Behind the lines: Mughrabi - hardly a floodgate

Was the whole affair relatively quiet because the media decided to ignore it?

mughrabi dig 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mughrabi dig 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
'I didn't fly over to cover the Mughrabi Gate business," a well-known reporter for one of the world's most prestigious newspapers told me this week. "I just didn't get the feeling that it would turn into anything big." This was coming from a veteran of two dozen war zones, a "fireman" ready at the drop of a hat to scramble to the most dangerous hot spots, with a particular appetite for our local brand of warfare. His appraisal turned out to be accurate. Despite dire warnings, the excavations at the entrance to the Temple Mount amounted only to a few lightly wounded police officers and Palestinians, and to another indictment for Islamic Movement leader Raed Salah. But was it that foreseeable? All the elements were there: Jews digging up one of the most explosive pieces of real estate on the globe; fanatic Islamists with little regard for the facts; an Israeli government that, as usual, had failed to work out all the implications and coordinate its disparate agencies; and a Palestinian leadership that had everything to gain from stoking a fire that would deflect attention away from its civil war and unite the warring factions against the common Zionist enemy. In retrospect, it almost seems a miracle that cooler heads prevailed and the excavations didn't trigger a third intifada or at the very least a replay of the 1996 Western Wall tunnel riots. So maybe it's the other way round. It's a chicken-and-egg situation. Perhaps, rather than the international media realizing that the Mughrabi confrontation wasn't such big news, the decision of international news organizations not to make a big deal of the affair actually kept the flames down - just as, in previous cases, excessive media attention served as a major contributor to escalation. Not that the standoff went underreported; it received its fair share of headlines and airtime, but there was still a distinct feeling that it had been classified as a grade-C occurrence, worthy of coverage, but not important enough to warrant the urgent dispatch of special correspondents and camera crews, not even the B-team. The local bureaus were more than enough to deal with any developments. OF COURSE, there is no international council of media experts which decides which conflicts are worthy of special attention and which can be downgraded; commercial competition and professional rivalry rule any such coordination out. But there is a deeply ingrained herd mentality. News travels fast in the news business, and if one cable network is sending its star reporter halfway around the world, you can be sure that the rest of them will be hot on his or her heels. An event is certifiably big if it rates having CNN's Christiane Amanpour or BBC's John Simpson on location. It's exceedingly rare to arrive on the scene and find only one representative from overseas. Journalists might be essentially individualistic creatures. but they still hunt in packs. And if the pack has arrived, then its news. In Evelyn Waugh's satirical classic, Scoop, which almost 80 years after its publication still serves as a remarkably accurate description of war reporting, the experienced hack, Corker, regales the unlikely correspondent, William Boot, with some fables of the trade. His favorite stories are of star reporter Wenlock Jakes, "syndicated across America. Gets a thousand dollars a week. When he turns up in a place you bet your life that as long as he's there it'll be the news center of the world." Jakes had been sent to report on a revolution in one of the Balkan states, but he got off the train at the wrong station and in the wrong country. That didn't stop him from holing up in a hotel room and writing 1,000 words of colorful mayhem and carnage. "They were pretty surprised at his office, getting a story like that from the wrong country, but they trusted Jakes and splashed it in six national newspapers. That day every special in Europe got orders to rush to the new revolution. They arrived in shoals. Everything seemed quiet enough, but it was as much as their jobs were worth to say so, with Jakes filing a thousand words of blood and thunder a day. So they chimed in too. Government stocks dropped, financial panic, state of emergency declared, army mobilized, famine, mutiny and in less than a week there was an honest to God revolution under way, just as Jakes had said." THE WORLD media might be too large today for any particular Wenlock Jakes to exist, but the herd mentality is still there. Even if foreign editors don't feel any special connection to Israel, it's accepted wisdom that we are a big story. This is the mentality which decrees that even in a time when news organizations are slashing their international budgets, most serious newspapers and broadcasters still maintain a presence in this little country, and Jerusalem still has the highest proportion of foreign correspondents per capita of any city in the world. An array of historical and psychological explanations has been offered for why a Palestinian family killed by an off-course IDF artillery shell warrants front page headlines and color double-spreads, while the deliberate mass-murder of hundreds of thousands barely gets a mention. I have my own pet theory, and it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism or the European guilt-complex. Simply said, there is no better country from which to report: luxurious living; hi-tech facilities; reporters can get almost everywhere; and there is very little censorship. You wake up leisurely in the morning in your American Colony Hotel suite or - if you're based here - in your Talbiyeh apartment or German Colony villa; after coffee and croissants, your Palestinian driver picks you up in the air-conditioned jeep and in 30 minutes you're in the West Bank or - if you're feeling adventurous - in an a hour and a quarter you're in Gaza. A few hours and you've got everything you need for the day's story and you're back in Jerusalem for cocktails. After which you file the story over a high-speed link and prepare yourself for the night's entertainment. And if the editor back home suddenly wants something you missed, you can always rewrite The Jerusalem Post. Not that all the foreign reporters here are cut from the same cloth; some do go out there, take real risks and get real stories. During the intifada there was even an extremely small handful of journalists who got hit in the crossfire, and there are reporters who bravely work in really dangerous locations like Baghdad. But the bottom line is that it will always be much more comfortable to file a story on a Palestinian woman giving birth at a roadblock than reporting from a destroyed town in Chechnya or telling the story of an exterminated tribe in Darfur. So why, for once, did the herd stay away. It's probably a combination of reasons: A feeling that the big stories are happening elsewhere, in Iraq and Iran and the early start of the US presidential race; a temporary boredom with the Palestinians, who don't seem to be going anywhere beside into civil war, and anyway, Jerusalem in February is grey and uninviting. But don't worry, this is just a short time-out, they'll all be back. It's impossible to measure the effect, but I'm convinced that the fact that the international press corps failed to turn out in force for the Mughrabi event played a part in the minor outcome. There is something in the air in an event that is being broadcast simultaneously on all the international networks, the feeling that the eyes of the world are on us and a high-voltage current of electricity that needs only a spark to trigger a full-blown conflagration. There was a popular Hebrew pop song in the 1980s that went, "They don't make wars anymore in winter." And there's a good reason for that: The media circus prefers to set up its tent in spring.