A guest post by Israelinurse:
“In the Middle East once you have chosen between the irreconcilable narratives on offer, everything confirms the narrative you have chosen, and nothing confounds it.”
After barely a year in the Middle East, the BBC’s correspondent Kevin Connolly appears to have reached the conclusion that facts and objective analysis of events are not what he came here to look for. Like many a Western journalist, crippled by preconceptions based on historical inaccuracies and hampered by an inability to speak any of the local languages fluently, he has succumbed to the temptations of ‘narrative’.
Connolly’s report of June 9th from Majdal Shams indicates very clearly the category of narrative he has chosen to adopt and promote. Whilst the acceptance of ‘narratives’ as legitimate versions of events has evolved from the prevailing mores of a politically correct climate in the United Kingdom which recoils from any kind of judgement- based assertions, its application in far flung corners of the world does not necessarily serve the interests of the BBC audiences. The airbrushing of facts, the subjective impressions of a reporter trapped within his own culture and the ‘dumbing-down’of news into pastiches of black and white contribute nothing to the listeners’ understanding of events.
And so Kevin Connolly begins his piece by referring to the 1967 Six Day War, during which Israel captured the Golan Heights. He provides no background to the outbreak of hostilities: no mention of the Syrian attempts at diversion of the water sources which feed Israel’s only fresh water supply – the Sea of Galilee, no reference to the years of shelling and sniper attacks on the Israeli villages situated below the Golan Heights and of course no reminder to his listeners of the attempt by Arab armies to annihilate the 19 year old Jewish state. As far as Connolly’s audience is concerned,Israel just decided one fine morning to conquer the Golan.
Next, Connolly informs his audience that the border fence stormed by Palestinians from Syria is not technically a border but a line of disengagement “since there is no peace deal to make it permanent”. Significantly though, he fails to mention that just over a week after the Six Day War ended, Israel – via America – proposed a return of the captured land in the Golan Heights and the Sinai in exchange for signed peace treaties with Syria and Egypt. This offer was of course met with the famous ‘Three Nos’ of Khartoum; the Arab states chose the option of “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel”.
That decision resulted in Israel’s holding of the Golan from 1967 until the Syrians tried to re-conquer it in the Yom Kippur war of 1973. Once again Syria lost the war it had started and the ceasefire lines eventually drawn up in May 1974 under the Separation of Forces Agreement between Israel and Syria included the return of portions of the conquered territory to Syria. That ceasefire agreement was intended to be part of UN SC resolution 338 which stated that”immediately and concurrently with the ceasefire, negotiations shall start between the parties concernedunder appropriate auspices aimed at establishing a just anddurable peace in the Middle East”.No peace agreement was of course reached, despite Israel having returned some of the territory as stipulated in UN SC resolution 242 which calls for “Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” in return for “Termination of all claims or states of belligerency andrespect for and acknowledgment of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State inthe area and their right to live in peace within secure andrecognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force”.
Connolly also fails to mention the two rounds of failed negotiations between Israel and Syria in the mid- 1990s and 2000, as well as subsequent efforts by the Olmert government. His listeners remain ignorant of the fact that if there is no peace agreement between Israel and Syria, it is certainly not due to lack of Israeli effort.
Having established in the minds of his audience that the border is not a border and that the land in question is held ‘in sin’, Connolly then goes on to subtly inform listeners where their sympathies should lie. The Syrian protesters are “unarmed”. They find themselves “pinned down by gunfire” with limited cover from an earth bank. Only two paragraphs later does Connolly bother to point out that the infiltrators had actually been warned – in Arabic – by means of megaphone not to approach the fence and that when they proceeded despite this, warning shots had been fired into the air. In his subsequent bizarre comparison of the situation with soldiers caught in razor wire inWorld War 1, Connolly once more indicates where his audience’s sympathies should lie by using the words “vulnerability and pathos” to describe a group of political protesters trying to illegally cross a highly volatile border between two countries at war.
Again he reminds listeners that his heroes “carried no firearms” and that they “risked their lives”. Whilst acknowledging that Syrian reports of the death toll cannot be taken as necessarily accurate, Connolly also purports that “the Israelis have no idea if the live ammunition they claim to have aimed at the feet and legs of the protesters, left people bleeding to death as they waited for treatment”. For some reason he completely fails to mention that the Israeli army responded positively three times to the request for a cease fire in order to permit the Red Cross to evacuate the wounded, but that on each occasion the protesters, rather than respecting the cease fire, took advantage of it to continue in their efforts to breach the fence.
Descending rapidly into ever more ridiculous analogies, Connolly then informs his audience that “the Israel of Majdal Shams hardly seems like the Jewish David ranged against the collective Goliath of the Arab world”. In other words, Connolly is making sure that readers know that Israel actually has nothing to fear from these ‘unarmed’ and heroic protesters to whom he has taken such a shine. Clearly to him, this is just another case of Israelis over-reacting; a function of “the Israeli national nightmare of Palestinians massing on their borders demanding the right of return”.Nightmares are of course illogical; rooted in unfounded fears and something to be got over. In fact, having established throughout his report that Israel is guilty of almost hysterical over-reaction, Connolly then goes on to declare that “Israel sees the protesters as extremists or followers of extremists”, obviously implying that sensible people should appraise the situation very differently. One cannot but wonder exactly what the appropriate term is in the BBC lexicon for groups of people who seek to resolve an ongoing conflict by force rather than by negotiation and compromise.
Connolly then tries to claim that the information regarding the possibility that protesters in this and the previous event were paid to storm Israel’s borders is an Israeli fabrication which shows “weakness”. In fact, as Just Journalism has pointed out, this information came from non-Israeli sources such as the Reform Party of Syria and the Guardian. He also seems to doubt the involvement of the Syrian regime in the organization – either passive or active – of these recurring demonstrations: “And above all, Israel sees Syrian government manipulation in all this”.
Had Connolly any experience or knowledge of value about the area he would know that for over four decades now, levels of activity on the border between Israel and Syria have been dictated by the mood in Damascus. When Assad – either father or son – wanted the border to be quiet for reasons known to them, it was so. When they did not – it was not. There exists a well-entrenched myth that this border has been perfectly calm since the ceasefire in 1974. Whilst it is certainly true that when compared to some of Israel’s other borders, levels of activity by infiltrators has been low, it is not true to say that there have been no attempted terrorist infiltrations over the years. The fact is that on the day following the June 5th demonstrations, the Syrian security forces prevented the protesters from again reaching the border. They could have acted similarly the day before, but chose not to.
Unfortunately for his listeners, Connolly appears to be content with parroting the jaded narratives repeated by so many Western journalists rather than learning from the local people who actually live in the area or making the effort to equip himself with the background information necessary to comprehend this complex region. His report, therefore, is indeed no more than unchallenging narrative; undemanding of both his listener and himself and confirming all his and their preconceived prejudices. News it is not.