On her maiden visit to Israel my very English mother sat down to her first breakfast and spread a piece of bread with what she assumed was raspberry jam. Neglecting to appreciate that on another continent things may not always be as they first appear, she took a bite of ‘harissa’ – a red paste made out of chilli peppers. At that moment she learned that like anywhere else in the world, this is a place in which one’s own preconceptions based on existing knowledge are not necessarily relevant.
Harriet Sherwood’s recent report from Ghajar is another example of what can result from the adherence to inapplicable preconceptions, particularly when mixed with deeply entrenched prejudices. As we are only too aware walls and fences (though exclusively when constructed by Israelis) are quite a popular theme at the Guardian. In this article too, Sherwood takes the ‘Berlin Wall’ theme and develops it way beyond any logical proportion and without context.
It is true that the villagers of Ghajar are themselves promoting the ‘Berlin Wall’ theme in connection to their current plight – I heard them use the concept myself when I visited Ghajar last week – but they are doing so as a metaphor for their discontent about the proposed division of their village and possible resulting enforced separation of families. Sherwood, however, takes this particular phrase and uses it to turn what is a very complex situation into a dumbed-down version of events laden with her own preconceptions. The primary message she communicates to her readers is that Israel is building yet another big bad wall and that Arabs will suffer as a result.
‘Just Journalism’ has challenged Sherwood’s employment of the ‘Berlin Wall’ theme in a very competent analysis of her article which is well worth a read. Sherwood’s preconceptions obviously do not permit her to address the much more interesting wider issues which make up the Ghajar story, presumably because to do so would compromise the trite ‘black and white’ version of the Middle East conflict which she takes care to pump out to her readers on a daily basis.
She does not have a word to say about the background role of the UN in the creation of the complex situation which currently exists in Ghajar. She completely ignores the interesting fact that here are a group of Alawite Muslims, who took Israeli citizenship en masse when it was offered to them, requesting to remain under Israeli rule at least for the foreseeable future. Likewise, only a cursory reference is made to UN resolution 1701 and even then in exclusive relation to Israel’s meeting of its conditions when in fact the few hundred square meters of northern Ghajar are actually one of the least problematic aspect of the implementation of that resolution. Even the well-known and clearly documented instances of Hizbollah infiltration into Ghajar and drug trafficking through the permeable border there are hinted by Sherwood to be unsubstantiated claims by Israel.
The Ghajar story presents an opportunity for any journalist worth his or her salt to begin to convey to readers the multiple complexities of the region’s daily life, as well as its disputes. It is a chance to challenge some of the many mistaken preconceptions about the area and peel away a few of the layers of prejudice and ignorance which form a protective wall around the one-dimensional view of the Middle East held by so many. Predictably, Sherwood chose not to rise to that challenge in this article. Instead she went along the tried and trusted route of reinforcing the concepts already firmly established in her readers’ and editors’ minds as in fact she has been doing ever since her arrival in Jerusalem several months ago with her tediously monochrome accounts of the events taking place around her; accounts which reveal more about the barriers in her own mind than those on the ground, existing or imaginary.