From Jerusalem to Washington, Myth Disguised as News

03/29/2011 01:22 pm ET | Updated May 29, 2011

Inside the beltway, there's just one newspaper that everyone reads: the Washington Post. But these are busy people. Mostly they just scan the headlines and lead paragraphs. Let's take a look at the recent flareup in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as told in WaPo leads, all written by the WaPo's woman in Jerusalem, Janine Zacharia.

March 23: "Eight Palestinians were killed Tuesday in two separate Israeli military strikes in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian spokesmen said. Israeli officials said the strikes were a response to the most serious escalation in rocket and mortar fire from the coastal territory since the 2009 Israeli offensive that sought to end such attacks."

March 24:

A bomb detonated at a Jerusalem bus stop Wednesday, killing a 59-year-old woman, injuring 38 people and shattering the relative calm that had pervaded the city for several years. The attack came as tensions have escalated between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and it prompted vows of reprisals from Israeli politicians who warned that they would take the necessary steps to restore the country's security.

March 25:

Sirens sounded throughout southern Israel on Thursday, warning residents to take cover as at least 10 rockets, missiles and mortars were fired from the Gaza Strip and Israel launched an airstrike to destroy a rocket launcher. The Israeli response was relatively muted.

March 28:

Israel deployed a still experimental anti-missile system to protect residents within striking distance of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, a clear sign that Israeli leaders do not believe that rocket fire from the territory will abate soon, as increased Palestinian rocket fire sent Israelis scurrying into shelters.

It all adds up to the mythic tale that Americans who pay attention to the Middle East know all too well: Palestinians attack Israel. Israel strikes back in self defense and looks for ever new ways to protect its security. End of story. What more is there to say?

Plenty, as it turns out. How about asking the obvious question, "Why have rockets started flying from Gaza in larger numbers lately?" The answer was documented by two leading Israeli security analysts:

Hamas does not seem to want large-scale clashes yet. The organization actually has good reasons to believe that Israel is the one heating up the southern front. It began with a bombardment a few weeks ago that disrupted the transfer of a large amount of money from Egypt to the Gaza Strip, continued with the interrogation of engineer and Hamas member Dirar Abu Sisi in Israel, and ended with last week's bombing of a Hamas training base in which two Hamas militants were killed.

All of this before the escalation in rocket fire from Gaza.

Though Zacharia ignored this context, she was quick to link the Jerusalem bus bombing -- committed by a person or persons still unknown -- to the conflict in Gaza that was started, she implied, by Palestinians. She treated it all as part of the same challenge to Israel "to restore the country's security." There was nothing worth reporting, apparently, about how desperate Palestinians are to protect their own security.

Zacharia did note, near the end of one article, that "Hamas has at times worked to prevent attacks into Israel." But she wrote nothing about the ongoing Hamas calls for a cease-fire, nor for the same calls now coming from Islamic Jihad in Gaza. That wouldn't fit her plot line.

She just wants to make sure we know that Israel's "relatively muted" (relative to what?) response is only temporary, while Israel is "still weighing" new (and presumably more violent) ways to stop those "Hamas rockets" (which are mostly, in fact, fired by factions opposed by Hamas).

Israelis get a more sophisticated view. They can read this, for example, in an editorial in Haaretz: "In this testosterone-rich competition, there will always be more checkmarks on the Israeli side. But Israel is clever enough to act like the threatened party and to hide its deadly performances." If you read only Zacharia's reporting in the WaPo, you would never imagine that the editors of Israel's most prestigious newspaper could see it that way.

Zacharia's version of the Israel-Palestine conflict carries a special weight because it has so much influence inside the beltway. But there's nothing unusual about it. You can find much the same mythic tale in any of the most prestigious U.S. newspapers, on their editorial pages as well as their news pages.

We can't expect them to change their ways voluntarily in the foreseeable future. The myth of Israel's insecurity will continue to be the official story in the U.S. mass media and thus the foundation of U.S. discourse and policy about Israel -- unless proponents of peace and Palestinian independence, who are such persuasive critics of Israel's actions, start training their verbal guns directly on that myth.

Otherwise most Americans, no matter how much they know about Israeli violence and oppression, will forgive most of it as unfortunate but necessary measures for national security. If we protect our national security at all costs, by any means necessary, they'll think, why shouldn't the Israelis do the same?

We can take one big step toward a more sane and humane U.S. policy on the Israel-Palestine conflict -- a policy that might some day actually lead toward peace -- by reading the mass media carefully and demanding that they give us real journalism, not just the old familiar myth disguised as news.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.