Why Some Conflicts Are Ignored
  • Tue, 06/01/2010 - 12:00

Global Politician
Shane Leavy

People tend to think Palestine matters. Irish nationalists paint Palestinian flags onto street murals in Belfast. Spanish school children send the Israeli embassy letters demanding an end to ‘murders’ in Palestine. People with no personal connection to Palestine care deeply about events there.

In politics commentators wonder aloud if the Israel-Palestine conflict could spawn others or spread out of control into a wider Middle Eastern war. Al Qaeda have already blamed American support for Israel for inspiring the 9/11 attacks, and US national security advisor James L Jones said that if President Obama were to solve just one problem it should be this conflict. Media tend to agree; The Australian newspaper devoted more coverage to Israel-Palestine than to the entire African continent in 2007.

So while there is great disagreement on solutions to the Israel-Palestine conflict, there is a consensus that it is a conflict of global importance.

In terms of actual destruction, however, it is not. Over the last decade political violence in Palestine has killed almost 6,000 people. With a population around 4 million, this gives Palestine an average total death rate from political violence of roughly 17 deaths per 100,000 population every year. This is lower than the murder rate of Miami; peacetime New Orleans managed to clock up 55 murders for every 100,000 population in 2008.

Of course Palestine experiences occasional bursts of severe violence. The 2008-2009 winter invasion of Gaza killed 1,385 people in a few weeks, giving a shocking death toll of 338 per 100,000 in Gaza.

This, while disturbing, is still insignificant compared with a number of contemporary conflicts. In the months following the Gaza invasion, around 15,500 people were killed in Sri Lanka as the government defeated the Tamil Tigers. Almost seven times as many people have been killed in Sri Lankan political violence since 2000 than Palestine.

Sri Lanka is hardly alone, there are examples of military conflict worse than Israel-Palestine all over the world. A civil war in Nepal from 1996-2006 cost the country around 12,700 lives. Burma has had on-off ethnic rebellions since 1948, with hundreds of thousands of people displaced in the last fifteen years. Tens of thousands have died in Chechnya’s independence struggle with Russia. Mexico has lost 22,700 people in four years just from fighting drug gangs in their own country.

And then there is Africa. A 2008 UN estimate put the number killed in Darfur over the previous two years at 300,000. The Liberian civil war killed 150,000. The Algerian civil war killed another 150,000. Eritrea and Ethiopia fought until 2000 with unknown tens of thousands dead. The Somali civil war destroyed its entire state structure, killing up to 400,000.

All these pale by comparison with the Second Congo War, a gigantic conflict spilling across boundaries, absorbing eight different African countries and killing more than have died in any single conflict since World War II. One estimate puts the death toll as high as 5.4 million, others estimate under 3 million.

Suddenly Palestine’s little flashes of violence seem rather insignificant.

Still, the conflict over Palestine is not just about the number killed in combat, but also matters of justice, and the poor living conditions created by the conflict. Justice is a little difficult to measure but poor living conditions produce measurable numbers; Palestine has quite a high infant mortality rate for example, 23.6 deaths for every 1,000 live births, compared with 20 in Egypt, 12 in Lebanon and only 4 in Israel. The Democratic Republic of Congo, on the other hand, has an infant mortality rate five times worse than Palestine – 126 per every 1,000.

Palestinian life expectancy is actually fairly good, higher than Egypt, Turkey or Iran, and about two decades higher than DR Congo. But life in Palestine causes outrage around the world, while Congo does not. Minor clashes in Palestine fill newspapers; outright carnage in Congo does not. What causes this discrepancy?

Virgil Hawkins, author of Stealth Conflicts: How the World’s Worst Violence Is Ignored, describes a set of six factors that determine media coverage of foreign conflicts: national/political interest, geographic proximity/access, ability to identify, ability to sympathise, simplicity and sensationalism.

The 9/11 attacks had all of these factors for Western media and became a huge story. West Papua rebels fighting for independence with bows and arrows in Indonesian jungles – when Indonesia was an American Cold War ally – had almost none. Far from being a true reflection of the size of a conflict, media coverage is influenced by the most incongruous and mundane of matters.

‘A simple example is the decision of media corporations to maintain reporters in Jerusalem, Cairo etc,’ explains Hawkins. ‘If there is a reporter based in Jerusalem and a conflagration breaks out, it costs next to nothing for the media corporation to cover it. With no reporters stationed in Africa to begin with, reporting of conflict there is an expensive decision. Thus, conflict in Israel-Palestine gets more coverage because it has in the past, and Africa gets less attention because it hasn’t. It’s a vicious cycle.’

The middle three of Hawkins’s six factors – ability to identify and sympathise, and simplicity – are related to media’s ability to interpret conflicts in terms of wider, simple narratives. The ideal conflict for journalists has an obvious bad guy oppressing a peaceful, familiar underdog. This, perhaps, partly explains why Tibet’s national struggle attracts such positive attention while China’s Muslim-majority province Xinjiang does not. Communist China was already considered suspicious, while Buddhism had avoided the negative press increasingly associated with Islam.

Simplistic narrative may also explain why the struggles of Muslims in China have attracted so much less outrage among Muslims elsewhere than those in Palestine and Iraq. One powerful modern narrative describes a perceived clash of civilisations between the West and Islam. Commentators from either group pushed this interpretation of history, emphasising violence between the civilisations and down-playing the (rather common) examples of Westerners and Muslims fighting on the same side.

Google Insights for Search shows what words people search for on Google the most, compared with all search terms in a given region and over a particular period. By seeing what people are searching for in different countries, we are given some hints into the importance people give in these countries to various events.

The search term ‘Palestine’ is searched far more often than ‘Xinjiang’ in almost every country, even during the 2009 riots between Muslim Uighurs and Han Chinese. Pakistan shares a border with China. Malaysia has millions of citizens of Chinese ancestry. Yet both populations were far more likely to search ‘Palestine’, ‘Gaza’ or ‘West Bank’ than ‘Xinjiang’ or ‘Uighur’. Chinese Communist conflict with Muslims does not slot easily into the most popular global narratives of today.

Palestine, on the other hand, is a perfect storm of these simplistic narratives. To some it is the last fortress of Western democracy against Muslim autocracies. To some it is the latest example of European imperialism. Others see a rerun of the Crusades, a conspiracy by Jewish elites, a hangover from the Cold War, a religious battle for the Holy Land and so on.

Palestine is big news so when something happens in Palestine the media are ready and compelled to cover it, which, perversely, tells news consumers that Palestine is big news all over again. Xinjiang is not news. It is unknown (and for many unpronounceable) and confusing. People already have opinions about Palestine, few have opinions about Xinjiang, DR Congo or Western Saharan.

Most consumers of news aren’t aware of these influences unintentionally biasing news coverage of world events. They see Palestine constantly in the news and must presume that it is one of the worst conflicts going. Palestine as news exists because it fits simplistic narratives, but this disproportionate coverage also reinforces those narratives.

On one online discussion forum a Pakistani member recently claimed that, ‘Israel is the cause and reason for 95% of violence and terror in the world.’ A 43,000-strong Pakistani discussion forum on the same website has 28 threads mentioning the word ‘Uighur’, 49 threads mentioning ‘Xinjiang’, 838 mentioning ‘Palestine’ and ‘over 1,000’ – in other words too many to calculate – mentioning ‘Israel’. At the moment the top five threads are all discussing the spoof protest Everybody Draw Mohammad Day, proposed initially by an American cartoonist. Some Pakistani members think it should be ignored. Others seriously discuss boycotting Facebook, or boast about successful attempts at hacking the Draw Mohammad page. Once again the dominant narrative is the relationship between Muslims and the West; oppression of Islam in Communist China simply doesn’t fit.

‘It has been shown that people tend to filter and interpret incoming information to fit in with and reinforce their pre-existing views (thus, a newspaper article can somehow manage to attract cries of bias from both sides of a conflict),’ says Hawkins. ‘When the information is already pre-filtered in such an extreme way (so much coverage on a particular conflict and so little on others) this makes it all the more easy for people to see that that particular conflict is the only one that happens, or that matters.

‘In this sense, I think it not only feeds back to extremists, but also that it helps to ‘create’ extremists on the issue, who, without such saturation coverage, may not have felt so strongly about the issue. This is one major reason I think that there is such an active online debate scene on the Israel-Palestinian conflict.’

By focusing on Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan, media and commentators are giving strength to disturbing simplistic narratives that emphasise a perceived chasm between Muslims and Westerners. The extremists are benefiting from this, while moderates find it impossible to explain the complexity of global events.

The furious debate over Israel and Palestine show that news media do not control what people think – but do control to a significant extent what people think about.

Rather than arguing over the rights and wrongs of Palestine, responsible journalists should question its importance by exploring the other, much more destructive, conflicts around the world. We should do more than satisfy lazy narratives and reinforce divisions, and the best way to do that is to stop exaggerating a few conflicts and ignoring the inconvenient rest.

If we want to end conflict in Palestine, perhaps we need to start discussing conflict in Congo.