performance-based Roadmap to a permanent Two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,’ – to give it its official title – I argue in the book that ‘land’ in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could better be understood as ‘homeland’, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, ‘A person’s home country or native land; the land of one’s ancestors’ – a concept which resonates right through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There may be competing accounts of history, and competing interpretations of which law supports which claim. Yet the basis of both Israeli and Palestinian claims is the idea of the ‘land of one’s ancestors’, and this is land given by God. The Roadmap did not address this idea of land as ‘homeland’, nor as ‘holy land.’
The reasons for this are many – not least the complexity of the task, and the fact that a solution which would suit all parties on all sides does not exist. I would argue that any new diplomatic initiative must take this into account. Among my interviewees was Daniel Kurtzer, U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2001-2005. Drawing on decades of diplomatic experience, he gave the example of the former United States Secretary of State, James Baker, walking into ‘this question of territory meaning more than simply where you live or what field you cultivate.’ It is a challenge, he feels, ‘which diplomacy has not yet figured out how to integrate.’ Add to this the haunting presence of history in this region, and it is perhaps no wonder that the Roadmap also chose to sterile word ‘state’ in preference to ‘homeland’. The latter word has echoes of the Balfour Declaration, a document many Palestinians readily curse to this day – as many British correspondents may find out when they are reprimanded for their compatriot’s deeds of a century ago.
No one foresaw then how technology would develop, and with it, the news media. Part of my research covered the last days of the British Mandate for Palestine, and the birth of the State of Israel. Some themes are readily recognizable today. Clare Hollingworth, the pioneering female war correspondent (who has just celebrated her 104th birthday) wrote in The Observer in 1948, ‘There is no longer the slightest reliance to be placed in Jewish reports,’ and ‘On the Arab side the Press indulges in childish boasting and highly-coloured accounts of Arab victories’. Look again at some of the claims made during Israel’s military operation in Gaza last year, and you will see how apposite Hollingworth’s conclusions remain.
Alongside this, some things have changed. All the journalists and diplomats whom I interviewed agreed that the conflict had taken on a more religious character – even if some views varied on when this had started, and whether it would last. ‘I think religion does underpin everything here, and I think people of take quite a lot of comfort and relief in the idea that well, this: I’m part of this struggle that God endorses, I’m fulfilling Allah’s wish or whatever,’ as the New York Times’ Jody Rudoren puts it. Yolande Knell, a BBC correspondent in the region, sees it as a challenge for reporters coming from less devout societies. ‘Europeans, because we’ve become less religious as a continent, it’s something people tend to forget when they come here,’ she says.
For all the distractions drawing diplomatic and editorial attention to other parts of the region, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and the way it is reported – remains crucial. In the absence of a peace process, the news media – and not the negotiating table – are where the warring sides seek to influence international opinion.