Israeli Home Building Beats Out Syrian Poison Gas for Causing Outrage

What is a bigger news story, Israeli approval of residential construction in a 4.6 square mile disputed zone sandwiched between two existing Israeli residential areas, or the Syrian regime’s preparations to use chemical weapons against its own population? How much print space and broadcast time should the media devote to an eight day flare up in violence between Israel and Hamas versus the expansive on-civil war in Syria? These questions need to be considered, because the amount of coverage major news organizations decide to devote to stories involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict versus other Middle Eastern conflicts determines what the public knows about the region and shapes our perspective of what is more and less important to us.
 
The Israeli response to escalating rocket fire from Gaza in November resulted in 170 Palestinian fatalities. The Syrian civil war has claimed the lives of at least 45,000 Syrian citizens. Over the last six months, the violence has increased, with the average number of Syrian fatalities each day equaling the number of Palestinian fatalities for the entire eight-day Israeli operation from Nov. 14 to Nov. 22. 
 
Interest in the Israeli decision to build in the controversial E-1 corridor was spurred by the claim that this would bisect the West Bank, making a contiguous Palestinian state impossible. A quick glance at a map disproves that claim, although the construction would impact the geographical situation on the West Bank. The specter of the Syrian regime using chemical weapons or alternatively, these weapons falling into the hands of Islamic radicals, threatens the mass murder of thousands and could ignite an uncontrolled expansion of the conflict to surrounding states and beyond.
 
Neither the 21 months of slaughter in Syria, nor the threat of chemical weapons use fired the moral indignation of Boston Globe columnist James Carroll as much as the Israeli decision to permit home construction. Whilel Carroll has yet to weigh in with a column on Syria, he felt compelled to inveigh against Israel in a 761 word column for acting in defiance of the “opinions of mankind.” Omitting comment on the far greater toll in Syria, Carroll asserted that “Palestinian suffering has been far too little noted.”
 
So let’s put Carroll’s assertion to test.
 
Two of the most comprehensive sources of coverage of the Israel and the Middle East in the American media are the New York Times and National Public Radio.
 
Amplifying the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict at the Expense of Public Understanding of the Broader Regional Conflict
 
The media and activist groups feed the public a distorted perception of what lies at the core of the region’s instability. When Israel takes significant military action in response to attacks by terrorist groups on its borders, a media frenzy follows. This happened during the Israeli military operation in the West Bank in April 2002, during Operation Cast Lead from Dec. 27, 2008 to Jan. 21, 2009 and during the summer war with Hezbollah in 2006. Synchronized with the media are the “human rights” groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, who partner with Palestinian organizations in Gaza or the West Bank, like the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, to promote a one-sided narrative of Palestinian victimization. Accusations of disproportionate Israeli responses to Palestinian violence give away to more extreme terms like ethnic cleansing, massacre and even genocide, despite the fact that the toll of fatalities is relatively limited. In Jenin in 2002, Israel was accused of committing a massacre by Palestinian officials. The charges were soon parroted by experts appearing on the BBC and other major media, prompting the United Nations to investigate. The death toll was finally established at 52 Palestinians, mostly combatants, and 13 Israelis.
 
Ushered through orchestrated tours of hospitals and bombed out schools in Gaza, journalists and activist groups publish dispatches, followed up by lengthy reports running into hundreds of pages, filled with allegations – many of which later prove to be false or exaggerated – against Israel. This fixation on alleged Israeli misdeeds comes with a cost to the public. By magnifying Israeli actions and the plight of the Palestinians, the centrality of the conflict to the region’s problems is exaggerated and its relationship to the broader regional dysfunction is inverted. The media needs its version of a Copernicus to set it straight that the earth (Israeli-Palestinian conflict) revolves around the Sun (broader regional crisis) rather than the other way around.
 
Compare the media’s response to the Syrian war with that of the brief flare up in Gaza last month. For 20 months, the Syrian regime and insurgents have waged a ruthless war leaving over 40,000 dead. Yet the conflict has never merited the intense coverage and scrutiny given to the brief flare up between Hamas and Israel from Nov. 14 to Nov. 22, even though the 170 fatalities in Gaza over an eight day period was about the same toll as an average day in Syria for the past six months.
 
A Lexis-Nexis search of news stories and opinion pieces in the New York Times from Nov. 14 to Dec. 11, 2012 turned up the following results:
The UN General Assembly vote to upgrade the status of Palestine merited 8 articles and 7,560 words, and 4 opinion pieces comprising 2,499 words.
The decision by Israel to build in the E-1 area led to 7 news articles, totaling 7,285 words and 3 opinion pieces totaling 2,178 words.
Other stories relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Arafat’s possible poisoning) were the focus of another 2 stories and 1,225 words.
In sum, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had 73 news stories and opinion pieces totaling 71,618 words. A total of 170 Palestinians and 6 Israelis were killed during this time period.
 
Over that same time period, the Syrian conflict garnered 42 news stories comprising 41,372 words and 10 opinion pieces totaling 6,860 words.
A total of 52 stories and opinion pieces comprising 48,232 words. Of these, chemical weapons was the focus of 5 news stories totaling 5,083 words.
 
Meanwhile stories of encompassing violence perpetrated by Middle Eastern regimes, often against their own civilian populations and in particular against minorities, compete for left-over space on news pages or settle for one page summaries in the annual reports published by the aforementioned human rights groups. Not surprisingly, public awareness of the endemic violence throughout the region is lacking and activists who year after year clamor against Israel in the universities, churches and other public forums, exhibit little interest or curiosity about conflicts that don’t involve Israel and the Palestinians.
 
Take for example the activities of the Free Gaza flotillas. Syrian ports are much closer and accessi
ble to the Turkish, Greek and Cypriot flotilla launching pads than Gaza, yet no flotillas in support of Syria’s beleaguered citizens have been spotted. Nor does the plight of Yemen’s citizens attract anywhere near the attention given to Gaza, even though by any objective measure, Yemenis suffer far greater deprivation than do Gazans. Yemen also happens to be the ancestral home of the Bin Ladens and the breeding ground of Al-Qaeda extremism.
 
With the threat of chemical weapons threatening to escalate the death toll by an order of magnitude or more, hopefully some in the media and members of Western activist groups will re-examine their reflexive habit of excessive scrutinizing over the Israel-Palestinian conflict and try to provide audiences with a more balanced understanding of the nature of the regimes in the region. This would also result in a better understanding of how the Israeli-Palestinian is a result of the broader problems in the region rather than the other way around.