It’s the OCCUPATION, stupid: What have Australian journalists got against Palestinians?

Feb 22, 2024
Young woman reading.

In 2007 I visited Palestine with my late husband Hal Wootten AC, QC, the founding Dean of the Law School at the University of New South Wales and well-known for his pursuit of justice. Hal was determined to understand the conflict from both Palestinian and Israeli perspectives, and he collected a substantial library on middle-east history. Then, undaunted at the age of 85, he lived in Ramallah for three months, travelling widely and speaking to many Palestinians and Israelis. His conclusion could be summarised (to adapt Bill Clinton’s words); “It’s the OCCUPATION, stupid”.

On his return to Australia, Hal tried to speak publicly but was harassed by a Jewish Board of Deputies representative, an experience that illustrated why Australians were for so long ignorant of the plight of Palestinians and why Hal’s Jewish friends and colleagues were reluctant to discuss Israeli government policies. The ‘Israeli lobby’ is dominated by men who passionately defend Israeli governments’ Zionist ambitions to incorporate all of the Palestinian territories into Israel which would do away with Palestinians’ remaining rights. Ample evidence of Zionism’s ambitions is available from reliable scholars, lawyers and international legal scholars.

Jewish Australians have been upset by the phenomenon of Doxxing. When compared with the mortal plight of millions of Palestinians in southern Gaza, most will agree that this ‘outing’ is a minor, if painful irritation. But we might ask whether there is a connection between these phenomena? That connection is the apparent acceptance of Israeli government policies by most Jewish people and organisations in Australia and the passivity of most Australians in the face of Israeli savagery in Gaza.

Journalists writing up news reports about complex international events are reporting, not analysing, but their language inevitably entails particular judgements or view points. A news report of a few paragraphs has to be easily digestible, so the reporter uses familiar terms and ideas. Thus, in subtle ways, standard news reports usually reinforce popular understandings of events. Examples of the way journalists affirm the public perception of a country or a people are easy to find. The Houthis, who are bombing ships taking supplies to Israel, are regularly tagged with ‘Iranian backed’ just in case readers are unaware of how to judge them. ‘Iranian backed’ means they are ‘threatening international trade’ rather than intervening in Israel’s onslaught on Palestinians in Gaza. When I asked some friends why Iran —which produced wonderful films — is judged irredeemably bad, the response was a vague reference to ‘the revolution’, to ‘history’, and the Ayatollahs’ oppression of women. One cynic said: ‘It’s because they don’t have any oil’. Do Australians understand the nature of Iran’s sins?

Readers should be aware and wary of the way brief bursts of current information in news bulletins, in newspapers, and on radio and TV carry assumptions of moral worth. A country, or a people, or a class of people, can be spoken of with approval or suspicion, contempt or a careless generalisation that invites the acquiescence of the mass readership.

The prejudices embedded in reports about the current conflict in Gaza are particularly distressing. To news of ‘Hamas’, readers are induced to respond with collective condemnation. Even if told that the original IDF reports of Hamas’ savagery contained lies, no journalist I know of has raised any questions about why or how that ideology, movement, political party and military force came into being.

For instance, one respected newspaper account included a number of signals as to how we are to read a specific item. The Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas was labelled ‘the 88-year-old autocratic leader’ of the West Bank. The abducted Israelis were Hamas’s ‘bargaining chips’. Aid that reaches the Gaza strip was ‘regularly mobbed by desperate people or seized by Hamas or organised crime groups’ — ‘residents said’. The same journalist quoted the Israeli Defence Force’s account of their own activities in factual terms:

‘The IDF will continue to operate in accordance with international law against Hamas which cynically embeds itself within hospitals and civilian infrastructure …’

Reporting IDF claims about its own standards without any warning of bias it is surely poor journalism, especially now that the International Court of Justice has accepted it as plausible that the IDF is committing genocide. Israel closely controls Gaza’s land borders and forbids Gazans access to the Mediterranean sea. If journalists identified Gaza as occupied territory and regularly reported Gazans’ prison-like confinement, reports would be more factually accurate and readers could understand the conflict better.

While the ‘Palestinian Territories’ are all occupied and controlled by the IDF, Israel permits Palestinians to elect their leaders and in 2007 Gazans elected a revolutionary party, Hamas. Hamas is regularly labelled ‘a terrorist organisation’ but readers are never informed that its electorate is incarcerated. American-Jewish political scientist Norman Finkelstein, proposes ‘concentration camp’ as an accurate term for Gazans’ conditions. The refusal of concentration camp inmates to accept cruelly confined circumstances of life is not unreasonable. A violent response to those who impose such conditions can be understood, if not forgiven.

Finkelstein’s conclusion concerning the events of October the 7th was that ‘you don’t justify what happened but you don’t condemn them either’. And if resisting occupation of one’s land by another state is legal in International law, then Hamas acted legally when organising an attack on the Israeli forces. This does not excuse or justify breaches of the law by particular soldiers or their leaders, but accurate reporting of Gazans’ incarcerated condition would allow Australians to better understand the tragic events we are witnessing.

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