Ben White: Decoding the Media’s Palestinian ‘Civil War’

By Ben White

Major news stories from Palestine/Israel are often accompanied by what becomes a self-reinforcing "vocabulary," typically generated by Israeli government ministries or other propaganda outlets, and then picked up by the Western media. A classic example was the redeployment of Israeli settlers and military from the Gaza Strip in 2005, which was successfully packaged as a "disengagement" that pitted "Israeli against Israeli," in a "painful compromise." This kind of marketing exercise often works even when there are widely available contradictory reports, such as how "disengagement" was openly trumpeted by Sharon and his advisors as a strategy for destroying the peace process.

This phenomenon went into overdrive recently, as dramatic events across the Occupied Palestinian Territories, but especially in Gaza, presented the evening news with a problem of how to reduce the conflict in the internal Palestinian political arena into an easily digestible sound bite. The solution was, as usual, lazy journalism and an almost total blackout on Israeli/US collusion in the dark events unfolding. Here then, is a guide to decoding the Palestinian "civil war," presented as a series of oft-repeated, yet entirely misleading, clichés.

The Palestinian Authority actually has any authority

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is regularly presented in the mainstream media as having the authority, independence, and jurisdiction of a state, equivalent to Israel. Yet despite the misleading name, the PA’s writ does not extend beyond the civic affairs of several dozen isolated cantons in the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. Its law and order officials cannot travel from one canton to the other without the permission of the Israeli occupation forces. Look a bit deeper, and in fact, one discovers that the PA was designed specifically to thwart genuine Palestinian "authority," to keep Palestinian sovereignty solely rhetorical, while Israel continues its colonization. The Angry Arab website quoted Palestinian writer Rashad Abu Shawir as saying of Hamas and Fatah that they are "fighting over an illusory authority." Read between the lines even in the mainstream media, and this picture emerges. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert greeted Abbas’ formation of a new cabinet by saying that "a Palestinian government which is not a Hamas government is a partner and we will co-operate with it." It is Israel that decides who represents the Palestinian people, and even what authority these representatives will enjoy.

The Hamas victory in Gaza risks creating a "two state Palestine"

Quickly after Hamas had completed their victory in Gaza, talk became of a "two state Palestine." This rhetorical device, apart from simplifying a more complicated political reality, also conceals the fact that Israel has already severed the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, not to mention East Jerusalem. It even eludes the still bigger picture, that the Gaza Strip is not even two percent of historic Palestine, and that the Palestinian people have been fragmented into the refugees (themselves split geographically, socially, etc.), those living in Israel, and those under occupation in the post-’67 territories. The West Bank itself has been fragmented by incessant Israeli colonization into a thousand territorial shards. Never mind the alleged Hamas/Fatah "two states" — Israel has been busy implementing its plan for a 100 "state" solution.

The conflict is a fight between the secular moderates of Fatah, and the extremist Islamists of Hamas

This is sometimes trimmed even further to simply become, in the words of BBC correspondent Paul Reynolds, "the wider struggle between moderation and extremism in the Arab and Muslim world." Suddenly, the fact that groups within Fatah have been prominent in the resistance of the intifada (the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades for example), is forgotten. Moreover, what is also ignored is the fact that Hamas have openly stated that their fight is not against Fatah per se, but against element within Fatah, notably Dahlan and his associates, who continue to work with the US and Israel. Numerous examples have born this out, including: an amnesty for Fatah commanders in the Gaza Strip, calls for dialogue by the Hamas leadership, apparent pre-operation coordination between Hamas and sympathetic Fatah officials, and the fact that several high-profile Fatah officials have remained untouched in Gaza. The struggle, then, is between a Palestinian leadership eager for approval from Israel and the US, and those who prioritize resistance.

Hamas’ actions in Gaza was a coup

Q. When an elected government is boycotted, its ministers kidnapped, and its defeated rival armed by hostile powers, what do you call it when this same government defends itself? A. A coup.

What sounds like a bad joke is in fact exactly how some — from newspaper editorials to the UK Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett — have chosen to describe what happened in Gaza. By contrast, this report from Reuters clarifies matters somewhat:
The US government began to lay the ground for President Mahmoud Abbas to dismiss the Hamas-led Palestinian government at least a year before the Islamist group’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip last week.

Western, Israeli and Palestinian official sources said over the weekend that, far from being an ad hoc response to Hamas’s offensive, Abbas’s declaration of a state of emergency and his replacement of a Hamas prime minister with Western favorite Salam Fayyad marked the culmination of months of backroom deliberations, planning and US prodding …

… Many Western officials and analysts see the offensive as a pre-emptive strike by Hamas before Washington could build up Fatah. Hamas says it made its move against a US-backed coup.
Virginia Tilley, on The Electronic Intifada, described how Abbas’ response to the Hamas show of strength was a series of entirely illegal and dubious moves, all of which were greeted with praise and congratulations by Israel, the EU and the US. It seems that in Palestine, as elsewhere in the Middle East, it is not democracy that is required, but subservience.

The new Prime Minister Salam Fayyad is an "independent"

When Abbas appointed Fayyad as the new Prime Minister, you rarely saw the man’s name reported without an accompanying reference to his apparent lack of affiliation or bias. Strange then, that a neutral should be so popular with Washington. Here, "independent" means that Fayyad has previously worked for the World Bank and IMF, enjoys a good relationship with Condoleezza Rice, is the favourite of EU and American diplomats — and whose electoral list won a mere 2.4 percent in the same parliamentary vote that Hamas won.

If one picks up a newspaper, or logs on to a standard mainstream news site, one might well find all five of these cliches trotted out in the same report. Ignorance, a reluctance to expose US and Israeli disregard for Palestinian self-determination (or inability to conceive that this is possible), and lazy reporting that repeats what everyone else seems to be saying, combine to make a dangerous cocktail. Once again, events from Palestine are being distorted and misrepresented by a compliant media.

-Ben White is a freelance journalist specializing in Palestine/Israel. His website is at and he can be contacted directly at ben at

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