The IDF: Judge, Prosecutor, Executioner and Witness

“Israeli Raid Leaves 3 Dead In West Bank Refugee Area.” So reads yesterday’s headline in The New York Times. We learn that Israeli forces came to the Jenin refugee camp to arrest Hamza Abu El-Hijja, 22, in a pre-dawn raid, that a gunfight broke out, and that he was killed as he tried to escape capture.

Then there is a curious lapse. We learn the names of the other men who died but nothing of the circumstances of their death, in spite of the fact that there was an arresting story to tell: Witnesses said the men were killed as they tried to carry their friend’s body away from the scene of conflict.

How does the Times handle this news? It lists the names of the two men and says “Palestinian news media reported that they were unarmed, though Colonel Lerner [the army spokesperson] said they had ‘weapons or explosive devices’ and were ‘part of a contingency plan’ to corner the Israeli troops.”

The reporter, Jodi Rudoren, says nothing about the context of their death. She quotes Lerner directly but briefly paraphrases the Palestinian press and omits any reference to the testimony of witnesses. If readers had heard the full account, they might be asking how men carrying a body, armed or not, posed any threat to troops.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has given us a different perspective on this almost routine account of Palestinian deaths. Gideon Levy, a longtime voice for justice, writes of the wanted man as a human being, someone he remembers as a child, the son of militants, a family man close to his mother and siblings.

In the Israeli army’s words, Hamza was “a ticking time bomb,” nothing but a terrorist, and his death “actually saved lives” by thwarting an attack. Levy’s story comes with a photo of Hamzi [his name is spelled differently in Haaretz], smiling and holding a young girl on his lap: “Wearing sweats, he was playing with his little niece and joined the conversation we were having with his mother. He smiled a lot and said he was not afraid.”

Then Levy goes on to tell of the other two men, saying eye witnesses reported that “they were killed as they were carrying Hamzi’s body to his family home, which is a distance from where the gun battle had occurred.” This had also been reported in an earlier Haaretz story by other writers, and came out in a detailed press release today by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.

In the Times the army has the first and last word on Abu El-Hijja. Readers see no photo of a smiling young man. Instead, the story comes with an aerial shot of his funeral, showing a seething mass of mourners, the usual Times take on Palestinians as a threatening group, members of the angry “Arab street.”

We can also thank Haaretz for memorializing a young Palestinian shot last Wednesday, Yusef Abu Aker Shawamreh, 14, who was killed when he went out with friends to gather a wild plant called tumble thistle near the separation barrier. “Poor families receive five shekels, less than a dollar and a half, for every kilogram that children like Yusef harvest from the fields,” Amira Hass writes.

In an open letter to the soldier who shot the unarmed boy, Hass says that Yusef and his friends headed for “a large opening in the fence there that surely had been made over several days,” that the children left their village of Deir al-Asal al-Fauqa at 6:30 a.m. and that shots were heard a half hour later.

A sniper team had been waiting in the dark and opened fire on the three boys from 50 to 70 yards away. Yusef’s friends dropped to the ground, but he continued running and was killed with a shot to the back. The friends, 12 and 17 years of age, were arrested but later released.

Hass deals head-on with the army’s account: “According to an official at the IDF Spokesman’s Office, you claimed you fired on a Palestinian because he had sabotaged the separation barrier. You’re not only judge, prosecutor and executioner, but also witness.”

This kind of challenge is missing from the Times, which shows deference to army pronouncements. Even when later accounts and investigations blow holes in official responses to yet another Palestinian death, the Times avoids follow-up. In the case of Yusef Abu Aker Shawamreh, it never bothered to mention his death at all.

Barbara Erickson 





Gaza Attacks: The Full Story Remains Under Blockade

“Gaza-Israel Escalation Threatens Cease-Fire.” So says the headline today in The New York Times. It is an even-handed title for a violent episode, but the article that follows weighs heavily on one side of the scale. It presents the narrative of Israel under fire but skimps on the story of Gaza.

The story by Jodi Rudoren tells us that some 60 rockets fell on Israel yesterday, and Israel swiftly answered with more than 30 airstrikes and artillery attacks on Gaza. No casualties were reported from either side.

She quotes officials on the Palestinian and Israeli sides and reports that the flurry of rockets from Islamic Jihad was in response to the killing of three of the group’s fighters on Tuesday. Rudoren writes, “The Israeli military said the three had fired a mortar at its soldiers while they patrolled just inside the border fence.”

In fact, the army was not on patrol; it was nothing so innocuous. Patrols take place in home territory, but these soldiers had invaded Gaza, as they have done many times in breach of the November 2012 ceasefire. The soldiers come with tanks, bulldozers and live ammunition, and they level agricultural land planted with crops and destroy farm buildings and homes. (See Under Fire, a recent report by The International Displacement Monitoring Centre.)

So it could be said that Islamic Jihad was retaliating and repeated Israeli attacks set off the latest exchange of bombs and rockets. The Times story, however, makes the usual claim that Israel is acting only in response to aggression from Gaza.

Rudoren also shortchanges her readers when she addresses Palestinian charges that Israel was engaging in “purposeful escalation” of violence with the deaths of six Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in a single day this week. She lists five of the victims and repeats a dubious claim by the Israeli military that one of them, a Jordanian judge, “had tried to seize a soldier’s weapon as he crossed the Allenby Bridge into the West Bank.”

Only yesterday Rudoren reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Jordan for the death and agreed to join an investigation into the tragedy. Today she is content to repeat the military claim without comment, even though the apology casts doubt on army’s version of events.

In addition to background data and quotes by officials, the Times article introduces us to several Israeli individuals with names, ages, occupations and homes; innocent civilians terrorized by the bombardment.

We meet Adel Ramer, a teacher, and we learn the names of her dogs, Nikki and Nala, who were unable to go for a walk when the rockets began to fall. We hear from Dani Rachamim, 60, a kibbutz resident, and we learn that a 57-year-old woman was hurt running for shelter, the only Israeli injury recorded so far.

But no ordinary citizen in Gaza is mentioned. Their plight gets one general comment: “With the news that Israel had closed Kerem Shalom, the commercial crossing through which Gaza imports and exports limited goods, residents of Gaza City rushed out Wednesday night to fill their fuel tanks and stock up at bakeries and supermarkets.”

Rudoren introduces us to no one like Ramer and Rachamim in Gaza. She also implies that it is only the Kerem crossing that concerns them, not the explosives falling from the skies nor the navy ships ready to rain missiles from the sea. Nor does she mention the fact that Gaza has no airplanes, drones, tanks or other heavy weaponry except for the mainly ineffectual rockets.

Likewise, the story never mentions the blockade of Gaza, which has imprisoned some 1.7 million people since 2007 (or even earlier, in some analyses). Instead, Rudoren says only that “Israel withdrew its settlers and troops in 2005.” She also omits the fact that 13 residents of Gaza have died from Israeli fire since the beginning of the year.

Times readers who want a different perspective on the recent hostilities in Gaza will have to look elsewhere, to the Ma’an News account, for instance, or to recent commentary in Mondoweiss.

Barbara Erickson

Deaths in Gaza Provide Cover for “Other News”

Israel killed three men in Gaza yesterday, and The New York Times has reported the fact in a meandering story that serves as a smokescreen for other, more revealing news: Prime Minister Nethanyahu’s apology to Jordan for the killing of a judge on Monday.

The headline (“Amid Escalating Violence, Israeli Strike Kills 3 Militants in Gaza”) and lead paragraph provide the smokescreen, and thus the story by Jodi Rudoren states at the outset that the Gaza men were militants who had fired at Israeli troops moments before.

Although civilian victims, such as  a mentally ill Gaza woman shot last week, often fail to get any mention at all, Rudoren has no problem reporting the deaths of Ismail Abu Jouda, 23; Shaer Shanab, 24; and Abdel Shafi Abu Muammar, 33; identified as members of Islamic Jihad. The militant group said that the men had been trying to resist an Israeli incursion into Gaza when they were shot.

The article makes the observation, oft-repeated in Times stories about Gaza casualties, that the deaths are part of increasing violence between Israel and Gaza and this threatens the fragile ceasefire of November 2012.

On the Gaza side, increasing violence means mainly ineffective rocket attacks by splinter groups defying Hamas requests to hold fire. On the Israeli side, it includes attacks on Gaza farmers and fishermen; extrajudicial killings; excessive force leading to the deaths of innocent civilians; airstrikes on infrastructure and residents; and Israeli incursions inside the border to destroy orchards, crops and structures.

Rudoren notes that Israeli security forces have killed 13 Gaza residents so far this year, but she fails to explain that several were civilians, such as Amneh Qdeih, the woman shot last week; Ibrahim Mansour, 36, who was killed as he collected gravel near the border on Feb. 13; and Adnan Jamil Shehda Abu Khater, 17, shot as he approached the border with friends on Jan. 2.

She makes no mention of the Israeli death toll, which stands at zero, unless we include the unfortunate soldier, Capt. Tal Nachman, 21, killed on Feb. 4 in “friendly fire.” (Another soldier saw “suspicious movement” in the bottom of a truck parked near the border fence and shot him in the back as he slept.)

Her story also reports that “Israeli tanks, bulldozers and troops were operating inside the border fence, which Palestinians consider a violation of the cease-fire agreement.”

In fact, this is not merely an opinion held by the residents of Gaza. This is the first provision of the ceasefire, which states, “A. Israel shall stop all hostilities in the Gaza strip land, sea and air including incursions and targeting of individuals.” Rudoren’s statement that “Palestinians consider [incursions] a violation” thus falls short of the truth.

The Times story can’t stick to Gaza, however. It makes an awkward transition into a different topic, the killing of a Jordanian judge on Monday. Rudoren notes that Jordanians protested at the Israeli embassy, calling for an end to the Israeli Jordanian peace treaty of 1994. In response, she writes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “expressed regret” at the killing and agreed to take part in a joint Jordanian-Israeli investigation into the incident.

Although Netanyahu’s apology points to a tacit admission of Israeli culpability in the death of the Raed Zeiter, Rudoren makes no attempt to question the Israeli army’s claim that the man had grabbed a gun and attacked soldiers. She reported this charge in a story yesterday and by her silence allows it to stand today.

Instead, she quotes Israeli officials who say they are cooperating with Jordan’s investigation in order to avoid violence and calm tempers. There is no hint that the facts of the case may have influenced the decision.

In other news outlets, the apology to Jordan is worth a story on its own. See, for instance, the Los Angeles Times and BBC, who are not afraid to run headlines announcing this news.

In The New York Times, however, the Jordanian judge tragedy hides behind the Gaza killings. Now the Times can claim that it has indeed covered the story of Netanyahu’s apology to Jordan, even though this news appears under a diversionary headline and even as the article avoids the implications of the apology. Gaza is a story in itself; it is also a convenient smokescreen for the Times.

Barbara Erickson

No Room for Dissent: The Times Hews to the Israeli Line

One is a bizarre and improbable story: A Jordanian judge goes berserk at a border crossing and grabs a soldier’s gun. He has to be shot dead on the spot.

The other is a story recycled for propaganda effect: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu displays arms seized from a ship last week, repeating his charge that the rockets were bound for Gaza and sent by Iran.

The New York Times has them both today, the first by Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren and the second by Isabel Kershner. Both of them fail in the same way, discarding details that fall outside the official Israeli narrative.

According to Rudoren’s account, a 38-year-old Jordanian judge of Palestinian descent tried to grab a soldier’s gun at the Allenby Bridge crossing on Monday before seizing a metal bar and shouting “Allahu akbar (God is great).” She quotes Col. Yaron Beit-On as saying, “The soldiers understood they had no way to handle him; they used a gun and they shot him. They were in danger.”

Rudoren does not explain how the man threatened the soldiers or why they could not incapacitate him otherwise. She acknowledges that “Palestinian and Jordanian officials questioned the Israeli account,” but she dismisses their concerns in one sentence: “Colonel Beit-On said it was based on interviews with witnesses, including the Jordanian bus driver.”

So much for the other side of the story. She goes no further than the Israeli army spokesman, even when the killing involves a Jordanian judge from the magistrate court in Amman. The fact that Netanyahu apologized today for the killing throws even more doubt on the official account.

Times readers will have to look elsewhere for the competing narrative. The Los Angeles Times cites Jordanian reports that the judge, Raed Zeiter, reached for a metal detector as he was being searched and made no effort to seize a gun. Al Jazeera states that witnesses described nothing but a verbal altercation between Zeiter and a soldier. (Also see an extensive eyewitness account at this site.)

Al Jazeera, the Los Angeles Times and other outlets also place the killing in context, noting that Amnesty International recently released a report on “trigger happy” Israeli soldiers who killed 41 civilians between January 2011and December 2013. None of them posed any threat to the soldiers, the report said. The Times, however, makes no mention of this report.

The Kershner story on Iranian arms runs above the article about the judge’s killing. It comes with a photo of Netanyahu inspecting rockets and missiles in Eilat on Monday, and it describes the event as “a public relations spectacle” designed to expose “the true face of Iran” to the world.

Although Kershner calls the event a spectacle, this is the only note of irony or skepticism in the story. It then goes on to quote the prime minister on his anger at the “hypocrisy” of the international community for engaging in talks with Iran. It also quotes Israelis who support his version of events.

Missing from her story are the denials from officials in Iran and Gaza that the weapons either originated in Iran or were bound for Hamas in Gaza. Other media outlets follow normal journalistic procedures and include these denials. (See Reuters, for instance, and BBC.)

Kershner’s story also ignores other takes on the arms shipment seizure, such as that by blogger Richard Silverstein, who notes that even if arms came from Iran, this is no proof that they were supplied by the government. Her article stays well within the official Israeli narrative and never quotes Iranian officials, Hamas or any of the international players who come under fire from the prime minister.

Moreover, there is a third story tucked into the pages of the Times today, an add-on at the end of the article about the Jordanian judge. Rudoren tells us in one paragraph that the Israeli army also killed Saji Sayel Darwish, 20, on Monday when soldiers opened fire on a group throwing rocks at vehicles near the settlement of Beit El.

Rudoren again fails to include any comments beyond those emanating from the army itself when, in fact, other accounts dispute the army’s claims. Yahoo news reports that the man’s family said he was herding goats at the time he was shot. Yahoo quotes an official source, Laila Ghannam, Palestinian governor of nearby Ramallah: “There were no signs of clashes in the area and it was clear by the man’s clothes he was there to take care of the goats.”

The murdered judge Raed Zeiter, young Saji Darwish, Iranian officials and Hamas officials never receive their due in the pages of the Times. Israeli soldiers, responsible for two killings, are allowed to give their explanations in full. The Israeli prime minister receives the attention he demands. Others are denied a voice.

Barbara Erickson 

Unfit to Print: Another Killing in the Gaza Death Zone

Amneh Qdeih, 57, died of a gunshot wound to her abdomen last Friday, the latest in a series of Gaza victims shot in the “death zone” near the border fence. Three days later security forces killed two men in an airstrike, one of them identified as a militant involved in launching rockets toward southern Israel.

The New York Times reports the death of the two men today, but it has made no mention of Qdeih, described by her family members as mentally ill. The paper has also failed to mention recent reports that show Israel is targeting and killing civilians near the border when they pose no threat to soldiers or to Israeli security.

The killing of innocent civilians poses a problem for the Times, which prefers to report Palestinian deaths when there is a chance to hang the terrorism charge on the victim or present it as part of an ongoing conflict between two sides. Thus, today’s story notes “increased violence between Israel and Gaza this year” and “strikes on both sides” which “have been at a steady simmer over the past two months.”

Although Qdeih’s death passed without comment in the Times, the Israeli human rights monitoring group B’Tselem has spoken out about her killing and that of other Gaza residents. On Jan. 1 it released a report subtitled “Death Zones Near the Fence,” in which it charges that the Israeli army has apparently given “standing orders to fire at any person who enters the area, regardless of the circumstances.”

The army, of course, denies this, but B’Tselem isn’t convinced. The report continues with a healthy dose of skepticism: “However, the killings in the area since disengagement [after 2005] belie the army’s denial.”

Yesterday, B’Tselem issued a press release stating that the killings at the fence have increased in the past two and a half months. It leads off with the death of Amneh Qdeih. “It is not clear whether she was killed instantaneously or bled to death for hours,” the release says.

According to the B’Tselem release, the army said soldiers “fired at a person who was approaching the perimeter fence in the southern Gaza Strip and did not heed their calls to halt. The unit reported it had a confirmed hit on the target.”

Although the Times is most often content to quote military sources without follow-up, it appears that B’Tselem is willing to raise the hard questions required in situations like this. The release continues, “The IDF Spokesperson did not explain why Qdeih was not given medical treatment that might have saved her life.”

Meanwhile, other media outlets found Qdeih’s death worth reporting. Al Jazeera, ABC News, Ynet, and BBC, among others, released stories about the incident. In the Times, however, we learn only that a militant was killed yesterday and that the army boasted that it had thus eliminated “a real-time threat.”

Barbara Erickson