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There is a hole in the heart of the Middle East’s “only democracy”

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A Palestinian family rushes past a burning building after an Israeli missile strike in the Rafah refugee camp on December 28, 2008. When it comes to spot news, there is simply no question of the Israeli press straying from the path declared to be politically correct by the censor.
A Palestinian family rushes past a burning building after an Israeli missile strike in the Rafah refugee camp on December 28, 2008. When it comes to spot news, there is simply no question of the Israeli press straying from the path declared to be politically correct by the censor.

Neena Vyas

Not many outside the region know that the Israeli media are subject to tight rules of censorship when covering the Zionist state’s numerous wars.

For more than 60 years Israel has been at war with its neighbours. And for more than 60 years this has been used by the State of Israel to censor its press. When Israeli rockets killed hundreds of people in the Gaza strip this time last year, when its bombs and missiles flattened three U.N. schools, most Israelis were kept unaware of the facts by their own newspapers. They had to turn to the internet or the BBC or the CNN.

Never mind the country’s way of waging war has led to it being indicted for war crimes by a U.N. committee headed by Judge Richard Goldstone, the people there are rightly proud of their democracy. If in India we like to boast about being the “biggest democracy in the world”, in Israel every now and then one can hear someone say “In the Middle East, Israel is the only country that has a western style democratic polity.”

Israel has a healthy multi-party system that functions on the basis of proportional representation and a polity in which coalition governments have become the norm rather than the exception. Around 30 political parties represent varied and often contrary views. The press is free to report on the different political viewpoints and express views critical of government policy, even in the sensitive matter of Israel’s conflict with its neighbours and its illegal occupation of territories after the 1967 war beyond the British mandate of 1948. But when it comes to spot news related to the conflict — and internationally that is often what makes the headlines — there is simply no question of the flourishing and “free” Israeli press straying from the path declared to be politically correct by the censor. Of course, there are newspapers and columnists extremely critical of their government’s policy and they do get published. But, the government likes to “protect” its citizens from the gory factual details of Israeli military operations and the devastation that they bring to people just across the so-called border with Gaza or with areas under the Palestinian National Authority or even Lebanon.

As Israeli columnist Gideon Levy of the Haaretz newspaper wrote about Israel’s 34-day war with Lebanon in 2006: “The devastation we are sowing in Lebanon doesn’t touch anyone here and most of it is not even shown to Israelis. Those who want to know what Tyre looks like now have to turn to foreign channels — the BBC reporter brings chilling images from there, the likes of which won’t be seen here...”

And again, when Israel carried out waves of airstrikes in the Gaza strip starting December 2008, Israelis were not always aware of what their defence forces were doing to young and old, women and children. Many more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed in that war, which also left 13 Israelis dead. The bombing of three U.N. schools in Gaza earlier this year made headlines all over the world, except Israel, where reporting of the event was at best scanty, agency reports of the time noted.

A big hole in the democratic setup is the existence and power of the official Censor, which the otherwise “free” press willingly subjects itself to. Through separate “agreements” with the Israeli government and the Censor, the fourth estate subjects itself to screening — 14 subjects are covered by the censorship law although it is security-related issues that are in effect rigorously scrutinised, said the Editor of Yediot Aharonot to a group of visiting Indian journalists invited by the Government of Israel.

In casual conversation with a number of people — ordinary people, some diplomats, a writer, a film director, a few journalists, inmates of a kibbutz and others — during this visit, the predominant view of the conflict that emerged was: “Palestinians deserve what they are getting; they are fighting among themselves – there is no unity of purpose or mind between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas; Israel wants peace but is forced to retaliate when Hamas slams rockets into Israel …” And finally, the conversation almost always ended with a direct or indirect reference to the Holocaust and the remark “We want peace, but Israel is fighting for its survival.”

In Israel, unlike India, there would be almost no question at all of the press trying to take a critical view of any military action. There are numerous instances of news stories from Kashmir — a most recent example is the coverage of the Shopian deaths and there was the earlier case of young boys playing cricket being killed by the security forces — forcing the government to investigate allegations of human rights violations by our armed forces.

But that would be rare, if not impossible in Israel. The only time journalists feared getting into trouble with the government in India was the period of the Emergency between 1975 and 1977, when even unfavourable political coverage of the Congress was frowned upon.

The overarching censorship prevalent in Israel is not news to journalists covering the Middle-East. The Associated Press (an American news agency) has entered into an agreement with the Israeli censor that all its correspondents would abide by the censorship rules. Peter Hounam, a BBC correspondent, was forced to apologise for refusing to submit to the Israeli Military Censor the tapes of a recorded interview of Mordechai Vanunu, when he was released from an Israeli prison after serving an 18-year long sentence for blowing the whistle on the existence of Israel’s nuclear weapons programme. Hounam’s apology was a condition for permission to re-enter Israel. Journalists can be put into jail in Israel and newspapers forcibly closed (judicial review is allowed) for defying the Censor.

Last year in December when Israeli jets struck Hamas-ruled areas, Israeli newspapers had little or no information for their readers on the huge casualties suffered by civilians in Gaza. The issue of reporting facts (not opinion) went before the former President of the Supreme Court of Israel, Aharon Barak, who ruled that when in conflict, “the right to live” would supersede “the right to free expression.” The Court justified its ruling citing the “existential nature of security issues” facing Israel.

May be India’s “free press” went overboard when the Mumbai terrorist attack took place last year. There was dismay that television showed in real time NSG commandos being dropped at the “war” zones — clearly that would give the information away to terrorists holed inside. But, in Israel the press would normally not write about the Gaza action that many believe fits the legal meaning of “war crime.”

A visitor to Israel would be almost immediately struck by a pervasive siege mentality, although it is the worst kept secret in the region that militarily the Zionist state has no rival in the region. And Israelis know this. Each time an Israeli is killed in a terrorist attack or by a suicide bomber, the retaliation by Israel on unsuspecting innocent people in Gaza or Lebanon is ferocious. Since an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, was kidnapped by the Hamas in Gaza, more than 127 people have been killed in Gaza in “retributive justice.” Currently the Israeli government is negotiating the swapping of Shalit with Palestinian prisoners held by it.

During a brief interaction, Noah Klieger — the oldest correspondent of Israel’s largest circulated newspaper, Yediot Aharonot, and a Holocaust survivor — said: “If we wanted, there would be no Gaza, no Palestinian Authority. We can liquidate Gaza in one hour, finish it off …the same for other areas under the Palestine Authority. This I am saying on record.” And “off the record” he had something similar to say about Iran. His view was the “humaneness of Israel” was demonstrated by the fact that it had not completely finished off every living thing in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority territory. At the same time he claimed his newspaper had no one political line: “Our editorials reflect all shades of opinion, pro-Arab as well as anti-Arab views.”

What is alarming is that Mr. Klieger was apparently an influential journalist of the Hebrew language newspaper that sells copies equal to two-thirds of the entire Jewish population of Israel.

What about the Military Censor? He did not think it was unpleasant or a problem at all. “We are Israelis and we don’t want to [write or say anything that would] threaten our security.” A foreign newspaper may be free to say Israel has nuclear bombs, “I cannot and do not say so.”


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