MORE ON MENDES, PILGER AND “PALESTINIAN LAND”
COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 19 Sep 2009
Philip Mendes protests, in his statement to TMS, that he himself is a supporter of a “two-state solution” and that, by comparison, John Pilger is “a hardline extremist [whose] public writings all suggest a position favouring the dissolution of the existing State of Israel, and its replacement by an Arab state of Greater Palestine”. This is, in fact, typical of the misrepresentation of Pilger’s writing which is Mendes’ stock-in-trade: flatly contradicted by, for instance, the concluding in-vision link in Pilger’s best-known public writing on the subject, the BAFTA-award winning documentary, Palestine Is Still The Issue (2002):
“Israelis will never have peace until they recognise that Palestinians have the same right to the same peace and the same independence that they enjoy. The occupation of Palestine should end now. Then, the solution is clear. Two countries, Israel and Palestine, neither dominating nor menacing the other”.
Earlier, Pilger makes it clear that, in this film, the independence of Palestine means a state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the territories occupied since 1967:
“[The establishment of the State of Israel] cost the Palestinians 78% of their country. Today, they are seeking only the remaining 22% of their homeland. For 35 years, that homeland has been dominated by Israel”.
In support of his claims, Mendes pounces on a 2007 article by Pilger in the New Statesman magazine, which reports the view of the historian, Ilan Pappé, that “a single democratic state, to which the Palestinian refugees are given the right of return, is the only feasible and just solution, and that a sanctions and boycott campaign is critical in achieving this… A boycott of Israeli institutions, goods and services, says Pappé, ‘will not change the [Israeli] position in a day, but it will send a clear message that [the premises of Zionism] are racist and unacceptable in the 21st century . . . They would have to choose’.
And so would the rest of us”.
This, Mendes says, proves that Pilger has adopted an “anti-Zionist fundamentalist perspective… which is beyond rational debate, and unconnected to contemporary or historical reality”. Mendes is not a specialist writer on media, whatever his protestations, and this shows, first of all, some confusion over the role of journalism. There are good reasons why a journalist, writing in 2007, should report the views of Ilan Pappé, and good reasons why a journalist in the engagé tradition of Pilger would commend them to our attention. That is not quite the same as adopting them, however, and should not be mistaken for it.
The substantive point is, the establishment of full Palestinian statehood in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip has been seen as the centrepiece of a plan for Palestinian refugees to exercise their right of return. These are the people driven out by ethnic cleansing in 1948, and their descendants, who now number in the millions (a contemporary and historical reality, indeed, albeit one that merits no mention in Mendes’ article). For a much smaller number to make a ‘symbolic’ return to their actual homes in Israel, together with the creation of an independent state for the rest, could offer a form of justice for the wrongs they have suffered, and one that could also be acceptable to Israelis.
A report by the International Crisis Group, in 2004, encapsulates this point:
“Palestinians will assess any comprehensive settlement as a package deal, and compromise on the refugee question will be facilitated if core needs are met elsewhere. Nevertheless, the centrality of the refugee issue to Palestinian identity and politics means a solution that does not meet minimum requirements – in particular some form of acknowledgment of responsibility by Israel – is likely to be deemed illegitimate by refugees and non-refugees alike”.
The continued expansion and buttressing of seized land in the occupied territories is making a two-state solution, in the opinion of many observers, a more distant prospect, however, as Annabel McGoldrick and I heard in interviews recorded as long ago as 2003 for our film, News from the Holy Land. The ‘facts on the ground’ effectively, therefore, re-open the question of how the refugees will be able to exercise their rights, and it is in this context that a single-state solution to the conflict is now being debated, by Pappé and many others.
That, surely, is something that a journalist is entitled to report, without thereby qualifying to be called a “fundamentalist”. To attach such a label is to contribute – no doubt unintentionally in this case – to the appalling narrowing of debate in Australia that is typified by the bans on student groups and the SBS directive.
SBS and BBC
It’s emerged, meanwhile, that the same question the SBS Ombudsman, Sally Begbie, was asked to consider was also put to the BBC fully five years earlier, when it was met with the opposite response. An item on the corporation’s website says:
“The BBC Governors considered this issue in a complaint which was referred to in the programme complaints bulletin of July 2004. Their decision was that, although the complainant objected to references to ‘Palestinian land’ and ‘Arab land’, these terms appropriately reflected the language of UN resolutions”.
In my own complaint to Begbie, in protest at her directive, I ask what expert opinion she consulted, before making her ruling – it would be very difficult to find anyone qualified in international law, international relations or my own field of peace and conflict studies who would take any different view from that of the BBC governors. I also make a recommendation:
“There are a few people, mainly on the Right of Israeli politics, who dispute the fact that these territories are Palestinian land. Perhaps they should be treated, by your journalists, in the same way as people who dispute that anthropogenic global warming is underway? That is, occasionally report their view, and attempt to tell us why they think as they do, but emphasise that the settled consensus of international expert opinion lies on the other side of the question. For all normal purposes, the rightful Palestinian ownership of those territories can – like climate change – be reported as a fact”.
At least we can be comforted that, today, there are plenty of opportunities (like TMS) to peer round the corners of mainstream political and media discourses and reach our own conclusions. The evidence is that many are, indeed, doing so: a recent opinion poll by Roy Morgan Research, and commissioned by the Sydney-based Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine, asked 636 Australians whether their sympathies lie more with the Israelis or with the Palestinians. Despite the pro-Israel bias in political and media representations of the conflict, 28.0% said with the Palestinians, 25.0% with neither and 24.5% with the Israelis. Twenty-three percent said they couldn’t say.
When asked whether they were aware of the events in January concerning the Gaza military campaign, 38.0% said they knew “a lot” or “a fair amount” about the situation, 61.0% said they did not know much at all or “nothing” and just 1.0% couldn’t say.
Interestingly, of the 38.0% who said they knew “a lot” or “a fair amount”, a much bigger percentage expressed sympathy for the Palestinians (44.5%) than for the Israelis (29.5%).
Some 42.0% of Australians found Israel’s actions in Gaza “not justified” whereas only 29.0% found it “justified”. The rest said they “couldn’t say”.
It’s up to all of us to seek out information, perspectives and versions of events that are subjugated and suppressed in the public sphere. That’s why the award of the Sydney Peace Prize to John Pilger is so valuable – it’s a tool in our hands to re-open public debate over these and other matters, and push back the dead hand of censorship.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 19 Sep 2009.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: MORE ON MENDES, PILGER AND “PALESTINIAN LAND”, is included. Thank you.
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