Two Western journalists recently asked to be accompanied to the Gaza Strip to interview Jewish settlers living there.
No, this is not the opening line of a joke. These journalists were in Israel at the end of 2015, and they were deadly serious.
Imagine their embarrassment when it was pointed out to them that Israel had completely pulled out of the Gaza Strip ten years ago.
You have to have some pity for them. These foreign colleagues were rookies who aimed to make an impression by traveling to a "dangerous" place such as the Gaza Strip to report on the "settlers" living there. Their request, however, did not take anyone, even my local colleagues, by surprise.
These "parachute journalists," as they are occasionally called, are catapulted into the region without being briefed on the basic facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Sadly, correspondents such as these are more the rule than the exception. A particular clueless British reporter springs to mind:
When Israel assassinated Hamas's founder and spiritual leader, Ahmed Yassin, in 2004, a British newspaper dispatched its crime reporter to Jerusalem to cover the event. To this reporter, the region, as well as Hamas, were virgin territory. His editors had sent him to the Middle East, he said, because no one else was willing to go.
Well, our hero reported on the assassination of Ahmed Yassin from the bar of the American Colony Hotel. His byline claimed that he was in the Gaza Strip and had interviewed relatives of the slain leader of Hamas.
Sometimes one feels as if one is some sort of a lightning rod for these tales. Another Ramallah-based colleague shared that a few years ago he received a request from a cub correspondent to help arrange an interview with Yasser Arafat. Except at that point, Arafat had been dead for several years. Fresh out of journalism school and unknowledgeable about the Middle East, the journalist was apparently considered by his editors a fine candidate for covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In the three decades of covering this beat, journalists of this type have become quite familiar to me. They board a plane, read an article or two in the Times and feel ready to be experts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Some of them have even assured me that before 1948 there was a Palestinian state here with East Jerusalem as its capital. Like the ill-informed young colleagues who wished to interview the nonexistent Jewish settlers in the Gaza Strip of 2015, they were somewhat taken aback to learn that prior to 1967, the West Bank had been under the control of Jordan, while the Gaza Strip had been ruled by Egypt.
Is there some difference between an Arab citizen of Israel and a Palestinian from the West Bank or Gaza Strip? My foreign colleagues may well not be able to say. Does the Hamas charter really state that the Islamist movement seeks to replace Israel with an Islamic empire? If so, my international co-workers may not be able to tell you.
One memorable journalist, several years ago, asked to visit the "destroyed" city of Jenin, where "thousands of Palestinians had been massacred by Israel in 2002." She was referring to the IDF operation in the Jenin refugee camp where nearly 60 Palestinians, many of them gunmen, and 23 IDF soldiers were killed in a battle.
Pity aside, this degree of incomprehension -- and professional laziness -- is difficult to imagine in the Internet age.
But when it comes to covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ignorance apparently is bliss. Misconceptions about what goes on here plague the international media. The binary good guy/bad guy designation tops the list. Someone has to be the good guy (the Palestinians are assigned that job) and someone has to be the bad guy (the Israelis get that one). And everything gets refracted through that prism.
Yet the problem is deeper still. Many Western journalists covering the Middle East do not feel the need to conceal their hatred for Israel and for Jews. But when it comes to the Palestinians, these journalists see no evil. Foreign journalists based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have for years refused to report on the financial corruption and human rights violations that are rife under the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas regimes. They possibly fear being considered "Zionist agents" or "propagandists" for Israel.
Finally, there are the local journalists hired by Western reporters and media outlets to help them cover the conflict. These journalists may refuse to cooperate on any story that is deemed "anti-Palestinian." Palestinian "suffering" and the "evil" of the Israeli "occupation" are the only admissible topics. Western journalists, for their part, are keen not to anger their Palestinian colleagues: they do not wish to be denied access to Palestinian sources.
Thus, the international media's indifference in the face of the current wave of stabbings and car-rammings against Israelis should come as no surprise. One would be hard-pressed to find a Western journalist or a media organization referring to Palestinian assailants as "terrorists." In fact, international headlines often show more sympathy toward Palestinian attackers who are killed in the line of aggression than toward the Israelis who were attacked in the first place.
Of course, the above tales hardly apply to all foreign journalists. Some correspondents from the US, Canada, Australia and Europe are both very knowledgeable and very fair. Unfortunately, however, these represent but a small group among mainstream media in the West.
Western reporters, especially those who are "parachuted" into the Middle East, would do well to remember that journalism in this region is not about being pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian. Rather, it is about being "pro" the truth, even when the truth runs straight up against what they would prefer to believe.
Khaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem.