“Of course, the problem we had in those days was the terrorists,” explained the aged former soldier. It was late 2002, and I was visiting the UK – back from my post as the BBC’s correspondent in the Gaza Strip.
“Terrorist” was then one of the most used-words in international news. Israel used it to describe the suicide bombs and other attacks it faced during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising against Israeli occupation. George Bush and Tony Blair were then preparing to order an invasion of Iraq as part of their “war on terror”.
The veteran of D-Day, and of the last days of Britain’s Mandate in Palestine, had something else in mind. 68 years ago next week, on 22 July 1946, fighters of the Irgun – a Jewish armed movement seeking to drive British forces from Palestine, and hasten the creation of a Jewish state – blew up a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. The hotel served as the headquarters of the British military and political authorities. As such, it was also a meeting place for journalists.
“I owe my life, and the fact that I am able to write this story of the bloodiest terrorist outrage, to the cool courage of a British military policeman,” began Barbara Board’s story on the front page of the following day’s Daily Mirror. Board went on to describe how as “a great charge of dynamite” went off, the military policeman, who had been guarding the hotel entrance, threw her to the ground “and shielded me with this body.”
In the following days, reporters pieced together what had happened. The explosives, it turned out, had been placed in milk churns – and carried to an underground hotel kitchen by Irgun fighters disguised as delivery men.
A huge military operation to find the attackers and their accomplices follows. Newspapers – outraged at the attack – follow events with enthusiastic headlines. The Daily Mail’s “Palestine Army to crush terrorists” from the 25 July, as the search got underway, is typical.
Weapons are reported found in a synagogue; Tel Aviv residents are dragged from their beds in their nightwear by British paratroopers looking for the bombers.
Less than two years later, the British Mandate is over. The State of Israel has come into being. The United Nations estimate that in the war which made that possible, more than 700,000 people fled their homes in what had been Mandate Palestine.
In the decades between then and now, in the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean, there have been large-scale wars in 1967 and 1973; two intifadas; several attempts at negotiated peace.
Countless episodes of bloodshed, each false dawn and failure, have been covered in detail by the international press. “It’s very clear that Israel for sure and that this conflict in general gets vastly more coverage than anything else,” says the Jerusalem bureau chief of a leading US news organisation.
From the deadly blow to British imperial personnel and pride suffered in 1946; to Europe’s guilt over the Holocaust; to international sympathy for both Israel and the Palestinians; to the United States’ attempts of recent years to seek a diplomatic solution, this is a part of the world with countless global connections.
“A lot of countries, a lot of peoples, feel that they have got a stake in this story and it’s a story that they engage in, and are committed to over and above any other conflict for religious reasons, for historical reasons – you know, so many European, American countries deeply involved here over a long period of time,” another senior member of the Jerusalem press corps told me during my trip there last month.
Journalism and history are concerned with processes of change, and now the region around Israel and the Palestinian territories is changing as never before. In history as told by journalism, Israel has been admired for its struggle for existence; criticised as the young David of a fledgling state became the Goliath of the occupation. The Palestinians have been pitied for their suffering; reviled as terrorists as the Jewish fighters of the 1940s once were.
Much has changed in the way journalists work, too. In 1948 and 1967, reporters fretted over whether bombs and bullets would keep them from a post office or telex machine. Now they worry about wi-fi, and whether they will be trolled on social media.
The journalism itself has been praised, and rubbished. Yet their fascination with the story means that journalists have been there, often travelling to places others cannot, or will not. Where, for example, have the diplomats, the policy-makers, the peace envoys been in the last couple of weeks? They have not been in Gaza.
James Rodgers is the author of ‘No Road Home: Fighting for Land and Faith in Gaza’ and ‘Reporting Conflict’. His next book, ‘Headlines from the Holy Land’ is due to be published next year by Palgrave MacMillan. He teaches journalism at City University London.