A tale of two fences
by Gal Luft
February 18, 2004

The I's and the P's have been at war for over half a century. Over the past several years the level of suspicion, hostility and paranoia between the two has been unprecedented. I has been the target of a terror campaign by Islamic terrorists who infiltrated its territory and conducted horrific attacks against both soldiers and innocent civilians. I accuses P of training and arming these militants and not lifting a finger to stop them. After a long series of failed attempts to reach a peace deal or even a temporary cease fire, the government of I decided it must erect a fence as a security barrier separating it from P. I's fence project infuriates the P's. Their uniformed leader called the government of I to immediately halt the construction. But despite strong international pressure I does not seem to bend and its white haired prime minister recently called to expedite the project and finish the fence by the end of 2004.

If you thought the above 160 words describe the controversial fence currently being erected in the West Bank between Israel and the Palestinians you are in good company. Look again. I is not Israel and P is not Palestine. The story above describes another fence, three time zones away from the Middle East in the disputed area of Kashmir between India and Pakistan. Indeed, since Pakistani militants tried to storm the Indian Parliament in December 2001, India has embarked on an ambitious project aimed to seal its border with its enemy. The fence is only part of a multi-tiered system that includes mines, sensors, trenches and, in some parts, a high mud wall.

Now, ask yourself why you associated the above story with the Middle East and not with South Asia. Why does the action of a nation of six million people loom larger in your consciousness than that of one billion people? After all, the India-Pakistan conflict is just as enduring and fierce. It threatens world peace no less than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Indian fence is at least twice as long as the Israeli. It too creates facts on the ground unilaterally; it too entails land grabs and separation of innocent farmers from their land.

Unlike the Israeli fence, India's project has been under the radar screen of most American media outlets. Run a quick internet search for "Israel Palestinian fence" and then "India Pakistan fence" and see the difference. While the first fence was covered by all main western media outlets from The New York Times to Time Magazine over and over again ad nauseaum, the debate over the Indian fence features almost exclusively in the south Asian media. American newspapers dedicated no editorials to it, news networks did not do specials on it. 60 Minutes did not find it interesting enough. Tom Friedman found the Israeli fence to be a more sexy topic to do a documentary on than the Indian fence. At no point did the European media call the Indian fence "apartheid wall" or "Berlin Wall."

In truth, the Indian fence has not been covered for the same reason an Israeli incursion into Gaza and the killing of three militants receives on any given day more media attention than the massacre of 400 people in Congo. The reason being, in part, that over the years western media's interest in the Arab-Israeli conflict has reached a level of obsession. Jerusalem is a haven for journalists. It is a war zone without real war, the one place in the Middle East where they can file stories while eating sushi. As a result, Israeli affairs are being covered at a disproportionate scale. The unintended consequence is that the public judgment and ability to dedicate sufficient resources to other, no less challenging, parts of the world is compromised.

This over exposure of Israel also has policy implications. It is not an accident that the Indian fence has not been condemned internationally the way Israel's has been; that the UN convened a special emergency meeting of the General Assembly to approve a resolution, demanding a stop to the construction while being mute on India; that human rights activists flock to the West Bank to lie under Israeli bulldozers. All of these make great material for even more stories. And so it goes.

The media is the periscope with which we look at the world and form our worldview. As media consumers Americans need less Israel and more world, otherwise we will find ourselves surrounded too by a fence, blocking our view of the real world issues.

Gal Luft is executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS)

Copyright IAGS 2004