Where 'caught in the crossfire' can leave no room for doubt

Robert Fisk

2 October 2000

When I read the word "crossfire", I reach for my pen. In the Middle East, it almost always means that the Israelis have killed an innocent person. When the Israelis fired shells into the United Nations compound at Qana in southern Lebanon in 1996, Time magazine printed a photograph of a dead baby with a caption saying it had been killed in "crossfire". This was untrue. The baby had been killed in the Israeli bombardment along with 105 other civilians -- which started after Hizbollah guerrillas opened fire on an Israeli army unit that was laying booby-trap mines inside the UN zone.

So when 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durah was killed in Gaza on Saturday and I read on the Associated Press wire that the child was "caught in the crossfire", I knew at once who had killed him. Sure enough, reporters investigating the killing said the boy was shot by Israeli troops. So was his father -- who survived -- and so was the ambulance driver who was killed trying to rescue the boy. Yet BBC World Service Television was still saying yesterday morning that Mohammed al-Durah was "caught in the crossfire of a battle that has left hundreds wounded and killed many others". I knew what this meant.

True, the Israeli soldiers who killed the boy may not have known whom they hit. They were apparently firing through a wall. But why the reluctance on the part of journalists to tell the truth? Why was it that in its report from Jerusalem on Saturday, the AP only mentioned -- in paragraph 17, for heaven's sake -- that Israeli troops, on the word of their own officer, fired anti-tank missiles during the confrontation? What was the Israeli army doing using missiles against rioters?

By yesterday afternoon, the story had been transformed into a "blame" conflict. The Israelis blamed the Palestinian authority for organising riots. BBC World Service radio ran a tape of an Israeli official stating that rioters were "shooting [sic] Molotov cocktails and stones" which "kill people". A listener might have been forgiven for thinking that 22 Israelis had been killed -- rather than 22 Palestinians -- in the previous 72 hours. The BBC then ran a tape of Nabil Shaath, the Palestinian spokesman, saying that the Israelis, not the Palestinians, had been shooting.

Truth is a hard bullet to bite. Palestinian policemen had also opened fire on the Israelis. Ironically, the Arab press in Beirut had no hesitation in saying this. The press in Lebanon showed photographs of Palestinian policemen firing Kalashnikov rifles at Israeli troops. But, given the fact that they did not kill Israelis -- one of them was hit while firing -- was it not worth mentioning that the Palestinians were the victims, not the Israelis?

When BBC Television got round to mentioning Ariel Sharon's flagrantly provocative visit to the Haram as-Sharif/ Temple Mount on Thursday, they yesterday called him an "Israeli leader" when -- for Palestinians -- he was the man who bore indirect responsibility (according to Israel's own inquiry) for the massacre of up to 2,000 Palestinian civilians in the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps in Beirut 18 years ago. The BBC correspondent, Paul Adams, was one of the very few who bravely drew attention to Sharon's appalling record, pointing out Sharon had "an extraordinary capacity to leave... destruction in his wake."

And so, by last night, the story had changed. No longer did Israeli soldiers and policemen kill at least 22 Palestinians in three days; now the question was whether the Palestinian Authority organised the riots that "led" [sic] to their deaths. The Israeli soldiers, who disobeyed every human rights commitment by firing on rioters with live rounds, were respectfully called the "Israeli security forces", disregarding the fact that "security" was the one thing Israeli soldiers were clearly unable to provide.

On CNN and the BBC and other satellite chains, reporters were asked if the killings would upset the "peace process", with no willingness to explain that it was the collapse of the peace process which lay at the heart of the riots. The Muslim holy areas of Jerusalem were "disputed" -- although UN Security Council resolution 242, upon which the "peace process" is supposedly based, demands the withdrawal of Israeli forces from territories captured during the 1967 war, including east Jerusalem.

What lies behind this -- apart from the sheep-like inability of many journalists to call a spade a spade -- was the continuing belief that Palestinians are, by nature, violent and riotous.

The United States called for an end to the "violence" -- this courtesy of Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- without making any reference to Sharon's grotesque visit to the mosque grounds of east Jerusalem. By yesterday afternoon, the BBC were at it again, reporting that "Israeli authorities were bracing themselves for what may lie ahead". Weren't the Palestinians also doing that?

   Back to Index