An injustice to the injustice

Palestinian refugees & the media

In the seven years that I have been monitoring British media coverage of Arab issues, I can confidently say that Palestinian refugees constitute the most maligned, misunderstood and under-reported aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is not only unfortunate but baffling, given its centrality to a just and lasting solution.   The refugee issue is maligned because certain proprietors, editors and journalists embrace Israel’s viewpoint; it is misunderstood because it is viciously targeted by a pro-Israel lobby that does not face a similarly strong pro-Palestinian, and particularly pro-refugee lobby (sadly, the two are not synonymous); and it is under-reported because, as a problem that will be 60 (yes, 60) years old next year, it has long ceased to be ‘newsworthy’.

 

This has resulted in outstanding ignorance about Palestinian refugees among the British public. For example, surveys undertaken a few years ago by Professor Greg Philo of the Glasgow University Media Group revealed that just 8% of people knew that the refugees were displaced from their homes and land when Israel was established in 1948.

Similarly, very few people knew that Israel’s territorial expansion in 1967 resulted in another wave of Palestinian refugees. Some even thought they came from Afghanistan!

According to Philo, this lack of understanding is due to media coverage, which “scores high on images of fighting, violence and drama but is low on explanation. ”His opinion should be taken seriously- his groundbreaking book Bad News from Israel focused on TV coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was cited by 82% of those surveyed as their main source of news on the issue.

The media had a perfect opportunity recently to properly cover, analyse and shed light on the refugee issue. The Arab summit of March 2007 re-launched the momentous Arab peace initiative, which promises Israel full peace in return for withdrawing from occupied land and agreeing to a just solution to the refugee problem. Once again, the media failed in this respect.

There were no editorials, commentaries or analyses of the refugee issue in the five daily British tabloids: the Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Express and Daily Star.

As well as the fact that they are far more politicised than many people realise, their monthly circulation figures, totaling some 8.5 million, are more than triple those of the five daily broadsheets(theDailyTelegraph, Times, Financial Times, Guardian and Independent), which total some 2.7 million.

Between the five broadsheets, there were only around a dozen editorials, commentaries or analyses mentioning Palestinian refugees during March and the first half of April. None specifically focused on the issue.

At no point was it made clear that Palestinians became refugees because of systematic ethnic cleansing. In around 60% of cases, readers would have no idea that Israel, or the Jewish forces that fought for its creation, had anything to do with it. In others, it seems as if Palestinians left of their own volition, or that this was just a consequence of war.

The closest we get to an adequate explanation is Guardian regular columnist Jonathan Freed land talking of “Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel’s creation in 1948.”

Despite the fact that he fails to mention the wave of refugees from 1967 (this was mentioned just once, by James Hider in the Times), even this implies an innocent, if unfortunate, consequence of Israel’s creation, rather than a deliberate policy to create a country with as much land and as few Arabs as possible.

One strange, if well-meaning statement, came from Chris Patten, former European Commissioner for foreign relations, in the FT: “To continue a blockade of Palestine while Hamas is sharing in government, with US banking sanctions that bite,” runs the “serious” risk that “Palestine would become no more than two walled refugee camps.”

Is Patten not aware that the West Bank is already dotted with refugee camps, and the vast majority of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are refugees?

Another serious deficiency in media coverage was the total absence of international and human rights law, which firmly back the rights of refugees, including the Palestinians.

In fact, the right of return was mentioned just twice in the six-week monitoring period (by an FT editorial and Independent Jerusalem correspondent Donald Macintyre), both times in quote marks, as if it is subjective and dubious. Freed land used the word “demand,” and the Times twice just used “return” in its editorials.

What we got a lot of, in contrast, was Israel’s justification for denying the rights of Palestinian refugees. “Israel says this ‘right of return’ would swamp its Jewish state,” said an FT editorial.

“Israel insists that any such right would be impossible to implement, spelling the demographic end of the country as a Jewish national home: Palestinians should instead return to the proposed Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza,” said Freed land.

How, I ask him, can Palestinians “return” to territories from where they did not come? This is akin to evicting him from his London home and saying he can “return” to Manchester.

Freed land continues: “If the language on refugees and borders [in the Arab peace initiative] were loosened, thereby denying Olmert a reason to say no, all the better.” So the onus is not on Israel to accept just terms, but on the Arabs to water down their offer until Israel find sits acceptable.

“Mr Olmert said Israel could not accept the entire package, especially the section dealing with a return of Palestinian refugees,” said a Times editorial. The refugee issue is “arguably the most neuralgic of all for most Israelis,” and “could yet be a reason for Mr Olmert’s rejection of the initiative,” according to Macintyre.

In fact, only Macintyre and the FT offered counter-arguments to Israel’s rejection, though even these were flawed.

“The Saudi argument - and that of Mr Abbas - is that this formulation still allows broad room for manoeuvre in actual negotiations but that it should not be changed ahead of them,” said Macintyre. “[T]he Arab formula points towards compensation rather than repatriation,” said the FT.

So the right of return only exists to be negotiated away, rather than worked towards, and compensation should be offered instead of return, rather than a legitimate right in itself along with repatriation.

Furthermore, there was only one mention during the monitoring period - by Tom Porteous of Human Rights Watch in the Independent - of the plight of Palestinians in Iraq, who are effectively refugees twice over: at the hands of Israel, and the chaos that has ensued since the US-led 2003 invasion and occupation.

The deficiencies in reporting Palestinian refugees that were highlighted during this monitoring period are typical of media coverage of the issue in general, not just in Britain but beyond. If Britons are ignorant of the problem because their media is lacking, just think of how much worse the situation is in the US, for example.

In an excellent article on Israel’s Arab citizens in the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper not known for publishing views sympathetic towards the Palestinians, Mike Smith wrote: “For decades, the world’s attention has dwelt on their Arab brothers and sisters who call themselves Palestinian and who live in the occupied territories or the refugee diaspora around the Middle East.”

If only this was the case. But it is never too late to start trying to get people to dwell on the refugee issue, and the best way to reach the masses is the media. By informing, engaging, correcting and educating the media, you simultaneously enlighten the public.

If the refugee issue has not received appropriate levels of support, it is because people do not know the facts. It would take a stone-cold heart to turn a blind eye to the injustice once the truth is revealed to them. Let us all ensure that the 60th anniversary of the Nakba does not go unnoticed. Is it not the least we can do for those who know nothing but dispossession?

Sharif Hikmat Nashashibi, is chairman and co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profitwatchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. Sharif has an MA in International Journalism, and has worked and trained at several major news organizations and international institutions, such as the UN in Palestine. Originally from Jerusalem, his father became a refugee in 1948.


In the seven years that I have been monitoring British media coverage of Arab issues, I can confidently say that Palestinian refugees constitute the most maligned, misunderstood and under-reported aspect of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is not only unfortunate but baffling, given its centrality to a just and lasting solution.

 The refugee issue is maligned because certain proprietors, editors and journalists embrace Israel’s viewpoint; it is misunderstood because it is viciously targeted by a pro-Israel lobby that does not face a similarly strong pro-Palestinian, and particularly pro-refugee lobby (sadly, the two are not synonymous); and it is under-reported because, as a problem that will be 60 (yes, 60) years old next year, it has long ceased to be ‘newsworthy’.

This has resulted in outstanding ignorance about Palestinian refugees among the British public. For example, surveys undertaken a few years ago by Professor Greg Philo of the Glasgow University Media Group revealed that just 8% of people knew that the refugees were displaced from their homes and land when Israel was established in 1948.

Similarly, very few people knew that Israel’s territorial expansion in 1967 resulted in another wave of Palestinian refugees. Some even thought they came from Afghanistan!

According to Philo, this lack of understanding is due to media coverage, which “scores high on images of fighting, violence and drama but is low on explanation. ”His opinion should be taken seriously- his groundbreaking book Bad News from Israel focused on TV coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which was cited by 82% of those surveyed as their main source of news on the issue.

The media had a perfect opportunity recently to properly cover, analyse and shed light on the refugee issue. The Arab summit of March 2007 re-launched the momentous Arab peace initiative, which promises Israel full peace in return for withdrawing from occupied land and agreeing to a just solution to the refugee problem. Once again, the media failed in this respect.

There were no editorials, commentaries or analyses of the refugee issue in the five daily British tabloids: the Sun, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Express and Daily Star.

As well as the fact that they are far more politicised than many people realise, their monthly circulation figures, totaling some 8.5 million, are more than triple those of the five daily broadsheets(theDailyTelegraph, Times, Financial Times, Guardian and Independent), which total some 2.7 million.

Between the five broadsheets, there were only around a dozen editorials, commentaries or analyses mentioning Palestinian refugees during March and the first half of April. None specifically focused on the issue.

At no point was it made clear that Palestinians became refugees because of systematic ethnic cleansing. In around 60% of cases, readers would have no idea that Israel, or the Jewish forces that fought for its creation, had anything to do with it. In others, it seems as if Palestinians left of their own volition, or that this was just a consequence of war.

The closest we get to an adequate explanation is Guardian regular columnist Jonathan Freed land talking of “Palestinian refugees displaced by Israel’s creation in 1948.”

Despite the fact that he fails to mention the wave of refugees from 1967 (this was mentioned just once, by James Hider in the Times), even this implies an innocent, if unfortunate, consequence of Israel’s creation, rather than a deliberate policy to create a country with as much land and as few Arabs as possible.

One strange, if well-meaning statement, came from Chris Patten, former European Commissioner for foreign relations, in the FT: “To continue a blockade of Palestine while Hamas is sharing in government, with US banking sanctions that bite,” runs the “serious” risk that “Palestine would become no more than two walled refugee camps.”

Is Patten not aware that the West Bank is already dotted with refugee camps, and the vast majority of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are refugees?

Another serious deficiency in media coverage was the total absence of international and human rights law, which firmly back the rights of refugees, including the Palestinians.

In fact, the right of return was mentioned just twice in the six-week monitoring period (by an FT editorial and Independent Jerusalem correspondent Donald Macintyre), both times in quote marks, as if it is subjective and dubious. Freed land used the word “demand,” and the Times twice just used “return” in its editorials.

What we got a lot of, in contrast, was Israel’s justification for denying the rights of Palestinian refugees. “Israel says this ‘right of return’ would swamp its Jewish state,” said an FT editorial.

“Israel insists that any such right would be impossible to implement, spelling the demographic end of the country as a Jewish national home: Palestinians should instead return to the proposed Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza,” said Freed land.

How, I ask him, can Palestinians “return” to territories from where they did not come? This is akin to evicting him from his London home and saying he can “return” to Manchester.

Freed land continues: “If the language on refugees and borders [in the Arab peace initiative] were loosened, thereby denying Olmert a reason to say no, all the better.” So the onus is not on Israel to accept just terms, but on the Arabs to water down their offer until Israel find sits acceptable.

“Mr Olmert said Israel could not accept the entire package, especially the section dealing with a return of Palestinian refugees,” said a Times editorial. The refugee issue is “arguably the most neuralgic of all for most Israelis,” and “could yet be a reason for Mr Olmert’s rejection of the initiative,” according to Macintyre.

In fact, only Macintyre and the FT offered counter-arguments to Israel’s rejection, though even these were flawed.

“The Saudi argument - and that of Mr Abbas - is that this formulation still allows broad room for manoeuvre in actual negotiations but that it should not be changed ahead of them,” said Macintyre. “[T]he Arab formula points towards compensation rather than repatriation,” said the FT.

So the right of return only exists to be negotiated away, rather than worked towards, and compensation should be offered instead of return, rather than a legitimate right in itself along with repatriation.

Furthermore, there was only one mention during the monitoring period - by Tom Porteous of Human Rights Watch in the Independent - of the plight of Palestinians in Iraq, who are effectively refugees twice over: at the hands of Israel, and the chaos that has ensued since the US-led 2003 invasion and occupation.

The deficiencies in reporting Palestinian refugees that were highlighted during this monitoring period are typical of media coverage of the issue in general, not just in Britain but beyond. If Britons are ignorant of the problem because their media is lacking, just think of how much worse the situation is in the US, for example.

In an excellent article on Israel’s Arab citizens in the Daily Telegraph, a newspaper not known for publishing views sympathetic towards the Palestinians, Mike Smith wrote: “For decades, the world’s attention has dwelt on their Arab brothers and sisters who call themselves Palestinian and who live in the occupied territories or the refugee diaspora around the Middle East.”

If only this was the case. But it is never too late to start trying to get people to dwell on the refugee issue, and the best way to reach the masses is the media. By informing, engaging, correcting and educating the media, you simultaneously enlighten the public.

If the refugee issue has not received appropriate levels of support, it is because people do not know the facts. It would take a stone-cold heart to turn a blind eye to the injustice once the truth is revealed to them. Let us all ensure that the 60th anniversary of the Nakba does not go unnoticed. Is it not the least we can do for those who know nothing but dispossession?

Sharif Hikmat Nashashibi, is chairman and co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profitwatchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. Sharif has an MA in International Journalism, and has worked and trained at several major news organizations and international institutions, such as the UN in Palestine. Originally from Jerusalem, his father became a refugee in 1948.