It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is consistently voted the most popular leader in the Arab world. The Islamist group is praised for its discipline and resistance. Not only Israel’s loss in the 2006 Lebanon war marks a welcome shift in regional power, Hezbollah’s opposition to the Bush administration’s increasingly unsuccessful policy of divide and conquer is guaranteed to generate respect.
Some sections of the Western media are registering the reasons for Hezbollah’s popularity. The New York Times journalist Michael Slackman stated the blindingly obvious last week:
"The United States, Israel and some of their European allies have begun to recognize that their policy of trying to defeat their enemies by isolating and vilifying them has failed."
If only Slackman was completely right.
In some ways, of course, he’s not mistaken. Israel last week did indirectly negotiate with Hezbollah for the mutual release of prisoners and murdered soldiers. America is now indirectly talking to Iran over its nuclear program and proposing the establishment of a mission in Tehran, the first time this has been raised since the 1979 Revolution. And Hamas is indirectly initiating a prisoner swap with Israel. But by dissecting recent events it becomes clear that Israel’s behaviour remains directed solely towards fruitlessly trying to destroy perceived enemies in its neighbourhood.
The Jewish state might be finally realising that bombing and killing its way to strength is a losing game but Haaretz journalist Ari Shavit certainly isn’t alone in expressing concern over Israel’s loss of prestige:
"In two and a half years of [Ehud] Olmert’s government, Israel has failed in four different campaigns. None of these failures was necessary. Basically Israel was and remains a very powerful country. However, when a stupid government conducts a foolish policy in every field and respect, the result is a resounding failure. This failure could become a real threat. No, not a threat to our survival, but definitely a strategic one."
Take the Hezbollah/Israeli prisoner swap. The liberal US Jewish weekly Forward reluctantly praised the event. Whilst the swap was widely debated within Israel and even criticised within Lebanon, the Western media has focused instead on convicted killer Samir Kuntar. An alleged "terrorist" committed to Israel’s destruction, differing versions of his supposed crimes have emerged.
It’s impossible to determine the truth of the story, but a number of Arab bloggers have asked questions that no Western outlet would even consider publishing. What about the nearly 200 dead Arab bodies returned to Israel, the vast majority of whom were not "terrorists"? The reason for the skewed coverage, wrote The Angry Arab, was outright racism:
"These are 197 dead bodies delivered by Israel to Lebanon in the prisoner exchange. The two dead Israeli soldiers have received more coverage than those 197 dead Arab bodies. Hell, dead Israeli soldiers receive more coverage than all the Arab living. Such are the racist standards of the White Man."
A prime culprit of this bias was The New York Times, ably assisted by every major Australian media outlet. The Angry Arab wondered why the American media failed to see the Arab world without the filter of belligerent Zionism:
"I was reading their [The New York Times] accounts of the prisoner exchange and remembering the words of the late George Carlin: why are Israeli terrorists called commandos, and why are Palestinian commandos called terrorists? And there are always stories about the ‘victims’ of Palestinian operations on Palestinian lands but never stories about the victims of Israeli crimes. Not one story about those Israeli ‘prisoners’: What were those Israeli occupation killers doing in Lebanon in the first place?
"And I hate how Israeli (and American and Saudi) propaganda keep referring to Israeli prisoners by their names, to humanize them. You will never see me refer to them by their names here because I refuse to succumb to the media standards that distinguish between expensive human beings and the cheaper human beings. You want me to feel sorry for an Israeli pilot who was downed while dropping cluster bombs on villages and towns in South Lebanon? Are you kidding me?"
It should never be forgotten that Israel killed more children during the 2006 Lebanon war than Samir Kuntar ever allegedly did. But, of course, Israeli lives have always been worth more than Arabs in the Western media. Double standards incorporated.
Levels of delusion remain central to the Middle East equation. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in mid-July that Israel and the Palestinians have "never been this close" to a peace deal. Impotent figurehead Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President, muttered something similar about both sides being "serious and [wanting]to achieve peace."
Nothing could be further from the truth.
A former Israeli ambassador to South Africa complained last week that the world unfairly used the term "apartheid" to describe conditions in the occupied territories. Defending roadblocks and other signs of oppression by saying Israel erected them for a "good reason", her tortuous explanations were like those made by white South Africans defending their measures against blacks before 1994.
More credible witnesses are veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle who recently visited the West Bank and concluded that, in many instances, the situation was far worse than anything they ever experienced. "Even with the system of permits, even with the limits of movement to South Africa, we never had as much restriction on movement as I see for the people here," said an ANC parliamentarian, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. "There are areas in which people would live their whole lifetime without visiting because it’s impossible."
Israel’s political and media culture is sick, mired in corruption and self-doubt. Aggression is a substitute for rational thought — witness historian Benny Morris’ diatribe in last week’s New York Times arguing for military strikes against Iran, even with nuclear weapons. Fear, insecurity and a lack of coherent narratives have resulted in a Jewish state that ambles from one disaster to another as it expands its illegal occupation of Palestine. This tendency is exemplified by footage released this week which shows an Israeli soldier firing a rubber bullet at close range into a Palestinian detainee. Such a situation precludes peace almost by definition.
The forthcoming US presidential election is unlikely to change this equation. Recent Israeli polling indicated fear of Democratic candidate Barack Obama due to his apparent sympathy towards the Palestinians, something he’s hidden or abandoned many years ago. Consistent American pressure was once seen by the Israelis and hardline Zionists as the only way to ensure a peace deal between Israel and Palestinians, but Washington’s impotence and bias has resulted in a neutered super-power.
Given these circumstances, it’s logical that resistance by Hamas and Hezbollah would be so warmly received across the Muslim world. And if the reportage in the Western media were more balanced, perhaps Western leaders and their constituents would be better placed to understand the grounds for their ongoing popularity.