Robert Fisk and the Palestinian billionaire’s grandson

Almost exactly a year ago, in late May 2011, veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk devoted his column in The Independent to “A tale from the frontline of Palestinian protest.” The “Palestinian protest” mentioned in this headline was a “Nakba” rally in Lebanon supported by Hezbollah; the organizers of the event bused protesters to the border with Israel, and the plan was to have them march towards the border in an attempt to breach it.

Fisk’s tall tale about one of the protesters who was among those wounded when both Israeli and Lebanese soldiers opened fire to prevent infiltration attempts was a rather skillful piece of propaganda presenting Israel as just another illegitimate – and US-supported – Middle Eastern regime that should be swept away by the Arab Spring uprisings.

When I analyzed Fisk’s piece in a blog post, I couldn’t help wondering about the name of the young man Fisk placed at the center of his sad story of Israeli callousness and brutality: Munib Masri.

To be sure, Masri is a fairly common name among Palestinians – indeed, as a Hamas leader recently explained:

“More than 30 families in the Gaza Strip are called Al-Masri [“Egyptian”]. Brothers, half of the Palestinians are Egyptians and the other half are Saudis.”

But there is one very famous Munib Masri: he is known as the richest Palestinian in the world, a billionaire who has built himself a replica of a 16th-century Italian palace surrounded by sumptuous gardens occupying some 70 acres of land on Mount Gerizim overlooking his hometown Nablus. Defending the extravagance of this estate, Masri has reportedly pointed out that he returned to his hometown even though he could live a life of luxury in “New York, Geneva or London.”

Surely Fisk wouldn’t keep it from his readers if the Munib Masri he was writing about with so much passion was a close relative of the billionaire known as the “Duke of Nablus?”

But as I soon realized, I had been wrong about Fisk – and right with my suspicion about the young man whom Fisk was holding up to his readers as an example for the dispossession and disenfranchisement of the Palestinians: Fisk’s Munib Masri – who was supposedly motivated by his desperation about “the loss of his land” to join an organized crowd eager to enter “Palestine” by breaching Israel’s borders – was the grandson of Munib Masri the Palestinian billionaire.

Indeed, by now, grandpa Masri has given his version of the story – largely identical with the one Fisk put out – when he recently talked to The Times of Israel:

“Yearning for peace with Israel, Masri says he despises violence and killings, and yet he cannot bring himself to condemn Palestinians who resort to brute force as a means of resistance. His own grandson, in fact, was involved in a scuffle with IDF troops last year at the Israeli-Lebanese border, he says.

“He’s crippled now at 22 years old, because he wanted to throw a stone at a soldier,” Masri says angrily. “The soldier was 30 meters away and the stone wouldn’t have touched him. My grandson was going back to the bus when he was shot in the back by a dum-dum bullet. It destroyed his back, spleen and kidney.”

Israeli military sources deny that troops shot directly at protesters on the border last year, as opposed to the Lebanese army, which wounded and perhaps killed some.

While Masri professes to deplore violence, he says his grandson’s stone-throwing was a far cry from the response it elicited. “I don’t like any kind of violence but stones are not… I’ve never seen a stone killing anyone,” Masri says. “If I saw him today, I’d probably tell him: raise the flag instead of stones. But the Israeli soldier who was shooting, why don’t you tell him he was using excessive force to combat stones? You are the cause of this. He is reacting to your occupation. He cannot go see his land and his people. He wanted to do something and at 22 years old he threw a stone. Now he’s crippled for his entire life.”

So Munib Masri, the grandson of Palestinian billionaire Munib Masri, “cannot go see his land and his people.” That’s why he participated in an unsuccessful attempt to breach Israel’s borders from Lebanon.

While Fisk relates the story of the billionaire’s grandson with unreserved sympathy – that is to say, he basically acts as the mouthpiece of the family who apparently turned to him when they realized that their American citizenship wasn’t enough to convince the American embassy in Lebanon to hold Israel responsible for the injuries sustained by the younger Masri – Fisk does note that the young protester had actually often been to the Palestinian territories:

“In reality, he has been to ‘Palestine’ many times – Munib’s family comes from Beit Jala and Bethlehem and he knows the West Bank well, though he told me he was concerned he might be arrested when he next returns.”

And even though Fisk claims the family “comes from Beit Jala and Bethlehem,” he does quote the young Munib Masri’s mother relating that she had just returned from “visiting my father-in-law in Nablus.” If her son had accompanied her on this trip, he could have seen “his land and his people” without putting himself in danger at Israel’s border with Lebanon.

While Fisk may have felt that it was better to avoid fully acknowledging the family background of his Palestinian protester hero Munib Masri in order to strengthen the impact of his story, it is arguably quite revealing that Fisk had apparently no qualms to uncritically echo the family’s view of the attempted breach of Israel’s borders. It seems fair to assume that he indeed fully shares these views.

As I argued when I first commented on Fisk’s column a year ago:

“Fisk’s article illustrates that the Palestinians and their supporters have already made much headway when it comes to undermining the self-evident notion that, just like any other state in the world, Israel has the right and indeed the obligation to defend its borders against infiltrators. Even if the infiltrators are not armed, there is plainly no state in the world that is expected to allow people to cross its borders in order to demonstrate that these borders should not be defended and that anyone who so pleases should feel free to breach them.

The disingenuous attempt to equate the organized campaigns to breach Israel’s borders with the demonstrations against the misrule of Arab regimes is ultimately intended to convey a very simple message: everyone who thinks the oppressive Arab regimes have to end should also cheer the demonstrators who want to achieve the end of Israel as a Jewish state by claiming a fictitious ‘right of return.’”

And as we know now, even the grandson of the world’s richest Palestinian who built himself an enormous fake Italian palazzo in his hometown of Nablus has the enthusiastic support of an influential journalist like Robert Fisk when he claims that – instead of going along with mom on one of the regular visits to grandpa – he should be entitled to breach Israel’s border with Lebanon in order “to see his land and his people.”

Two additional points are worthwhile noting. The first is that Fisk, who has of course long been known for his pronounced bias against Israel and has been repeatedly accused of unprofessional conduct by media critics, has recently also come under criticism from some of his colleagues who questioned the reliability of his reporting.

The second point is that while in the case of the Masri family, Fisk was apparently willing to serve as their uncritical mouthpiece, Fisk is by no means alone. This is well illustrated by another successful attempt of the extended Masri family to get their story repeated in the media without much scrutiny – and there is even a hint of it already in Fisk’s column.

When Fisk admitted in his column that Munib Masri has actually “been to ‘Palestine’ many times” and that he and his relatives are visiting their family in the West Bank regularly, he immediately added a qualification:

“Being a Palestinian isn’t easy, though, whichever side of the border you’re on. Mouna Masri was enraged when her sister asked her husband to renew her residency in east Jerusalem. ‘The Israelis insisted that she must fly from London herself even though they knew she was having chemotherapy.’”

Sure enough, a few months later, this same story surfaced in The Guardian, where it was noticed by Adam Levick of CiFWatch, who commented in a post aptly entitled “The anatomy of a Guardian smear against Israel:”

“The dramatic title, “Palestinian envoy’s wife ‘forced back to Jerusalem during cancer treatment’,” in a report written by the Guardian’s diplomatic editor, Julian Borger, parrots an accusation by Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian Envoy to the UK, which seems, by all available evidence, to be without merit. […] the Guardian published the allegation that Hassassian’s Jerusalem residency was in doubt despite the emphatic and unequivocal denial by Israeli officials, and the fact that there is no corroborating evidence that Samira Hassassian’s extension was ever in question.”

I think “parrot” is a very well chosen description here – and it is certainly not only the privileged Masris and their relatives who find it easy to get their very subjective stories of supposed Israeli callousness parroted and amplified by well-known journalists and writers.

* * *

Cross-posted from my JPost blog.

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