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Why is The Guardian excluding Palestinians from its comment pages?

The Guardian, often accused of bias by pro-Israel lobby groups, is excluding Palestinian voices from its comment pages, an examination of two years of coverage has revealed.

Out of 138 op-eds on Palestine/Israel published by the paper in its ‘Comment is free’ section from October 2013 to November 2015 (which includes both print and online-only articles), just 20 were written by Palestinians – 15 per cent of the total.

By contrast, 39 op-eds (28 per cent) were written by Israelis, while the majority, 79 pieces or 57 per cent, were contributed by international journalists and analysts, most of them British.

Amongst the pieces authored by Israelis were six by state representatives, including four by the then-Israeli ambassador to the UK Daniel Taub and his embassy colleague Yiftah Curiel. There were also op-eds by Israeli minister Gilad Erdan and president Reuven Rivlin.

In addition, The Guardian published four pieces by opposition politicians, including former-minister Yair Lapid, and Labor MKs Hilik Bar and Michal Baran. Thus the number of pieces by Israeli embassy staff and serving politicians – 10 – is equal to half the total number of op-eds by Palestinians.

The most prolific single contributor (Israeli or Palestinian), with seven by-lines, is Anshel Pfeffer, a journalist with Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz – whose editor, Aluf Benn, himself wrote two pieces. The other Israeli contributors are mainly journalists, analysts, and academics.

Amongst the 20 op-eds by Palestinians, three were by West Bank-based politicians (Jibril Rajoub, Saeb Erekat, and Mustafa Barghouti), as well as a piece by Fatah prisoner Marwan Barghouti, and Hadash party leader Ayman Odeh.

There were two pieces each by UK-based academics Ahmad Samih Khalidi and Karma Nabulsi, Canada-based author and academic Izzeldin Abuelaish, and analyst Sami Abdel-Shafi.

I compiled the database of 138 comment pieces using three tags that encompass almost every op-ed on the topic: ‘Israel’, ‘Gaza’, and ‘Palestinian Territories’. I tried to exclude articles that primarily related to nuclear talks with Iran, or where Israel and/or the Palestinians were mentioned but not the main focus (including pieces related to Australian politics).

So why are Palestinians being excluded from The Guardian’s comment pages? There is a temptation is to attribute responsibility to individuals: Jonathan Freedland, for example, is the paper’s executive editor for opinion and oversees Comment is free and editorials (a position he has held since May 2014). Freedland has well-known views on Israel and the Palestinians.

But The Guardian is bigger than just one man, and a similar pattern of exclusion amongst the by-lines pre-dates Freedland’s current role. The disparity between the number (and variety) of Palestinian voices given a platform compared to Israelis is a long-standing problem in mainstream Western media outlets – and liberal/left publications are not immune.

The paper’s editorials provide some insight into the kind of perspectives shaping comment coverage of the region. In a particularly bad recent editorial on what The Guardian called “the war of knives in Israel and the West Bank” (presumably the guns of the Israeli army do not count), the paper suggested that Palestinians were under “the influence of [regional] jihad movements.”

It is true that The Guardian’s editorial line is more inclined to criticism of Israeli actions, yet such objections are usually couched in talk of “both sides” being “locked in a vicious conflict”. Or see this angst-ridden homage to Israel’s declaration of independence which, contrary to the editorial’s summary, did not announce a democracy, but a “Jewish state” (and was written by a Zionist leadership responsible for the ethnic cleansing of the Nakba).

In the run-up to Israel’s last election, The Guardian made no secret of its preference for Isaac Herzog’s Zionist Camp ticket, which it described as “conciliatory” and “centrist” – despite an election campaign that featured open anti-Palestinian racism and militarism.

According to the paper, Herzog had “promised to work for a two-state solution, something appealing to those who have become tired of Mr Netanyahu’s obstinate obstruction of peace efforts.” But this ignores Herzog’s campaign trail pledges that in any final agreement, he would insist Israel retains a ‘united’ Jerusalem, major settlement blocs, and a so-called ‘security’ border in the Jordan Valley.

The Guardian is often accused of ‘pro-Palestinian’ bias by Israel and its supporters: over ten months last year, the paper received acomplaint from the Israeli embassy in London on average once every 2-3 weeks (in addition to dozens by Israel advocacy groups and ‘monitoring’ websites).

There is, of course, a distinction between the paper’s on the ground reportage, and its op-ed pages. Yet the fact remains that, despite Israel’s anger at how the paper covers the issue, when it comes to the comment pages, Palestinian voices are marginalised.

Given the asymmetry between Israel (the occupier) and the Palestinians (the occupied and expelled), there would be a strong argument for a paper proud of its liberal-left identity to actually privilege Palestinian voices.

Yet The Guardian is not even managing statistical ‘balance’: over the two-year period surveyed, double the number of Israelis wrote op-eds compared to Palestinians. Hopefully, senior staff can reflect on why this is the case, and what can be done to remedy this state of affairs.

Published first by Middle East Monitor.

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