Hamas-Fatah Unity: In The NY Times, It’s All About US (and Israel)

Two warring sides have come to an agreement, and according to the Times, it’s all bad news. No good can come of rival Palestinian parties joining hands: It’s bad for Israel and thus bad in the eyes of the United States.

This is the narrow, blinkered view of Middle East affairs that appears in the Times under the headline “Palestinian Rivals Announce Unity Pact, Drawing U.S. and Israeli Rebuke.” The story by Jodi Rudoren and Michael R. Gordon says little about the deal itself, an agreement forged in Gaza between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hamas that aims to heal a seven-year rift.

The story opens not with details of the agreement but with the Israeli reaction, which was to immediately cancel a negotiating session with the Palestinians. The official line is that as long as Hamas is involved, Israel will refuse to take part. After announcing the cancellation, the article then devotes 14 more paragraphs to expressions of alarm and condemnation on the part of U.S. and Israeli analysts before finally letting the parties involved speak for themselves.

But the Times is unable to sustain even this much attention to the Palestinian point of view; it quotes Palestinian commentators for eight paragraphs before it reverts to Israel and the United States, citing more experts and announcing that the Israeli cabinet would meet to “consider next steps.” It gives the last word to one more U.S. analyst expressing concern about the deal.

Readers can do better elsewhere. Reuters, for instance, quotes the reactions of major Arab players in the region, from Qatar and Egypt, who supported the agreement and praised the Hamas prime minister. Nidal Al-Mughrabi and Noah Browning note that “the approval of the two influential Arab states, which have been at loggerheads over the role of the Hamas-linked Muslim Brotherhood, implied the agreement had backing from the region as a whole.”

In the Israeli paper Haaretz, the breaking news story about the deal quotes only Palestinian sources. In one of several Haaretz analyses of the agreement, Barak Ravid states that “Israel’s response once again was negative, broadcast panic, and related any change of the status quo as a threat, rather than an opportunity.”

He goes on to say that the reaction was also “hypocritical” because Netanyahu “has negotiated with Hamas for more time, with more seriousness and with far more good will than with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.” For example, Ravid says, there was the deal to release kidnapped soldier Gilad Shavit and the ceasefire of November 2012.

In the Times story there is no mention of dissenting views like those of Ravid nor comments from Arab states, some of which have worked closely with both the United States and Israel on many issues.

Likewise, nothing is said of a notable fact: that Israel allowed the PLO delegation to enter Gaza, knowing that the purpose was to form a unity government. Even groups with benign agendas often find it difficult to enter the besieged territory.

Earlier this year a group of Christian clerics were turned back and allowed in only after five weeks of effort. And on March 29 Israel refused to let a delegation from the European Union parliament enter via the Erez crossing to discuss humanitarian aid with United Nations officials. An earlier group of EU representatives had been denied entry in October. Israel also refused an entry permit this week to Mustafa Barghouti, one of the Fatah representatives, but later relented and let him enter.

In the Israeli magazine 972 Samer Badawi notes that “it was the Israeli government, which controls Palestinians’ access to Gaza from the West Bank, that had waved Fatah delegates through the Erez crossing a day earlier.” Knowing that Israel has full control of the border and knowing the hysteria surrounding Hamas and Fatah unity, why would Israel do this? Badawi conjectures that it was deliberate, that “the Israeli premier is hell-bent to pin Kerry’s failure on Abbas—even if that means pushing the latter closer to Israel’s sworn enemy, Hamas.”

This is all worth hearing, but Times readers receive no hint of the debates concerning the Palestinian attempt at détente, which are taking place inside Israel and in the Arab world. There is a rich story out there, but in the Times’ view only a narrow portion, the official U.S.-Israeli line, is fit to print.

Barbara Erickson

A Few Problems in Gaza

As Jodi Rudoren tells it today in the Times, the people of Gaza have a “sense of siege.” They also complain of “restrictions on travel, farming and fishing,” but that’s about it. A casual reader could assume that Gaza residents are a whiny lot or that they are plagued by bureaucratic red tape and not much else.

Her description comes in an online story about a two-state believer in Gaza, Ezzeldin Masri, who is something of an anomaly there for his support of the peace process. The article serves to give a benign face to Gaza, often passed off as a hotbed of rabid militants, but it also skews the reality of life for its 1.7 million residents.

Rudoren knows that the siege of Gaza is more than an uncomfortable feeling. The blockade has been in effect for seven years and has cost the residents dearly. Israel and Egypt prevent students from leaving to attend universities abroad, hold up patients seeking medical care, block the passage of produce from Gaza and prevent the entry of much needed materials for schools, water and sanitation projects, and housing and medical supplies.

This has prompted international agencies (see here and here) to refer to Gaza as a humanitarian crisis and to predict that it will have no potable water in two years. Yet Rudoren cannot manage even to note that Gaza is under blockade.

In mentioning “restrictions” on farming and fishing, Rudoren fails to say that Israel enforces these limitations with live bullets and Gazans have died tending their fields and crops.

Israel maintains a no-go zone within the border of Gaza, officially drawn at 300 meters. But as recent report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre states, “Farmers have regularly been shot at, and some have been killed and injured at distances much further than 300m from the fence.” It adds that “people [are] at high risk of being fatally shot as far away as 1.5km in some areas.”

Moreover, Israeli tanks often enter Gaza to level land with bulldozers and tanks. “All land within 300m of the fence has been leveled a number of times,” the report says, leaving not only damaged crops and buildings but also degraded and useless topsoil.

The 300 meter strip is not a small space in the Gaza scale of things, especially when the most fertile land is along the border. A UN report last year noted that Israel is denying access to “as much as 35% of Gaza’s agricultural land and currently more than two-thirds of its fishing areas.” This has led to an estimated loss of more than $76 million each year.

Although the Oslo Accords gave Gaza boats the right to sail 20 nautical miles from shore, Israel enforces a 3-mile limit most of the time, occasionally allowing fishermen six miles of access. Gaza fishermen are prevented from entering the best fishing grounds, but those who stray beyond this line or come too close face live bullets. Israeli sailors frequently arrest fishermen and confiscate their boats and nets.

The November 2012 ceasefire between Hamas and Israel was supposed to ease these limitations for fishermen and farmers, but the IDMC report states that in the first six months after the truce “Israel used live ammunition against Palestinians near the fence on at least 5 different occasions, killing two civilians and injuring 58.”

At sea the situation was similar. During the 12 months following the ceasefire, the report states, “troops opened fire on Palestinian fishermen 147 times, injuring nine and detaining 40. Twenty-five items of fishermen’s property, including boats and nets, were damaged, and a further 21 items were confiscated.”

The numbers are there for all to see. International organizations have been issuing reports and holding press conferences on the crisis in Gaza, but the Times dismisses it all in a few bland sentences: Gaza residents are annoyed, they face some restrictions, they suffer from a “sense of siege.”

Barbara Erickson 

“Balance” in The Times: A Smokescreen for Israeli Control

Ali Abunimah in the Electronic Intifada has caught The New York Times distorting its own reported facts. Although the newspaper said yesterday that former Secretary of State James Baker once challenged both Israelis and Palestinians to “get serious about peace,” the words he spoke 24 years ago were directed solely at the Israelis.

EI includes a video and the original Times reporting about the June 1990 incident, which took place at a meeting of the House Foreign Affairs committee. This evidence shows that yesterday’s page one story had it wrong, and Abunimah goes on to say that the newspaper appeared “to be rewriting history to make it seem more ‘balanced.’”

It is true that the Times pulls out all stops to appear “balanced.” The article by Mark Landler and Michael Gordon (“U.S. To Reassess Status of Talks On Middle East”) and an inside page analysis of the peace process by Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren (“A Peace Process in Which Process Has Come to Outweigh Peace”) mutually take pains to show how “both sides” are at fault for the present crisis in the talks.

“Like Mr. Baker,” the front page story states, “Mr. Kerry is dealing with two parties that know what the outlines of a peace accord would look like but are paralyzed by intransigence.” Both stories are full of “on one hand” and “on the other hand” balancing acts, and this in itself is a distortion of the reality.

The peace process is anything but the meeting of two equal parties, but readers would not know this from the information provided here. Nowhere does either story acknowledge that Palestinians are living under military occupation nor that Israel is the occupier and acting in defiance of international law when it builds its separation wall, confiscates Palestinian land and water, demolishes homes and suppresses peaceful protests with deadly force.

The Times stories may be in response to a recent prodding by the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, who sided with readers when they complained that a story last Wednesday (“Abbas Takes Defiant Step, And Mideast Talks Falter”) inaccurately placed blame for the crisis solely on Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister.

But it is also true that the focus on “balance” serves the Israelis well. It gives the impression that they are facing a foe equal in strength to their own. In fact, Israel holds nearly all the cards in this game: It is fortified with the latest weapons, including nuclear arms; it has U.S. support in weaponry, funding and diplomacy; it controls all the borders, and its security forces enter areas under nominal Palestinian control at will.

An honest analysis of the talks would take a hard look at the U.S. role in the conflict, at the “special relationship with Israel,” where the United States has consistently blocked Palestinian efforts at the United Nations and vetoed proposals from the world community that would hold Israel to account under international law.

All this indicates that the United States is nothing like a neutral broker in the negotiations, but Rudoren merely notes that Palestinians are advocating “multilateral talks modeled on those employed with Iran and Syria.” She gives no context to their demand and no voice to their sense of betrayal.

When Abbas signed requests for membership in international treaties last week, he was exercising the only leverage available to Palestinians—their appeal to law and humanitarian consensus. Israel and the United States, on the other hand, reacted with threats to cut off funding to the Palestinian Authority, cancellation of the last prisoner exchange, and “a list of possible punitive measures,” leading, no doubt, to more daily miseries for Palestinians under occupation.

Yet the Times would have us believe that the problem is simply one of getting two sides to agree. Landler and Gordon quote a U.S. official who says, “Insofar as we find fault here, it is in the inability of either side to make tough decisions.”

Somehow the Times has forgotten its earlier story where Abbas announced that he could agree to an Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley for three years. In the same way it apparently “forgot” to whom Secretary Baker’s comments were aimed—at Israel alone.

It takes selective memory to twist the peace talk narrative into a semblance of “balance,” but the Times has done it once again, all to the benefit of Israel and its expansionist claims on the land of Palestine.

Barbara Erickson

In Times Speak, International Law Is a “Poison Pill”

The New York Times has singled out the culprit in the moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and it is Mahmoud Abbas. The lead story in the print edition today states it clearly: “Abbas Takes Defiant Step, And Mideast Talks Falter.”

The story by Jodi Rudoren, Michael Gordon and Mark Landler tells of Abbas signing requests for membership in 15 international agencies and goes on to quote both Abbas and United States officials. Israeli officials, who had remained silent about the move, are missing from the story.

Echoing U.S. and Israeli talking points, it states that this was “a move to gain the benefits of statehood outside the negotiations process” and that “the Palestinians’ pursuit of the international route is widely viewed as a poison pill for the peace talks.”

The Times does not say who views the move as a “poison pill.” It leaves the impression that the international community is against such actions, when, in fact, the world at large, voting in the United Nations, has supported such Palestinian efforts by wide margins. The 2012 Palestinian bid for non-member observer state status, for instance, won by 138 to 9 votes in the General Assembly.

In today’s story the Times says only that the U.S. voted against the 2012 bid and blocked an earlier effort in the Security Council.

The story fails to mention primary obstacles in the way of the peace process: continued settlement building in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, attacks that have left some 50 Palestinians dead since the talks began last August, and Israel’s claims on the Jordan Valley.

In fact, before Abbas held his signing ceremony yesterday, Israel announced plans to build another 700 housing units within occupied East Jerusalem. The Times omits this fact, although other media outlets give it prominence.

Some reports said that the first document Abbas chose to sign was the Geneva Convention. This treaty was mentioned briefly in the Times story but developed more fully in other publications.

In Reuters, for example, Ali Sawafta and Noah Browning write that “the convention lays down the standards of international law for war and occupation” and signing it “would give Palestinians a stronger basis to accede to the International Criminal Court and eventually lodge formal complaints against Israel for its continued occupation of lands seized in the 1967 war.”

It seems that the Times would rather not look too closely at international law when it comes to Israel and Palestine. It glosses over UN actions and worldwide support for the Palestinian cause, and in spite of the fact that the peace process has been faltering for months, singles out yesterday’s act as the “poison pill” responsible for it all.

Israel has been building settlements on confiscated land and killing Palestinians with impunity, but the Times avoids mention of these crimes. It would rather take aim at a man with a pen as he appeals to the dictates of humanitarian values and international law.

Barbara Erickson