What is really happening with Israel-Palestine?

The current Israel-Palestine situation is unprecedented, but in ways that go far beyond what has been explicitly recognised.

The attack by Hamas was unprecedented in its scale and scope: everyone seems to agree on that. Some have gone further and asked how it was possible for Israeli intelligence agencies – amongst the most sophisticated in the world – to have missed the incoming threat. Subsequent reports add to that scepticism, revealing that Egypt and the United States warned Israel of a major threat shortly before the attack took place. Yet for some reason it appears the warning was ignored.

I would argue that the even more unprecedented occurrences relate to commentary and media coverage. I noticed a number of individuals on social media with large followings suddenly start expressing solidarity with Palestinians immediately in the aftermath of the Hamas attack. It seems very strange to wait for hundreds of civilians in Israel to be massacred before making political statements in favour of Palestinians. Why would such voices suddenly become loud when they were absent or quiet when Amnesty International found Israel to be practising apartheid? Or when Palestinians were being killed or brutalised without retaliation?

Related to this has been the reaction of mainstream media outlets which in the past, for decades, systematically downplayed human rights violations by the Israeli state. Immediately after the attack many of these outlets invited critical commentators who showed up the one-sidedness of the coverage of those same outlets. And this happened across numerous, notionally independent broadcasters. Unprecedented.

Moreover, these shifts occurred in a context where the political ground was already shifting against Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s warmongering prime minister. A broad range of groups inside and outside Israel had opposed Netanyahu’s attempt to centralise power and reduce the power of Israel’s judiciary. In recent months even a former head of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, asserted that Israel had been practising apartheid. And shortly after the Hamas attack articles, and even viral manipulated videos, were published suggesting that Netanyahu should step down.

The more crucial geopolitical context is this: the United States has been securing strategic agreements with Arab states in the Middle East. It has cemented ties with the dictatorships in Saudia Arabia and Egypt, despite systematic human rights violations in both countries. In parallel it has established a strong alliance with India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, secured a tenuous alliance with Pakistan after the removal of Imraan Khan, and cemented ties with another de facto dictator, Recep Erdogan, in Turkey. The result is that the United States no longer needs Israel as an isolated imperial outpost or bulwark in the Middle East. In fact, the ongoing Israeli repression of Palestinians impedes the ability of the USA to cement ties with its new allies for as long as it is backing Israel militarily. This, I suggest, is the primary geopolitical undercurrent that will determine the direction of current events and is already influencing media coverage and the flip-flopping of the European Union and pro-Israel politicians like the UK’s Keir Starmer.

In some respects these events mirror what happened with apartheid in South Africa when the Soviet Union collapsed. The United States no longer needed apartheid South Africa as a bulwark against what it claimed to be a communist threat in Africa. Shortly thereafter the hardline apartheid prime minister PW Botha fell from favour and was replaced by FW De Klerk, who despite having been active in supporting and enforcing apartheid positioned himself as a reformer. The United States and its key allies, like the UK, backed De Klerk’s move to end apartheid and the rest, as they say, is history.

Such brazen manipulation of this kind is of course reprehensible: supporting apartheid, a crime against humanity, for decades and then discarding it only after its usefulness has waned. Nevertheless, in the current Israel-Palestine situation it may mean that an actual peace deal is now possible.

As in the South African case the terms of any such agreement matter a great deal. And the deeply entrenched support for apartheid in Israel-Palestine should not be underestimated; right-wing and conservative groupings may yet try to use the situation to extend the borders of Israel and further worsen the living conditions of Palestinians. But if my hypothesis that the United States is covertly backing a move towards peace is correct, simply to support its own geopolitical strategy, then it is difficult to see how hardliners in Israel will hold out when their main financier, weapons supplier and supporter pushes in a different direction.

It is no cause for celebration that the United States is allying with powerful dictatorships as it moves to seek war with China, and perhaps a more intense proxy war with Iran alongside the proxy war with Russia in Ukraine, but for the Palestinian people this may yet bring them the peace and security that is owed to them.

News24’s hypocrisy and failure on Israel-Palestine

Not only did News24 completely ignore the Amnesty International report but it even went to the extent of taking down an article on the Israel-Palestine issue that it had accidentally syndicated in which South Africa’s foreign minister called for Israel to be declared an apartheid state.

The recent escalation in violence in Israel-Palestine has been met with a flood of reactions in traditional and social media. In both instances these reveal a shift in responses to this long-running issue. One thing that has struck me the most is that people and organisations who once ignored or were hostile to those who called Israel ‘an apartheid state’, even after a credible Amnesty International report came to that conclusion, have suddenly discovered that this actually has some legitimacy.

It is particularly strange that they should do so in a time of violence in which Israeli civilians have been killed in large numbers. Why would it be that certain people and organisations suddenly conclude that the oppression of Palestinians is bad in a moment when the first victims of violence were Israelis? Where was this sentiment when Palestinians were being killed and brutalised on a regular basis by the Israel military?

I will write a separate piece about what I think lies behind the current dynamics but here I just want to share some letters I exchanged with the editors of, and Ombud for, News24. According to media surveys, News24 is South Africa’s most-read online news source and supposedly ‘the most trusted’ source of news in South Africa. Not only did News24 completely ignore the Amnesty International report but it even went to the extent of taking down an article on the Israel-Palestine issue that it had accidentally syndicated in which South Africa’s foreign minister called for Israel to be declared an apartheid state. This provides important context for the sudden about-face by at least one of its editors, who was copied on some of that correspondence.

Interestingly, after my complaint News24 started publishing more pieces on the Israel-Palestine situation but continued in its failure to report on Amnesty International and other formal calls for Israel to be declared an apartheid state.

Only in recent months (in 2023) has there been a more substantial shift. But a striking pattern is that – after years of omission and one-sided reporting – News24 only acknowledge the apartheid analogy when it is made by individuals who previously had been active in denying the validity of the comparison (such as this article which cites Benjamin Pogrund), or actively involved in enforcing apartheid in Israel-Palestine (such as this article on remarks by a former Mossad commander). News24 syndicated this piece by Pogrund in August 2023. It is notable from the URL that it did so under the heading of its Ombud/public editor (George Claassen) who previously dismissed my concerns as unsubstantiated.

In short, the recent shift in News24’s reporting conceals a systematic and deliberate bias that denied the oppressive nature of the Israeli state across decades – much as certain media houses during apartheid played a key role in propping up successive apartheid governments by denying that what they were doing was wrong. While the shift here and internationally may well be desirable, those who were complicit should not be allowed to whitewash their histories. (For my expression of similar concerns about apartheid propagandists see this letter to Business Day).

Complaint to News24 on coverage of Israel-Palestine

The initial concern that I raised with News24’s Ombudsman in February 2022 was that News24 had failed to publish a single article on the Amnesty International report:

The Ombud referred this to the editor-in-chief Adriaan Basson. After no reply, I followed-up a month later noting also the strange disjuncture between News24’s reporting on Ukraine compared to the Israel-Palestine situation:

I then received the following reply in which one of the editors sought to paint the non-reporting as merely an ‘oversight’. This is clearly not credible given how many News24 articles concern trivial topics and, more importantly, how consistent its reporting had been in favour of the Israeli state. The links provided are to opinion pieces or/and pieces in other publications. One of the only substantive pieces was published after my letter of concern had been sent to the editor.

There was an interesting increase in News24 articles on the broader issue after this exchange, but those continued to have a strong slant and the only mention

I was reminded of the issue later in the year when News24 briefly syndicated an article on South Africa’s foreign minister calling for Israel to be declared an apartheid state and then deleted it. The evidence of the deletion is still available online:

Here is my follow-up email:

The combination of these two issues is damning: News24 systematically failed to publish any news article on the Amnesty International report that declared Israel to be an apartheid state; News24 censored a story that it had syndicated in which South Africa’s foreign minister called for Israel to be formally declared an apartheid state, and published no article of its own on that major news item.

Despite this evidence, the public editor George Claassen immediately responded claiming that “your accusation of bias, that is a rather harsh accusation without any evidence”. At which point it became evident to me that News24’s internal accountability mechanisms were toothless and themselves hopelessly biased.

Having referred my concern to editors to response and expressed his own opinion without engaging with the substance, the Ombud then nevertheless took it upon himself to provide the response (see below).

In this response he seeks to manufacture an excuse for removing the story about South Africa’s foreign minister calling for Israel to be declared an apartheid state. The absurdity of the explanation – that the story was taken down as “a precautionary measure by the night editor to ensure that the journalist interpreted the news conference by Minister Naledi Pandor correctly” – is evident from the fact that News24 did not subsequently publish a ‘correct’ story of its own.

Similarly, the vast majority of the stories he lists were published after my initial complaint, or were opinion pieces, or where from other publication.

Since it seemed obvious that the Ombud had pre-emptively decided to defend News24’s conduct and create a justification for that decision after the fact, I did waste my time further by replying to their last email.

The public record, and this correspondence, serves as evidence of what I suggest is News24’s wilful and grossly hypocritical bias that renders it complicit in misrepresentations that serve as an obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine situation.