This article in The New York Times is typical of a distinctive genre of American journalism on Israel and Palestine: vaguely pro-Palestinian in tone, vaguely critical of Israel by intention, but notably weak on the alphabet-level basics–literally the ABCs–of occupation.
The missing background, known to those familiar with the region, but unfamiliar to the uninitiated, is that the Israeli-occupied West Bank is divided into three zones: A, B, and C. Area A covers Palestinian urban centers, supposedly under full Palestinian control, both “civil” and “security” related. Area B covers small Palestinian towns and villages, along with semi-rural areas in their immediate hinterlands, substantively under Israeli security control but nominally under Palestinian civil control. Area C refers to the rest of the West Bank, including the vast majority of its surface area, airspace, and sub-surface resources, under full Israeli control.
The three areas are an ad hoc patchwork of irregular size and unpredictable pattern. Area A is in some places contiguous with C but not with B. Area B is in some places surrounded by Area C. Area C is in some places surrounded by Area A. The map below gives a rough sense, but no indication of micro-level complexity. It doesn’t indicate, for instance, that a road within Area B might itself be in Area C; another road nearby might be in Area B. Depending on the color of your license plate, you’d need to know which was which. A single town can be bisected between two areas, e.g., B and C, so that one person from that town, Ahmad, lives in Area B (under “Palestinian civil control”), while his neighbor Badan, just a few meters away, lives in Area C (within the municipal limits of the same town but outside of its jurisdiction). And so on.
One more complexity: though Area A generally corresponds to the marked municipal boundaries of the major Palestinian cities (so that you generally know when you’re in it), Areas B and C are not physically marked or delineated on the ground, so that it’s often impossible to know when you’ve crossed the “boundary” from the one to the other. A step in one direction or the other changes your “legal” status from one kind of victim to another. Not that legality matters in a place where the “rule of law” is determined in an ad hoc manner by the guy with the loudest voice and the biggest gun.
Beyond this, the actual practice that prevails in each Area often flouts its announced “legal” status. Area A is under “full” Palestinian control–except when Israeli military forces enter such an Area, as they often do, in which case “full” control becomes non-control for the duration.
Area B is supposed to be under “Israeli security control and Palestinian civil control,” which means that the Israeli Army has carte blanche to do as it pleases in the name of “security,” and that Palestinian “civil government” operates subject to its edicts. Since no government can actually function under such conditions, Palestinian “civil government” is a vague and mostly pointless phantom, often consisting of little more than a few dubious bureaucratic offices, a public library, a fire department (often lacking access to water), and a police department (usually prohibited from carrying weapons). In practical terms, this means that Area B is something like a Lockean State of Nature without functioning law or government.
In both theory and practice, Palestinians in Area C have no rights at all, and are treated accordingly.
If you now go back and re-read the Times article, at least two questions should jump out at you:
- Why does the author not explain any of the preceding?
- Why does the author waste so much space focusing on anecdotal minutiae that obscure the larger structural issues?
When you realize that the same questions could be asked of virtually all American journalism on Israel and Palestine, no matter how putatively “liberal,” it becomes clear that virtually every word one encounters in mainstream American reporting on Palestine serves to distract attention from the facts that put the reporting in its proper context. Such journalism tells engaging stories, but explains nothing.
Hence the perpetual air of esoteric “mystery” that hangs over the topic, and the sense of bafflement it provokes in the average reader. No one fed a constant diet of articles like this one could ever come to grasp even the ABC’s of life in occupied Palestine, no matter how conscientiously they tried, or how powerfully their sympathies were engaged by the plight of the Palestinians. The result is fairly predictable: no one does.
If you wonder how the Israelis have gotten away with 52 years of apartheid, you needn’t furrow your brow over it all that much. If the mainstream media describes an apartheid regime for 52 years by focusing on everything but its distinctively apartheid features, most people will miss the fact that it is one. If most consumers of mass media news miss the apartheid features of a regime, but unwittingly support it, eventually, apartheid wins. As it has.
Edited for clarity a few hours after the initial posting.