Western media reporting of the Israel-Palestine war reveals a set of priorities which can only be understood as “a racist hierarchy of concern”.
Jonathan Cook is the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His website and blog can be found at www.jonathan-cook.net
Cross-posted from Middle East Eye
The lead foreign story for the BBC on 13 November should have been a no-brainer. As Israeli soldiers surrounded al-Shifa hospital in northern Gaza, preparing to storm it, dozens of premature babies inside the facility had been removed from their incubators. The hospital no longer had any power to run the machines.
Distressing footage showed the babies huddled together in a makeshift, foil-lined pen, shivering from cold. Several had already died.
The symbolism was hard to miss. Gaza’s civilians were huddled together, too, after Israel had bombed their homes to rubble and ordered them to move south. They were exposed and vulnerable against Israel’s wrath. And growing numbers were dying.
The babies story was both heart-wrenching and infuriating. Israel had been repeatedly warned by the United Nations that this would be one of the terrible consequences of its collective punishment of Gaza’s population, denying the fuel needed to generate electricity. Israel simply ignored the warnings.
But editors at the BBC’s News at Six decided to lead the foreign coverage not with the babies being killed by Israel’s withholding of fuel but with a story from the other side of the divide. It must have been one of the most perverse news judgments on record.
Instead, the BBC led with the brother of a British-Israeli man who had been killed during Hamas’ attack on 7 October. The attack itself was by then more than a month old, which even the BBC seemed to understand could not justify demoting the dying babies from the top foreign news slot.
A better angle was needed. And it was this: the BBC reported that the brother was increasingly wondering whether it was safe for him to remain in Britain. This was a sentiment shared by many other Jews, according to the report.
Paradoxically, the implication was that for British Jews it might be a safer alternative to move to Israel, despite weeks of western coverage highlighting Israelis’ fears about their vulnerability following Hamas’s attack. Did this British man really think he would be more secure in the same state in which his brother had just been killed in a mass atrocity? The BBC’s reporter did not pose the question.
Hierarchy of concern
So what evidence did the brother cite to justify his fears? He told the BBC that he found the marches in the UK for Gaza upsetting and intimidating. Chants like “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” were, he observed, evidence of deep-rooted and growing antisemitism in British society.
The problem is not just that many British Jews assume the UK has an antisemitism problem based on a highly dubious interpretation of the chant’s meaning. It is that establishment media organisations are echoing that misunderstanding and treating it as more newsworthy than Israel killing Palestinian babies, with the UK government’s blessing.
It is just one illustration of a pattern of reporting by western media outlets skewing their news priorities in ways that reveal a racist hierarchy of concern. Jewish fears are of greater import than actual Palestinian deaths, even babies’ deaths.
The hypocrisy is especially hard to stomach, given a central Israeli justification for its subsequent genocidal rampage through Gaza. Israel promoted the claim that Hamas had beheaded 40 Israeli babies on 7 October – a story that was widely reported as fact, even though no evidence was ever produced for it.
The media has revisited the events of 7 October for weeks, desperately trying to find fresh angles to maintain a sense of “balance” in the suffering of both sides. But, as the downgrading of the al-Shifa babies story underscores, coverage of Israel’s trauma often comes at the expense of reporting on the far worse, and current, torment faced by Palestinians.
On the BBC news on 20 November, for example, a story about the agonies of the families of the Israeli hostages had three times as much time dedicated to it as the plight of Palestinians in Gaza – on a day when Israel attacked another hospital, the Indonesian, and rained down more bombs on Palestinian civilians.
Also strangely, when media outlets consider the suffering of the hostages, they barely even allude to the fact that the most terrifying part of the hostages’ ordeal is being subjected to the same Israeli bombing campaign as that faced by Palestinians.
The intense focus on the plight of the hostages held by Hamas contrasts strikingly with the complete lack of interest, both historic and current, in Israel’s own hostages: the Palestinian women and children, often seized by masked soldiers in the middle of the night, who are locked up in Israeli jails, where they are rarely, if ever, able to see family.
Though the media refer to them simply as “prisoners”, they have been either jailed without trial or prosecuted in military courts with an almost 100 per cent conviction rate.
Another unmentionable is that western war correspondents, so ready to risk their lives for a story in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, are keeping out of Gaza, or embedding with the Israeli army – and not just because Israel orders them to stay outside. If they wished, they could find a way in.
Their news outlets refuse to let them in because they know that Israel’s bombing campaign is so ruthless, so untargeted, so unpredictable, that there would be too much danger of their reporters being injured or killed.
That very fact ought to be part of the news story. But that would require turning upside down the narrative framework underpinning western reporting.
These editorial decisions make sense only because a manufactured political climate dominates in the West. Israel and Israelis, even Israeli soldiers enforcing apartheid rule, are treated as innocents, while ordinary Palestinians, even babies, are portrayed as complicit in the mindless barbarism Hamas stands accused of.
The very premises of western coverage wipe from the slate decades of brutalising Israeli occupation and illegal Jewish settlement of Palestinian territory, as well as an inhuman 16-year siege of Gaza. In media coverage, the roles of occupier and occupied, of predator and prey, of abuser and victim, have been reversed.
This is also the only way to make sense of the continuing furore over the chant that was considered more newsworthy than Israel’s reckless abuse and endangerment of premature babies.
Shortly before she was sacked as home secretary, Suella Braverman called for the government to criminalise as hate speech slogans such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”. She had earlier called for the banning of the Palestinian flag at demonstrations.
Hers is far from a rogue view. The government was reported this month to be seriously considering outlawing slogans protesting against the bombing of Gaza, classing them as support for terrorism.
Lord Carlile, who oversaw the drafting of the 2006 Terrorism Act, threw his weight behind the idea, arguing that protesters who chant “From the river to the sea” ought to be prosecuted.
Predictably under Labour leader Keir Starmer, there is bipartisan support for repressing any signs of solidarity with Palestinians. MP Andy McDonald was suspendedfrom the parliamentary party for calling for equality for Israelis and Palestinians, presumably because he added the phrase “between the river and the sea”.
Apparently any mention of that phrase, in any context, equates to support for the extermination of Israelis or Jews.
Even supposed “free speech absolutist” Elon Musk, owner of X (formerly Twitter), fell for this canard. He called phrases like “From the river to the sea” a “euphemism”, adding that they “necessarily imply genocide”. He threatened to suspend users repeating the slogan.
This line of reasoning is completely preposterous – as well as grossly inconsistent.
The truth is that the phrase has been adopted for many decades by all those in the region, on both sides, who envision a single state in the region – for good or bad.
This brings us to another of these plentiful media paradoxes.
There has been strong pushback in the media against calling Israel’s actions genocidal. For decades, however, the official charter of the ruling Likud party in Israel has referred to the area “Between the Sea and the [River] Jordan”.
And unlike the Gaza protesters, the Likud charter doesimply genocidal intent, especially given Israel’s current rampage. It declares: “Between the Sea and the Jordan, there will only be Israeli sovereignty.”
This is at the root of the dehumanising language used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his ministers. They have called the Palestinians “human animals” and “Amalek”, the enemy of the Israelites who had to be destroyed, including women and children.
When protesters chant “From the river to the sea”, by contrast, they reject not Israelis or Jews but the apartheid nature of Israel. They recognise that Israeli governments have already created a single state across the lands that were historic Palestine, and one in which different ethnic groups are segregated and accorded different rights.
The demand that freedom come to “Palestine”, rather than Israel, does not imply Israelis will be harmed. It offers a vision of equality for both peoples in the same land, superseding a state of Israel born as a European colonial project, one designed to oust Palestinians from their homeland.
The chant acknowledges that there is no possibility of making peace with Israel because of its structural embodiment of ethnic supremacism. Instead, it calls for a process of decolonisation – a dismantling of illegal settlements and the revoking of segregated rights – as happened with the end of white rule in South Africa. It recognises that decolonisation is incompatible with the ideological premises on which Israel is founded.
The Gaza protests are not hate marches. They are marches to end decades of Israeli colonisation that have culminated in the dehumanisation of Palestinians and a genocide in Gaza.
It would be preferable to think that the efforts to criminalise solidarity with Palestinians as they endure ethnic cleansing and genocide derive from confusion.
The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. In his tweet, Musk identified not just the chant but any effort towards “decolonisation” – in its simplest sense, the tearing down of illegal Jewish settlements built on occupied Palestinian land – as a euphemism for genocide.
In this stark zero-sum assessment, apparently shared by media like the BBC, as well as the UK government and the Labour Party, dignity and freedom for Palestinians are seen as incompatible with the survival of Israelis.
This is part of a pattern too. Even before 7 October, Britain’s political and media class had waged a campaign against solidarity with Palestinians, equating it to antisemitism.
The non-violent movement to boycott Israel – to end the Jewish supremacism embodied by the Likud charter and forestall the events we see today in Gaza without resorting to rockets and guns – was labelled as antisemitism.
That campaign reached its nadir with the malicious smearing as antisemites of former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian solidarity activists in the UK.
More clearly than ever, this recent history should profoundly disturb us.
It has a parallel with events in Gaza itself. For years, Palestinians there tried non-violent ways to protest against their encagement. They massed at the fence symbolising the siege of their enclave, but were met with sniper fire from the Israeli army. Their protests were called terrorism
They sent over that same fence flaming balloons that set fire to neighbouring fields on the lands Palestinians were cleansed from decades ago to create what we today call Israel. This plea for visibility, this nuisance act to grab attention, was denounced as terrorism too.
And all the while, the people of Gaza watched as the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank failed dismally in its efforts at international diplomacy. Attempts to take Israel to the International Criminal Court for war crimes, including by building illegal settlements, were condemned. They supposedly posed an existential threat to Israel.
It was the blocking of all non-violent means for Palestinians to liberate themselves from an ever-deepening, ever more violent occupation that led to the 7 October breakout from Gaza. That prison break may have been bloody, it may have included many atrocities, but it was entirely predictable.
Chiefly responsible for it are Israel, and the western political and media class, who ignored and smeared Palestinians, human rights groups and solidarity activists, as they now smear an innocent chant.
There is a goal here. A very ugly one. The campaign to delegitimise any solidarity with Palestinians – classifying it as hate – is meant to foment polarisation and escalation. At its starkest, it requires of us that we side with those who are murdering babies.
Israel, aided by western establishments, has intentionally driven supporters of justice for Palestinians, on one side, and much of the Jewish public on the other, into entrenched, oppositional camps. Each feels victimised. One side feels frustrated, vilified and angry. The other feels fearful and unforgiving.
This is not accidental. It reflects a desire by western establishments to create the very internal divisions, hatred and instability they claim to be trying to avert. The aim is to ensure that Israel remains an untouchable ally, able to project western power and influence into the oil- and gas-rich Middle East.
The problem is not a chant. The problem is not marches opposing a terror campaign of bombs and the murder of babies.
The problem is our susceptibility to the endless lies and deceptions told by western establishments to promote their narrow interests over our shared humanity.