Distributed March 2002
Copyright ©2002 by Elliott Colla

Op-Ed Editor: Mark Nickel
About 640 Words

Elliott Colla

Censorship and violence in the Middle East

A hard look at what Israeli military censors cut from news articles before their publication reveals a pattern: The censors sought to stifle the notion that the death of Palestinians might have a pattern. Incidents of violence against Palestinians could only be reported as isolated occurrences.

As several thousand Israeli soldiers entered the Palestinian city of Ramallah, I nervously called a Jewish friend in Jerusalem. "Sharon has found a solution to his problem," this peace activist said. "Israeli hawks believe that high numbers of Palestinian deaths are a sign that the 'crackdown on terror' is working. But Sharon's liberal partners cringe at the thought that he might create another Sabra and Shatila." It was in these Beruit refugee camps that several hundred Palestinians were slaughtered in 1982, events which have the International Court of Justice in Belgium currently considering a case against Sharon as a war criminal.

Intrigued, I asked further. What do you see as the strategy exactly? "Israeli gunships move into a village. A few Palestinians are killed during 'anti-terrorist reprisals.' Then the troops move to another village where others may be killed. The result is a formidable body count, but the incidents, appearing separate, do not add up to a massacre." Her last comments were startling. "Does anyone actually believe that increasing the loss of Palestinian life will prevent the loss of Jewish life? Did the Nazi crackdown on the Warsaw Ghetto stop Jewish resistance?"

My friend's account of Sharon's volatile policies reminded me of a crucial moment in my own education 13 years ago. A fresh-faced university graduate from California, I first crossed into the West Bank as part of a peace delegation, meeting with students in Bethlehem, listening to their stories about living under occupation. We met with farmers from the Christian village of Beit Suhur nearby who had tried a new form of peaceful protest: Carefully, they refused to pay their taxes to the military government. Only weeks earlier, Israeli troops had punished this little village for their act of civil disobedience by forcibly collecting "taxes owed." The village's tomato crops were confiscated, their greenhouses destroyed. During that short visit to Bethlehem in 1989, I began to understand that the Palestinian Intifada was not motivated by a hatred of Jews, nor any clash of civilizations. Christian and Muslim Palestinians were rebelling because their land was being forcibly occupied, confiscated and settled and because Palestinians who resisted this were regularly subjected to torture and assassination.

After our meetings in Bethlehem, I went to pursue more bookish research in the East Jerusalem offices of the Palestinian newspaper, al-Fajr. The paper's archivist suggested that I look through the records left by the Israeli military censors who reviewed al-Fajr before it was allowed to be published. I found the results puzzling: The military censor did not repress "basic facts" when Palestinians were killed in clashes with the Israeli Army. On the contrary, the military government allowed the paper to publish the name and age of the victim, as well as the time and place of death.

I began to look harder at what the censors did cut, comparing the original to the censor's copy. What I found was that journalists were allowed to report on individual deaths and particular incidents. They were not allowed to connect them. A report could not mention that Palestinians were often killed around a particular checkpoint or settlement, or that certain military units were routinely involved in bloody confrontations. What the censor sought to stifle was the notion that the death of Palestinians might have a pattern. Incidents of violence against Palestinians could only be reported as isolated occurrences.

The bloodshed is now out of control. We can wait no longer to recognize certain patterns. More than 1,100 Palestinians have died since September 2000, and more than 18,000 others have been injured, a shocking proportion of them children. Is it possible that so many Palestinian deaths are inadvertent, unconnected incidents? An honest answer to this question depends on a recognition of the basic reality of a 35-year-old occupation. In the meantime, the isolated incidents of violence will only accelerate, no less systematically.

Elliott Colla is assistant professor of comparative literature at Brown University and is an Associate of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), an independent think tank in Washington D.C.

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