BOOK REVIEW: ‘War in 140 Characters’ by David Patrikarakos

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War in 140 Characters: How social media is reshaping conflict in the twenty-first century

by David Patrikarakos. Basic Books. 2017.

PREPARING FOR A TRIP TO THE MIDDLE EAST in the 1990s, I bought a guidebook which had just been published. The author, apparently enthused by Israel’s recent signing of a peace treaty with Jordan, suggested that one between Israel and Syria might soon follow. Alas, the world has not turned out that way.

Writing on current trends in a way that will have some enduring relevance is a great challenge for an author. In his engaging new book, War in 140 Characters, David Patrikarkos succeeds in telling us much which we did not know about the new world of media and conflict.

The book’s strengths include an approach which combines eyewitness reporting with more considered analysis. The author’s readiness to accompany Ukrainian social media activists into the warzones of the east of their country offers the reader truly revealing insights. The chapter on the Russian troll, Vitaly Bespalov, is the highlight of the book — leading as it does to the disgruntled former employee of St Petersburg’s infamous troll farm concluding that ‘unfortunately’ he too was ‘an actor in the Ukraine war’.

As anyone who has written or spoken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows, it is impossible to offer any analysis which will be universally accepted. That said, Patrikarakos’ discussion — enlightening though it is  — of the social media war which accompanied Israel’s 2014 campaign in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, comes across as one-sided. His interview with the teenaged Palestinian twitter user, Farah Baker, is compelling for the way that it identifies a new front in the propaganda battle between Israel and the Palestinians. As Patrikarakos notes of the Palestinians, ‘Hopelessly outgunned, their side could never hope to win militarily’.

His argument that ‘Israel bombed and invaded Gaza with deadly success, but it still “lost” the 2014 war’, because the Palestinian media campaign was more effective, is stretching a point. Israel does all it can to avoid negative media coverage, but surely it cares more about its ability to win on the battlefield.

Nothing which has happened since 2014 suggest that this supposed Palestinian victory in the media war has delivered any lasting benefits. The killings of protesters at the Gaza border fence over the last few weeks tend strongly to suggest the opposite. Patrikarakos seems to admire the slick Israeli PR operation — right down to the ‘immaculate’ uniform of the ‘courteous and well-disposed’ Israeli Amy spokesperson whom he interviews — but then, that is what it is there for.

The undoubted effectiveness of the reportage is occasionally weakened by a tendency to overuse the weather and the light as a means of introducing new scenes. Patrikarakos’ point about the political significance of the use in Russian of the prepositions v or na when talking of Ukraine is important, but muddled here. ‘Na Ukraine’ does not mean ‘on the border’ (although the country’s name does share a root with the Russian word krai meaning edge, or district). The significance of the preposition is whether the speaker implies that Ukraine is a country in its own right (v) , or a region, (na). The use of the Google definition of ‘propaganda’ feels a little lazy when so much has been written on the subject.

Overall, though, Patrikarakos is to be congratulated on a book which makes important contributions to a number of important debates. War in 140 Characters is especially worth reading for its sections on Russian trolls, and its account of Bellingcat’s impressive investigation of the shooting down of MH17. I recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the way war, politics, and the media interact in today’s conflicts, and look forward to discussing it in Journalism seminars.

 

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Blocking out the light: plans in Israel to keep soldiers off camera

This latest post agrues against plans in Israel to ban the filming or photographing of soldiers. It was originally published on The Conversation. You can read that version here, and the full text follows below. 

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The ruins of a house destroyed during an Israeli Army operation, Rafah, Southern Gaza Strip, October 2003

That evening, the sun sank swiftly. The tank which blocked our way was briefly silhouetted by the last sharp rays, before it disappeared into the gloom. It was still there, but the detail of track and gun turret could no longer be seen. Eventually, whoever was giving the orders decided we could go. The material we had filmed would not make it onto that night’s news.

It was October 2003. I was working as a BBC correspondent in the Gaza Strip. I was trying to return from Rafah, at the territory’s southern edge, to my office in Gaza City. A major Israeli military operation, code named “Root Canal”, was underway. The army strictly controlled access to the area. My colleagues and I had got into Rafah without too much trouble, but had waited several hours to get out. By the time we did, our material was late.

That hardly bothered the soldiers who held us up. They weren’t wondering which bulletins we were missing. They probably weren’t too bothered that they were stopping us getting our report out, either. Israeli army operations in Gaza often involve civilian deaths. In such a densely populated strip of land, where the people are not permitted to leave, it can hardly be otherwise.

Operation Root Canal was targeting tunnels running under Gaza’s border with Egypt. That day, we had heard the stories of Rafah residents whose houses had been destroyed because they were suspected of concealing tunnel entrances, or of being used as firing positions – or just because they were unlucky enough to be too close to Israeli army posts, at a time when the Israeli army were going on the offensive against armed Palestinian groups.

Whatever the reasons given for the operation, the consequences for local residents would not exactly look good on the international news. No army wants that kind of publicity.

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Part of the wall near the Qalandiya crossing point between the West Bank and Jerusalem

Now, apparently troubled by recent incidents of soldiers caught on camera breaking the law – Israeli soldier Elor Azaria’s shooting to death a wounded, prone, Palestinian attacker being perhaps the highest profile example – one Israeli politician wants to place strict legal limits on the filming and photographing of soldiers.

Robert Ilatov is a member of parliament for the right-wing nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu (which translates as “Israel, our home”). His plan has already been criticised by journalists’ organisations: “It constitutes a serious breach of the freedom of the press, as it precisely criminalises the work of journalists”, in the view of the International Federation of Journalists.

The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been the focus of extensive international reporting since the middle of the last century. “Every single word is scrutinised”, said Crispian Balmer, then Jerusalem bureau chief for Reuters, of the challenges of covering the conflict, in an interview for my book Headlines from the Holy Land.

The bloodshed in Syria may have drawn media and diplomatic resources away from Israel, Gaza and the West Bank in recent years. But the Israeli army’s killing of Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border fence last month shows that the conflict can still grab the world’s attention. Even in our image-saturated world, pictures seem to retain a particular power – easily shared as they are on social media. This power is presumably what concerns Ilatov.

The opposition to his plans is not confined to international organisations. Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, Ha’aretz, has condemned the bill as “dangerous”, noting that “anyone who breaks the law is subject to five years in prison”. Yet censorship on reporting the activities of armies is nothing new. Its rules are often characterised by vagueness.

British correspondents during World War I were forbidden to publish any, “false statements or utterances ‘likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty’,” as Susan Carruthers put it in her book The Media at War. The bill before the Israeli parliament echoes that lack of clarity, warning civillians and journalists alike against “undermining the morale of Israel’s soldiers and residents”.

Although they are rarely required to conform to it, any international journalist granted an Israeli Government Press Card has to agree to “accept the censorship declaration”. This new legislation would be more extensive, covering not just the foreign media, but anyone at all.

“Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience”, wrote Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others. Social media have given us the chance to see ever more of our world. As with all new media, governments and armies seek to influence the messages they bring.

Today, leaders of the world’s most powerful countries feel at liberty to sneer at any journalists who question them. Adding extra layers of censorship to that scorn will hardly help audiences to understand this complex and unstable age. Besides, legislation has limited power to stop what technology has started. While military victories may enhance a country’s reputation, the manner in which they are achieved may also tarnish it. Criminalizing journalism definitely does.

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My second book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ‘Headlines from the Holy Land’ was published in 2015, and reissued in paperback in 2017

Why the world should still care: two books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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The Damascus Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem

The books reviewed here are Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 by Ian Black (Allen Lane) and Being Palestinian: Personal Reflections on Palestinian Identity in the Diaspora edited by Yasir Suleiman (Edinburgh University Press).

THERE ARE MANY CHALLENGES to writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not least the fact that it is almost impossible to commit to paper anything which will not draw criticism. Israelis and Palestinians alike are convinced that they are treated unfairly by the international news media. Journalists, they say, are ignorant. They are biased. They do not know their history.

Therein lies one of the challenges for correspondents. For it is not history which they need to know so much as histories. The few hundred words or brief couple of minutes usually afforded to them in news reporting is barely sufficient. That is one reason why many reporters decide to write something much more substantial.

Ian Black’s new book Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 may well be criticized in some quarters — that goes with taking up the task of writing about Israel-Palestine — but it certainly will not be on the grounds that he does not know his history. There is much here for the new reader seeking to understand the complexities of this conflict, and for those seeking deeper analysis.

All in all, this is an outstanding account of a century during which the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean has consumed more political, diplomatic, and editorial resources than might have been though possible for such a small part of the world.

In an age when politicians in long-established democracies are joining authoritarian leaders to gang up on journalists, it is good to see Black making the case for good reporting. ‘Journalism,’ he argues, ‘remains an indispensable ‘first draft of history’ that can sometimes turn out to be impressively close to later, more polished versions.’ He readily recognizes its value to him personally, too. ‘Arguably I learned as much reporting from the streets of Nablus and Gaza during the first intifada as from poring over declassified files or old newspapers.’

There are regrettably few international journalists who speak Hebrew or Arabic. Black speaks both, giving him a rare insight. Understanding language is not just about knowing the ‘who-what-when-where-why-how’ of journalism. It is the key to culture, and, in the case of Israel-Palestine, the history which makes up identity.

It is here that Black has really succeeded in enlightening his readers on the real challenge facing any diplomat who might try to restart the peace process which as failed so many times. Israelis and Palestinians are not only unable to agree on what should happen. They are unable to agree on what has already happened.

‘These master-narratives,’ Black writes, ‘are not so much competing as diametrically opposed — and utterly irreconcilable: justice and triumph for the Zionist cause meant injustice, defeat, exile and humiliation for Palestinians.’

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An alley in the Yibna area of the Rafah refugee camp, October 2003. Photo by the author

These are the recurrent themes of Being Palestinian: Personal Reflections on Palestinian Identity in the Diaspora. A sense of loss casts a shadow across the hundred or so individually authored short chapters which go to make up the volume.

That loss has become a defining national characteristic, and one which no nation would covet. The humiliation which Black identifies is, for the authors here, not only public and political, but deeply personal. Ibtisam Barakat tells of a father whom the 1967 war left ‘afraid that he could neither protect nor provide for us’ — so they leave, a further displacement.

When I lived in Gaza during the second intifada as the BBC’s correspondent from 2002-2004, there were still plenty among the older generation who remembered — perhaps only as infants — their homes in Mandate Palestine. Their numbers get fewer year after year. For the contributors in the book — most of them in the UK, the USA, or Canada — the separation is even greater. ‘El-blaad (the homeland) is just another way of saying remember,‘ writes Hala Alyan from Manhattan.

Others seem almost unnerved by the power and potential of such recollections, and whether they can endure. From Scotland, Mohammad Issa writes, ‘if truth be told, I fear that if I visit Palestine my childhood memories may be crushed under the harsh reality of life under military occupation.’ These memories are so precious that they must not be put at risk.

They are all that the authors have. Nadia Yaqub appears to question her own Palestinian identity solely because, having lived in the USA, and in the expatriate community in Beirut, she has not shared the experiences of dispossession and military occupation.  She therefore feels ‘hesitation to claim a Palestinian identity’. It is as if that identity can only be gained through suffering.   

This book will reward any reader who decides to choose a chapter at random, or read every single account. These are the kind of illuminating personal histories for which daily journalism only rarely has the space, and yet they are engaging and a vital aid to understanding the complexities of the conflict.

Perhaps because the editor is an academic, the contributors largely are, too. This may be something of a missed opportunity. I remember fondly a Gazan friend telling me that on a trip to Blackpool in the north of England he had met a Palestinian who owned a takeaway. Some of those kind of stories would fit well here, too.

At the start of a year which will see the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel, and of the nakba (catastrophe) as the Palestinians see the same event, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not draw the same urgent attention which so often it has. Last week, pointing out the relatively quiet 50th anniversary last year of the 1967 war, and the generally muted reaction to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer persuasively argued, ‘The world just doesn’t care that much anymore.’

Perhaps so — for now, at least. Yet books like these remind us how very much that slice of land means to the people who live there, the people who want to live there, and millions of others around the world who hold the land to be holy, and care very much.

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A view of part of the Old City of Jerusalem from the nearby hills

Last month, I joined the regular hosts of the TLV1 podcast to interview Ian Black at City University, London. You can listen to the recording here .

 

 

 

 

Book review: Gaza, Preparing for Dawn by Donald Macintyre

I reviewed Donald Macintyre’s new book, Gaza: Preparing for Dawn for The Conversation. You can read the original version here, and the full text below.

 

A PLACE OF SPACIOUS DIMENSIONS, and large population, with fine bazaars. It contains numerous mosques, and there is no wall around it.

To the modern reader, this is perhaps one of the more striking descriptions the medieval Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battutah, offered of the places he visited. Not because it contains anything shocking, but because of the town it portrays: Gaza.

For the city, and the war-torn strip of coastal land with which it shares a name, are today defined principally by the walls around it. Gaza has been held under siege for the best part of the last decade, since Hamas came to power in the territory.

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An Israeli Army watchtower in the northern Gaza Strip, Autumn 2002

Recent political developments, in the form of a unity government, mean that there may be more future movement through the southern border, with Egypt. Still, Gaza remains fenced in to the north and east by the Israeli Army, which vastly outguns any enemies it has in the territory. To the west lies the Mediterranean. Some shores of that sea are famous for tourism; stretches of its eastern edge are more readily associated with armed conflict, human suffering and wasted potential. Gaza definitely falls, along with Syria, into the latter category.

Without the beaches, life in Gaza would surely be immeasurably worse. The currents there make swimming hazardous; winter storms can be surprisingly violent. Yet the sky and the waves offer some relief in the form of light and air to a place where life can seem suffocating.

Flared, and died

As Donald Macintyre observes in his important new book, Gaza: Preparing for Dawn, the sea might also offer economic salvation. The discovery offshore of a gas field, Gaza Marine – estimated to hold a trillion cubic feet of natural gas – promised the solution to many of Gaza’s economic and energy woes.

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Perhaps predictably, politics and conflict have conspired to stop that happening. Gaza Marine remains unexploited. Like the “telegenic background of a huge gas flame shooting into the air” – against which Macintyre describes the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, announcing unfulfilled plans to draw the wealth from beneath the waves – it has flared, and died.

It was into that sea that I watched for the final time a bright orange sun set in the spring of 2004. Since 2002, I had been the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza. At the time, I was the only international journalist permanently based in the territory. The kidnapping of my successor, Alan Johnston, in 2007 just as he was due to finish his posting, means that while correspondents continue to visit, they do not live there.

Johnston’s experience reporting “the descent into anarchy of which he himself was now a victim” (as Macintyre puts it) was a journalistic challenge which Johnston took on admirably. His fate – thankfully he was released after 16 weeks – ensures, however, that managing editors have since been rightly nervous about basing their journalists in Gaza ever since.

Watching the sunset that evening, I reflected on another theme which Macintyre rightly raises. I knew I was leaving. I knew I had always been there only as long as I felt like being there. With the exception of days when fighting made it too dangerous to approach the border crossing – and there were a few – I was free to come and go as I wished.

The people among whom I was living were not. Macintyre makes this point, in all its complexity, not only in the book’s shortest chapter – “They will always miss home” – but throughout. It is a complex point because while Gazans long for the opportunities which life outside can bring: study, work, and, in the case of a would-be Olympian, sport – they do not want to abandon their home.

To do so might make them feel that they were turning their backs on their people, and leaving them to their suffering. Gazans with jobs or university places outside are sometimes nervous about returning home for visits. A deterioration in the conflict could leave them trapped and, in consequence, unemployed. Some just leave for good, but the “unresolvable contradiction”, as Macintyre succinctly puts it, remains: “Gaza as a prison to escape from, but also forever home.”

It is in telling these individual stories that Macintyre really excels. Many journalists have been fascinated by Gaza on short visits; few have bothered to try so hard to understand the story beyond the bloodshed. Macintyre’s meetings with the jeans and juice manufacturers; the music students; and that marathon runner bring the people of Gaza to life in a way that daily news reporting rarely can.

Their deaths are recorded too, of course – and, even to news audiences grimly accustomed to reading about violent deaths in the Middle East, some will shock. The Gazan mother who keeps Israeli soldiers waiting at the door – only to open it just as they have decided to blow it apart with explosives – is one that is hard to forget.

All the individual stories are in turn directed by the larger political ones. Macintyre proves himself a well-informed chronicler of the intra-Palestinian conflict: principally between Fatah and Hamas, but also between the latter and newer Islamist rivals. Gaza: Preparing for Dawn also offers wise analysis of the conflict with Israel – and international attempts to address it.

Lest we forget

Macintyre is perceptive about the gap between what even the most senior diplomats say in public, and what they seem really to think. John Kerry, the last US secretary of state to try, and fail, to solve the conflict, is reported here as saying ironically of an Israeli bombardment that killed 55 civilians in six hours, “That’s a hell of a pinpoint operation”.

Diplomatic dispatches I saw when researching my last book, Headlines from the Holy Land accused Israel of “taking measures that would not be acceptable in most societies in the 21st century”. Such phrases rarely grace the more mealy-mouthed official statements. They are all the more revealing when they come to light.

Because for now, for the people of Gaza, there is little prospect of change. As 2018 approaches, one is reminded of the UN report of 2012 which asked whether the territory would be liveable in 2020. Despite that, there is no meaningful diplomatic process which might end Gaza’s misery. John Kerry failed. President Trump has shown little personal interest. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been touted as a possible player – but there are no signs of concrete progress so far.

Israel’s approach of recent years has concentrated on “mowing the grass” – a phrase designed to explain the policy of launching military operations every so often to strike at armed Palestinian groups. The euphemism also ignores the fact that the majority of deaths in major operations are civilian ones. As Macintyre points out, even if leaflets are dropped telling civilians to leave, they don’t instruct them “where to find safety after fleeing their homes”.

Journalists covering conflict will sometimes agonise over whether their work makes a difference. If airtime and column inches alone could bring peace, then the sheer scale of coverage would have guaranteed a settlement long ago. It cannot, of course – but books such as Gaza: Preparing for Dawn do a vital job in reminding the world what goes on there. One day that knowledge may just be part of a solution.

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The ruins of a house destroyed during an Israeli Army operation, Rafah, Southern Gaza Strip, October 2003

‘Headlines from the Holy Land’ in new paperback edition

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I am very pleased to say that my book Headlines from the Holy Land is soon to be out in paperback. Thank you to everyone who has read it so far. You can see more on the publisher’s website, here, and reviews are below.     

“At a time when reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is under unprecedented scrutiny, James Rodgers provides an essential and insightful historical perspective on the long “war of words” behind a major conflict of our time. Rodgers’ book is essential reading for those seeking a greater understanding of the difficult dynamics behind reporting – and resolving conflicts.” – Lyse Doucet, Chief International Correspondent, BBC News

“Headlines from The Holy Land is an impressively, innovative form of history as media history, looking at one of the most complex stories of our age through the imperfect, shifting but revelatory perspectives of the many journalists who covered this often compelling tale as it unfolded, from its 1946 roots through the various wars and propaganda battles fought in the streets of Gaza or the networks of social media. James Rodgers is an insightful, empathetic and rigorous guide to how journalism struggled often heroically to tell one of the most brutal and difficult of international stories.” – Charlie Beckett, Director, Polis, Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics, UK

“James Rodgers is honestly direct about the challenges and pressures that makes reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unique amongst the myriad of crises faced by international journalists; something he was uniquely placed to do as the only western correspondent based in the Gaza Strip in the tumultuous years immediately after 9/11. But what makes this book so refreshing and incisive is that this account of reporting on this most intractable yet consequential conflict is the work of someone with the benefit of having been an experienced foreign correspondent but who now writes with the rigour of an academic’s eye on how our world is reported. In doing so, Rodgers leaves very few stones unturned, from the war over terminology and language, to the increasing role of religion in a crisis centred on the small area brimful of contested holy sites and he has framed it in a way that has context, careful analysis and is accessible to all those who either want to understand how this war which continues to have a major international impact is reported and to those who want to report it themselves.” – Rageh Omaar, International Affairs Editor, ITV News

“Reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often generates as much controversy as the issue itself. James Rodger’s book is rare for approaching the subject of how the story has been told by Western journalists over the decades, with an open mind and an academic rigour. It combines detailed research and candid insights from many of the region’s seasoned correspondents with an accessible style that keep the pages turning. With so many thoroughly biased self-appointed media watch dogs out there it’s freshening to read something that genuinely attempts to tackle the job of reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with intelligent thoughtfulness.” – Paul Danahar, author of The New Middle East: the world after the Arab Spring

“The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been more intensively covered by the media, and for a longer period, than any other in recent times. In this fascinating book, James Rodgers tells us the story of the story. He shows how, as the struggle came to be as much about meaning, language, and perception as about bullets, bombs, or negotiations, reporters were under constant pressure from two sides seeking to control the narrative to their own advantage. He shows, too, how they brought their own prejudices and national viewpoints to the story, and how, nevertheless, good reporting did emerge and was, as it remains, vital in sustaining what informed public opinion there is on the dire state of affairs in the Holy Land of the title.” – Martin Woollacott, commentator on international affairs and former Foreign Editor, The Guardian

“An important and necessary book.” – Patrick Cockburn, The Independent

Journalism, separation, and independence: newspaper coverage of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948 — Final part

This is the final part of my article about British and U.S. newpaper reporting of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. You can read Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, and the whole article on the website of Journalism, where it was first published. This part deals with the way that correspondents covered the conclusion of a troubled period of British imperial history.

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An Israeli watchtower overlooking the rubble of destroyed homes. Gaza Strip, fall 2003. Photo by the author.

Days of change, transition, and reflection

By the time of the massacre at Deir Yassin, the British Mandate had only a few weeks to run. The words attributed to the ‘Irgun Commander’ at the press conference following the killings show that Jewish militant groups were already forming strategy based on what they might be able to achieve ‘after the British withdrawal’. When that came, the British newspapers provided coverage which combined various elements of patriotic pride. These ranged from justification of British control of Palestine, and a cataloguing of achievements, to concern for the future. On the morning of May 14th 1948, the Daily Mirror’s story was headlined ‘Palestine – last appeal as we quit’ (Daily Mirror, 1948). Under the crossheading ‘Underdeveloped’, the paper reported that

When British rule began, says the Colonial Office, Palestine was primitive and underdeveloped.

The population of 750, 000 were disease-ridden and poor. But new methods of farming were introduced, medical services provided, roads and railways built, water supplies improved, malaria wiped out. (Daily Mirror, 1948)

Given that the British departure was to herald Palestine’s descent to an even greater intensity of armed conflict, there was a motive to seek out the positive, the achievements. The British investment in terms of blood and treasure had, after all, been significant – and many of those directly involved, or their families, would have been reading the Mirror and other papers. As the story points out in the next paragraph, ‘We had 84, 000 troops in Palestine.’ (Daily Mirror, 1948a). The number is astonishing, especially when the current strength of the British Army is considered for comparison.[i] Little wonder, then, that Palestine was such a story. If there was any sense of weariness, failure, or futility, the British Newspapers were generally keen to keep a lid on it. The coverage of the very end of the Mandate tended to focus instead on the disorder which followed. In the Daily Mirror of May 15th, ‘The Jews claimed to have won control of Jerusalem after house-to-house fighting.’ (Daily Mirror, 1948b). On the coast, Eric Grey reported for the Daily Express on an Egyptian air-raid, apparently aimed indiscriminately at civilians, part of the assault by Arab armies which meant that, ‘Israel was thus born in the midst of war.’ (Shlaim, 2000: 34).

Egyptian spitfires dive-bombed a bus station in the heart of Tel-Aviv at the rush hour this evening. Forty-one people including children were killed, and more than 60 wounded.

I watched two planes come in from the sea and circle at 10,000 feet.

Then with a three-minute interval between them, they dived to 500 feet, dropped four small bombs – and started machine-gunning. Their green markings could be seen.

Those three minutes saved many lives: they gave hundreds of people a chance to take cover.

Two bombs dropped near a long queue waiting for suburban buses. One fell right on the station building.

Several buses were shattered, and the road was strewn with dead and wounded.

Until tonight the raids have not been taken seriously. The city thought it was a joke when four Jewish girls captured an Egyptian pilot shot down this morning. (Grey, 1948)

Alongside this kind of coverage – these dramatic accounts of armed conflict, albeit with the moment of levity, when the inhabitants of Tel Aviv thought the air raids ‘a joke’ – another theme is also present: that of a sense of an end of a chapter of British imperial history. In the Daily Express on May 15th, Sydney Smith encapsulates this moment and the conflict which erupts in its wake. He describes British officials taking their leave, ‘the Union Jack was hauled down at Government House and a Red Cross flag took its place. Hardly had they left when the Arabs and Jews resumed their battle for Jerusalem.’ (Smith, 1948). Compare this account of a battle with the apparently calm and dignified surroundings into which the same flag arrived in London only a few hours later (brought by plane, ahead of many officials, who made the journey by sea)

The weather-beaten, sun-dried Union Jack which was lowered for the last time from British Headquarters in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem early yesterday was carried in the airways terminal building at Victoria, S.W. at 12.45 am today.

The flag, symbol of the end of the British mandate, was tucked under the arm of Mr Maurice Dornan, Under-Secretary for Administration in Palestine.

With the last party of officials to leave Jerusalem – led by sir Henry Gurney, Chief Secretary – they had just flown to England.
The Daily Mail reporter in Haifa cabling last night said that as General Sir Alan Cunningham, last High Commissioner, left Jerusalem a solitary piper played on the roof of Government House.
Sir Alan flew to Haifa then drove to the port through heavily guarded streets.
Sir Alan stepped into a naval barge, saluted and sped to the cruiser Euryalus, while two flights of Spitfires dipped low over the water. (Daily Mail, 1948).

The Daily Mirror added more detail, again designed to emphasize the sense of imperial history. The paper reported that Mr Maurice Dorman, the official who carried the flag on arrival in London, had ‘climbed on to the tower (i.e. of the King David Hotel) and hauled down the flag.’ The report added, ‘Sir Henry Gurney said “The withdrawal from Jerusalem was done in an orderly and proud manner”’. (Daily Mirror, 1948b).

What followed was neither orderly, nor something of which to be proud.

The British were supposed to bear responsibility for preserving law and order until midnight, May 14, 1948; on several occasions they defended Jewish settlements and neighborhoods (sic), among them the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. They did not, however, attempt to prevent the advance of the Haganah or the flight and expulsion of the Arabs. (Segev, 2000: 512)

Conclusion

‘The flight and expulsion of the Arabs,’ is still, almost seven decades later, one of the issues which enrages Palestinians, and to which no just or lasting solution has been found. As Said argued in an essay first published in Western Newspapers in 1998 (on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Mandate, and the coming into being of the State of Israel), ‘What makes it especially galling for Palestinians is that they have been forced to watch the transformation of their own homeland into a Western state, one of whose express purposes is to provide for Jews and not for non-Jews.’ (Said, 2000: 268). If the way in which the Mandate ended, or even the fact that it existed at all, is rarely discussed in Britain now, it is not forgotten in the region. If they did not know that, correspondents travelling there to report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are often reminded.  The experience of Channel 4 News’ Paul Mason, in the summer of 2014, was fairly typical: ‘As a Brit in Gaza, “it’s all your fault”, is a line I’ve heard a lot,’ (Mason, 2014). The end of the Mandate was reported extensively at the time it happened; remembered by journalists in this decade only in blog entries, rather than in mainstream news outlets. The correspondents who covered the end of the Mandate cannot be blamed for the relative obscurity of an era which helped to shape the modern Middle East. For they did manage, within the restraints placed upon them both by discourse and physical danger, to convey a sense of what was happening; of the longer term trends in the region. For that reason, their work merits re-reading today – especially as the greatest challenges they identify remain unsolved.

Decrying the departure from Jerusalem of Cable and Wireless (the company whose communications she used to send her stories) Hollingworth concluded ‘an important British interest has been needlessly sacrificed. There is little doubt that the Jewish State will build itself up commercially at considerable speed and provide the United States with a firm foothold in the Middle East.’ (Hollingworth, 1948b). Once again, Hollingworth knew what she was talking about – not only observant but prescient: foreseeing Washington’s rise to become the dominant outside power in the region for the remainder of the 20th century. Had there a prize for journalism on the end of the Mandate, though, it should probably have gone to the Manchester Guardian’s editorial dated 15th May 1948. Interested readers may wish to seek it out in its entirety, but one extract will suffice to show how succinctly it diagnosed the condition in which Britain was leaving Palestine

The promise to favour “the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people” without prejudice to “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” led us straight to the terrible conflict which is now being settled by the blood of Jews and Arabs. (Manchester Guardian, 1948).

yibna.alley

An alley in the Yibna area of the Rafah refugee camp, October 2003. Photo by the author.

Please feel free to comment below; email me at reportingconflict.com; Tweet @jmacrodgers. If you have read Headlines from the Holy Land, thank you — and please do consider writing a review on Amazon.

[i] A British Government website in October 2014 gave the number of personnel in the British Army as 89,200. Please see https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/373115/af-quarterly_personnel_report_oct14.pdf . Accessed 27 February 2017.

References

Adams Schmidt, D (1948) 200 Arabs killed, Stronghold taken. New York Times, 10 April 1948, 6.

Board, B (1946) 50 die as Jews blow up our Palestine HQ: Digging goes on. Daily Mirror, 23 July, 2.

Board, B (1937) Newsgirl in Palestine. London: Michael Joseph.

Briggs, A (1985) The BBC: The First Fifty Years. Oxford University Press.

Carruthers, S (2011) The Media at War. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Colonial Film (1917) ‘General Allenby’s Entry into Jerusalem’ Available at http://www.colonialfilm.org.uk/node/6131 . Accessed 9 March 2015

Daily Express News Service (1948) ‘Reporter Killed’. 20 May.

Daily Mail (1948) ‘Last Plane Out – Brings Union Jack Home’. 15 May.

Daily Mirror (1947) ‘We begin to quit in Jan’. 1st December.

Daily Mirror (1948a) ‘Last Appeal as we quit’. 14th May

Daily Mirror (1948b) ‘Truman Recognises State of Israel. Egyptian Troops 30 miles in’. 15 May.

Duffield, P (1946) Dateline King David. Daily Express, 23 July, 2.

Foreign Press Association (2009) 2009 Statements. Available at http://www.fpa.org.il/?categoryId=75143 . Accessed 11 January 2016.

Garrett, P. (2015) Of Fortunes and War: Clare Hollingworth, first of the female war correspondents. London: Thistle.

Ghandour, ZB (2010) A Discourse on Domination in Mandate Palestine. Abingdon: Routledge.

Golani, M (2009) The End of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948: The Diary of Sir Henry Gurney. Basingstoke: Palgave MacMillan

Grey, E (1947) ‘“Holy war” is declared by the Arabs. Bomb fight between two cities. Daily Express, 3 December.

Grey, E (1948) ‘Egyptians Bomb Bus Queue. I saw them dive down.’ Daily Express, 19 May

Hirst, D (1967) Sense of involvement in Beirut. The Guardian, 6 June.

Hollingworth, C (1990) Front Line (London, Jonathan Cape)

Hollingworth, C (1948a) Arabs Shelling Jerusalem. The Observer, 11 April

Hollingworth, C (1948b) Israel will seek US financial aid. British Commercial Losses. The Observer, May 16.

Hollingworth, C (1948c) Mass Arrests in Yugoslav Army. The Observer, August 22.

Hollingworth, C (1948d) ‘Dying’ Greek Premier Sends Doctors Away. The Observer, November 28.

Hollis, R (2016) ‘Palestine and the Palestinians in British Political Elite Discourse: From

“The Palestine Problem” to “The Two-State Solution.”’ International Relations 30(1): 3-28.

Imperial War Museum Films (1946). World Pictorial News, No 275  Available at http://jiscmediahub.ac.uk/record/display/010-00001523#sthash.BR0KoaEG.dpuf . Accessed 30 January 2015.

Khalidi, W (Ed.) (1992) All that remains: the Palestinian Villages Occupied and Depopulated by Israel in 1948 (Washington D.C., Institute for Palestine Studies)

Kuntsman, A, & Stein, R 2015, Digital Militarism : Israel’s Occupation In The Social Media Age, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost, viewed 19 October 2015.

Levin, H (1997) Jerusalem Embattled: a Diary of the City Under Siege. London, Cassell.

Manchester Guardian (1948) Summing Up. 15 May.

Mansfield, P (1992) A History of the Middle East.  London: Penguin

Mason, P (2014) As a Brit in Gaza, ‘it’s all your fault’, is a line I’ve heard a lot. Channel 4 News blog. Available at: http://blogs.channel4.com/paul-mason-blog/brit-gaza-fault-line-heard-lot/2094 (accessed 22 January 2016).

Pappe, I (2006) A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Philo, G and Berry, M (2004) Bad News from Israel. London: Pluto Press

Philo, G and Berry, M (2011) More bad News from Israel. London: Pluto Press

Reuters News Agency (1948) Despatch Datelined ‘Jerusalem, April 9’. Printed in The Times, 10 April.

Rodgers, J (2015) Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan

Said, E (1995) Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient. London: Penguin

Said, E (2000) The End of the Peace Process: Oslo and After. London: Granta

Segev, T (2000) One Palestine, Complete. London: Little Brown and Company

Shepherd, N (1999) Ploughing Sand: British Rule in Palestine. London: John Murray

Sherman, AJ (1997) Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine 1918-48. London: Thames and Hudson

Shlaim, A (2000) The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World. London: Penguin.

Smith, S (1948) Fight for Jerusalem. Daily Express, May 15th    

Teo, Hsu-Ming. ‘Orientalism: An Overview.’ Australian Humanities Review 54 (2013): 1-20.

Zadka, S (1995) Blood in Zion: How the Jewish Guerillas drove the British out of Palestine. London: Brassey’s.

Journalism, separation, and independence: newspaper coverage of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948 — Part III

This is the third part of my article about British and U.S. newpaper reporting of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. You can read Part I here, Part II here, and the whole article on the website of Journalism, where it was first published. This part deals with the way that the massacre at Deir Yassin in April 1948 was reported differently by British and U.S. newspapers, and why.

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The entrance to the King David Hotel, headquarters of the British Authorities during the Mandate for Palestine, pictured in 2014 © James Rodgers

DISTANCE, DISCOURSE, AND DANGER
 

The coverage of the massacre at Deir Yassin on April 9 1948 – a month before the Mandate came to an end – is significant for what it tells us about Jewish armed groups’ attempts to restrict and shape international reporting, and the kind of reporting which resulted. In recent decades, the State of Israel and the Israeli Army have been in charge of issuing, through the Government Press Office (GPO), journalist accreditation, and controlling access based upon whether or not the journalist in question holds a GPO card. In the conflict in Gaza in 2008-9, known as ‘Operation Cast Lead’, the Israeli Authorities actually banned international journalists from entering Gaza for the duration of their campaign in the territory. The decision was reversed after the Foreign Press Association, which represents journalists employed by international news organizations to report from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, successfully took the government to court. (FPA News, 2009). It is understandable that the Israeli Authorities might wish to keep international correspondents away. The British Mandate authorities had closer contact with British members of the international press corps than is the case today with the Israeli government and correspondents from outside the country. That does not mean that the correspondents of the Mandate era enjoyed unrestricted access, or that they universally shared the political and military authorities’ outlook – consider Hollingworth’s questioning of their competence; Duffield’s frustration at what he saw as the easy life the Public Information Office afforded to his competitors. Gurney’s reflections on the press seem to mirror those of military men in difficult situations throughout modern history: an annoying necessity whose needs must be considered. By the final weeks of the Mandate, however, British authority in Palestine had dwindled to an extent that being a British correspondent, or being accredited to the Public Information Office, was not sufficient to grant reporters the kind of access which they needed to do their job.

 

The massacre at the village of Deir Yassin is a case in point. The killing there of some 250 villagers (Khalidi, 1992: 290) on April 9 1948 was described by Gurney in his diary as ‘one of the worst things the Irgun and Stern[i] have done’ (Golani, 2009: 111). Even Harry Levin, a journalist working then for the illegal radio station run by the Haganah (a Jewish military organization set up during the Mandate era[ii]) seems to have been horrified by what he heard. ‘Last night Etzel[iii] captured Deir Yassin. Appalling accounts are circulating of their indiscriminate killing of men, women, and children. The entire purpose of the operation is questionable.’ (Levin: 1997: 57). Gurney himself is in the dark as to the details of what has happened. The British correspondents are, too. The Times correspondent, Gurney writes, is unable to reach Deir Yassin, ‘stopped by the Haganah’ (Golani, 2009: 111). Further, remarkable, indication of the conditions under which British correspondents were working appeared in the next day’s edition of The Times. Not only had the paper’s correspondent been prevented from reaching Deir Yassin. Two paragraphs of a Reuters despatch carried in the paper on April 10th reported that Irgun and Stern leaders had actually organized a news conference ‘outside Jerusalem’ the night before – a news conference at which they ‘claimed they had killed 200 Arabs – half of whom were women and children’ (Reuters, 1948). However, ‘Only American and Jewish correspondents were admitted to the Press conference, the British being banned as “untrustworthy”.’ (Reuters, 1948). The reasons why the British journalists are seen in this way are not given, but it might be reasonable to assume that those giving the news conference feared being identified, and subsequently arrested – and that they did not ‘trust’ British correspondents to deliver the kind of coverage they sought. The Reuters despatch suggests a great deal of confidence, an air even of being untouchable, on the part of the ‘Irgun Commander’. The fact that the commander is quoted as saying that ‘the main Jewish assault on Arab-held territory would not begin until after the British withdrawal’ (Reuters, 1948) makes clear that the Irgun feel free to say what they like without fear of British reprisal. With the Mandate so clearly on its last legs, the days when ‘much of the terrorist campaign’ needed to be ‘directed at the British media’ (Zadka, 1995: 178) were over. A reading of the New York Times’ report, however, suggests that there may still have been an element of security consciousness, too.

The report, by Dana Adams Schmidt, appeared in the New York Times on 10th April 1948, under the headline, ‘200 Arabs killed, Stronghold Taken’. The massacre is infamous to this day for the number of civilians killed. It is also a turning point in the history of Jewish Militant groups’ involvement in the conflict of the late Mandate era. As Schmidt wrote, ‘This engagement marked the formal entry of the Irgunists and Sternists into the battle against the Arabs. Previously both groups had concentrated against the British.’ (Adams Schmidt, 1948). The most telling paragraphs from the point of view of the access afforded to Adams Schmidt and others appear lower down the piece, under the crosshead ‘Victors Describe Battle’

The Irgunists and Sternists escorted a party of United States correspondents to a house at Givat Shaul, near Deir Yasin (sic), tonight and offered them tea and cookies and amplified details of the operation.

The spokesman said that the village had become a concentration point for Arabs, including Syrian and Iraqi (sic), planning to attack the western suburbs of Jerusalem. If, as he expected, the Haganah took over occupation of the village, it would help to cover the convoy route from the coast.

The spokesman said he regretted the casualties among the women and children at Deir Yasin but asserted that they were inevitable because every house had to be reduced by force. Ten houses were blown up. At others the attackers blew open the doors and threw in hand grenades.

One hundred men in four groups attacked a 4:30 o’clock in the morning, the spokesman said. The Irgunists wore uniforms of a secret design and they used automatic weapons and rifles. (Adams Schmidt, 1948).

The perpetrators of the killings at Deir Yassin did keep some details to themselves: their  identities, for one. These were not for publication. Throughout Adams Schmidt’s report, he refers to the speaker as ‘the spokesman’. No name or description appears. Adams Schmidt’s report, based on access denied to his British counterparts, is a kind of masterpiece of extreme journalistic objectivity. As such, it serves to highlight what can go wrong when correspondents adhere so strictly to such an approach. It excludes any reflection, or speculation, upon the suffering endured by the inhabitants of the village as their attackers fell upon them. While the headline writers have picked out the death toll, Adams Schmidt’s report saves it for the end of the first paragraph, which concludes ‘the Jews killed more than 200 Arabs, half of them women and children.’ (Adams Schmidt, 1948). To be fair to Adams Schmidt, it is impossible to know at this distance whether the number of dead was placed at the end of the paragraph by editors in New York, perhaps on the grounds that the figure appeared prominently in the headline. The matter-of-fact tone of the rest of his report suggests that he may genuinely not have considered it the top line of the story. The word of ‘the spokesman’ is taken at face value. Nothing in the report suggests that Adams Schmidt or his colleagues challenged the spokesman, or asked for an explanation. Nor is the fact that the attack began at ‘4.30 o’clock in the morning’ (Adams Schmidt, 1948) commented upon. It may help to explain why only ‘some’ of the ‘women and children’ who were told to ‘take refuge in the caves’ (presumably adjacent to the village) apparently did so.

Adams Schmidt’s report is memorable for the fact that it brought news of the massacre to a wider audience. Its indifference to the fate of those killed, and its readiness to convey unchallenged the spokesman’s words as he seeks to justify the deaths of civilians, make it stand out in another way, too – even decades later. No attempt is made to put a human face on those killed. Throughout, they are simply ‘Arabs’ or, as Said (1995: 207) might have seen it, ‘Orientals [….] seen through, analyzed not as citizens, or even people.’ In common with the British correspondents, Adams Schmidt may have found it impossible to get to Deir Yassin itself (although his reporting from around the time of the massacre does not mention any attempt to do so), but he did at least have access to sources in the way that the British correspondents obviously did not. He, along with his American colleagues, was trusted by the Jewish militant groups to the extent that they shared information with them, albeit apparently on entirely their own terms. In terms of the close relationship between Israel and the United States which was to follow later in the 20th century, and into our own, it is interesting to note the Jewish militant groups’ attempts, even on the eve of Israeli statehood, to favour American correspondents with privileged access.

Given the Jewish militant groups’ antagonistic approach to the British press, it seems less surprising that the correspondents seem at a distance from those they are covering. They lack contacts in the circles which would help them to understand in more detail what is happening. In this case they are distanced from the peoples of Palestine not because of an Orientalist barrier. They are distanced because, whatever efforts they might make to try to find out what is happening, physical obstacles are put in their way.

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A view of the barrier between Israel and the West Bank, near Qalandiya crossing point, June 2014 Picture: James Rodgers

That is not to say such barriers of discourse did not exist in the coverage at the time. At the end of the previous year, 1947, when the timescale for British withdrawal from Palestine was first being outlined – ‘Large-scale evacuation of British troops and officials from Palestine will begin early in January,’ (Daily Mirror, 1947), as the Mirror put it in early December of that year – the British correspondents’ distance from the story seems more marked. Writing in the Daily Express a couple of days later, Eric Grey gave an account of unrest in Jerusalem

British troops barricaded the King David Hotel: the civil and military headquarters. Arab youths fought it out with Palestine Police who used armoured cars to bar them from the Jewish quarters.

Then 200 Jewish youths carrying cudgels marched out, looking for trouble. Police reinforcements were called to keep the rival mobs apart. (Grey, 1947).

Grey’s story was datelined ‘Jerusalem’, but the source of his information is not clear. His reference to British troops barricading the King David Hotel (despite the bombing of the year before, the building did remain the British ‘civil and military headquarters’ right up until the end of the Mandate) suggests that he may have been there, or at least seen the troops protecting the hotel. The lack of descriptive detail of the barricade; the ‘Arab youths’; or the ‘Jewish youths’ however, suggests that Grey may have been elsewhere, and based his story based on official statements. That lack of detail in this incident, as in Deir Yassin, suggests a combination of factors shaping the reporting.

Whatever the shortcomings of the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this century, it is very difficult to imagine that were a massacre of this scale to take place today, there would not be at least some attempt to find survivors, or relatives of those killed, to put a human face on such a horrific story. Criticizing T. E. Lawrence (often known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’) for the way he describes the Arabs among whom he lives and alongside whom he fights, Said writes

We are to assume that if an Arab feels joy, if he is sad at the death of his child or parent, if he has a sense of the injustices of political tyranny, then those experiences are necessarily subordinate to the sheer, unadorned, and persistent fact of being an Arab (1995: 230) (Italics in original).

Said was not writing about the way British correspondents covered the people among whom they were staying, but his words here, especially those about being ‘sad at the death of his child or his parent’, seem apt – as do his words on the work of Gertrude Bell ‘about life in Damascus’ (Said, 1995: 229). Said suggests that Bell’s words ‘wipe out any trace of individual Arabs with narratable life stories.’ (Said, 1995: 229). The same could be said of some of the reporting of the end of the British Mandate.

[i] The Stern Gang was a splinter group from the Irgun (Irgun Zvai Leumi) dedicated to violence as a means of achieving Jewish statehood

 

[ii] For details of its founding, see Segev (2000: 209)

[iii] The Hebrew initials of the Irgun (see Segev: 2000: 384)

I will publish the full references with a future extract. In the meantime, please feel free to comment here; email me at reportingconflict.com; Tweet @jmacrodgers. If you have read Headlines from the Holy Land, thank you — and please do consider writing a review on Amazon.