The Ugly Reality of the Occupation: Censored in The NY Times

Israel has been the big story in The New York Times this month, with lead stories, front page photos and endless commentary. Reporters and pundits have looked at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and his election win from every angle. What could be left to say? What more would you want to know?

In fact, there is much that the Times is not telling you. For instance, that Israeli security forces killed two Palestinians this month and that the United Nations released a report showing that Israel killed more Palestinians in 2014 than in any year since the 1967 war.

Times reporters failed to cover these events, and they continued, as always, to neglect the ongoing harassment of Palestinians, the daily incidents that underscore the brutality of the occupation—home demolitions, the destruction of crops and orchards and the use of lethal and non-lethal weapons to threaten and injure protesters.

The first to die from Israeli fire this month was a Gaza fisherman, Tawfiq Abu Riyala, 32, who was shot in the abdomen March 7 as his boat sailed within the six-mile limit set by the terms of the August 2014 ceasefire. Riyala, who had created an artificial reef to attract fish within the allowable offshore limit, was featured in news accounts after his death.

The second victim was Ali Mahmoud Safi, 20, of Al Jalazun refugee camp, shot in the chest during a demonstration near Ramallah March 18; he died a week later. A third man died March 1 in Gaza from unexploded remnants left from the Israeli attacks last summer. He was gathering sand from a destroyed building to use in rebuilding his home.

The recent UN report, “Fragmented Lives,” sums up the effects of the occupation on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. It states: “Palestinians across the [occupied Palestinian territories] continue to be subject to threats to their lives, physical safety and liberty from conflict-related violence, and from policies and practices related to the Israeli occupation, including settlers violence. 2014 witnessed the highest civilian death toll since 1967 due to the July-August hostilities in Gaza and a significant increase in Palestinian fatalities in the West Bank.”

This report was released last week and is eminently newsworthy, but it has received no attention from the Times. Likewise, the systemic problems alluded to in the report—settler violence and policies and practices related to the occupation—rarely make the pages of the newspaper.

Readers would have to visit alternative news outlets or the weekly reports out of the United Nations to discover the information denied them in the Times. During this past month, they would have found the following took place during the four weeks from Feb. 24 to March 23 (see UN weekly reports):

  • 81 homes and other buildings in the West Bank were demolished by Israel, leaving 93 people displaced.
  •  170 Palestinians were injured by Israeli security forces in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
  • In 98 incidents Israeli security forces fired on Palestinians near land and sea boundaries in the Gaza Strip. In addition to the fisherman killed on March 7, two other fishermen were injured and six were detained during these attacks.
  • 991 olive trees were destroyed by settlers and Israeli security forces in the West Bank. On March 29 settlers destroyed another 1,200 trees near Hebron.
  • Settlers set fire to a mosque near Bethlehem and a Greek Orthodox church in East Jerusalem.

The demolitions, injuries and settler vandalism are weekly events in the occupied territories. The Times, however, has consistently ignored them, even when settlers destroy 1,200 trees in a single attack.

The newspaper turns away from the facts on the ground and the legitimate grievances of Palestinians under Israeli rule. It prefers to focus on Israeli politics and the analyses of Israeli pundits, avoiding the ugly realities of the decades-long occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.

Barbara Erickson

[For a close-up view of life under occupation, see a photo essay of one week in Hebron here.]

Blaming the Victims: An Art Form in The NY Times

Now that the Israeli election has faded from prominence on the front pages of The New York Times, readers may recall that a new entity sprang up during the 2015 campaign, a coalition party called the Joint List. It represents the Palestinian (Arab) citizens of Israel, and it managed to take third place in the number of seats in parliament.

The Times gave space to this new phenomenon. The party was duly mentioned in overviews of the race, and stories out of the Israeli Arab cities of Nazareth and Ibillin looked at its candidates and the concerns of Palestinians who support its platform.

At first glance, this is all to the good—the Times often overlooks the presence of Arabs and other minorities within Israel—but a closer look shows that even here we find the usual effort to shield Israel from serious scrutiny.

The Times stories (“Arab Alliance Rises as Force in Israeli Elections” and “Voters in Nazareth Cheer Gains by Arab Alliance”) note that Palestinian citizens of Israel are poorer and less educated than their Jewish counterparts and that they live in more crowded conditions, but the articles say nothing about the Israeli policies and laws that create this inequality in the first place.

On the contrary, the stories imply that the fault is with Israeli Arab leaders. Reporter Diaa Hadid quotes a Palestinian resident of the Galilee who says Arab politicians have done nothing for them so far. “We have no space here,” the man adds, apparently blaming this fact on the Palestinian representatives.

Hadid then describes the town as “crowded with boxy concrete homes on narrow streets” with “billboards blighting the view.” The “densely packed” Arab towns, she writes, “are in stark contrast to the leafy, well-planned Jewish communities that often sit nearby.”

There is no mention of the fact that 93 percent of the land in Israel is owned by the state for the benefit of Jews only and it is Israeli policies that prevent Arabs from expanding their crowded towns. Nazareth, for instance, has been encircled by the Jewish community of Nazareth Illit, which sits on hilltops surrounding the city. It was built specifically to block any efforts to develop Nazareth beyond its present boundaries.

The story also fails to note that 600 Israeli Jewish towns have been built since 1948 while the state has yet to recognize a single new Arab community. In fact, many towns that predated the establishment of Israel by centuries are “unrecognized” by the state and thus denied normal services, such as water, schools and transportation.

Most of these unrecognized villages are Bedouin communities in the Negev (Naqab in Arabic). Israel plans to force nearly all of their residents into townships, destroying their traditional livelihoods of herding and agriculture.

During the recent elections, residents of these villages were forced to travel long distances to reach polling places. The authorities refused to set up polls in their communities and even cut back the number of voting sites that had existed before.

Yet, none of this appeared in the pages of the Times, even in the stories directly concerned with Arab voters. Nothing is said of the more than 50 laws that privilege Jewish over minority residents of Israel. Instead, readers were provided with a vague reference to inequality in “land allocation” and demeaning comparisons between Palestinian and Jewish communities.

In a third story concerning the Joint List, the Times acknowledges the prejudice and ridicule directed at Arab members within parliament, but overall the paper fails to provide the context for Arab struggles within Israel, beginning with the expulsion of 750,000 Palestinians in 1948 and continuing even now with the confiscation of homes and land. (See, for instance, “Arab village of Dahmash fears being wiped off Israel’s map.”)

As Israeli Palestinians continue to cling to their homeland, squeezed into constricted spaces and denied the benefits of the majority community, they deserve recognition of their narrative. The Times, however, prefers to protect Israel, falling back on that ancient tactic of blaming the victim.

Barbara Erickson

The NY Times Airbrushes Palestinians From the West Bank

As the Israeli election approaches, The New York Times has provided us with a broad look at West Bank settlements, publishing an online piece with interactive maps to illustrate their rapid growth and an analysis of spending, population, planning and construction and how all this will shake out in the final vote.

The lavishly illustrated piece, “Netanyahu and the Settlements,” seems to provide readers with a quick overview of the issues, but it is all smoke and mirrors: A major element of the West Bank is missing here—the Palestinians, the indigenous residents of this landscape.

In all of this lengthy article, reporter Jodi Rudoren  never once quotes a Palestinian source. We meet settlers and we hear from American and Israeli officials, but Palestinian voices are omitted entirely. Their opinions emerge only in brief phrases—“Palestinians object” or “Palestinians do not accept”—never with a name attached.

After brief dabs of local color in the opening paragraphs, Times readers are introduced to an airbrushed West Bank, without a Palestinian community in sight: “The West Bank,” they write, “is 2,100 square miles of rolling hills dotted by some 200 Jewish settlements surrounded by security fences. They include the hilltop city of Ariel, with its own university and regional theater; planned communities of cookie-cutter houses with red-tile roofs; and hilltop outposts where a few dozen people live in trailers.”

Readers are then taken on a tour of several settlements, and they can click on aerial views to watch them grow over time, but they never visit Palestinian cities or villages, the native communities of this land. In this West Bank there is no Bethlehem or Jericho, no Jenin or Nablus; it is all a Jewish affair.

We learn that international opinion opposes settlement growth, and we get a look at how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accelerated construction during his tenures, but the Times avoids any look at the devastating consequences of settlement building on Palestinian lives.

In the Times, the problem is nothing more than an abstract issue of negotiations and electoral politics. It is a “dilemma for peacemakers” or a “central element of his troubled relationship with Washington,” all of which is far removed from the ugly facts on the ground.

Times readers learn virtually nothing about the ethnic cleansing that accompanies settlement expansion and the harsh consequences for Palestinians. Other media outlets and monitoring groups, however, provide frequent accounts of settler and army harassment, demolitions, olive tree burnings and land seizures, all aimed at driving Palestinians off their land.

Last week, for instance, Israeli bulldozers invaded a Jordan Valley herding community and bulldozed tin shacks and tents that were sheltering the families. The community, Khirbet Ein Karzaliyah, has clung to the land in spite of repeated demolitions. The Red Cross and other aid agencies supply new tents, but Israeli authorities return repeatedly to tear down homes and animal pens, leaving the residents and their stock exposed to the elements.

It is part of a “decades-long policy to expel thousands of Palestinians living in dozens of shepherding communities” in the West Bank, an IMEMC news article stated. It referred readers to a report by B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, which details the efforts to force these Palestinians off their land and make way for Jewish ownership and development.

Other reports last week exposed the military use of “firing zones” as a means of seizing land under Palestinian ownership. It told of another Jordan Valley community where the army forced Palestinians out of their homes by designating an area as a firing zone for training exercises. It then reduced the size of the zone and allowed settlers to move in and build there.

In the Times, settlements come at no cost to Palestinians. They are simply a matter of contention and take up land that Palestinians “would like to have” as a future state. There is no mention of the deprivation and suffering settlements cause and no recognition that the land they stand on was stolen from its indigenous owners.

Readers learn that the international community opposes Israeli settlement building, but we never get a look at what is driving this opposition. The Times prefers to stand at a distance from the reality of ethnic cleansing in Palestine, reducing human suffering to abstractions and removing the victims from the scene.

Barbara Erickson

NY Times’ Flimsy Attempt to Smear BDS

After months of silence on the steamrolling campus movement in favor of boycott, divestment and sanctions aimed at Israel, The New York Times has at last spoken out—in a not-so-subtle attempt to tarnish the movement as anti-Semitic.

In a page 1 piece, which was also prominent online, the Times presents Jewish students as victims of a poisoned atmosphere on universities nationwide. The article is titled “Debate Over Treatment of Jews Is Amplified on Many Campuses” (in the print edition) but manages to cite only a single example of this “debate”—a discussion over the confirmation of a Jewish student to a University of California-Los Angeles board.

The story by Adam Nagourney states that the discussion “served to spotlight what appears to be a surge of hostile sentiments directed against Jews at many campuses in the country.” He then links this sentiment to the passage of a UCLA student government resolution in favor of divestment from companies that profit from Israeli violations of Palestinian rights.

Nagourney notes that UCLA is “one of many campuses” to take such an action, but he provides readers with no further details. Readers never learn, for instance, that many Jewish students work to pass BDS resolutions at their schools.

The Times has failed to deliver any serious coverage of student BDS actions in the United States and beyond, although the movement has steadily racked up victories, even in the face of intense lobbying efforts by pro-Israel activists. The UCLA vote last November, for instance, was the sixth University of California undergraduate vote in favor of divestment.

Another significant victory came in December, when graduate and undergraduate workers throughout the statewide University of California system voted in favor of divestment from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land and its violations of human rights. The vote was taken under the auspices of the United Auto Workers Union Local 2865, which represents 13,000 students. The resolution passed by a two-thirds margin.

In February the Stanford undergraduate student senate voted in favor of divestment by more than two to one (10-4, with one abstention), and last week the student senate of the University of Toledo in Ohio approved a similar resolution by the landslide vote of 21 to 4. Other schools joining the movement in the past year include the University of New Mexico, Loyola University in Chicago and Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

The movement has been successful overseas also. In 2014, the United Kingdom National Union of Students voted to support BDS movements on campuses, and student unions at the University of Exeter, the University of Kent and the National University of Ireland voted in support of BDS measures.

Last month the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London handed the campaign a major victory when more than 2,000 students, faculty and contract workers endorsed an academic boycott of Israel by an overwhelming 73 percent. The vote took place over five days and called for SOAS to cut all ties with Israeli academic institutions.

None of this is newsworthy, according to the Times. Nagourney’s story glosses over the movement with a single reference to UCLA as “one of many campuses” to vote for BDS measures. Readers learn nothing about the factors that inspire students to take up the cause or the debates over Palestine and Israel taking place on a number of campuses.

Instead, the Times gives prominence to a single incident at UCLA and blows this into an unsubstantiated claim about a “surge of hostile sentiments” toward Jews. The evidence for this charge, as the news site Mondoweiss stated, “is laughably thin. No statistics, no research, not even a biased survey from the [Anti-Defamation League].”

The BDS movement is a story of national and international significance, but rather than inform readers, the Times attempts to deflect attention from the campaign, the facts on the ground in Israel and Palestine and the growing support for BDS. It is Israel first and foremost, once again.

Barbara Erickson

Somebody Needs to Tell The NY Times: Israel Has The Bomb

The New York Times has had plenty to say about Iran and nuclear ambitions recently—in op-eds, editorials and news stories; in reports on negotiating sessions and in articles about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coming speech to Congress, at which he will raise the alarm about Iran’s ability to produce a bomb.

In all these venues—opinion pieces and news accounts—one element of this story is taken for granted: A nuclear proficient Iran would be a threat and cannot be allowed. As Israeli politician Isaac Herzog wrote in a Times op-ed published this weekend, “If [Iran] goes nuclear, the Middle East will go nuclear, putting world peace itself in jeopardy.”

Yet, in spite of all the words devoted to this issue, a major piece of information is missing: The Middle East has already gone nuclear. Israel has had the bomb since 1967 and is counted as the world’s sixth nuclear state, with a stockpile of weaponry possibly equal to that of France and the United Kingdom.

As Netanyahu warns against nuclear research in Iran and the Times editorial board insists that Iran allow “even more aggressive inspections” by the International Atomic Energy Agency, there is no mention of the fact that Israel has refused to allow any inspections of its advanced nuclear program and refuses even to confirm that it exists.

There is no compelling reason to prevent the Times from writing about Israel’s nukes. The newspaper has already published at least one opinion piece urging more openness on the issue; similar commentary has appeared in other publications, such as The New Yorker; and academic groups have openly issued assessments of Israel’s program.

Israeli scholar Avner Cohen has published two books on the subject (the second is titled The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb). Seymour Hersh, a former member of the Times’ own staff, has written one (The Samson Option), and Israeli journalist Ari Shavit dedicated an entire chapter in his book, My Promised Land, to the creation of Israel’s nuclear facility. Shavit speaks with pride of this accomplishment and notes that his chapter won the approval of Israeli censors.

The Federation of American Scientists states that “the existence of Israeli nuclear weapons is a ‘public secret’ by now due to the declassification of large numbers of formerly highly classified US government documents which show that the United States by 1975 was convinced that Israel had nuclear weapons.”

It is only left to determine just how many nuclear weapons Israel possesses and how it is capable of delivering them. The estimates vary from 80 (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) to 300 weapons, which can be launched by land, air and sea.

In 2009 Israel and its nukes made the news when the general conference of the IAEA called on Israel to open its facilities to inspection. The Israeli delegate to the conference rejected the request, saying, “Israel will not cooperate in any matter with this resolution.”

In the face of all this, the Times recently published a lead editorial concerning “the protracted nuclear threat from Iran” and how best to contain it. The piece noted that “Iran’s major nuclear installations are already monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency and watched by the United States.”

But, the editorial insisted, this is not enough. Iran must also ratify the IAEA’s “additional protocol” in order to “ensure materials are not diverted to a covert nuclear weapons program.”

A covert nuclear program is precisely what Israel has had since the 1950s, but the Times has nothing to say about it. Moreover, while Israel has refused to sign the nuclear nonproliferation treaty or allow inspections of its program, Iran has done both. It is a signatory to the treaty and allows IAEA visits to its facilities.

Here is Israeli exceptionalism at its irrational worst. The Times has no problem pointing the finger at Iran, which has signed the treaty and allowed inspections, but it shields Israel, which has done neither and is already capable of launching nuclear weapons against its neighbors in the Middle East.

If it chose to report this issue fully, the Times could rely on expert analysis and testimony as evidence, and it could point to the precedence of publications which have “outed” the program in their writings. The information is readily available, but the newspaper prefers to say nothing.

At the least, the Times could say that Israel is “widely believed” to possess nuclear weapons, but it avoids even this construct. As long as Israel refuses to acknowledge its nuclear arsenal in public, The New York Times remains silent as well.

Readers are entitled to a fully informed treatment of the current debate over Iran and nuclear arms in the Middle East, but there is no sign that this will happen anytime soon. The newspaper places its obligations to journalism behind its loyalty to Israel, and readers are the losers in this game—once again.

Barbara Erickson