Controversial journalist Robert Fisk, who covers the Middle East for the British Independent and whose syndicated columns also appear in the U.S. press, is author of the new book, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East.
In a New York Times review of the book, Times deputy foreign editor Ethan Bronner stated that Fisk is “least informed about Israel,” pursues his agenda “nearly to the exclusion of the pursuit of straight journalism” and allows his points to be “warped by his perspective.” It is no wonder, Bronner added, that Osama bin Laden recommended Fisk’s reporting as “neutral.”
An excerpt from Fisk’s book, published on the Independent online edition on Jan. 6, 2006 under the headline “Ariel Sharon…,” provides example after example of why the British journalist’s work is seen as “warped.”
The preface to the piece begins: “Israel’s Prime Minister was a ruthless military commander responsible for one of the most shocking war crimes of the 20th century, argues Robert Fisk.” This dubious contention is reinforced in the article by a series of unfounded and distorted allegations.
Distortion of Kahan Commission Report
In the third paragraph of the excerpt, Fisk misleads readers about the Kahan commission, the body that investigated the 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christian militiamen at Sabra and Shatila. He criticizes Israeli diplomats who say that “the commission held Sharon only indirectly responsible for the massacre.” According to Fisk, “It was untrue. The last page of the official Israeli report held Sharon ‘personally responsible.’”
Fisk’s insinuation that “personal responsiblity” precludes “indirect responsibility” is wrong. The opening summary of the Kahan report leaves no room for argument: “No Israeli was directly responsible for the events which occurred in the camps.” The body of the report, too, repeatedly makes clear Sharon and the Israeli army were not directly responsible:
The Direct Responsibility
… Our conclusion is … that the direct responsibility for the perpetration of the acts of slaughter rests on the Phalangist forces. …
The Indirect Responsibility
To sum up this chapter, we assert that the atrocities in the refugee camps were perpetrated by members of the Phalangists, and that absolutely no direct responsibility devolves upon Israel or upon those who acted in its behalf. At the same time, it is clear from what we have said above that the decision on the entry of the Phalangists into the refugee camps was taken without consideration of the danger – which the makers and executors of the decision were obligated to foresee as probable – that the Phalangists would commit massacres and pogroms against the inhabitants of the camps, and without an examination of the means for preventing this danger. Similarly, it is clear from the course of events that when the reports began to arrive about the actions of the Phalangists in the camps, no proper heed was taken of these reports, the correct conclusions were not drawn from them, and no energetic and immediate actions were taken to restrain the Phalangists and put a stop to their actions. This both reflects and exhausts Israel’s indirect responsibility for what occurred in the refugee camps.
It is only after the commission unequivocally absolves Israel and “those who acted on its behalf” of direct responsibility that it charges Sharon with “personal responsibility.” That is, the Kahan report charged Sharon with “personal” but “indirect” responsibility.
Furthermore, as the Kahan report makes clear, the phrase “personal responsibility” is not antithetical to indirect responsibility, but rather is meant in contrast with ministerial responsibility. In parliamentary democracies (such as Israel and the United Kingdom), ministerial responsibility refers to the fact that cabinet ministers are ultimately responsible for the actions of their ministry — even if they are not aware of or involved in the action. In the words of the Kahan report, it is “a minister’s responsibility for the shortcomings and failures of the apparatus he heads and for which he should not be charged with any personal responsibility.” Personal responsibility, on the other hand, indicates that the minister himself had made a mistake. The Kahan report notes that it does “not express an opinion” on ministerial responsibility, and in turn specifies that Sharon’s indirect responsibility was “personal,” as opposed to ministerial; it blames Sharon himself, and not those working under him, for failing to foresee or prevent the massacre.
As someone raised and educated in the U.K. with a Ph.D. in Political Science, Fisk should certainly understand these distinctions.
“Bestialisation”? Or Rather, Misrepresentation and Hypocrisy
Repeating one of his frequent allegations, Fisk claims in the excerpt that “the Palestinian people continue to be bestialised by the Israeli leadership.” Menachem Begin, he asserts, called Palestinians “two-legged beasts.” Moshe Yaalon “described the Palestinians as a ‘cancerous manifestation,'” Ehud Barak called them “crocodiles,” and Rehavam Zeevi referred to Arafat as a “scorpion.”
But Begin didn’t refer to “the Palestinian people” as beasts. Rather, he was describing in a June 8, 1982 speech those who would attack Israeli children:
The children of Israel will happily go to school and joyfully return home, just like the children in Washington, in Moscow, and in Peking, in Paris and in Rome, in Oslo, in Stockholm and in Copenhagen. The fate of… Jewish children has been different from all the children of the world throughout the generations. No more. We will defend our children. If the hand of any two-footed animal is raised against them, that hand will be cut off, and our children will grow up in joy in the homes of their parents.
Similarly, Yaalon also was not referring to “the Palestinian people,” but to terrorism: “Palestinian terrorism is the main threat for Israel because it is spreading like a cancer,” he said on August 25, 2002 (after Palestinian violence claimed 15 Israeli lives already that month).
What about Palestinian “crocodiles”? Whoever made this reference — and it is far from c lear that it was Barak — seemed to be talking about the Palestinian government negotiators who were demanding more control over Jerusalem. According to the AFP news agency, a close aide to Barak was reported to have said: “In a few weeks we will know if the Palestinians want peace and are prepared to look at the compromise proposals on Jerusalem put forward by (US) President Bill Clinton at Camp David or if they are like crocodiles, which the more they eat the hungrier they are.” Israeli Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi later accused Barak of being that “close aide,” but this was never confirmed.
As far as Zeevi calling Arafat a “scorpion,” Fisk finally seems to be correct. The late Israeli lawmaker did refer to the man known as the “father of terrorism,” who commanded groups responsible for hundreds of bombings, hijackings, assassinations and other attacks on innocent men, women and children, as a scorpion. Just as Begin referred to terrorists as animals and Yaalon called terrorism a cancer, it is not at all uncommon for people to use animal metaphors in describing violent individuals or organizations.
But then Fisk, despite his repeated criticism of Israelis using animal metaphors, understands very well the use of animal metaphors to describe shady individuals. He himself regularly refers to Saddam Hussein as the "Beast of Baghdad." He has described Americans accused of abusing prisoners in Iraq or Guantanamo as "animals." He has compared the Taliban to a "chameleon," and the American media to a "dog." Apparently, what is a literary tool for Fisk and others is "bestialisation" when coming from Israelis.
Distortion of Weisglass Interview
Fisk prevaricates yet again when writing that Sharon’s "spokesman," Dov Weisglass, said the Israeli pullout from Gaza would "turn any plans for a Palestinian state in the West Bank into ‘formaldehyde’...."
This allegation is based on a widely disseminated, and widely distorted, interview with Weisglass (who was actually Sharon's advisor, not his spokesman) in the Israeli daily Ha'aretz. While anti-Israel propagandists like Fisk often seize on Weisglass’ words to paint Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza as a nefarious Israeli scheme rather than a positive development for Palestinians, Weisglass never said what Fisk attributed to him. Again, this is a case of Fisk distorting Israeli comments with manipulative paraphrasing.
Rather than turning plans into formaldehyde, Weisglass spoke metaphorically of preserving them with the chemical. The pullout, in Weisglass' words, would preserve the "road map" peace plan and its principles, as if in formaldehyde, until the Palestinian side was readly to comply with its obligations. (For more on distortions of the Ha'aretz interview, including relevant excerpts of the interview, see here.)
On subject after subject, Fisk misrepresents the truth. He refers to Sharon’s supposed "outspoken criticism of NATO’s war against Serbia" based on an Israeli news report, but hides the fact that Sharon’s spokesman denied the validity of the report, and that Sharon had in fact openly spoken in support of the NATO intervention, saying: "We expect that U.S. and NATO forces will do everything possible to stop the suffering of innocent people" in Kosovo. (And of course, Fisk makes no mention of Israeli aid to Albanian refugees.) He describes Palestinians who rained stones and bottles on Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall merely as "demonstrators." He mocks the fact that Israelis see those who kill Jewish civilians as "terrorists," and suggests that the reason "Judaism and Islam are crashing into each other" is because of supposedly vengeful Jewish values stemming from the Old Testament.
"One of the most shocking war crimes"?
Clearly, Fisk's facts do not withstand scrutiny. But what of his opinion, expressed in the very first sentence of the preface to the excerpt, that the 1982 killings at Sabra and Shatila are "one of the most shocking war crimes of the 20th century"? The murder of civilians is always shocking, and these two Phalangist massacres are certainly no exception. Still, in the context of the long and brutal Lebanese civil war, these most infamous of massacres were not so exceptional. Correspondingly, in the much longer and much more brutal 20th century, it can hardly be claimed that the tragedy in the refugee camps belongs among the "most shocking war crimes."
The war in Lebanon was characterized by massacres, counter-massacres, and other wanton killing. Fisk himself obliquely admits that the 1982 massacre might not even be the worst carnage ever inflicted on the Sabra camp, noting in his book Pity the Nation that "about 2000 women and children [were killed] in the shelling of Sabra in 1975 and 1976." In 1976, according to the same book, "thousands" of Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camp of Tel al-Za'atar, "mostly civilians," were killed by Lebanese Christian militiamen. Jonathan Randal, a reporter whom Fisk recommends, described in his book Going All the Way the murder in 1976 of "a thousand" residents of Karantina in Beirut. Professor William Harris put the number at 1,500. On "Black Saturday" of December 1975, in the first atrocity of the civil war, "at least 300 Muslims were butchered" along with an equal number of Christians, and the following month, a Palestinian attack on Damour left at least 149 dead, and probably a couple of hundred more (Fisk, Pity the Nation).
The list of 20th century war crimes outside the Lebanese stage further indicates that the Sabra and Shatila massacres, terrible as they were, cannot fairly be characterized as among the "most shocking" war crimes of the century. In the middle decades of the century alone, a deluge of massacres — the mass murder of Jews in Odessa, Ninth Fort, Rumbula, Lvov, Pinsk and Bessarabia during the Holocaust, of Christians in Poland, of Chinese in Nanjing, to name only a few — dwarfed the casualty count at the Lebanese refugee camps. So did the numbers killed during the Armenian genocide, in Rwanda, Bosnia, Hama in Syria, Cambodia, and during "la Mantaza" in El Salvador — again just to name a few.
According to historian Efraim Karsh, who reviewed the book, such errors span the entire volume. But it is not much of a surprise that Fisk shows little regard for facts. He has said that journalistic neutrality is "no longer relevant" to the Middle East and that instead journalists are "morally bound ... to show eloquent compassion to the victims." And Fisk’s reporting makes all too clear whom he anoints as the "victims" in the Israeli-Arab conflict.
Nor is it a surprise that the Independent is willing to publish even Fisk’s most patently false claims. That newspaper’s foreign editor has himself parroted some of Fisk’s specious allegations, including the absurd assertion that the word "settlements" has been replaced by "neighborhoods" in the media.
What is somewhat surprising is that the mainstream American media, committed to objectivity and accuracy, continue to publish the journalist’s deceptive and error-ridden work, seemingly without any fact-checking.