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 





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