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 that war.
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 machines.
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 East.