When balancing two narratives leads you astray

by Yaniv Reich on November 7, 2009

Last week I highlighted a recent essay in the New Yorker on Gaza. I had a number of problems with the details of the article, but despite those concerns I considered it one of the deeper analyses I had seen in a mainstream American media outlet.

What attracted me to the article? First, the lead photo is absolutely incredible and perhaps framed my reading. But I thought it noteworthy, and valuable for any readers, to hear an eloquent description of the Palestinian and Israeli narratives surrounding the conflict. It was in this sense I commented that the article seems to arouse the passions of ideologues on both sides. By providing a sincere read of both “sides” of the conflict, the article was already achieving far more than the norm in the US media.

But this balance of perspective is deeply misleading as well. As the title (“Captives: What really happened during the Israeli attacks?”) makes clear, the primary objective of the article was to assess the Israeli attacks on Gaza and to determine, in the context of allegations of war crimes, what transpired. In this context, it is inexplicable that Lawrence Wright, the author, spent such a large percentage of the article’s space discussing matters completely irrelevant to understanding Israeli’s military tactics and transgressions. For example, what in the world does Israeli bombardment of an imprisoned population in Gaza have to do with Hamas social policies and religious trends in Gaza? The answer is precisely nothing. This utter irrelevance notwithstanding, Wright spends many paragraphs talking about such social issues because they fit with Israel’s narrative about Hamas as bad guys ostensibly worthy of anything we dish out to them or the people that live with them. The reader is left with some superficial effort at “balance”, but no closer to answering the excruciatingly urgent question about what happened and who will be held accountable.

This point and many others is raised in an excellent new essay by Bruce Wolman on Mondoweiss. By focusing on two countervailing narratives of the attacks, Wright actually lends credibility to certain aspects of Israel’s justification for the attacks and tactics that are demonstrably false. For example:

As Shlomo Ben-Ami and others have noted, Ariel Sharon conceived of the unilateral withdrawal of the settlers and Israeli forces from Gaza as a means to avoid further peace initiatives and demands for Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, not as a stimulus to the peace process. Wright is correct about the international community’s approval––if by “international community” he follows the US State Department meaning, i.e., any ad-hoc collection of countries expressing (either willingly or by pressure) public agreement with a United States position. The Israeli left wing did applaud, if by left-wing one includes Israelis such as Ari Shavit, Ha’aretz’s own version of Tom Friedman and one of Wright’s sources. But moderate leftists and peace negotiators such as Shlomo Ben-Ami and Yosi Beilin warned from the time of Sharon’s announcement that a unilateral, as opposed to a negotiated, withdrawal would lead to negative consequences for the peace process and quite likely an acceleration of violence. Ben-Ami in his 2006 book, Scars of War, Wounds of Peace predicted rather accurately what has happened in the aftermath.

For me, a key litmus test in truth telling on the situation in Gaza is how a report handles the takeover of the Strip by Hamas. If the narrative doesn’t refer to the Bush-Rice-Abrams backing (most likely even initiating) of Mohammed Dahlan’s Gaza coup attempt, which preceded the Hamas preemptive counter-coup, then it is seriously remiss. It is amazing to what extent the mainstream media continues to ignore David Rose’s well-sourced report on the US role in Dahlan’s power play, which appeared in Vanity Fair.

Wright does state that “Fatah refused to step aside and let Hamas govern.” He mentions the “large demonstrations by both factions in the West Bank and Gaza, along with kidnappings, gun battles, and assassinations.” And he even refers to the peace accord between Fatah and Hamas arranged by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. But he fails to inform that the United States opposed the Saudi accord, and subverted it by conspiring with Dahlan in his attempt to organize a putsch. Unfortunately, for the United States, Israel, Fatah and Dahlan, Hamas routed Dahlan’s forces.
[…]
By hewing to the Israeli narrative, Wright is unable to see the truth, that both sides are locked into a strategic race for deterrence against the other. “Collective punishment” applied to civilians, aka terror when the other side is employing it, is the means by which Israel seeks to maintain deterrence, and hence control, of the Palestinians. In response Hamas has attempted to establish its own deterrence vis-a-vis Israel with guerrilla actions, terror attacks, suicide bombings (a tactic which turned out to be a failure and counterproductive), and more recently, inaccurate rocket attacks.”

As I see it, the author of the New Yorker article should have either titled the article something else or actually attempted to answer the question posed by the title. By failing to make this distinction, the author has made truly answering this question and taking appropriate action, conditional on the answers, just that much more difficult.

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