Usual fare on cable TV's Discovery Channel documentaries about
inventions, nature, and archeology gave way recently to an unabashedly
anti-Israel series entitled "Beirut to Bosnia" and reported by
British journalist Robert Fisk. The three films ostensibly examine "why
fundamentalist Muslims feel the West has betrayed them." Discovery host
John Palmer explains at the outset of the first hour, devoted to Lebanon, that
Muslim animosity is a consequence of America having "supported the Balfour
Declaration which led to the creation of the state of Israel out of Palestinian
land in 1948." The charge of Jewish usurpation of Arab land is Fisk's
incessant theme, reiterated by speakers throughout the series and accompanied by
vivid images of Arab suffering.
Unmentioned in any of the segments are Israel's rights of nationhood
under international law, rights arising out of the same post-World War I League
of Nations actions that are the legal basis for Arab claims to surrounding
lands. The League of Nations and later the UN both affirmed the ancient and
continuous presence of the Jewish people in the land of Israel and the right of
the Jews to reconstitute their national home in that country. Ignoring all
this, Fisk parrots the standard cant that European anti-Semitism and the Nazi
Holocaust resulted in the foisting of an alien people onto indigenous Arabs.
To these familiar elements of factual recklessness and cinematic
manipulation, Fisk adds a striking focus on himself as personal witness and
commentator. Reminding viewers continuously of his long tenure in Lebanon he
claims a deeper insight into the nation, but his films are a testimony to the
abandonment of objectivity and an unalloyed advocacy of Arab attitudes towards
Israel and the West.
On the rise of Islamic radicalism in Lebanon, for example, he says, "I've
watched a friendly Muslim population turn to hate the West...It all started
with Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982. That year changed Lebanon forever."
Lebanon's slide into religious polarization and political anarchy did not, of
course, start in 1982, but twelve years earlier, in 1970, when the failed PLO
attempt to overthrow Jordan's King Hussein triggered a flood of Palestinians
from Jordan into Lebanon. The influx of PLO fighters and the establishment of
a PLO mini-state in Lebanon accelerated the unraveling of the fragile
relationship of Lebanon's Muslim and Christian groups. By 1975 tensions
between Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims and Palestinians had erupted into
genuine civil war. Not a word of this appears in Fisk's "documentaries"
though the reporter notes his arrival in Lebanon in 1976, undoubtedly to cover
Fisk is equally mute about the PLO's reign of terror in southern
Lebanon to which Lebanese of all faiths were subjected, and omits completely
the seven years Israel endured PLO artillery bombardment and attacks against
her population. Thus the 1982 invasion is, in Fisk's inventive history, not an
action taken after years of futile Israeli efforts to curb PLO assaults, but an
apparently unprovoked aggression.
To emphasize the supposed brutality of the Israelis, Fisk brings to his
audience scene after lingering scene of hospitalized Arab children and adults
said to have been bombed by Israel, but his camera stops longest on the dead
bodies at Sabra and Shatila, where Palestinians were slaughtered by Christian
militiamen. These atrocities were carried out, he charges, by "Christian
gunmen that the Israelis had sent in..." Here again Fisk trashes the
facts. An Israeli commission did hold Israel responsible not for sending
in gunmen as Fisk reports but for not anticipating that Christian
militias might seek revenge for the assassination of the Christian president of
Lebanon just two days earlier and for the previous mass murder of Christians by
the PLO at Damour. Predictably, Fisk passes over in silence still bloodier
events in ensuing years, presumably because Israel could not be implicated, as
when Shiite Muslims massacred nearly 3000 Palestinians in Lebanon.
Nor are the Syrians, under whose boot Lebanon has inexorably fallen,
even once identified as "occupiers." Rather Syria is said, in
passing, to have "35,000 soldiers in Lebanon." That and no more
describes the gradual dominion of Syria over a Lebanon it deems properly part of
its own state.
And so it goes for Discovery's second segment, entitled "Road to
Palestine," whose thrust again is to challenge the legitimacy of Israel at
the bedrock issue of who owns the land. Property deeds are produced by Arabs
to show ownership of Israeli land and stories recounted of Arab dispossession,
while Jews in Israel are, in turn, shown to be displaced from Poland.
Brooklyn-accented settlers proclaim exclusive Jewish claims to the land. Of
Jerusalem Fisk bluntly states, the city was "illegally annexed by Israel
which still claims it to be its eternal and unified capital." It hardly
need be said that Fisk omits such proof of the long-standing and often dominant
Jewish presence in Jerusalem as the evidence of numerous surveys and censuses.
In the modern era, for example, Jews have since 1870 once again been a majority
in the city.
But Fisk prefers the florid anecdote. He dwells at length on the
case of Mohammed Khatib, an Arab whose land has allegedly been stolen by Israel
for a "settlement" near Jerusalem. Fisk's camera sweeps across the
skyline as he intones that "huge Jewish settlements built on Palestinian
land are now cities. A ring of Israeli concrete around Jerusalem. It takes a
brave Palestinian to hold out here, to cling onto his own land in the face
of Israel's expanding settlements.
But in this little patch of orchard is a family that has refused to leave its
land, despite an order to get out." In a vivid shot he juxtaposes two
Arabs in traditional dress against a backdrop of thunderous earth-moving
On viewing the film Mickey Molad, an Israeli whom Fisk interviewed
about the Khatib case, expressed astonishment at Fisk's attempt to deceive
viewers. Molad had explained on camera that most of the land taken by eminent
domain for the development project in question was from Jewish owners, several
of them wealthy and prominent, and that all owners were financially
compensated. While Fisk emphasizes in emotional scenes the authenticity of
Khatib's claim to his land implying the Israelis had disputed it and
seized his property as a result nothing of the sort occurred. Israel
had not questioned his claims but had taken his land for public use just as it
had taken the land of his mainly Jewish neighbors. Fisk smeared Israel by
deleting Molad's key remarks.
Historian David Pryce-Jones has written of Fisk's uniformly
anti-Western positions and intrusive self-dramatizing: The reporter "habitually
places himself not at all on the edge of his story but at the centre of his
story, not really reporting on others but on himself." In the case of "Beirut
to Bosnia" reporting on himself meant a ruthless promotion of his personal
hostility toward Israel in films that were propaganda tracts, not
documentaries. It is to be hoped that a network of serious purpose such as the
Discovery Channel will take a close look at how it came to be used as a forum
by a known propagandist such as Robert Fisk, and in the future will air
balanced and accurate programs that advance public understanding of the Middle