Two weeks ago the Sunday New York Times Magazine published a long cover-story on thirty years of failed Middle East peace efforts between Israelis and Palestinians, a tragedy that resulted in the enormous bloodshed and destruction of the last couple of months. The discussion featured three Israeli and three Palestinian academics, moderated by staff writer Emily Bazelon, and the overall tone—for better or for worse—probably reflected the historical and ideological assumptions of the liberal Zionists who dominate the editorial leadership of the Times and most other major American media outlets.
Bazelon’s introduction ran a few paragraphs, summarizing the history of the conflict, which was portrayed as a struggle between right and right, with two unfortunate peoples battling over the same small piece of land. An early sentence stated that the Israelis saw the 1948 war as “an existential fight for survival, one that came just a few years after the Holocaust,” and that latter event, so endlessly covered in our media, obviously required no explanation for Times readers. But in the following sentence we were told that for three generations, Palestinians have similarly regarded 1948 as the year of their Nakba. That Arabic word was far less familiar to most Westerners, so Bazelon went on to explain that it meant “catastrophe,” the tragic circumstances under which 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forcibly expelled from their ancient homeland.
The following Wednesday, another Times article on the Israel/Gaza conflict similarly conjoined the Holocaust and the Nakba, this time in a single sentence, as had a different Times story a week earlier. These days there is even a Wikipedia entry running 3,300 words on those two interlinked historical traumas, so separately meaningful to Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and in 2018 an entire book was published with that title.
The increasing appearance of the term Nakba in elite mainstream publications such as the Times represents an important ideological victory for the Palestinian cause. Our media creates our reality, so concepts or historical events that lack an identifying name are far less likely to be considered important and remembered. Thus, the growing use of that one word may carry greater political weight than the actual historical fact that 700,000 pitiful refugees were expelled from their homes in Palestine.
There are now widespread suspicions that the current Israeli military attacks in Gaza are intended to drive all its Palestinians into the Sinai desert of Egypt, and will be followed by attempts to do the same to the Palestinians of the West Bank. Indeed, after decades of denying the reality of the 1948 Nakba, some top Israeli leaders are now proclaiming their plans for a new and far greater Nakba, finally ridding the Greater Israel they control of its unwanted Palestinian inhabitants.
I’m not sure when I first encountered the word Nakba in any of my publications. It might have been during the late 1980s when the first Intifada or “uprising” became a widely featured story regarding the Middle East, describing the Palestinian protests, violent and non-violent, in the West Bank and Gaza against what was then two decades of Israeli occupation. Or perhaps it was a few years later during the early 1990s, when the Oslo Peace negotiations between Israel and the PLO seemed set to finally resolve the conflict and move the region towards a reasonable peace agreement, one that included the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.
I had already often seen the phrase “Palestinian refugees” in many news stories, with the UN camps of the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, and elsewhere holding well over a million of those people, and I was vaguely aware that they’d fled from their former homes in Israel during the first Arab-Israeli war of 1948.
The media accounts that I casually absorbed over the years had been rather vague and sketchy, and they often presented severe distortions or outright falsehoods about those important events, being heavily shaped by the propaganda of Israel and its legion of partisans. We were often told that the flight of the Palestinians had been promoted by radio broadcasts of three or four neighboring Arab countries, which urged them to clear the ground for the invading armies that were expected to snuff out the newly-founded Jewish State. Those departures had been intended as very temporary, but after the professional Arab armies were unexpectedly defeated by the desperate, untrained Zionist militias, a Palestinian sojourn expected to last days or weeks ultimately stretched into years and decades. The unfortunate hardships of refugee life were worsened by the cruel refusal of the Arab states to integrate the Palestinians into their own societies, a failure that sharply contrasted with Israel’s rapid and successful assimilation of the many hundreds of thousands of Jews who had been expelled from Arab countries around the same time. Indeed, those neighboring Arab regimes sought to use the Palestinian refugees merely as political pawns against the newly established State of Israel, whose existence they viewed with such unremitting hostility. But little of this narrative was true, and crucial legal and historical facts were completely omitted.
As might be expected, the difficult existence of those many hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in refugee camps eventually fostered the rise of violent militant organizations such as the PLO, which sought to capture the world’s attention through high-profile terrorist attacks. By the early 1970s, their plane hijackings drew widespread attention and this was followed by the infamous seizure and killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games. Other terrorist groups such as Germany’s notorious Baader-Meinhof gang often cooperated with the PLO, and in 1976 their joint hijacking operation had been foiled by a bold Israeli commando raid at Entebbe airport in Uganda.
Prior to those incidents, the plight of the Palestinians had largely been ignored. But within a few years, the term “Palestinian terrorist” and “Palestinian refugee” both became widespread across our media, though the latter still included very little discussion of the circumstances that had originally created their predicament.
Far more typical was their villainous portrayal in Hollywood fare, such as the popular 1977 film Black Sunday, in which American FBI and Israeli Mossad agents together foiled a Palestinian terrorist plot to kill 80,000 Americans by blowing up the Goodyear Blimp over the Superbowl stadium, with our own President being one of the intended victims.
Although bombs and bullets have been weapons widely used during the 75 years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I think that the role of media coverage has been far more crucial to its trajectory, with the Israelis enjoying an enormous advantage in that regard given the massive pro-Israel bias of Western journalists and publications, let alone Hollywood productions. In evaluating both current and past events, thoughtful analysts should always account for that extreme bias—and the very sharply tilted playing field it creates—if they wish to correctly determine the reality of events.
I think that the first substantial wave of sympathetic media coverage the Palestinians ever received may have come in the wake of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, culminating in the long, brutal siege of Beirut. Ariel Sharon, the hardline Defense Minister of Menachem Begin’s right-wing Israeli government, had been the mastermind of that project, which resulted in the deaths of perhaps 20,000 Palestinians and Lebansese civilians and his actions were roundly condemned by Times correspondent Thomas Friedman. The endless Israeli references to Palestinian “terrorists” were even ridiculed in Doonesbury:…