Fiction Holds on at the Atlantic Monthly

Posted on September 28, 2005


A version of this article appears in Dissident Voice on line magazine

Recently, editors at the Atlantic Monthly announced that fiction would no longer be a regular feature in its pages. AM’s editors billed the changed as a question of “real estate” or as “777 North Washington Street”, the monthly letter from the editors, explained; more space is now required for long-form narrative journalism, because “the deeper features of the world requires a different and more expansive kind of reporting.” (May 2005).

A few pages later in the same issue, ironically, the magazine’s literary editor Bernard Schwarz hints at the quality this “expansive” journalism will take, in his opinion piece “Will Israel Live to be 100”, an ode to the mythology of parity in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the complex manouevers of logic necessary to maintain it. Schwarz, for example, states that both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas, his Palestinian counterpart, are ‘hard-liners’ because “the Israeli prime minister connived in the massacre of Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian president wrote a dissertation denying the Holocaust”. Thus, Schwarz places mass murder on equal footing with holocaust denial, a formulation which works well within the parameters of pro-Israeli discourse. Schwarz, does not stop there in his efforts to skew a false balance for the lop-sided Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To Schwarz, Israeli moderates are those, who like Sharon, violate international law by attempting to create a Palestinian entity “composed of detached cantons”; Palestinian moderates are those who are ‘spurred’ by this naked act of imperialism to enter into Israeli-dictated negotiations. In any case, the title of the piece loudly broadcasts the editorial board’s sentiments—the question is not whether there will be a fair resolution to Israel’s domination of Palestinian territories, but whether the hero of the narrative, Israel, can survive the demographic and political problems it has created for itself while politically and economically marginalizing another people.

This inherent bias seeps into the magazine’s journalistic narratives to such a degree that one can scarcely take the editors at their word when they claim to have done away with fiction in favor of ‘deeper more expansive reporting’—fiction continues to hold a special place in AM’s journalistic narratives concerning Palestinians, as it has for some time. In 2003, for example, James Fallows wove a tale alleging that Mohammed Al Durra, an 8 year old whose death at the hands of the Israeli military galvanized world opinion against Israel in the first days of the Intifada, could not have been killed by Israelis (Who Shot Mohammed Al Durra, Atlantic Monthly, June 2003). Fallows bases his assertion on a study by Nahum Shahaf, conducted nearly two years earlier and largely dismissed by the Israeli press, public and even the Israeli military, as a hopelessly flawed and transparent public relations stunt. Fallows resurrects the Shahaf study based on additional “research” done by “a variety of academics, ex-soldiers and Web-loggers” that indicate a similar conclusion. The findings of these academics, ex-soldiers and Web-loggers never actually appeared in the article, for reasons not fully explained, leaving the entire theory resting shakily on the work of Shahaf. This was not Shahaf’s first foray into a forensic field in which he has no formal training; he had already created a dubious reputation for himself as a conspiracy theorist when he claimed he had proof, which he refused to present, that Yitzahk Rabin was murdered by officials in the Israeli government—a pertinent fact that Fallows did not mention in his article. Fallows states that Shahaf approached the study objectively and solely out of “curiosity” and that he sought to “isolate himself from any kind of political question.” But Yosef Duriel, Shahaf’s partner in the study, had insisted in Ha’aretz that the Israeli military should have “released a categorically formulated statement saying that provocateurs opened fire against IDF soldiers, behind the back of a child, and made sure he would be killed in front of cameras; and after the boy, they killed the ambulance driver who tried to save him”.

None of these facts prevent Fallows from proclaiming confidently that Al Durra’s killing now lay “in the uncomfortable realm of events that cannot be fully explained.” There is, however, no mystery concerning the death of Mohammed Al Durra except in the minds of a few like Shahaf, and, of course, the ‘webloggers and academics’ that Fallows mentioned but never summoned to testify. The Israeli military has taken responsibility for the death, and still does, and Al Durra was only one of over thirty children under the age of 18, who were killed during Israeli military maneuvers in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem in the first month of the Intifada under similar circumstances, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society. By the time of the writing of Fallows’ article, this number had reached 391, and at the time of this writing, it is nearing 700, and shows no signg of slowing. Fallows feels compelled to present this evidence because the Al Durra case bears similarities to “two explosions in Baghdad markets in the first weeks of the [Iraq] war….Even as US officials cautioned that it would take more time and study to determine whether US or Iraqi ordnance had caused the blasts, the Arab media denounced the brutality that created these new martyrs.” Both Shahaf and his interlocutor, Fallows, might find it difficult to root for the home team if such grotesqueries were true and so the Israeli and American heroes of this narrative must be given the opportunity to disprove that their bullets and bombs kill people should the act be captured on film or videotape.

Another narrative in the same issue, “The Logic of Suicide Terrorism” (AM, June 2003), by Rand Corporation director Bruce Hoffman claimed that “two [Palestinian] suicide bombers were the sons of millionaires”. Though there is no historical record of Hoffman’s millionaire suicide bombers, this same phrase appears in a New Yorker article from November 2001 by Nasra Hassan, who conducted extensive interviews with would-be suicide bombers who, for various reasons, did not carry out attacks. Hassan never named the “millionaire” bombers, or interviewed them in the article—this one phrase is the only reference to them. Hassan found that many of her interlocutors had come from families more affluent than she expected—a point that Hoffman makes on the road to asserting that poverty plays no role in suicide terrorism—but more significantly, Hassan found that “more than half of them were refugees from what is now Israel.” Hoffman ignores this portion of Hassan’s research, because it does not fit the parameters of his narrative, which, while it ostensibly seeks to crib for the US Israel’s numerous strategies to deter suicide bombings, ignores the one most likely to get results—a just end to the occupation of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, perhaps because it would imply a simlar solution for the United States regarding its behavior in Middle Eastern countries

But the work of Fallows and Hoffman cannot compare to the exhaustingly biased, inaccurate quasi-fictional narrative “How Arafat Destroyed Palestine” (Atlantic Monthly, September 2005), by David Samuels. The article is little more than a 31 page primer on how to ignore the proverbial 800 pound gorilla, in which Samuels rarely wavers from hammering his eponymous assertion, even if it means manipulating and bridging quotes with his own opinions, and, most importantly, ignoring the very obvious impact of the Israeli government and military on the putative destruction. Indeed, Samuel’s main goal, seems not so much providing proof of Arafat’s inept kleptocracy, robustly documented by the world’s press for over a decade, but like the work of Hoffman and Fallows, erasing Israel from the equation of the region’s current woes and placing the entire onus of responsibility on a non-western villain. Arafat, Samuel’s anti-hero of choice, is made to look the part with Dickensian characterizations sometimes so far out of left field they can hardly be seriously addressed. “His [Arafat’s] lips flapped when he spoke” states Samuels, which some people “found irredeemably comic.” He was “clownish”, he had a “distended belly” which must have been catching because his inner-circle was a “pot-bellied retinue”; there are, in fact, three references to protruding Palestinian abdomens in the article, which would probably be a record if anyone was keeping tabs on such things. Physical characterizations are inherent to the so-called narrative journalism that Hoffman, Fallows and now Samuels, engage in at AM. When used judiciously, and when the underlying reporting is sound, the added impact brought by narratives can provide a layer of depth often missing from the blandness of straight daily news. But as Jesse Sunenblick noted recently in the May/June issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, there is difficulty in “resisting the very real pressures on journalists to follow established narratives, to ignore inconvenient wrinkles in pursuit of powerful tales of good and evil.”

In this particular instance, Samuels seems to have lost to those pressures, to the detriment of the Atlantic’s readership. In his pursuit of a tale of good and evil, Samuels maintains two standards, one for Arafat and Palestinians, accompanied by derision, disapproval and ridicule, and another for Israelis, who are held somehow above the fray and whose assertions are taken as fact and actions rarely editorialized. Samuels mocks Palestinians, for example, who believe that Arafat may have been poisoned by Israelis, claiming that for gullible and conspiracy-minded Palestinians, only the idea of Arafat’s death from natural causes was ‘deemed too far fetched to entertain’.

But the notion seems less far-fetched when viewed in the context of Israel’s history with both assassination and the usage of advanced toxins. In 1997, Israel attempted the assassination of a member of Hamas’ political wing, Khaled Mish’al, with a specially designed poison delivered with a handhold spray device by Israeli nationals using falsified Canadian passports. A report from Amnesty International October 8, 1997, states, ‘They [the Israelis] reportedly injected him with a poison which would have given the impression that he had died of an illness.’

While Samuels ridicules the theory, held by some Palestinians, that Arafat may have been poisoned by a team of cyclists and other foreign nationals who visited him in solidarity in the muqataa in 2003, just four months before Arafat’s death, Mossad agents were apprehended in New Zealand attempting to obtain the passport of a tetraplegic New Zealand citizen (Guardian Unlimited, 7/16/04).

This is not to say that there is any proof of an Israeli attempt to assassinate Arafat, but it is a theory certainly more attached to the factual world, given Israel’s record, than Samuel’s own about the Palestinian leader’s demise, which he presents with no irony or shame later in the piece. Latching on to the word ‘immunity’, spoken by Arafat loyalist, Munib al Masri in relation to the deterioration of Arafat’s health, Samuels makes a truly incredible leap of logic to imply that the Palestinian Authority chairman may have died from AIDS. The only proof Samuels offers is the fact that ‘immunity’ is a term often used in reference to AIDS—a truly astounding conclusion which he bolsters with a barnacled rumor concerning Arafat’s ambigous sexual preferences. Such ideas are not too far fetched to entertain when they support Samuels’ preferred conspiracy theory.

Indeed, when Samuels wants to make a point via the use of an interview with a Palestinian subject, he bypasses his interlocutor completely, asking the question and answering it himself with decontextualized phrases from the response. In his interview with Tawfiq Tirawi, director of the General Intelligence Service under Arafat, Samuels claims, without citation, that Tirawi “provided the professional planning and staff required to launch terror attacks that killed hundreds of Israeli civilians.” This is a strictly Israeli government assertion, based on documents the Israeli Defense Forces claim they seized during their military operation in 2002 which have not been independently authenticated by other sources. Tirawi himself disputes these charges, so it is not surprising that Samuels never follows up after declaring them fact at the beginning of his interview. There are other things on Samuels mind, his obsession with Palestinian fitness, for one, as he describes Tirawi as ‘potbellied’—one would think by now that a flat stomach was somehow intrinsically linked to good governance. Samuels who again asserts that Arafat was “responsible” for starting the Intifada, purports to catch Tirawi lying about it. “When I press him further,” Samuels writes, “he says that there was in fact a decision to launch a war against the Israelis.” But the content of the reply that follows does not in any way support Samuels claim. According to Tirawi, organized armed activities that involved Arafat, were begun, “after tens of Palestinians were killed by the Israeli army….there was not any use of weapons at the beginning of the intifada. Only after—even after a hundred Palestinians were killed, there was not one bullet….after that there was a decision. But only after a hundred Palestinians were killed.” Aside from some hyperbole, this is a generally accurate description of the events beginning on September 28, 2000, according to both the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website and the Palestine Red Crescent Society. Israeli forces, in fact, killed 140 Palestinians within the first 30 days of the Intifada, according to the PRCS. While there was armed violence against the Israeli military, it was sporadic, spontaneous and uncoordinated during this same time, killing 9 Israelis, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, hardly the “decision to launch a war” characterized by Samuels. Coordinated attacks which indeed may have been launched or aided by the Palestinian Authority, or elements within it, did not begin until November, with a string of killings of Israeli soldiers and settlers within the Palestinian territories.

Samuels who hardly lets a paragraph pass without mentioning the corruption of Arafat’s regime, seems disinterested in following the money once it reaches the Green Line. He notes, for example, the prominent role of an Israeli, Yossi Ginnossar, revealed by the Israeli daily Ma’ariv ( The Ginnosar File, 12/02/02) as one of the linchpins in the embezzlement of a large portion of the PA’s proceeds. Samuels interviews the article’s author, Ben Caspit, who documented that Ginnosar was intimately connected with the Israelis and Americans at the heart of Oslo, so much so that he used his connections with US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk and Special Envoy Dennis Ross to gain a seat at Camp David when Barak was unable to place him in the Israeli team (although not from lack of trying). Caspit’s article, however, goes much further toward implicating Israeli leaders and their cronies in PA corruption, to such an early period and great extent, that it seems likely that Israeli leaders enabled and facilitated the corruption for their own personal and political gain. Caspit notes that Ginnosar has historically relied on legal representation from Avi Pelosoff, who is married to Dalia Rabin-Pelosof, the daughter of Yitzahk Rabin, and until 2002 was Israel’s deputy Defense Minister. Ariel Sharon endured a great deal of embarrassment in the Israeli media when, as he was bombing Palestinian targets and assassinating Palestinian political leaders, his son Omri Sharon and his attorney Dov Weinglass were discovered meeting secretly in Austria with Ginnosar and his PA counterpart in a scheme to open a casino in Jericho, which would also serve as a money laundering device for Arafat and his cronies (The Ginnosar File, Ma’ariv, 12/02/02). Raviv Drucker, a journalist for Israeli Channel 10, claims in his recently published, Boomerang, that Sharon hurriedly designed his Gaza disengagement plan with the aid of Weinglass and pushed it through as quickly as possible, in order to avoid imminent indictment in one of two investigations into his fiscal impropriety (Corruption Can’t Wait, Shragai Nadav, Haaretz, 6/22/05). Indeed, Sharon’s son, Omri Sharon, an Israeli Knesset member, was recently indicted for his involvement in one of those alleged cases of corruption (Omri Sharon Indicted, Faces Jail Time, Arutz Shiva, 6/27/05). Moreover, Sharon’s plans for Gaza—another go at a casino in a former settlement area, this time in partnership with Cyril Cohen, who was at the heart of one of the investigations—have also come under scrutiny, despite the fact that Arafat has been dead for nearly a year. Such corruption would be worth examining, especially now, as Sharon seeks to fortify West Bank settlements by emptying those in Gaza. But Samuels cleanses Israeli actors of less than benevolent motives—‘such corruption was held by all but the most far-out critics of Arafat’s rule to be essential to the Oslo process.’ The accusation is reserved solely for Arafat and his cronies, and avoids implicating Israeli leaders and their inner circles, who, we are to assume, sacrificed their innate rectitude to placate a Palestinian Authority which wielded much leverage when it came to funneling money into Swiss bank accounts, but little when it came to negotiating a fair settlement for the Palestinian people.

But it is in his depiction of Palestine’s economy when Samuels really goes off the deep end. Samuels states that the Palestinian economy “enjoyed startling high growth rates after 1967, when it passed from Jordanian and Egyptian control into the hands of Israelis.” These growth rates, according to Samuels “stagnated and went backward under Arafat.” It is simply impossible to imagine where Samuels derived this fact. While it may be true that the Palestinian economy, as a function of per capita GDP, did increase for a brief time when Israel integrated it by force into its own in 1967, it was not because Israel developed Palestine’s economic infrastructure. A study on the impact of the intifada on the Palestinian economy (Economic Aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by, World Institute for Development Economics Research, Fadle M. Naquib), notes that Israel created a structural dependency within the Palestinian economy with arbitrary impediments to growth caused by Israel’s complete control over Palestinian trade, law and policy and pathological land and resource confiscation. The study also notes that Palestine’s agricultural base shrank considerably due to an asymmetrical trade scheme that favors the entrance of Israeli goods into the Palestinian market, while making the entry of Palestinian goods into the Israeli market financially prohibitive. The income from VAT tax that Samuels at one point characterizes as a grant from Israel, is actually the product of taxation of Palestinian imports of raw materials, which the Israeli occupation and now Oslo mandate be imported though Israel. This control of what is for all intents Palestinian government income was used as leverage against the Palestinian Authority and populace. Taxes also accrued to the state of Israel on work performed by Palestinian workers within Israel, the revenue of which was integrated solely into the Israeli economy and not to the benefit of the one within the territories. In any case, the golden economic age that Samuels imagines existing before Arafat arrived in the territories was reflected in the $1626 Palestinian per capita gross domestic product or about 1/10th that which existed in Israel. The study also noted that the disparity in per capita GDP between the two economies had been increasing steadily for decades and “at the start of the limited self-rule [Oslo] was almost at the level of a quarter century before”, when Jordan and Egypt were still administering the areas. It is not necessary to mention any of these facts to negate Samuels characterization of Palestine’s economic reality, however—it is enough to say that the integration of the Palestinian economy into the Israeli one came through an act of military force, at the cost of thousands of lives and in contravention of international law and has been used since that time as a way of controlling and undermining Palestinian social and economic independence at an obvious benefit for Israel.

It does not take long to get Samuels’ point—that the Occupied Territories were somehow better off under occupation than under Arafat. There is little truth to this ridiculous contention, as any objective and knowledgeable observer would note. Despite, the fact, that, as Samuels rightly points out, graft and corruption prevented all but a fraction of the Palestinian Authority budget to benefit the Palestinian people, the Palestinian Authority under Arafat still managed to provide Palestinians with a rudiment of a social infrastructure that they had not known in Israel’s previous three decades of occupation. Under the Palestinian Authority, Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and even Palestinian Jerusalem (over which the government of Israel claims sovereignty but does not provide adequate social services), for the first time had state sponsored health services, a vaccination program, Palestinian schools using an Arab curriculum, a civilian police force for the protection and not the policing of the Palestinian population, parking and traffic enforcement, a central bureau of statistics, a ministry of health charged with the prevention and control of disease and many of the other characteristics of self-government– including labor laws, social security, building permits. This is not, unfortunately, a credit to the Palestinian Authority which was indeed undermined by institutionalized corruption and mismanagement, but a significant critique of the social and economic impact of the Israeli occupation on the people of the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.

Certainly Samuels was faced with a daunting challenge in the writing of his article, for he had to construct his narrative around the titular assertion that one Palestinian man was responsible for the destruction of a geopolitical region over which Israel has had paramount control for nearly 40 years, and that this destruction occurred while Israel militarily occupied 60% of the territory in the West Bank and Gaza, surrounded the rest with troops and bases and controlled completely the country’ foreign trade, policy and jurisprudence. Such a confining plot naturally dictates that Samuels remove reference to Israel’s political, military and economic machinations and its own copious corruption. By doing so, Samuels blinds himself and his readers to the narrative agency inherent on all sides of the conflict. Israel’s attacks have been waged against the Palestinian people, not Arafat. The Intifada has been fought in good part against Israel’s attempts to force a unilateral settlement to the conflict through Oslo’s one-sided process, but much of it has also been directed against Arafat, against his inner circle and against the Palestinian Authority, a device rightly recognized as a creation of Oslo. The intifada has not continued for five years because it was controlled by Arafat; indeed, Arafat demonstrated at several junctures that though he could sometimes influence the course of events, he could not shut off resistance activities when it suited his needs. And even within the Intifada there has been a struggle to determine the course of struggle—along progressive and popular lines or regressive and insular ones. In this narrative, Arafat was only one character, among many.