Amnesty Report Prompts Damage Control at the Times

The New York Times has placed its pro-Israel bias on display today in a clumsy and transparent attempt to play down a report by Amnesty International. In doing so it stands apart from other media worldwide and from its own coverage of former Amnesty reports.

On page 9 of the print edition readers find this headline: “Palestinian Found Dead After Standoff With Israelis.” Above the story is a photo spanning four columns showing an apparently angry crowd of mourners at a funeral. The message is this: Here is the Palestinian street, seething and prone to violence.

But the story by Isabel Kershner devotes only one column to the death of Mutaz Washaha, 25, of Bir Zeit. After saying that troops stormed his home and he was found dead, the article makes a sudden transition: “The killing came as Amnesty International published a report on Thursday accusing Israeli forces of being ‘trigger happy’ and using excessive force in the West Bank.”

This is a strange way to practice journalism, using a headline and photo for one story and devoting three quarters of the article to another. It is also odd (but not a first for the Times) to highlight a report on the victimization of Palestinians with a photo portraying them as a menace.

The Amnesty International report documents a spike in the death of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers in the past year, states that none of the victims posed a threat to the soldiers and describes a number of killings as “willful” and possible war crimes. It notes that soldiers operate with virtual impunity and calls on the international community to stop sending arms to Israel.

The report, “Trigger Happy: Israel’s Use of Excessive Force in the West Bank,” covers the past three years and cites several case studies, including that of Samir Awad, 16, who was first shot in the leg and then killed with two bullets to the back as he stumbled toward his home in the village of Budrus, and that of a young woman, Lubna Hanash, 21, shot in the head as she and a relative walked near an agricultural college in Hebron.

The Times story devotes five paragraphs to the report itself and gives two paragraphs to the army’s defense of its conduct. Elsewhere, international media present the report as worthy of an article in itself, not a tag-on to another story, and run their accounts with appropriate photos of Israeli soldiers or wounded Palestinians.

See, for example, The Jewish Daily Forward, where the headline reads, “Amnesty International Warns Israel on West Bank ‘War Crimes’: Rights Group Eyes ‘Reckless’ Soldiers in Killings of Palestinians.” The accompanying photo shows a blindfolded Palestinian surrounded by heavily armed Israeli soldiers.

Times readers can also find more honest reporting in The Guardian, BBC, Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor and Haaretz, to name a few.

Although the Times hides this Amnesty report under a misleading headline and photo, it has treated other releases by the same organization with different emphasis. In the past year or so, it has found fit to write about several Amnesty International releases, including short briefings on abuses in the Syrian conflict, a report about death penalty trends worldwide and a call for Saudi Arabia to release political prisoners.

Last October it ran a lengthy front page story based on an Amnesty report under the headline “Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes Cited in Report.” The story focused on the Pakistani population affected by the drones and gave little mention to the Obama administration’s defense of the strikes. The Times later ran an editorial praising the report.

The drone report runs to 74 pages and covers some 18 months of data. The West Bank report contains 85 pages and covers three years of incidents. Both of them are serious documents buttressed with facts, but the reports do not weigh the same in the Times’ scale of things. Israel’s image is at risk in the second report, and that makes for a different set of standards altogether. It also calls forth damage control, however obvious and awkward that may be.

Barbara Erickson

Disenfranchised: How the Times Spins the Status of Palestinian Land

In The New York Times, Palestinian land has become something else again. It is not the State of Palestine, not simply Palestine, not the occupied Palestinian territories and not really Israel either. It is all murkier than that.

This should not be difficult for the Times. There is plenty of established precedence to point the way. Reporters and editors can check out United Nations agencies and find that the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem have a legal name. In official parlance they are the occupied Palestinian territories: meaning the land belongs to Palestine and it is occupied by Israel.

But Times reporters will not say as much. Instead they have been hard at work to put a different face on it, not lying exactly, but using what we now call “spin.”

This spin involves a three-pronged formula: Israel “won” the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 war; Palestinians “would like to use that land” for their future state; and many members of the international community “consider” Israel’s occupation illegal, but Israel disputes this.

In the third prong, Times reporters have turned a solid legal finding into a political squabble. Former Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner made this clear in a 2011 piece where he refers to “land widely considered Palestinian by right” and then adds, “But geopolitics aside…”

According to Bronner the clear-cut legal status is a matter of opinion, something “considered” or “contended.” It is no longer a fact or a legal finding but “geopolitics,” with Israel and allies on one side and their opponents on the other.

This is just how Israel would like to frame it, and the Times plays along. So it repeats the claim that Israel “won” the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, failing to say that neither Jordan nor Israel have had sovereign authority over the area. The Times says nothing about United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 (specifically addressing Israel’s land grab), which asserted that territory cannot be acquired by war.

The paper also omits numerous UN resolutions that have since called for Israel to end the occupation. Here’s a sample from Security Council Resolution 476 of 1980: The Council “determines that all legislative and administrative measures and actions taken by Israel, the occupying Power, which have altered or purport to alter the character and status of the Holy City of Jerusalem, and in particular the recent ‘basic law’ on Jerusalem, are null and void and must by rescinded forthwith.”

In 2004 15 distinguished jurists on the International Court of Justice sifted through the pros and cons concerning Israel’s notorious separation wall in the West Bank. They heard the Israeli arguments concerning ownership, necessity and procedure and dismissed them. In a series of lopsided 14 to 1 votes (with the US appointee the sole dissenter) they found that the wall is illegal and demanded that it be dismantled. The wall is built, the court said, not in a “disputed area” but in “the Occupied Palestinian Territory.”

The Times is careful to write around the facts in connecting Palestinians to the land. Reporters avoid talk of international law and the fact that Palestinians are the indigenous inhabitants of the West Bank (and all of Israel). Instead, the newspaper has placed them in a shadowy role as outsiders longing for a land of their own.

In Times stories Palestinians have “claimed” or even “demanded” the right to that land. They also have “hoped” or “expected” to receive it sometime in the future. Thus, according to the Times, their present right does not exist.

In the most recent stories, the Palestinian role has receded even further. Last August Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren wrote that the West Bank is an “area imagined as a future Palestinian state.” A few weeks ago Isabel Kershner wrote of “an area the Palestinians envision as part of a future independent state.”

A future Palestinian state can only be “imagined” or “envisioned,” no longer even claimed. It has become little more than a dream.

At the same time illegal Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territory have become “neighborhoods.” In a 2012 story Jodi Rudoren writes of “Ramot and Pisgat Zeev, decades-old upscale Jewish neighborhoods of 40,000 plus residents,” failing to say that both are settlements built in Palestinian East Jerusalem and that Palestinians have lived there not for decades but for centuries.

In the Times the Israeli claim gains solidity; the Palestinian right fades into a dream. Legal findings become “geopolitics,” and readers are left in the dark.

It doesn’t have to be this way. See how Harriet Sherwood tells it in a recent Guardian story: “The UK government has explicitly stated its position on settlements, which are illegal under international law…[indicating] frustration and anger at Israeli intransigence in the occupied Palestinian territories.”

Sherwood can say it: the settlements are illegal, not “considered illegal by many in the international community,” and the territory is Palestinian, not land the Palestinians “imagine” as a future state.

In normal newspaper procedure, a legal decision is the basis for facts, and a man convicted of embezzling can safely be called a thief. When the charges against him are proven in a court of law, we can drop the “alleged” from future stories.

Not so with Israel. In the Times there is no legal issue at stake, only a political one. There was no court decision, no legal consensus. Millennia of Palestinian stewardship have left no mark on the land and convey no right, not even the right to be mentioned in print.

Barbara Erickson

A Tale of Two Articles: Wonderwater vs. Watergate

TimesWarp is reblogging the post below by Yousef Munayyer of the Jerusalem Fund:

By Yousef  Feb. 17, 2014

In the daily universe of what is opinion writing and reporting on Israel/Palestine in the English language press, today offered an interesting juxtaposition. Both the New York Times and an Israeli daily ran stories about water and its availability in the region.

One piece lauded Israel for its ingenuity, mentioned nothing about occupation and the theft of Palestinian water resources and depicted Israel as the generous benefactor of Palestinian water. Here is an excerpt:

“Because of geography and hydrology, the Palestinians’ water future is closely tied to Israel’s. In just the few years of Hamas control of Gaza, the water supply there has been polluted, and though no solution to its coming water crisis is likely without an Israeli role, Hamas has refused to cooperate with Israel.

“The Palestinians in the West Bank already receive much of their water from Israel’s national water utility and, sovereignty and symbolism aside, neither a two-state solution nor a continuation of the status quo will change that. Given their proximity to Israel, the Palestinians are likely to be among the few Arab winners in the water race.”

The other piece was far more critical of Israel and accurately described the way in which Israel exploits Palestinian water resources properly contextualizing the situation in Occupation. The author writes:

“So here are the facts:

“* Israel doesn’t give water to the Palestinians. Rather, it sells it to them at full price.

“* The Palestinians would not have been forced to buy water from Israel if it were not an occupying power which controls their natural resource, and if it were not for the Oslo II Accords, which limit the volume of water they can produce, as well as the development and maintenance of their water infrastructure.

“* This 1995 interim agreement was supposed to lead to a permanent arrangement after five years. The Palestinian negotiators deluded themselves that they would gain sovereignty and thus control over their water resources. The Palestinians were the weak, desperate, easily tempted side and sloppy when it came to details. Therefore, in that agreement Israel imposed a scandalously uneven, humiliating and infuriating division of the water resources of the West Bank.

“* The division is based on the volume of water Palestinians produced and consumed on the eve of the deal. The Palestinians were allotted 118 million cubic meters (mcm) per year from three aquifers via drilling, agricultural wells, springs and precipitation. Pay attention, Rino Tzror: the same deal allotted Israel 483 mcm annually from the same resources (and it has also exceeded this limit in some years). In other words, some 20 percent goes to the Palestinians living in the West Bank, and about 80 percent goes to Israelis – on both sides of the Green Line – who also enjoy resources from the rest of the country.

“Why should Palestinians agree to pay for desalinated water from Israel, which constantly robs them of the water flowing under their feet?”

Now, can you guess which appeared in the New York Times and which in the Israeli daily?

UPDATE*: It seems Seth Siegel, the author of the NY Times puff piece on Israel and water scarcity who was identified in the article as “a founder of Beanstalk, a brand-licensing agency, and of Sixpoint Partners, an investment bank” is also….drum-roll… AIPAC board member. Why did the NYT omit this very relevant part of his bio in the author description?

Israel “Retaliates” in Gaza, Bombing Greenhouses and Chicken Farms

Bombs fell on Gaza again yesterday, and the Times tells us that the target was a Palestinian militant responsible for firing rockets into Israel. He was critically injured and a bystander was wounded.

Isabel Kershner reports that Israel was responding to an increase in rocket fire from small radical groups in Gaza, that it has revived a practice of “targeted killing” and that it has carried out “retaliatory airstrikes against facilities associated with militant groups.”

This, at least, is what the Israeli army claims: It is going after the rockets and the militants. Kershner takes their word for it. A UN report, however, provides a different perspective, noting the following damages in a Jan. 31 strike: two civilians wounded, about 1,200 small livestock killed, including 150 cattle, 400 rabbits, 600 pigeons, and 60 hens; and damage to five homes, two schools, an educational center and an office building.

And that was not all: “Another strike directed at a building inside Gaza city, ended with two women injured, as well as damage to four homes and a school. Finally, in a strike targeting a site northwest of Rafah, six civilians, including a child and a woman, were injured, and two homes, 13 greenhouses and a water well were damaged.”

Water wells, greenhouses, rabbits, chickens, houses, pigeons and educational centers. Are these really threats to Israeli security? This is just the question Kershner should be asking of the air force.

Kershner also states that the “retaliatory strikes” and clashes along the border fence have been “straining the cease-fire on both sides.” What she does not say is that Israel breached the ceasefire immediately after it went into effect in November 2012, killing four unarmed civilians in the first month and injuring 78.

Today’s story mentions rocket attacks on southern Israel in recent weeks, listing no damages to people or property. But the damage inside Gaza has been considerable. Last year, the UN reports, 11 died at the hands of Israeli forces, and 83 were injured. This year promises to be worse. In January alone Israeli forces killed at least four residents of Gaza and injured 43.

In the Times, however, only Israeli attacks are considered “retaliatory,” and only its strikes on militants are fit to make the news.

Barbara Erickson 

Scorched Earth in the Jordan Valley, Silence in the Times

Israel demolished three entire communities in the Jordan Valley last month, confiscated tents donated by the Red Cross, and left some 240 people homeless in the winter cold, but none of this was news enough to print in The New York Times.

It’s not that observers weren’t trying to get the word out. Monitoring organizations filed weekly reports, news agencies put out stories, and respected humanitarian organizations, including an Israeli rights group and a United Nations agency, issued press releases sounding the alarm and calling for Israel to stop demolishing Palestinian homes. The Jordan Valley was high on their list of crisis points for the month of January.

The Times did turn its sights on the Jordan Valley with a Jan. 5 article by Isabel Kershner. She tells of demolitions in one village, but the full reality is hidden behind talk of “two adversarial communities” and bureaucratic tangles. Any difficulties Palestinians have, she says, are due to “the complexities of the fierce contest for control” of the valley “and the challenges the Palestinians face in administration.”

Others have been telling the story, however. B’Tselem, an Israeli organization that keeps tabs on abuses in the occupied Palestinian territories, published a press release on Jan. 8, stating that Israeli military and Civil Administration staff arrived at the northern Jordan Valley community of Khirbet Ein Karzaliyah at dawn that day and “proceeded to demolish all of the community’s buildings, thereby rendering homeless the entire population—three families comprised of 10 adults and 15 minors.”

The Israelis left the community with “no viable alternative,” the report said, “with no shelter for themselves or their livestock in the harsh winter weather conditions.” It added, “The Israeli military also demolished the only water-pipe available to the residents.”

Five days later B’Tselem ran an update: “On the day of the demolition, the [three] families received tents from the ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] and erected them at a nearby site. This morning, 13.1.14, soldiers and Civil Administration officers arrived, took down the six tents and confiscated them, leaving the families again without shelter.”

Two weeks later WAFA news agency reported that the Israeli military had destroyed the northern Jordan Valley community of Khirbet Umm al Jimal on Jan. 29, demolishing at least 50 buildings and rendering 13 families, about 150 people, homeless.

The following day Israeli bulldozers went to work again in the Jordan Valley, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The agency issued a press releaseannouncing that Israeli authorities had destroyed 36 Palestinian-owned structures in Ein al Hilwe, leaving 66 people, including 36 children, without shelter.

UN humanitarian coordinator James W. Rawley was quoted in the release, expressing alarm at the “ongoing displacement and dispossession of Palestinians in Area C, particularly along the Jordan Valley where the number of structures demolished more than doubled in the last year. This activity not only deprives Palestinians of access to shelter and basic services, it also runs counter to international law.”

The release also noted that the seizure of tents in Khirbet Ein Karzaliyah was not an isolated incident. “Humanitarian agencies are facing increasing difficulties responding to emergency needs in Area C of the Jordan Valley due to restrictions from the Israeli authorities. In several cases, humanitarian assistance has been seized, confiscated or destroyed.”

Meanwhile, the Times was reporting on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, which concerned the need for Israeli security, especially in the Jordan Valley. It placed a slide show of Jordan Valley scenes on its website, an accompaniment to the Jan. 5 article, but the captions show that the Times was not eager to give the full story of what is happening there.

Two photos depict life in Khirbet Makhoul, the herding village featured in Kershner’s article. The first caption gives the impression that it was razed in 1967, as if it had been a casualty of war well in the past. A second also mentions razing “for lack of building permits” but gives no time frame at all.

Kershner’s story also mentions two Palestinian farming villages, Bardala and Jiftlik. Last November Israeli troops stormed Bardala and told residents they would have to leave by Dec. 1. (They seem to have won at least a temporary reprieve.) A year earlier the military confiscated tractors from Bardala farmers and imposed heavy fines to get them back. It has also placed closures on the village, making it difficult for residents to work outside.

Jiftlik has suffered similar harassment. Military authorities have confiscated tractors and demolished homes, water tanks and animal shelters. The latest assault came on Jan.28 when the army demolished homes and animal barns in the village.

Times readers, however, hear nothing of this state-sponsored plunder. When Kershner writes of these two villages she states that Bardala is “neglected” and struggles with water problems and that Jiftlik has trouble getting its due from the Palestinian Authority.

Fortunately, other reporters have visited communities facing the threat of destruction, and they have given voice to the residents clinging to their village sites in the midst of the rubble of their former homes.

In Open Democracy this month Victoria Brittain writes of “traumatised barefoot children, silent exhausted mothers, desperate fathers” in the Jordan Valley, who have had “their homes and farms repeatedly destroyed by military bulldozers in dawn raids” and their “ever-present fear of army and settler violence.”

She gives them names and tells their stories. “Burhan Bisharat’s village of Kirbet al Makhoul was destroyed four times in two weeks in late September last year,” she writes. “With no warning or demolition notices the bulldozers drove up the dirt road before dawn and brought down tin homes, hay sheds, animal pens, water troughs and a playground with swings belonging to the twelve families.”

They are “visibly traumatised,” Brittain says, and Burhan “spoke softly of how the psychological pressure, especially of the fourth destruction, was very, very difficult for him. He saw relief tents brought by the ICRC put up and immediately brought down by a bulldozer in front of the aid agency staff.

“The three now live in another almost empty replacement home half the size of what they had before and which Burhan built himself in two days, bringing an aluminium roof from Nablus. But every day is lived under the shadow of another onslaught that they know can hit their lives any time.”

Barbara Erickson