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Compared to past international media coverage of Ariel Sharon, which on a number of occasions in recent years has gone beyond personal demonization to outright anti-Semitism, the reporting on Sharon since he suffered a massive stroke last week has been relatively benign. Sharon the butcher, the bulldozer, the war criminal, the "successor of Hitler" has suddenly been humanized in several usually hostile quarters such as the BBC.
But only up to a point. Even amid this improved coverage, as Sharon lies fighting for his life many articles in the Western media have retailed untruths, almost in passing, as though they were incontrovertible historical facts: Sharon initiated the second intifada, Sharon ordered the Sabra and Shatila massacres, and so on.
According to a Google search, there were over 24,000 articles published on Sharon in the 24 hours following his stroke last Wednesday night. But only four days later, in Monday's Washington Post, was there the first mention of Sharon's protracted and successful libel battle in the 1980s against Time magazine for its inaccurate suggestion that he had encouraged the Sabra and Shatila massacres.
Equally, there has been almost no reference to the fact that the Sabra and Shatila massacres were carried out by (Christian) Arabs against (Muslim) Arabs, in response to massacres by Muslims, and virtually no indication that the Palestinians themselves had carefully planned the 2000 intifada.
This is by their own admission. For example, the PA Communications Minister, Imad Al-Faluji, told Al-Safir (March 3, 2001): "Whoever thinks that the intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon's visit to the Aksa Mosque is wrong. This intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat's return from the Camp David negotiations, where he turned the table upside down on President Clinton."
And jailed Palestinian terror leader Marwan Barghouti told the Palestinian paper, the Jerusalem Times (June 8, 2001): "The intifada did not start because of Sharon's visit to Al-Aksa. The intifada began because the Palestinians did not approve of the peace process in its previous form." But now, as then, Western media are uninterested in passing such comments on to their readers.
Most of the reporting has failed to supply any context - for example as to why Israeli troops entered Lebanon in 1982. I have seen hardly any references to past moves Sharon made for peace such as the 1982 dismantling of Yamit and 13 other settlements in the Sinai.
THERE HAVE also been some nasty headlines and cartoons.
"He is the King Kong of massacres" ran the headline of a news report on Sharon on January 8 in The Observer, the Sunday affiliate of Britain's Guardian newspaper, referring to the recently-released remake of the 1933 movie classic.
"Ariel Sharon, agent of perpetual war," was the headline of an article in the relatively moderate Lebanese paper the Daily Star, on January 7 by its editor-at-large and frequent guest on America's NPR, Rami Khouri.
"Sharon's legacy does not include peace," is how a January 5 feature on the BBC News Web site by Paul Reynolds, the BBC's World Affairs correspondent, was introduced; while Richard Stott's January 8 column on Sharon for the mass circulation (British) Sunday Mirror was titled "Middle Beast."
On Friday, the entire front page of the (London) Independent carried a photo of Sharon with the words "Inside: Robert Fisk on Ariel Sharon." The article, over 7,000 words extracted from Fisk's new book, was hardly about Sharon at all and consisted almost entirely of Fisk's claims about what happened at Sabra and Shatila. Unsurprisingly, Fisk made no mention of Sharon's successful American court ruling against Time.
Yet, overall, the international coverage of Sharon since his stroke has been relatively kind. Who could have imagined, for example, that The New York Times - which has blackened Sharon's reputation for decades - would run a comparatively complimentary editorial on him by Benny Morris? Who could have imagined that the home page of aljazeera.net would this week show Sharon sitting in a grandfatherly pose looking on as Hanukka candles were lit?
I USE the term "relatively kind" because it is important to recall what the coverage of Sharon was like until just a few weeks ago. He was not only reviled in the international media but frequently portrayed in viciously anti-Semitic terms.
In Spain, for example, on June 4, 2001 - just three days after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 21 young Israelis at a disco, in the midst of a unilateral Israeli cease-fire - the liberal magazine Cambio 16 published a cartoon of Sharon with a hook nose he does not have, wearing a skull cap he does not usually wear, sporting a swastika inside a Star of David on his chest, and proclaiming: "At least Hitler taught me how to invade a country and destroy every living insect."
A week earlier El Pais, Spain's equivalent of The New York Times, published a cartoon of an allegorical figure carrying a small rectangular-shaped black mustache, flying through the air toward Sharon's upper lip. The caption read: "Clio, the muse of history, puts Hitler's mustache on Ariel Sharon."
Cartoons in the Greek press in 2004 showed Sharon as a Nazi officer. One of Italy's leading papers, Corriere Della Sera, ran a cartoon on March 31, 2002 showing Sharon killing Jesus. The cartoon, which was timed to coincide with Easter day that year, was published as Israelis lay dying from the Netanya Passover massacre three days earlier.
HUNDREDS of similar anti-Semitic motifs have been applied to Sharon in recent years. The Economist magazine compared him to Charles Dickens' infamous anti-Semitic stereotype, Fagin, and previously ran a blackened front cover with the words "Sharon's Israel, the world's worry." And grotesque cartoons of Sharon continued to appear until as recently as six weeks ago in, for example, the Guardian.
Now, by contrast, attitudes to Sharon are by and large restrained, even respectful. But we still have to wait and see whether journalists in the supposedly respectable world media have decided to rid themselves once and for all of the anti-Semitic overspill in their Israel coverage.
It is much too early to tell.
The writer is a former Jerusalem correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph (www.tomgrossmedia.com).