It was the summer of 2004 and I had just finished writing a book about Sudan. I started casting around for another project and as my mind roamed over those parts of the world that attract me – Africa and the Arab countries – I realised that in my mental landscape of the Middle East there was a void which corresponded to Palestine. For all that the word Palestinian is constantly in the news there were few images that came to mind in association with it other than those connected with conflict: the angry chanting from keffiya-clad heads crowded together in funeral processions, the wailing of black-veiled women standing on the rubble of demolished homes, the earnest pleading of moustached politicians as they beg for a halt to the bloodshed. As for Palestine itself, did it still exist or had it long since disappeared into the great geo-political mill that swallowed up places like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and regurgitated them, fragmented and rebaptised? One heard of the Occupied Palestinian Territories but, come to think of it, rarely of Palestine.
Around the same time I came across a report produced by a group of Glasgow academics who had carried out a study on the public’s understanding of the Middle East conflict. The results were startling. They revealed a widespread ignorance about what must be one of the most widely reported and most longstanding struggles in the world today – the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.
Misunderstanding was rife about the most basic issues. Many people thought that the Occupied Territories were ‘occupied’ by the Palestinians. Others thought that the term referred to a border dispute between two countries which were both laying claim to a piece of land that separated them. Many had no idea that the occupation was a military one and assumed that the occupiers were simply the people living there. Some thought that the settlers were Palestinians. The majority of the interviewees had no idea where the Palestinian refugees were from, some suggesting Afghanistan, Iraq or Kosovo.
When questioned as to who was at fault, most thought that the Palestinians were the aggressors, that the Palestinians were trying to grab Israeli land, and that Israeli military action was invariably in response to Palestinian attack.
Digging deeper to find what lay at the root of these misconceptions, the researchers found that they were consistent with an uneven news coverage of Middle East events.
Israelis were twice as likely to be interviewed as Palestinians. US politicians – who tend to support Israel – were quoted twice as often as the more neutral British politicians. Israeli deaths and injuries were reported far more frequently than Palestinian ones, giving the impression that the Israelis suffered many more casualties than the Palestinians.
Analysis of the language used revealed that words with negative connotations were often used in talking of the Palestinians but much less so of the Israelis. Israeli deaths at the hands of Palestinians were described by words such as ‘murder’, ‘atrocity’, ‘savage’. Israelis killing Palestinians were merely ‘angry’ or ‘wielding a big stick’.
Added to this bias in reporting were the difficulties inherent in trying to cover a conflict with such a long and complex history. With an audience attention span of about twenty seconds per news item, presenters are unable to go into the detail which would explain what led up to any one event. They may say that the Israelis invaded a refugee camp in retaliation for a suicide bombing but have no time to say what the suicide bombing was in retaliation for, and even less to go back through the whole chain of preceding cause and effect.
The chain leads back some 4,000 years to the time of Abraham, the patriarch revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, whose story is told in the Bible. In the Book of Genesis God called on Abraham to leave his home in Ur, in present-day Iraq, and to travel to the land of Canaan where he promised him that his seed would inherit the land and that they would become a great nation. Although seventy-five at the time and childless, Abraham later had a son by Hagar, his maidservant, called Ishmael, and later still another child by Sarah, his wife, called Isaac. The Arabs are believed to be descended from Abraham through Ishmael, the Jews through Isaac.
According to the Jewish and Christian religions, when Isaac was a young man God ordered Abraham to sacrifice him as a test of his obedience. Abraham prepared the fire to make a burnt offering of his son but God stayed his hand at the last minute, telling him to slay a ram instead. The same story is found in Islam, the only difference being that Ishmael, not Isaac, is to be sacrificed. This event is pivotal to all three religions.
Over a period of centuries the descendants of Isaac conquered the land of Canaan. Under the leadership of David (who killed Goliath) they captured the city of Jerusalem and made it their capital. Solomon, the son of David, built a vast temple there on Mount Moriah (where Abraham had prepared to sacrifice his son). This temple, known as the First Temple, was destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar who conquered the Israelites and took them into captivity in Babylon. After their return from exile they built another temple on the same site. The Second Temple became the focus of Israelite religious and national life and was the scene of a number of events in the life of Christ. It was destroyed in 70 AD along with most of the city when the Romans, who by this time controlled the region, suppressed a Jewish revolt. All that remained of the temple was a stretch of wall. Known as the Western Wall, or Wailing Wall, it still stands today and is the main focal point for Jewish prayer and pilgrimage.
The events of 70 AD, followed by further conflict between Jews and Romans some sixty years later, resulted in the Jews being driven from their land and scattered far and wide, an event known as the Diaspora. Roman rule came to an end in the fourth century AD when Jerusalem was incorporated into the Byzantine empire by its founder, Emperor Constantine.
The first Muslim contact with Jerusalem came about 500 years later. The Prophet Muhammad is believed to have travelled overnight from Mecca to Jerusalem on the back of a supernatural animal which took him to Mount Moriah, or Temple Mount. From there he ascended in a visit to heaven. Shortly after Muhammad’s death Jerusalem was captured from the Byzantines by the Muslims and declared a Holy City of Islam. Since then Temple Mount has been occupied by a vast Islamic complex, including the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque. It is regarded as Islam’s third holiest shrine and, bounded as it is by the Western Wall, is a potential flashpoint for confrontation between Muslims and Jews.
After being fought over by Muslims and Christians for a couple of hundred years during the Crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the Holy Land, as Palestine was then called, remained under Muslim rule – first of the Egyptian Mamluks, then the Ottoman Turks – until the end of the First World War.
Although the population had remained predominantly Arab, the Jews were never entirely absent from the region. Their numbers in Palestine increased as the Jews of the Diaspora were driven further afield by a mounting anti-semitism, with some of them choosing to return to the land that their ancestors had left.
By the mid-nineteenth century support was gathering among both Jews and Christians for the idea of establishing a Jewish state. In 1897 the World Zionist Organisation was set up, its aim being the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries more Jews moved to Palestine, buying land and forming communities. In 1917 Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, stated in a letter, which became known as the Balfour Declaration, that the British Government ‘view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people’. The Balfour Declaration was to ring down through the following decades as a clarion call of betrayal and duplicity in the ears of succeeding generations of Palestinians.
After the First World War, the area now covered by Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Jordan was mandated by the League of Nations to the British. Under the terms of the mandate, Britain was to implement the Balfour Declaration and facilitate Jewish immigration. During the 1920s and 1930s the seeds of conflict were sown with the rapid expansion of the Jewish population, Arab rioting, and the formation of the Haganah and the Irgun, both Jewish militant groups. Towards the end of the Second World War Irgun declared war on the British rulers of Palestine and embarked on a guerrilla war of independence.
After the Second World War Britain granted independence to the region lying to the east of the Jordan River, now known as Jordan, but retained their mandate in the region west of the river, still called Palestine. Following the Nazi genocide European Jews were now flooding into the area. The Jewish fight for independence grew more vicious with bombings and killings which prefigure much of the Palestinian militant activity of later years.
In 1947 the United Nations voted to divide Palestine into two parts, one Jewish and the other Arab. Israel was set up as an independent Jewish state, but the Arabs rejected the UN plan. Britain, whose mandate had now been brought to end, withdrew, leaving its former charges to their fate. War broke out between the Jews and the Palestinian Arabs who were supported by Arabs from neighbouring countries. During the course of this war hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs were forced to flee their homes in what was now Israel – an event known as the Nakba (catastrophe). By 1949, the Israelis had defeated the Arabs and had taken even more land than that allocated to them by the UN. The bulk of the land remaining to the Palestinians (the West Bank) fell under the control of Jordan, while a further sliver of land in the south-west (the Gaza Strip) came under Egyptian control. Jerusalem was divided, with West Jerusalem belonging to the Israelis, East Jerusalem to the Palestinians.
In 1967 the Israelis, threatened by Arab armies gathering on its borders, launched an attack in which they captured the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem. Since then Israel has continued to occupy these conquered territories in defiance of a UN resolution ordering them to withdraw. In addition to the military occupation, Israel started a programme of settlement construction, installing communities of Israeli-Jews throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
This downturn in the Palestinian situation generated support for the burgeoning Palestine Liberation Organisation, headed by Yassir Arafat, and the 1970s was a period bloody with battles, assassinations and hijackings.
Over the next two decades the Palestinian fortunes see-sawed. A Palestinian uprising (intifada) in 1987 was followed in 1993 by the controversial Oslo Accords which gave the Palestinians limited self-rule under the newly-formed Palestinian National Authority (PNA) but fell far short of their expectations. Shortly afterwards Israel began to be subjected to a rash of suicide bombings, a second intifada broke out in 2000, and in 2002 Israel started to build the controversial Wall, or Separation Barrier, between itself and the Palestinians. In April 2003, the Quartet (the United Nations, United States, European Union and Russia) published the Road Map Peace Plan which aimed at the achievement of a two-state solution by 2005. By the summer of 2004 this solution was still nowhere in sight.
Despite the endless media discussions about the rights and wrongs of all this – perhaps because of them – I felt that most people generally perceived Palestinians one-dimensionally, as either victims or terrorists, depending on their own political perspective. I decided to go and spend some time there to see for myself. I wanted to put some human flesh on these bare stereotypical bones. I wanted also to try to tease out the tangled currents of the conflict in a way which would make it comprehensible for the bewildered news consumer.
As regards the political situation, my own feelings were that although I thought the Palestinians had been gravely wronged by the events of 1948, it was unrealistic to expect any turning back of the clock. The state of Israel was not going to be dismantled. But I strongly believed that the occupation should come to an end, that the Palestinians should be given every help to establish their own state and that amends should be made for the injustices they had suffered.
 Bad News From Israel: television news and public understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by Greg Philo and the Glasgow University Media Group