In a talk at New York City’s Barnard College the night the Hamas-Israeli prisoner exchange was announced, Noam Chomsky anticipated the one-sided media coverage of the exchange.
He charged the media with treating Israeli Jews as people, while dismissing Palestinians as “unpeople”.
Chomsky, who is Jewish, brings credentials to this issue as both an acclaimed linguistic scholar, and a strong advocate of Palestinian human rights.
To illustrate his point at Barnard, Chomsky described a front-page New York Times story, dated October 12, with the headline: “Deal with Hamas Will Free Israeli Held Since 2006
The Israeli, of course, is Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas for five years after he was captured June 25, 2006. Shalit, an Israeli army corporal, was on a patrol along the Israeli-Gaza border when he was captured.
Next to the Times story, Chomsky says, is a picture of four [Israeli] women, who are “kind of agonized over the fate of Gilad Shalit”.
The picture caption reads, he tells his audience, “Friends and supporters of the family of Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit received word of the deal at the family’s protest tent in Jerusalem.”
Well, that’s understandable, actually. I think he should have been released a long time ago. But there’s something missing from this whole story. So, like, there’s no pictures of Palestinian women, and no discussion, in fact, in the story of—what about the Palestinian prisoners being released? Where do they come from?
We finally have pictures of Palestinian men and women released from Israeli prisons, What we do not have are the names of most of them. And we still do not know where most of them “come from”.
The woman in the picture above, shown with a man we must presume is her father, was taken at the Mukataa (headquarters) close by Yasir Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah and adjacent to what was once the headquarters in which Arafat spent his final months.
The photo caption does not explain the meaning of Mukataa for non-Arabic readers. It also does not provide the name of the woman.. The picture, taken by Ilia Yefimovich for Getty Images, is available worldwide, but so far as I have been able to ascertain, it has not appeared in any American media outlet.
The initial CBS News story on the exchange focused on Shalit, the only Israeli involved, as a significant figure. They covered the Palestinian prisoners as a vague group, or as Noam Chomsky says, as “unpeople”.
An intense media campaign to free Schalit made him a national symbol in Israel, and all local radio and TV stations held special live broadcasts Tuesday, following every step of the exchange. The voices of Israeli broadcasters cracked with emotion as news of his return became clear.
CBS also reported that when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton heard the news of the exchange, she said the US was pleased the ordeal was over.
Then she added, “He was held for far too long in captivity,” leaving no doubt as to which “he” she had in mind.
Some Jewish writers in the blogosphere had a different take. One of these bloggers was Jerome Slater, a professor (emeritus) of political science and a University Research Scholar, at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
In his most recent blog entry, Slater writes:
While uneasy about the asymmetry of the Shalit deal between Israel and Hamas–a thousand Palestinian prisoners ( invariably described in Israel as “terrorists”) for one Israeli–the Israeli and the American Jewish media are also full of hymns of self-praise for us wonderful Jews: the “price” we paid was “a moral victory for Israel,” demonstrates our adherence to “profound Jewish values” such as “the pride in the value we place on every single human life,” is “a sign of humanity” that is “sadly absent in large parts of the world, especially in this region,” and the like.
The implication is unmistakable: we are different from them, the parents of the 1000 Palestinians, and the nation they represent, either did not grieve or had no right to grieve over their “children” in Israeli prisons, nor rejoice over their release.
To Slater this attitude is nothing less than “blatant racism and infuriating claims of moral superiority”.
He acknowledges that some of the Palestinian prisoners were bent on “the destruction of Israel”, but he is quick to add:
[S]urely many others were essentially soldiers in a just cause, national liberation and the creation of an independent state in a small part of Palestine.
On the other hand, Shalit was a soldier of a nation whose real cause (continuing the de facto occupation of the Palestinians and Jewish expansion into what remains of their territory) is unjust and whose “profound Jewish values” and “adherence to the dignity of all human lives” does not prevent it—stop me when you think I’m misstating the facts—from occupying, killing, repressing, imprisoning, blockading, and deliberately inflicting deep economic as well as psychological pain on another people.
Uri Avnery, the dean of Israel’s peace activists, brought immediate clarity to the issue.
Immediately after the Oslo agreement, Gush Shalom, the peace movement to which I belong, proposed releasing all Palestinian prisoners at once. They are prisoners-of-war, we said, and when the fighting ends, [prisoners of war] are sent home. This would transmit a powerful human message of peace to every Palestinian town and village.
Israel refused to recognize their Palestinian prisoners as prisoners-of-war. Instead, Avnery explains further, they treated the prisoners as “common criminals or worse”.
Every single newspaper and TV program, from the elitist Haaretz to the most primitive tabloid, referred to them exclusively as “murderers”, or, for good measure, “vile murderers”.
One of the worst tyrannies on earth is the tyranny of words. Once a word becomes entrenched, it directs thought and action. As the Bible has it: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). Releasing a thousand enemy fighters is one thing, releasing a thousand vile murderers is something else.
Avnery acknowledged that “some of these prisoners have assisted suicide bombers in killing a lot of people. Some have committed really atrocious acts – like the pretty young Palestinian woman who used the internet to lure a love-sick Israeli boy of 15 into a trap, where he was riddled with bullets”.
Others, he notes, were sentenced to prison for life for belonging to an “illegal organization” and possessing arms, or for throwing an ineffectual homemade bomb at a bus hurting no one.
Then Avnery makes a critical point:
Almost all of them were convicted by military courts. As has been said, military courts have the same relation to real courts as military music does to real music. All of these prisoners, in Israeli parlance, have “blood on their hands”. But which of us Israelis has no blood on his hands?
The American media has been negligent in reporting this Palestinian prison story. According to The Institute for Middle East Understanding (IMEU), the Israel Prison Service reported, at the end of August 2011, that Israeli prisons held approximately 5200 Palestinians, including 272 prisoners held in “administrative detention without charge or trial”.
The IMEU, which is based in Washington, DC, is a valuable source for information on the Palestinian prison population held in Israel. It also reported this week that the Palestinian Center for Human Rights places the number of Palestinians in Israeli prisons at more than 6,000. Other sources put the number as high as 8,000. There is no way to know for sure.
In addition, the IMEU reports, “[Palestinians] who are charged, are subjected to Israeli military courts that human rights organizations have criticized for failing to meet the minimum standards required for a fair trial.”
It is short-sighted for the US and Israel to assume that this prisoner matter has ended.
According to the Palestinian Monitor, Mustafa Barghouthi, Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative, sees the release of the Palestinian prisoners as “an incentive to continue the struggle for the more than 6,000 prisoners still in captivity”.
And as long as there are people like Noam Chomsky around to keep hope alive for those “unpeople” that Israel has locked away, they will not be forgotten.
In his talk at Barnard on the night the upcoming prisoner swap was announced, Chomsky called out the names of two brothers who have disappeared into the darkness of Israel’s prison system. He remembered the Muamar brothers. This is how he told their story:
There are also other people who have been in prison exactly as long as Gilad Shalit—in fact, one day longer. The day before Gilad Shalit was captured at the border, Israeli troops entered Gaza, kidnapped two brothers, the Muamar brothers, spirited them across the border, in violation of the Geneva Conventions, of course.
And they’ve disappeared into Israel’s prison system. I haven’t a clue what happened to them; I’ve never seen a word about it. And as far as I know, nobody cares, which makes sense. After all, unpeople. Whatever you think about capturing the soldier, a soldier from an attacking army, plainly kidnapping civilians is a far more severe crime. But that’s only if they’re people.
The Muamar brothers are not “unpeople”. They are children of God. They and all of their fellow political prisoners must be set free.