Donald Trump's election as US president has meant the whole notion of 'fake news' and 'alternative facts' is now very much part of a wider conversation. But for decades before the Trump era, more honest or open-minded journalists were aware that some of their colleagues often didn't tell the whole truth about all kinds of matters, or cherry-picked what they reported. And perhaps no subject has been so misreported as the Palestinian issue.
Western media has often focused on this issue to the detriment of many other conflicts or independence movements throughout the world. The BBC, in particular, has devoted an inordinate amount of its budget and staff to covering the West Bank and Gaza in thousands of reports over the years. But you would be hard pressed to learn from the BBC’s coverage that, despite many difficulties, Gaza’s economy is also thriving in all kinds of ways.
To get a glimpse of that you would have to turn instead to this recent Al-Jazeera report from Gaza, showing footage of the bustling, well-stocked glitzy shopping malls, the impressive children’s water park (at 5.25 in the video), the fancy restaurants, the nice hotels, the crowded food markets, the toy shops brimming with the latest plush toys (at 8.39 in the video). (This video was translated into English by the excellent Middle East Media Research Institute).
The West Bank also has good quality shopping malls and other prosperous aspects to it. And while, of course, there are also many poor people in Gaza – just as there are poor people in London, New York, Washington, Paris and Tel Aviv – this prosperity among Palestinians is not just for the wealthy. Much of the population enjoys the benefits of it in one way or other. None of this is new. I have written about it several times before, for example, here in 2009 for the Wall Street Journal.
Occasionally, other journalists have too. Peter Hitchens, writing from Gaza for the Mail on Sunday in 2010, calls it 'the world’s most misrepresented location' and talks of 'enjoying a rather good café latte in an elegant beachfront café' and visiting a 'sparkling new Gaza Mall, and ... eat(ing) an excellent beef stroganoff in an elegant restaurant'. Hitchens adds, in reference to the oft stated claim that Gaza is under siege:
'Can anyone think of a siege in human history, from Syracuse to Leningrad, where the shops of the besieged city have been full of Snickers bars and Chinese motorbikes, and where European Union and other foreign aid projects pour streams of cash (often yours) into the pockets of thousands?'
But the BBC (which remember is under a legal duty through its charter to be impartial) and most other mainstream media, don’t show you any of this other side of Palestinian life. And unlike those people typically seen in European and American media dispatches from Gaza, in the Al-Jazeera video, almost no Palestinian interviewed even mentions Israel. Instead, they point primarily to the internal Palestinian political rift between Hamas and Fatah as being their main concern in terms of their businesses thriving. Israel barely gets a look in. What's more, contrary to widespread opinion, Al Jazeera also shows some women without headscarves in Gaza, including businesswomen.
I am not alone in thinking the BBC is not objective in its coverage. Even Lord Grade, the corporation's former chairman, has accused the corporation of bias against Israel and said the BBC failed to give viewers 'the wider context' about the Palestinians.
This is not true of all BBC output: BBC Arabic will (like other Arabic language media) sometimes report on Gaza’s more prosperous side (see for example, this BBC Arabic report on restaurants in Gaza), in a way that most Western media (including the BBC in English) will not. Yet many Western journalists (and some diplomats) seem bent on painting a distorted picture of everyday life in Gaza, in what can only be seen as an attempt to portray Israel as some kind of monster-oppressor. (With Israel demonised in this way, no wonder anti-Semitic feelings in Britain are now running at an all-time high).
If the situation in Gaza is as bad as many Western journalists and diplomats claim, then why is Gaza’s life expectancy (74.2 years) now five years higher than the world average? I don’t recall any Western reporter mentioning that life expectancy there is higher than, for example, in neighbouring Egypt (73 years). Indeed, life expectancy in Gaza is almost on the same level as wealthy Saudi Arabia, and higher for men than in some parts of Glasgow.
In recent years, it has been difficult to escape reports of the dire situation in Gaza; former US president and Nobel peace prize laureate Jimmy Carter, for example, told us that 'the people in Gaza ... are literally starving'. Only three weeks ago, the lead front page story of the international edition of the New York Times contained further warnings about the risk of starvation. Meanwhile, Qatar’s own Al Jazeera is broadcasting analysis of the thriving consumer sector in Gaza’s economy, complete with restaurant owners discussing the expansion of their business to keep up with demand, and shots of plentiful fruit and vegetable markets.
It goes without saying that Israeli misdeeds (like Palestinian ones) should be fully reported on. But not in a way that is so out of context as to lead to a misguided view of the situation. Unfortunately, this is all too often the case, and has, in turn, resulted in bad-policy making among governments in recent years.
More could and should be done to develop Gaza economically. Indeed, last week the Israeli government laid out a plan to help assist in building infrastructure relating to desalination, electricity and natural gas for Gaza. Gaza also has considerable political problems, perhaps less so these days in relation to Israel (Israel withdrew all its troops and settlers from Gaza over a decade ago) and more because of the poor level of governance by Hamas and the intense Hamas-Fatah rivalry. But Gazans are hardly the worst off people in the world. Elsewhere in the Middle East, for example in Yemen, millions of people really are at risk of starvation. So why should the US (or European) taxpayer continue to give Gaza quite so much money to the detriment of other people around the world, including America’s own poor?
At a time when the Trump presidency is finally planning to scale back on the lavish, largely unaccountable US funding of the Palestinians – money which has, in part, been diverted to line the pockets of corrupt politicians, or promote and pay for terrorism – it would be a mistake for European governments (as they are promising) automatically to step in and give more money to the Palestinian Authority. Instead, they should join Trump’s efforts to make this aid conditional on the Palestinian leadership first agreeing to enter peace talks with Israel, which they have refused to do for almost a decade now. A much needed two-state solution would be easier to achieve if the Western media didn’t distort the situation on the ground.