The NY Times Shrinks the Apartheid Barrier

What is this wall where Pope Francis is praying in the iconic image of his visit to the Holy Land? The New York Times has an answer for you: It is “a contentious concrete barrier separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem.” Just one issue in a quarrel between neighbors, in other words.

The Times comes up with this description in a caption for its front-page print edition photo of the pope, an image seen around the world and impossible for the paper to ignore. Since there is no way to avoid dealing with it, the Times chooses another tactic: It shrinks the notorious barrier down to something trifling.

In the accompanying article, “Pope, In Mideast, Invites Leaders To Meet on Peace,” the same description of a barrier between two cities is repeated high in the story. Readers have to work halfway through the text before they learn that the wall “snakes along and through the West Bank.”

But even this expanded version is an understatement. When completed, the wall is expected to extend for some 700 kilometers (about 435 miles), twice the length of the Green Line, which is the boundary between the West Bank and Israel. It accomplishes this feat by turning and twisting well inside the border, eating up many miles of Palestinian territory.

A security fence would lie on the frontier between two entities, but that is not the case here. Eighty-five percent of the barrier is on Palestinian land, a fact that clearly shows it is not built to keep trouble out, as Israel maintains, but as a way to confiscate more land and water.

The Times would rather not go into these facts. Thus it passes quickly over the wall and the significance of the pope’s prayer there, and the article fails to mention the inconvenient truth that the International Court of Justice found the barrier to be illegal in a 2004 advisory opinion and that Israel has ignored this finding.

Likewise, the Times article says that Pope Francis prayed near a site where someone had spray painted, “Pope, we need some 1 to speak for justice.” There were other graffiti inches from where the pontiff rested his head. One of them said, “Bethlehem look (sic) like Warsaw Ghetto,” but it seems the Times would rather avoid this statement, which underscores the anguish of life behind barriers, checkpoints and sniper towers.

The wall where the pope prayed is the same barrier that appears in the Oscar nominated film, Five Broken Cameras. That film documents weekly nonviolent protests by the residents of Bil’in, a farming village, which has lost hundreds of acres of agricultural land to the wall.

There in Bil’in and throughout the West Bank countryside, the barrier takes the form of an electronic fence flanked by pathways, barbed wire and trenches. It averages 60 meters in width. On the Israeli-controlled side lies some of the most fertile land in Palestine and most of the illegal Israeli colonies.

Within Bethlehem, Jerusalem and other cities, this barrier is a concrete monstrosity rising six to eight meters high. But wherever it appears, in cities and rural areas, it cuts off neighbor from neighbor, patients from hospitals, students and teachers from schools and relatives from other family members.

The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has declared that Israeli officials “almost entirely disregarded the [barrier’s] severe infringement of Palestinian human rights” in building the structure. The route, B’Tselem says, is “completely unrelated to the security of Israeli citizens,” and “a major aim in planning the route was de facto annexation of part of the West Bank.”

B’Tselem has it right, and any casual visitor can see the truth of their claims. The wall is an abomination and a potent symbol of repression. It has scarred the landscape and caused untold misery to Palestinians. No wonder the Times prefers to shrink it down to a trivial fence, to dismiss it as “contentious” and avoid the hard reality of Israel’s shame.

Barbara Erickson

Hate Crimes in Israel? It’s Not Just the Crazies

Some extremists out there may make things tough during the pope’s visit to the Holy Land this weekend, The New York Times tells us, but Israel is getting those folks out of the way. No problem. That should take care of that “recent spate of hate crimes” against Christians in East Jerusalem.

This is what readers will take away from a front-page story about the pope’s itinerary and reactions to his visit. The article gives no hint that the problem is more severe than that and more entrenched. While Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner acknowledge some “protests by religious Jews” and “right-wing Jewish activists,” they say nothing about Israel’s institutionalized discrimination against Christians (and other non-Jews).

Only weeks ago, Israeli police blocked thousands of worshippers from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter, drawing outrage from the UN peace talk envoy Robert Serry. Last week the police asked a Jerusalem church to remove a poster welcoming the pope. And agencies, including the U.S. State Department, have documented Israeli government discrimination against Christian clergy and worshippers.

The Times may ignore these facts, but Israeli media have highlighted the issue. There is 972 Magazine, which this spring ran a photo spread of Israeli police at work, harassing and obstructing Christians as they tried to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter weekend.

The photos show Orthodox nuns trapped behind a barrier, police shoving worshippers who have managed to get inside the church, officers blocking the entrance to the church and other police allowing a Jewish man to pass through their cordon as Christians are made to wait.

A U.S. State Department report of 2011 also notes that Christian religious workers are “unable to secure residency or work permits,” that Arab Christian clergy, including bishops, are not allowed to visit congregations in Gaza, and that the Separation Wall has prevented Christians in Jerusalem and Bethlehem from visiting holy sites.

Although Kershner and Rudoren mention a “recent spate” of hate crimes, these attacks are not a new phenomenon brought on by the pope’s planned visit.  Since 2010, more than 30 Palestinian religious buildings (churches, monasteries and mosques) have been vandalized with threatening racist graffiti or damaged in arson attacks.

Over the past year, there have been 14 reported attacks against Catholic Church property, and in October Israel demolished church-owned property in East Jerusalem displacing 14 residents without warning.

All this is significant context for the visit of Pope Francis, but it is missing from the Times, along with data about the Christian presence in the Holy Land. That population, once making up some 20 percent of the Palestinian residents, is now down to 2 percent. Many Christians are leaving, and they are abandoning their homeland because of Israeli policies: the wall strangling Bethlehem, the confiscation of land, the crushing economic effect of the occupation and the open hostility of police and settlers.

The pope’s visit provides an opportunity to inform readers, but so far the Times has avoided the hard facts of Israel’s harsh treatment of Christians and other non-Jews. It is not enough to shake a finger at extremists and fanatics; good journalism requires a look at official, state-sponsored discrimination.

Barbara Erickson

NY Times Blogger Destroys Israeli Spin 

Robert Mackey in his blog, The Lede, has published a video showing the killing of two Palestinian teenagers during a protest and in the same post destroys an Israeli journalist’s claim that he was “attacked and beaten” by a hostile Palestinian mob.

Kudos to the Times for giving Mackey the latitude to publish his piece online (even though his blog is out of sight of the casual browser). Mackey has shown dedication to the truth before, attracting the ire of pro-Israel watchdog groups like CAMERA. In 2010, for instance, he published a raw video of the murderous Israeli attack on the flotilla ship Mavi Marmara.

This time he posts a video released by Defense of Children International that shows the scene outside Ofer Prison in the West Bank on May 15, when a group gathered to demonstrate on Nakba Day, the commemoration of the “catastrophe,” when over 700,000 Palestinians were driven out of their homes to make way for the State of Israel.

The video shows the moment each boy was shot and substantiates the claims of witnesses that neither posed a threat. Although an army spokesperson described protestors as a menacing mob, throwing stones and firebombs and ignoring orders from soldiers, the DCI film shows otherwise. Each of the teenagers was walking alone in an open area when he fell to the ground. One was actually heading away from the action and was shot in the back. Both young men died at the scene.

Mackey’s post also takes on the claims of Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff, who wrote that he and a colleague were “seconds away from being beaten to death” by a Palestinian mob during the protest. They survived only by pure chance, he writes in The Times of Israel, because plainclothes members of the Palestinian security forces rescued them

Mackey quotes an Israeli activist and a French journalist who saw the exchange between the two men and the Palestinians. There was pushing and shoving but nothing more, they said, adding that the Palestinians were afraid that one of journalists was videotaping protestors to turn over to security forces.

The print story of the shooting appeared in the Times under the byline of Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren. She quoted the Israeli military, who claimed that they used nonviolent means to disperse the crowd, but also cited Palestinians and Amnesty International, who disputed the army account. It was a fair story in itself.

Last week Rudoren wrote a reasonably sympathetic (though limited) piece about the Nakba, which appeared only in the international edition, and last month, when Hamas and Fatah announced their unity deal, the Times published a range of op-ed pieces online, featuring commentators who rarely get mention in print.

The lesson here is this: The gatekeepers who reject news and commentary that fails to hew closely to the Israeli spin are hard at work in the print news section of the Times. There we find contorted efforts to hide negative stories under misleading headlines, articles that give the first and last word to Israeli spokespersons and commentary limited to Israeli and U.S. official; there we often hear nothing at all about innocent victims of trigger-happy Israeli troops.

Beyond that sphere, online and in the international edition, real reporting occasionally challenges the official narrative of Palestine-Israel, and when it appears it can shine a sudden light on the usual murk in the Times. But even there the day-to-day coverage is missing. Reporting that challenges the official narrative concerning Palestine appears only sporadically in The Lede, online and in the international edition.

Readers need to follow alternative media such as Mondoweiss and The Electronic Intifada to find daily reports from unofficial and on-the-ground perspectives. And they can always go to Palestinian sources, such as Ma’an News and the International Middle East Media Center.

Mackey’s latest post, however, keeps hope alive that eventually the fortified walls surrounding the news and opinion section of the Times may begin to crumble. Meanwhile, readers can search online for the occasional breakthrough and keep watch here for TimesWarp updates.

Barbara Erickson

The NY Times “Navigates” the Nakba

Jodi Rudoren has given us a pleasant surprise with a recent story about the Nakba, the “catastrophe” that emptied 500 Palestinian villages in 1948, sent some 750,000 indigenous residents into exile and created a refugee crisis that continues today.

The article, “Navigating Lost Villages in Israel,” appears as Israel is celebrating its founding and Palestinians are mourning their dispossession. It is informed with a nostalgic sense of the past, and it quotes Palestinian and sympathetic Israeli sources. The story also tells us that Israel has tried to muzzle any mention of the Nakba and criminalize those who commemorate it.

All of this is a welcome change from the usual pro-Israel spin in the Times, but it is not the moment to celebrate yet. The Times has confined this story to its international edition; print subscribers in the United States will not find it in their pages.

Moreover, Rudoren does not mention the massacres that helped empty the villages of their residents nor many other unsavory facts about Israel’s founding.

The article takes us on a tour of abandoned villages as Rudoren uses a new app on her iPhone. It is called iNakba and was created by the Israeli group Zochrot, which is dedicated to exposing the ethnic cleansing that accompanied the creation of Israel. The app places the abandoned and destroyed villages on the Google map of Israel and provides photos and data about the sites before the catastrophe struck.

“I saw scores of villages destroyed or abandoned as Israel became a state 66 years ago,” Rudoren writes. She goes on to quote Liat Rosenberg, director of Zochrot, who says the app “forces Israelis to have it in their face.” And she quotes Abed Barghouti, an Israeli Palestinian whose family came from the village of Safuriyya, now a pile of stones.

All this is good, yet the story fails to mention the massacres in Lydda, Deir Yassin and other sites that created panic among the Palestinian residents. It fails to say that Israeli forces bombed abandoned villages and shot farmers as they tried to return to their fields. It tells us that the Switzerland Forest covers the site of two villages, but it does not say that such forests are one of the ways Israel has tried to obliterate traces of the indigenous residents.

Rudoren also fails to say that Zochrot has faced hostility and threats from Israelis who refuse to hear the story of the Nakba and that the signs the group places to mark former village sites are routinely removed and defaced.

But in one passage she gives us a hint of why the article has made its way into print just now. She writes, “Ari Shavit’s new book, ‘My Promised Land,’ has begun to bring into the mainstream discussion the idea that Zionists must wrestle with the Nakba.” In that book, Shavit describes the massacre in Lydda and the expulsion of its residents (but in the end supports the atrocities as necessary for the creation of Israel). It seems that Shavit’s exposure has given Rudoren permission to address the issue as well.

Yet in other stories, Rudoren has tried to obscure the ongoing Nakba, the present day efforts to rob Palestinians of still more land and the many violations of international law in the occupied territories. (See here and here and here.) Even as she writes about the events of 66 years ago, she has failed to cover, for instance, a recent report that Israel is subjecting Palestinian children to solitary confinement, killings of unarmed civilians along the Gaza border or the destruction of humble Bedouin encampments in the Jordan Valley.

Nevertheless, as the Nakba of 1948 becomes history, as the discourse in Israel gradually begins to shift, she has taken a step outside the usual permissible narrative, for this one time at least. Those in charge at the Times, however, are unable to follow her lead, and “Navigating Lost Villages” was deemed unfit to print in the United States.

Barbara Erickson

Fearful in Gaza? The NY Times Says It’s All in Your Head

To hear Jodi Rudoren tell it in the Times, there is nothing to fear in Gaza. Those who think they have to stand guard over the tiny strip are deluded would-be warriors, aiming their rifles at imaginary targets.

This is her take in a recent story, “Islamic Jihad Gains New Traction in Gaza,” where she writes that although “no Israeli soldier has set foot in Gaza City in five years,” a group of fighters stands there nightly, armed and ready to protect residents from any “incursion.” The quote marks are Rudoren’s own, and they deliberately cast doubt on the word, as if it is an invention of the fighters themselves.

She fails to tell readers that although Israeli soldiers may not have entered the confines of Gaza City since the attacks of 2009, they invade the strip weekly in what the international community calls incursions (without quote marks). She also omits the fact that only days before the story appeared, Human Rights Watch released a statement asking Israel to stop shooting at Gaza civilians, and the United Nations published data showing that Israeli forces had killed 11 residents of Gaza and injured 137 in the first four months of 2014.

Rudoren’s story is one of several recent Times articles with the focus on Gaza, where we find live people at work and play but where we hear never hear the word “blockade” even though Israel sealed the borders in 2006 and has ever since kept tight control over whatever goods and people move in and out, refusing passage to students, medical patients, bereaved family members and all but the very few with connections or luck.

The Times stories, however, omit this context and provide no sense of what it is like to live under constant Israeli pressure, with drones above, gunships at sea and troops firing at civilians along the perimeter fence, and with the threat of airstrikes that target Islamic Jihad members in extrajudicial executions, often wounding and killing bystanders.

In the past month the Times has introduced us to a marathon runner, a two-state activist and women featured in a photo essay, as well as members of Islamic Jihad, but in all these stories, the newspaper avoids or downplays Israeli responsibility for the hardships in Gaza.

Thus, in a story about Israel’s refusal to let runners out of Gaza to compete in a Bethlehem race we find the headline, “Mideast Tensions Sideline a Gazan Marathon Runner” and the pull-quote “A case in which athletics is unable to transcend politics.” Who’s at fault here? Not Israel, according to the large print. It is all due to “Mideast tensions” and “politics.”

In the photo essay, “Female in Gaza,” the text by photographer Monique Jaques mentions “the conflict with Israel” and the drones at night, the walls and barbed wire and soldiers on patrol, but Israeli responsibility, once again, is omitted, the word blockade (or siege) never appears, and there is no mention of airstrikes nor of civilian deaths near the border fence.

And then there is Rudoren’s article, “Pushing the 2-State Path in Gaza,” where we meet Ezzeldin Masri, who lobbies for the two state solution. Here we get one paragraph about life in Gaza, and we learn that residents chafe at “restrictions on travel, farming and fishing” and that they have a “longstanding sense of siege.” Not a real siege, mind you, just a feeling.

With all this attention to Gaza, the Times could have educated readers about conditions there. The United Nations, the Israeli monitoring group B’Tselem, the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights and others, including agencies such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, keep track of the deaths, injuries and damage caused by the Israeli blockade and attacks, but the Times fails to include any of it.

Instead we have Rudoren’s put down of the Islamic Jihad fighters, who, according to her deliberate spin, stand waiting for an attack that ended five years ago. If the Times had seen fit to draw on official data, readers might have viewed this scene in a different light.

For instance, a UN report states that in the week before her story ran Israeli forces shot and injured four civilians; targeted and destroyed a livestock barn, killing 18 sheep, 10 chickens, 10 rabbits and a cow; carried out an air strike in a densely populated area; fired at Palestinian fishing boats at least 19 times; and “ordered two fishermen to jump into the water before arresting them and confiscating their boat and fishing equipment.”

Also during that period, Israeli tanks and bulldozers entered Gaza to level land. These incursions are frequent events, and they leave a swath of destroyed farm buildings, crops and topsoil.

Last year Rudoren wrote about Gaza farmers and their fears of these Israeli forays, giving this description of the land near the border fence: “The bumpy hills are dotted with destroyed wells and faint traces of long-ago incursions by Israeli tanks.” As in the Islamic Jihad story, she placed the reality somewhere in the past and denied the present threat, making no mention of recent invasions.

In last year’s article, however, she reported the shootings and deaths of civilians and quoted from a UN report on Palestinian casualties. None of that is present in the recent stories. Now, in spite of all the words devoted to Gaza in the past month, the effect is to obscure reality, to downgrade a crippling blockade to a “sense of siege” and to present the fear of attack as mere delusion.

This, apparently, is how the Times views its task in covering Palestine, to take pains, even to the point of absurdity, to conceal Israeli culpability for daily frustration and suffering. Gazans live behind fortified walls and under the prying view of drones, fearful of bombs and bullets, but no one is clearly responsible. It is just the unfortunate result of “tensions” and “politics.”

Barbara Erickson



Evasion and Incoherence: How the NY Times Muddies the Peace Process

After nine months of Mideast peace talks and their ultimate collapse, what will Times readers take away from the thousands of words the paper has devoted to this issue, online and in print?

Among other issues, there is the question of blame, determining who was responsible for the death of this effort to forge two states in Palestine-Israel. Readers heard the answer in a variety of ways during the final weeks of coverage. On April 2 a front page headline pointed the finger at Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as the culprit (“Abbas Takes Defiant Step, And Mideast Talks Falter”). A week later the Times was writing that Secretary of State Kerry appeared to lay the blame on Israel.

But finally, in its “how it all went wrong” piece on April 29, the Times came down on the side of a familiar claim: Both sides are to blame. “Washington cannot force an agreement,” it reported, “if the parties are unwilling.”

In taking this stance, the Times implies that we have two equal sides here. Nowhere does it acknowledge the huge imbalance of power between the occupier, endowed with overwhelming military might, and the occupied. But the facts on the ground are there, and this creates a tension between what the Times wants to avoid saying and what it is forced to include.

For instance, there are the settlements, an issue that was front and center during the talks from the beginning. Israel had refused to freeze settlement building, and it continued to announce new plans throughout, coming up with nearly 14,000 new units over the nine months of negotiations.

The Times duly reported this, but there was little comment on the implications of settlement building, on the fact that Palestinian farmers would lose still more of their fields, water sources and grazing land. There was little said to indicate that settlements would force residents of East Jerusalem out of homes they had occupied since arriving there as refugees in 1948 or 1967 or that settlements further fragment Palestinian land, making it that much harder to create a contiguous state rather than a string of isolated cantons.

The Times would rather not go into the implications of the fact that Israel builds settlements at will, in defiance of the United States and international opinion. If they did, it would underscore who has the upper hand in these negotiations. And so the Times strives to portray the talks as meetings between two equal sides, while the facts on the ground show a different reality.

Likewise, the Times is quick to speak of Israel’s security needs, but at the same time it gives prominence to Israeli alarm over Palestinian plans to join the International Criminal Court. If Israel is the victim of Palestinian terrorism, why should this be a threat?

Readers who give the question some thought may come to see that Israel is vulnerable to charges of war crimes under international law in Gaza and in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), and the perpetrator of war crimes would find it difficult to maintain its claim of victimhood.

Instead, Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren buys into the terror threat claim when she gives us this assessment: “The talks helped contain violence in the West Bank and hold back a mounting European boycott of Israeli goods and institutions.”

In fact, violence was rampant in the West Bank. It’s just that this violence was directed against Palestinians, and thus, in the Times’ Israel-centric view, it was of little account.

During a press briefing, which Rudoren attended, PLO member Mustafa Barghouti reported that over the nine months of talks, settlers attacked Palestinian villages 660 times, 3674 Palestinians were arrested, 61 were killed and 1054 were injured; the military carried out 4500 attacks against Palestinians, and Israel destroyed 508 Palestinian homes.

Readers would have a different impression of how well violence was contained if the story had included these data.

As for the statement that the talks “held back a mounting European boycott of Israeli goods and institutions,” this is credible only among those who rely on the Times to present the news in full.

In January, at the midpoint of the peace talk timeline, print and television news in Israel highlighted major stories about the negative effects of the boycott movement. And during the nine months of the negotiating process, the boycott, divestment and sanctions effort racked up several triumphs.

The following are just a few: The Dutch pension fund PGGM divested from five Israeli banks, Europe’s largest teachers’ union and the Royal Institute of British Architects endorsed the boycott call, a Norwegian singer cancelled his appearance in Tel Aviv and academic groups continued to join in the movement. (See here for lists and links to news stories.)

The Times has also failed to tell readers that the Hamas-Fatah unity deal (presented as the coup de grace for the peace talks) has the support of the European Union, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, the group of global statesmen known as The Elders and Arab states. It quotes U.S. and Israeli sources on their opposition to the deal but ignores the international reaction, which doesn’t conform to the Times’ preferred narrative.

Rudoren also deliberately distorts the Arab view by saying that Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas’ patron, while she omits the fact that Egypt helped broker the agreement and other states have spoken their approval.

More than once Rudoren refers to the situation in Israel-Palestine as an “intractable conflict.” We need some context for this. We need to know when it began and why, and we need some reference to international law. The Times (and Israel and the United States) would rather not go there. Hence the lack of historical narrative, the call for peace without a similar appeal for human rights and the alarm when Palestinians join international treaties.

Times readers are left with misinformation, muddled reporting and inconsistent claims in the post mortem stories about the peace process. Without reading between the lines, they will buy into the notion that both sides are to blame, that joining international treaties is just as bad as building settlements, that Israel faces a security threat and that neither side really wants peace.

Readers should be asking the Times some questions of their own: If we are talking about two states, why can’t we see a map of the areas in question? Why is the Palestinian plan to join international covenants raising such alarm? Why don’t we hear some new voices in this story?

Barbara Erickson

[Some may also want to read an Israeli reporter’s fascinating interview with U.S. negotiators, who place the blame for the talks’ failure squarely on Israel. See here and here.]