Over a dozen innocent Palestinians had been killed by Israeli police, but The Guardian wasn’t interested.
It was 2001 and Jonathan Cook, a foreign desk editor at the paper, had just returned from from Israel reporting that police in Nazareth had murdered 13 non-violent Arab protestors during the second intifada the year before. Cook expected his editors at the “leftwing” paper to jump at the story, but he was sorely disappointed.
“I felt like I really grasped something,” says Cook, whose findings led him to conclude that the victims were unarmed and that police had essentially implemented a shoot-to-kill policy. His story went against the state’s official narrative — which was that armed Arabs in Nazareth had turned violent — but his conclusion was confirmed by a subsequent government inquiry. The Guardian, however, didn’t publish his investigation.
Cook, who holds an MA in Middle Eastern Studies, had long felt that mainstream coverage of the region missed key aspects of the story. The Guardian’s rejection of the Nazareth story disturbed him more deeply. He decided the problem required an out-of-the-ordinary solution.
“I suddenly thought I’ve got to do something radical here and go and test my views, immerse myself somewhere in the Middle East and really check if the problem is with me or with the newspapers.”
So he left The Guardian for Nazareth, taking a year’s leave to report on Palestinians inside Israel, a group largely ignored by the mainstream. Ten years and three books later (Blood and Religion, Israel and the Clash of Civilizations and Disappearing Palestine), he’s still here, he says, because here is where the story is.
“Being in Nazareth has allowed me to see things here in a different kind of light.”
According to Cook, reporters living in the Jewish-majority news hubs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv tend to see the current conflict as starting in 1967 with the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. This perspective lends too much weight to “security concerns” and enables Israel to skirt its responsibilities to the Palestinians, he says. Living in Israel’s Arab capital Nazareth, however, opened Cook up to the historical dimensions of a conflict at least as old as 1948. That’s the point at which “the story” begins for Palestinians, who do not celebrate the 1948 War of Independence, but instead commemorate the Nakba, or “catastrophe.”
“He’s pretty much on the button,” says veteran BBC journalist Bill Hayton, referring to Cook’s coverage of Israeli Arabs. Hayton, who made a film about the Bedouin of the Negev Desert for a 1998 edition of Simpson’s World on BBC World, says Cook’s focus on the Palestinian minority in Israel is “a good perspective from which to asses the various claims about Israel’s democratic identity.”
“He [Cook] is looking at issues which are crucial to the region but largely suppressed,” according to Hayton.
Working in Nazareth both during and after the second Intifada helped Cook see the big picture.
“Most interesting to me was that what was going on in the Occupied Territories, which all the other journalists would say is the story, was just a reflection of things that were going on, or had gone on, here before,” says Cook, whose work on travel restrictions within Gaza was chosen alongside other articles on Israeli human rights abuses as one of Project Censored’s 25 most important censored stories of 2009-10.
“Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories were devised before the occupation began, in its treatment of Israeli Arabs, especially in terms of land confiscation and creating conditions to break down the community’s social fabric,” Cook says.
“All of this was done inside Israel to an Arab population that posed no security threat, raising the question of whether many of Israel’s current policies towards the Palestinians are really security-related.”
But major papers generally avoid this kind of narrative, according to Cook. Policies like that of the Guardian, which rotates Middle East correspondents after two or three years, hinders in-depth reporting, he argues.
“I remember a foreign editor once saying that the reason [for the time limit] was that they [reporters] tended to ‘go native,’” Cook explains. “What he meant was that they started to get sympathetic to the Palestinian point of view.”
Cook argues from experience that The Guardian isn’t the anti-Israel paper it’s often thought to be. While the paper might go out of its way to condemn the occupation, Cook says more incisive questioning of Israel’s capacity to be both a Jewish and democratic state, or critiques of aspects of its security doctrine, are left out.
David Edwards and David Cromwell, editors of media criticism website Media Lens, and co-authors of Guardians of Power: the Myth of the Liberal Media, and Newspeak in the 21st Century, have published several of Cook’s critiques of the mainstream media.
“Cook is a rare example of a successful corporate journalist with the integrity and insight to perceive and expose the deep structural flaws in the profession that embraced him,” they wrote in an email to this reporter.
But where is a critic of Israel to go once he’s disillusioned with what even the mainstream left’s flagship paper has to offer? Nowadays the answer is, of course, online.
Though he is now on staff at The National, an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper, it is unlikely the job would have come around had he not earned a reputation for years as one of the online alternative press’s most dogged Israel-Palestine reporters. Since giving up his byline at The Guardian, Cook’s unique perspective has found a comfortable home in the dynamic world of smaller online publications. His articles on websites like Counterpunch and Electronic Intifada are widely cited in circles concerned with Israel-Palestine issues.
“The internet made people like me possible,” says Cook, who wrote solely on the internet for nearly three years.
“You can’t live on it but it does mean you can be heard,” says Cook. “It means you can make some kind of impression.”
Getting picked up on blogs and gaining a loyal internet fan-base gave Cook more visibility than he’d ever had. But Internet visibility is not without it’s pitfalls.
“In some ways it’s bad as a mainstream journalist to get visible like that because newspapers don’t like it,” says Cook. “You get recognized for having a certain kind of view or you get associated with a certain kind of website or kind of online readership and the newspaper doesn’t want to be associated with it.”
But Cook has made his heterodox views work for him, and for now he’s staying in Nazareth, a place that he says complicates the simplistic narrative that Israel wants to present.
“Israel wants us to see it as a conflict between Jews-civilization-good guys, and Muslims-terrorists-bad guys,” says Cook, “and Nazareth doesn’t fit into that at all.”
Jon Dillingham is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He is an MA candidate in the Specialized Journalism program at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.