BBC Panorama – Price Tag Wars

Whenever the UK media covers the Israel/Palestine conflict I worry about bias and misrepresentation of the facts.

This fear is based on experience over many years.

When the BBC broadcast a special programme about the Mavi Marmara incident last year I and many others were very surprised that the programme came out largely on the side of Israel in terms of who was telling the truth. It was rather less surprising that the BBC should be vilified for it, after all, Israel is always wrong, don’t you know.

On Monday this week, which also happened to be the first day of the Jewish New Year, when most Jews would not be watching TV, the same BBC programme and the same reporter, Jane Corbin, covered the Price Tag phenomenon in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Given the fact that the BBC decided to cover the issue, it was lucky Jane Corbin covered it. I thought it was largely fair. However, the Palestinians came out as squeaky clean pacifists despite mention of Arab terrorism.

The Price Tag movement is an extremist, religious settler movement which attacks mainly Arab, but also Israeli targets as a ‘Price Tag’ for any action the Israeli government takes against settlements, such as dismantling those even the Israelis deem illegal.

The aim of the Price Tag movement is to make the government pay in terms of embarrassment and also international disgrace for the actions of its citizens.  The objective is to further populate the West Bank / Judea-Samaria which the Price Taggers believe to be their god-given land. According to their beliefs, no Jew has any right to remove Jews from Eretz Israel.

The programme labelled them ‘terrorist’. The term ‘terrorist’ has been applied by the Israeli government itself. These despicable people are a disgrace to Israel and the Jewish people and there is no justification for their actions. However, the Price Tag people have killed no-one, not yet anyway. Graffiti, torching empty vehicles, setting small fires in mosques, insulting the Prophet and generally behaving like vandals in any other culture is barely terrorism. Compared with the real thing it seemed at times an almost laughable comparison as not all incidents were serious ones. Daubing graffiti is not terrorism. But the language of the Middle East has become so degraded that even Israelis are prepared to use it, probably as a linguistic way of registering their dismay and disapproval.

Most of the acts of ‘terrorism’ secretly filmed, or even with the connivance of the perpetrators, were carried out at night and amounted to very little beyond incitement. Setting fire to mosques or daubing churches is another matter. These are acts of outrageous desecration which are very serious sins according to Jewish religious teachings, let alone contrary to any norm of human behaviour or basic law.

Calling them all ‘terrorists’ creates a moral, or should that be immoral, equivalence between setting a fire in a mosque (and note this isn’t even a fire-bombing. No mosque has been destroyed as far as I know, the worst damage is smoke, burned carpets and Korans) and blowing up a bus full of schoolchildren or a restaurant full of diners.

I do not wish in anyway to diminish the seriousness of the crime. What I find a little hard to accept is the debasement of language which is an attempt, ultimately, to diminish full-blooded terrorism. Calling these people terrorists lets real terrorists off the hook. One incident where people were seriously burned in their car is a hate crime and could, justifiably, be considered ‘terrorism’.

Unfortunately, Israel is not doing enough, in my opinion, to stop this. Any ‘settler’ found guilty of these crimes should be given exemplary punishments. It is not an easy crime to prevent. Nevertheless, it must be stamped on, and very hard.

The programme shape-shifted somewhat. It seamlessly morphed from a programme about Price Tag to an examination of settlements, especially illegal ones (even under Israel law) and the tensions between settlers and Palestinians.

I felt genuinely sorry for some of the Arab victims of settler vandalism and intimidation who seemed to be entirely innocent people just trying to get on with their lives. This impression of mine was surely shared by any decent person who watched the programme. But that impression was not really examined; very little time was given to Arab incitement, Arab terrorism, Arab vandalism. It appeared that the Arabs were completely innocent victims if you didn’t listen or want to listen to the odd allusion to attacks and murders of children.

Whatever the Arabs do can never excuse the behaviour of the Price Taggers or indiscriminate settler violence which is actually targeting the Israeli government and deliberately trying to provoke Arab reaction – the Price Tag.

The context of settlements was addressed in the program in standard terms – occupation, illegal, land grab, god-given land etc. It was made clear, however, that these people were extremists but their atypical behaviour (if you take Israel as a whole) and beliefs were not really stressed. For someone ready to believe the worst about Israel, the programme provided ample evidence. For those with a more nuanced and balanced approach, it would have been clear that these criminals are considered such in Israel and under Israeli law. This is in stark contrast, of course, to Arab terrorists who are national heroes and richly rewarded for actually murdering people. That comparison was never made.

But, I have to say, the program could have been a lot more hostile and damaging. It will reinforce the prejudices of those already convinced of evil Israel. It will embarrass people like me, but only because unless Israel is perfect, it is irredeemably evil and this is the narrative we confront daily. We are always being forced to be defensive because Israelis are just like everyone else, not perfected paragons of virtue that the world demands they be.