25 November 2010

Publish It Not

The Link - Volume 43, Issue 5 | by Jonathan Cook | Nov-Dec 2010

In the mid-1990s, I arrived in Jerusalem for the first time–then as a tourist–with the potent Western myth at the front of my consciousness: that of Israel as “a light unto the nations,” the plucky underdog facing a menacing Arab world. A series of later professional shocks as a freelance journalist reporting on Israel would shatter those assumptions.

These disillusioning experiences came in the early stages of the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in late 2000. At the time I was often writing for Britain’s Guardian newspaper, first as a staff member based in the foreign department at its head office in London, then later as a freelance journalist in Nazareth. The Guardian has earned an international reputation—including in Israel—as the Western newspaper most critical of Israel’s actions. That may be true, but I quickly found that there were still very clear, and highly unusual, limitations on what could be written about Israel.

Particularly problematic for the Guardian—as with other news media —was anything that questioned Israel’s claim to being a democracy or highlighted the contradictions between that claim and Israel’s Jewish self-definition. The Guardian’s most famous editor, C P Scott, was a high-profile lobbyist for Jewish rights in what was then Palestine. He was also instrumental in bringing about the Balfour Declaration—the British government’s commitment to the Zionist movement in 1917 to create a “national home” in Palestine for Jews.

Thus, I was not entirely surprised that an account I submitted based on my investigations of an apparent shoot-to-kill policy by the Israeli police against its own Palestinian citizens at the start of the second intifada was sat on for months by the paper. After I made repeated queries, the features editor informed me that he could not run it because it was no longer “fresh.”

Another report about the suspected use by Israel of an experimental type of tear gas against schoolchildren near Bethlehem—and earlier in Gaza— was rejected. Eyewitness testimony I had collected from respected French doctors working in local hospitals who believed the gas was causing the children nerve damage—a suspicion shared by a leading international human rights organization—was dismissed as “inadequate.” The foreign editor told me he was concerned that no other journalists had reported the story—leading me to wonder for the first time in my career whether newspapers were actually interested in exclusives.

I also remember arguing with the foreign desk about another story I offered on a new section of the wall Israel was starting to build in Jerusalem, on the sensitive site of the Mount of Olives, in time for Easter 2004. It would block a famous procession that had been held for hundreds of years by Christian pilgrims every Palm Sunday, following the route Jesus took on a donkey from the Biblical town of Bethany into Jerusalem. I was flabbergasted when an editor told me it was of no interest. “Readers are tired of stories about the wall,” she said, apparently ignoring the fact that the story also raised troubling concerns about the protection of religious freedoms and Christian tradition in the Holy Land.

The most disturbing moment professionally, however, followed my investigation into the death of a United Nations worker, and British citizen, Iain Hook, in Jenin refugee camp at the hands of an Israeli sniper in 2002. As the only journalist to have actually gone to the U.N. compound in Jenin in the immediate aftermath of his death, I was able to piece together what had happened, speak to Palestinian witnesses and later get access to details of a suppressed U.N. report into the killing.

Israel claimed that the sniper who shot Hook in the back believed the U.N. official was really a Palestinian militant holding a grenade, rather than a mobile phone, and that he was about to throw it at Israeli troops. My investigation showed that the sniper’s account had to be a lie. From his position on the top floor of a small apartment block overlooking the compound, the sniper could not have misidentified through his telescopic sights either the distinctive red-haired Hook or the phone. In any case, Hook would not have been able to throw anything from out of the compound because it was surrounded by a high concrete wall and a chainmail fence right up to the metal awning that covered the entire site. If Hook had thrown a grenade, it would have bounced right back at him - as the sniper, who had been positioned in the apartment for several hours, must have known.

When I offered this investigation to the Guardian’s foreign editor, he sounded worried. Again I was told, as if in admonition, that no other media had covered the story. But it seemed to me that this time even the foreign editor realized he was offering excuses rather than reasons for not publishing. As I argued my case, he agreed to publish a small article looking at the diplomatic fall-out from Hook’s killing, and the mounting pressure on the U.N. He had bought me off.

Shortly afterwards I recruited Chris McGreal, the Guardian’s recently appointed Jerusalem bureau chief, to my struggle to get Hook’s story told. McGreal, the paper’s distinguished South Africa correspondent who covered the apartheid era, had quickly brought a much keener critical edge to the Guardian’s coverage of Israel—and, from what I saw, had battled hard for the privilege. He lobbied for the paper to print my article and personally took the project under his wing.

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