By Rob Harris
The mainstream media has long exhibited a distinctive hostility toward Ariel Sharon, a former Israeli prime-minister (2001-2006), and military commander of some renown, due to his successes in the Six Day War (1967), and Yom Kippur War (1973). Media coverage, in the immediate aftermath of Sharon’s death, was no exception.
The day of Sharon’s death (January 11th 2013), RTÉ, Ireland’s public service broadcaster, featured a report by journalist Carole Coleman, entitled “Divisive Israeli leader Ariel Sharon dies”, that exemplified this pointed hostility. In relation to the 1982 Sabra and Shatila Massacre, Coleman stated:
“When hundreds of Palestinians were massacred in refugee camps by Christian milita, Sharon was held personally responsible, earning him the reputation of a ‘war criminal’.”
Coleman clearly indicates that Sharon was in some way knowingly complicit to the massacre itself.
The Kahan Commission, established by Israel soon after the massacre took place, constitutes the principal study of the event. It is typically cited by journalists, when referring to Sharon’s supposed guilt in the massacre, and is very probably the source Coleman cites because it is renowned for ascribing “personal responsibility” to Sharon. However, like that of many other journalists who have cited Sharon’s “personal responsibility” in this regard, Coleman’s assertion is wholly misleading. The Kahan Commission wrote:
“We have found, as has been detailed in this report, that the Minister of Defense bears personal responsibility. In our opinion, it is fitting that the Minister of Defense draw the appropriate personal conclusions arising out of the defects revealed with regard to the manner in which he discharged the duties of his office”
The Commission pointed out that these duties included the protection of those Arab-Palestinians living within the camps. It found that Sharon bore responsibility for failing to account for “the danger of bloodshed and revenge” that would likely follow from allowing an allied Lebanese Phalangist militia into the camps, to find PLO terrorists. Thus, his failings were due to negligence, rather than complicity or collusion. As a result of these failings, the Commission sought his dismissal as Minister of Defense.
The Kahan Commission criticised Sharon harshly but did not deem him to be anything resembling a “war criminal”. Rather, his reputation was muddied by a stream of accusations before and after its findings. As if to bolster her claim, perhaps as a form of citation, Coleman’s report features the well-known image of a February 1983 Time Magazine cover (Verdict on the Massacre: “It should have been foreseen”), which appeared soon after the Commission’s report. The edition featured an article, which claimed that Sharon had colluded in the massacre. It was without foundation, and Sharon took legal action in the US against the publication. The jury determined that he was defamed by the article. It found that Sharon had provided sufficient evidence to prove that Time Magazine’s claims were false.
In the report, Coleman went on to state that Sharon is responsible for initiating the Second Intifada:
“More controversy in 2000, when, as Likud leader, he visited the al Asqa Mosque, a site revered by Jews as the Temple Mount. The visit caused outrage and sparked the Second Palestinian uprising.”
Thus, Coleman reiterates the well-worn tale that Sharon’s September 2000 visit to Jerusalem’s Temple Mount “sparked” the Second Intifada. With the benefit of hindsight, it has become widely known that Sharon’s visit was nothing other than a convenient excuse for initiating the Second Intifada.
It has been reported that Sharon’s tour of the Temple Mount was deemed to be acceptable by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Numerous Arab-Palestinian sources have confirmed that the PA President, Yasser Arafat, had planned the Second Intifada as an attempt to take the initiative, and strengthen his hand diplomatically, after he walked out of the Camp David talks.
Moreover, Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount, did not include a tour of the environs of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is situated upon the historic site. Israeli government sources state that the PA gave the Temple Mount visit the green-light as long as it did not include the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Coleman also claimed Sharon was going to pre-emptively pull out of the West Bank:
“He’s understood to have wanted a withdrawal from the West Bank, in preparation for an eventual Palestinian state.”
Without elucidation, Coleman presents Sharon’s plan as part of a prospective peace process. However, it seems Sharon given up on a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority, as indicated by letters exchanged with President George Bush II. After the gesture of returning Gaza, without any concessions, Sharon sought to pull back a significant number of settlers that lived in communities deep within the West Bank area, whilst retaining the larger settlement blocs near the 1949 Armistice Line. Although Jerusalem would possibly be denied for a prospective Arab-Palestinian state, this strategy was nonetheless somewhat in line with prior negotiations for a two-state solution.
The following day (12th January 2014), RTE News services continued to give prolific coverage to Ariel Sharon’s death, mainly featuring a report, entitled “Ariel Sharon lies in state”, by a journalist called Karen Creed. She stated:
“Many world leaders have paid tribute to Ariel Sharon’s significant role in Israeli history, while his critics regret that he was not brought to justice before he died. Across the Middle East many have condemned him as a tyrant, recalling his role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This Palestinian woman survived the massacre that was led by Sharon in Beirut in 1982 but her family were killed. She describes the 32 years of suffering endured since loosing her husband, son and brother-in-law, and says Sharon only suffered for eight years, referring to his time in a coma.”
Creed subsequently added: “On Sharon’s home soil a very different picture was being painted today of the military leader, heralded for relentlessly pursuing his country’s security”, suggesting she was presenting different perspectives, or perhaps subtlety indicating that support for Sharon was misguided, because similar contextualisation was not provided before, or during, the section referring to the Arab worlds celebration of his death, a point in the report that included the Arab-Palestinian woman’s views.
Although Creed’s report attempts to provide two broad perspectives of Sharon the man, it attacks his reputation more intensely than Coleman’s report, by presenting the assertion, that Sharon led the massacre, as constituting an established fact, when it describes the circumstances of the Arab-Palestinian woman. Notably, the report also includes an image of the same 1983 Time Magazine cover, which contained a discredited article claiming that Sharon had colluded in the massacre.
Moreover, Creed’s error is compounded by a failure to mention that the massacre was actually carried out by a Lebanese militia, rather than the Israeli forces under Sharon’s command. Thus, the report is particularly misleading, its effort to be balanced, or to appear so, an extremely superficial endeavour.
Carole Coleman has developed a reputation, in some quarters, for bias, due in part to an unprofessional interview with George Bush II, in which she latterly boasted that she wished to strike him during the event.
In years past, Coleman’s coverage of the Israeli-Arab/Palestinian conflict was often a source of discussion amongst Irish supporters of Israel. Her unreserved acceptance of Sharon’s guilt at Sabra and Shatila, the misleading reference to the Kahan Commission, the further citation of a discredited source, and the undeserved attribution of blame for the Second Intifada, will likely not alleviate those concerns.
The reflexive bias of RTÉ’s coverage of Ariel Sharon’s death was not dissimilar to that of its coverage of Lee Rigby’s murder, in which the national broadcaster gave full voice to Islamic extremists.
All news providers have an ethical responsibility to report news without prejudice. This is particularly important with public service broadcasters, because they often possess a near-monopolistic influence on the views of a nation. Commentator Eoghan Harris pointed out that “RTE is the most important influence in shaping the Irish moral imagination.” Unfortunate then that this imagination is moulded in such a poorly informed and politicised fashion.
Update (January 27th 2014)
After receiving a number of complaints from viewers, concerning Karen Creed’s report, RTE broadcast a correction at the end of their 6pm and 9pm news bulletins yesterday, a transcript of which is below:
“A recent RTE news report on the death of former Israeli prime-minister Ariel Sharon. It was stated that Mr. Sharon led the 1982 massacre in Beirut at the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. While a subsequent Israeli government enquiry found that Mr. Sharon bore indirect responsibility, we were not correct to report that the massacre was led by him.”
Whilst the correction should be welcomed, it nonetheless lacks clarity by continuing to use the words ‘indirect responsibility’, without explaining that Sharon’s guilt was deemed, by the Kahan commission, to be negligence, rather than of actual complicity in the massacre. Moreover, the online media-player version of the January 12th report by Karen Creed has not been amended, nor does the transmitted admission of error appear to have been posted online by RTE.
Rob Harris contributes articles to several websites on contentious political issues (not to be confused with the popular English novelist (1957-) of the same name). He blogs at eirael.blogspot.com. He lives in Ireland. For all the exclusive blog entries by Rob Harris, go here.