International Outcry Over Demolitions of Palestinian Homes: Silence in The NY Times

The United Nations has called for a freeze on Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes, dozens of aid agencies and the European Union have joined in the protest, and even the U.S. State Department has voiced its dismay. Yet, even as the outcry has become an international issue and reached the highest ranks of our own government, we find a resounding silence at The New York Times.

Times readers are unlikely to know that 31 international organizations recently called on Israel to stop the “wanton destruction of Palestinian property,” including “basic humanitarian necessities,” such as solar panels, animal pens, latrines and tents supplied by the European Union. The groups asked world leaders to take “urgent action,” to hold Israel accountable for “grave breaches” of international law, and to demand reparations for the destruction of their charitable gifts.

The statement came shortly after the United Nations and representatives of the European Union in separate actions called on Israel to freeze demolitions in the West Bank.

The State Department joined both groups with statements made during a press briefing Aug. 19. When spokesman John Kirby was asked about the issue, he had a prepared declaration ready to hand.

The department was “deeply concerned” and “very troubled,” he said, calling the demolitions and evictions “harmful and provocative and indicative of a damaging trend.” He referred to the “destruction of dozens of structures and the displacement of over 150 people in the West Bank and East Jerusalem this month alone.”

His words got the attention of Israeli media, which published his comments at length, but they failed to arouse the interest of the Times.

In fact, Israel’s cruel (and illegal) policy of demolishing Palestinian property has been a constant story in alternative and Palestinian media outlets over the years, and the spate of international protests appearing this past month is not the first. Last February, for instance, some 400 rabbis from around the world urged Israel to halt demolitions in the West Bank.

Israeli forces have destroyed houses, tents, animal shelters, shops and farming structures throughout the West Bank at a steady clip, leaving 486 Palestinians displaced in 2015 as of Aug. 24. The destruction has hit the poorest and most vulnerable populations hardest, as Israel attempts to clear the land for Jewish settlers.

In the midst of this, the Times has seen fit to report on only one official demolition action this summer: the destruction of illegal Jewish settler homes in the West Bank. (This event was accompanied by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement of plans for 500 news settlement homes to replace them.)

When the demolitions have made their way into the pages of the Times, the reports have failed to reveal the full extent of the problem. This year, for instance, the paper took notice of the threatened destruction of the West Bank village Susiya, when international media attention made it impossible to ignore, but dozens of other actual demolitions found no mention in the newspaper.

Again, when bureau chief Jodi Rudoren wrote about East Jerusalem demolitions last year, she underreported the extent of the damage by omitting over 46,000 structures that have been destroyed over the years and mentioning only the 675 that took place for “punitive reasons” during the second intifada.

Although demolitions are a constant threat to thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank, the Times prefers to ignore this reality. Palestinian media, however, issue reports almost daily, and monitoring groups such as the United Nations and the Israeli organization B’Tselem struggle to keep tallies.

These groups also note that demolitions fly in the face of international rules. As the UN release states, they contravene “Israel’s obligations as an occupying power under humanitarian law and human rights law.”

Behind the numbers cited by the United Nations and other groups are thousands of individual stories: herders struggling to shelter their flocks as Israeli forces tear up sheds and corrals, children robbed of playgrounds and schools, communities forced to pay for water deliveries after bulldozers crush their pipelines, families pulling prized possessions out of the rubble of their homes.

These stories find little notice in the Times, even as aid organizations and governments from the European Union to the U.S. State Department have spoken out with alarm and dismay. On many levels, Israeli demolitions are eminently newsworthy, but this is not enough for the Times, which prefers to shield Israel above all.

Barbara Erickson

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As Gaza Lies in Ruins, The NY Times Blames the Victims

Israel’s attacks on Gaza ended a year ago, but the strip remains an expanse of rubble and devastation. Who’s to blame for this outrage? The New York Times has an answer: everyone but Israel.

Jodi Rudoren comes up with this response in a story that aims to whitewash Israel’s brutal treatment of Gaza by blaming the Palestinian victims along with the international community for the lack of rebuilding. It is all summed up in the story’s subhead, “Political Infighting and Lack of Funds Stymie a Reconstruction Mechanism.”

Her article takes pains to present the process as a collaborative project between the Palestinian Authority, Israel and the United Nations, and she is hazy about Israel’s role, describing it as nothing more than “involvement in approving projects and participants.”

Rudoren furthers her efforts in a single paragraph that absolves Israel completely: “[The Palestinian minister of housing], other Palestinian leaders and United Nations representatives all said that Israel had done its part in reasonable time and allowed cement into Gaza. Empty coffers, they said, are the primary problem.”

Times readers, however, never learn the direct quotes or the names of the “leaders” and “representatives” that would help substantiate this claim, nor does Rudoren explain what “Israel’s part” actually refers to here.

In fact, Israel controls everything that goes into Gaza, from people to foodstuffs to building material, and the agreed-on process for rebuilding the strip—the “reconstruction mechanism” referred to in the subhead—is built solely on Israeli demands. (Israel also blocks Gaza traffic by sea and has the full cooperation of the Egyptian government on that border as well.)

Although the United Nations and the Palestinian Authority have roles in the process, Israel determines who gets building materials, what they get and in what amounts. As Harvard-based Gaza expert Sara Roy notes, the two major documents outlining the reconstruction process “read like security plans, carefully laying out Israeli concerns and the ways in which the United Nations will accommodate them.”

Roy adds, “Israel will have to approve all projects and their locations and will be able to veto any part of the process on security grounds.” Moreover, she writes, “No mechanism for accountability or transparency will apply to Israel.”

Without doubt, Palestinian bureaucracy, donor fears of yet another attack on Gaza and other factors come into play in reconstruction efforts, but Rudoren ignores the major element, which is the Israeli blockade.

Her story, in fact, never refers to the eight-year blockade of Gaza and makes only vague mention of Israeli “control” of the enclave. Readers are left without any relevant context.

Rudoren’s article also omits other details that would place Israel’s role in a different light: the fact that by July of this year it had allowed the passage less than 1 percent of the construction materials needed to adequately house Gaza residents or that as of May, a total of 20 schools (kindergarten to college level) completely destroyed by Israel had yet to be repaired.

Readers never learn, for instance, that aid agencies in Gaza were forced to rely on temporary building materials as the Israeli-mandated process kept concrete, cement and steel supplies to a trickle. They also never learn the sequel to this chapter: that Israel stepped in to squelch the effort just as it was gaining momentum.

The project was run by Catholic Relief Services, which began using lumber to build temporary homes for the displaced residents this year, and media reports in February and March stated that 70 had been built and 40 families had moved into the new houses. CRS had plans to construct more than 100 additional wooden homes, but in April the program came to an end when Israel suddenly banned all lumber for housing.

Here we can see how Israel actually operates in the opaque rebuilding process mentioned in Rudoren’s piece. Times readers, however, never learn of this sad narrative nor of many others that would reveal how Israeli actions are destroying the economy and depressing the living conditions in Gaza.

And yet, the Times story would have us believe that Israel has “done its part” in the reconstruction of Gaza, ignoring the obvious: that Israel alone has complete control of its borders with the strip, and if Israel so willed, Gaza residents would have moved out of the rubble long ago.

Barbara Erickson

Thomas Friedman’s Bizarre Moral Universe: Defending Israel in The NY Times

Thomas Friedman in The New York Times argues for approval of the Iran nuclear deal, and on the way to this conclusion he hauls readers through a morass of false narratives and murky ethics, all of them invoked on behalf of Israel.

The column, however, does more than reveal the contortions of Israeli propaganda. It also points up a defect in the Times op-ed pages: The section allows writers to assert almost any claim without having to supply evidence to the readers, and although the newspaper says that it fact-checks even its editors, plenty of misinformation appears in the op-ed pages.

Thus we have Friedman’s latest, “If I Were an Israeli Looking at the Iran Deal,” which lays out a series of bald statements about Iran, Mideast history and the Israeli military that point to one overriding premise: Israel is a lonely moral force in the midst of lunatic regimes.

Friedman asserts, among other things, that Iran “regularly cheated” in order to expand its nuclear capability and aided Lebanon in “an unprovoked war” against Israel in 2006. Israel, however, “tries to avoid hitting civilian targets,” follows “Western mores” and pursues “war without mercy” only “when it has to.”

We are told, in other words, that Iran is an existential threat to Israel, bent on its destruction. Oddly, just as Friedman’s column was appearing in the Times, the newspaper also published a rebuttal to his claim in a story titled “Reporting From Iran Jewish Paper Sees No Plot to Destroy Israel.”

Here we learn that many Iranians support a two-state solution in Palestine-Israel and that Jewish Iranians are “basically well-protected second-class citizens—a broadly prosperous, largely middle-class community whose members have no hesitation about walking down the streets of Tehran wearing yarmulkes.”

If readers took the time to check out some of Friedman’s specific claims, they would find that the “unprovoked war” of 2006 was something else again. Israel was actually planning to attack Lebanon and seized on one incident (among many skirmishes on both sides) to unleash its arsenal on the country.

They would discover that Iran has not “regularly cheated its way” in its nuclear program. Instead, as investigative journalist Gareth Porter notes, “The evidence adduced to prove that Iran secretly worked on nuclear weapons represents an even more serious falsification of intelligence than we saw in the run-up to the war in Iraq.”

As for Friedman’s claim that the “Israeli army tries to avoid hitting civilian targets,” many readers already know that rights groups have cast grave doubts on this particular bit of propaganda. Most recently, we have heard from Breaking the Silence and Amnesty International, as both groups have exposed the criminal policies and actions that left so many civilians dead last summer in Gaza.

This sloppy approach to the facts is appalling, but even worse in this particular piece is the moral quagmire he creates in justifying Israel’s war crimes. Israel is forced to kill civilians, he says, because it faces enemies that stop at nothing. Therefore, Israel will “play by local rules” because “for all its Western mores it will not be out-crazied.”

Friedman would have it both ways: Israel is a moral society and Israel is the toughest, meanest guy on the block. If Hezbollah or Hamas fire rockets, he writes, Israel “will not be deterred by the threat of civilian Arab casualties.” The threat that concerns him here is the damage to Israel’s reputation, not the deaths of innocent Arabs.

He finds Iran’s alleged nuclear cheating particularly egregious because the country had signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This observation, however, does not prevent him from threatening Iran with Israel’s nukes: “[Israel] not only possesses 100 to 200 nuclear weapons,” he writes, “it can deliver them to Iran by plane, submarine and long-range rocket.”

Israel, on the other hand, has never signed the NPT and has never allowed inspectors into its nuclear plant, but this is no matter to Friedman. Iran, which has signed the treaty and allows inspections of its facilities, finds this state of affairs used against it in his bizarre moral universe.

Friedman presents Iran as one of the “crazies” that force Israel to break from its “Western mores,” but he can maintain this stance only by ignoring a little-discussed fact: Iran has forbidden the production and use of weapons of mass destruction, including chemical warfare and nuclear arms.

Even when Iraq attacked Iranians with poison gas during the eight-year war, Iran refused to retaliate in kind. Two supreme leaders have pronounced a fatwa against such weapons, including nuclear arms, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Ayatollah Ali Khameini. Iran’s nuclear program, they declared, can only be pursued for peaceful purposes, and under the Iranian system, their word is the law of the land.

No wonder we hear not a word of this from Friedman (or the Times): Iran’s fatwa contrasts starkly with the Israeli stance on its own nuclear program.

In Friedman’s piece, facts that would expose his fraudulent narratives are excluded, in spite of the newspaper’s claim to fact-check even opinion pieces and editorials. Readers are denied even the minimal links that appear in most news stories.

Friedman’s columns appear twice a week in the Times. He has won awards for reporting and commentary, and he is a member of the Pulitzer Prize board. Such is the state of mainstream American journalism today.

Barbara Erickson

As Palestinians Die, NY Times Shields Israel

One week has passed since a Palestinian toddler died in an arson fire, one day since the boy’s father also perished from burns, and The New York Times has provided us with some half dozen stories on the tragedy. Only one of these was deemed fit to make the front page, however, and this fact is instructive: The favored story was not the original crime or the deaths of two villagers but a report on Israeli angst.

This maneuver was just one more piece of evidence that the Times has tried to provide an Israeli spin to this story. The paper has also adopted the government line that the concern here is extremism, not official policies and actions, and it has failed to provide the full context of settler violence in occupied Palestine.

When the story broke, the Times placed the news that 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh was burned to death on page 4 of the Aug. 1 of the print edition. The brief article about his father’s demise appears on page 9 today. Other stories—concerning protests, accusations and additional responses to the news—were also on inside pages.

It was only when Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren filed an article on Israeli “soul searching” that the editors saw fit to give the story a prominent spot in its Friday edition.

The print article, “Two Killings Make Israelis Look Inward,” received a favored site on page 1 above the fold. This, the editors are saying, is the real news here—not the shocking death of a helpless child, the lingering and painful death of his father or even the legacy of settler attacks—but the feelings of ordinary Israelis.

The arson attack has received this much attention in the Times only because it was impossible to ignore: It made headlines worldwide and forced Israeli officials to condemn the act and vow to take action. But the Times stories have failed to report the full extent of violence against Palestinians and official complicity in these actions.

Readers of the newspaper are unlikely to know that Israeli settlers have often resorted to arson and that their actions have never, until now, caused much concern among government officials. B’Tselem, an Israeli rights group, reports that “in recent years Israeli civilians set fire to dozens of homes, mosques, businesses, agricultural land and vehicles in the West Bank. The vast majority of these cases were never solved, and in many of them the Israeli police did not even bother taking elementary investigative actions.”

B’Tselem also notes that West Bank Palestinians are tried in military courts, with minimal rights and protection, while settlers living in the same area appear in civilian courts. Most shocking of all: The conviction rate for Palestinians in military courts is 99.74 percent.

The Times has acknowledged the charges of unequal treatment in an Isabel Kershner story titled “Israeli Justice in West Bank Is Seen as Often Uneven,” but the headline leaves the impression that we are dealing with opinions here, not facts, and the story fails to provide the data that would reveal just how uneven the system is.

In fact, B’Tselem reports that over an 11-year period only 11 percent of settler violence cases resulted in an indictment, nearly a quarter of the cases were never investigated and in the few cases where settlers were tried and convicted, they usually received “extremely light sentences.” The numbers are even more glaring when we note that Palestinians, knowing the outcomes and facing obstacles, often fail to file complaints.

These percentages, however, are less scandalous than the statistics concerning security forces. The Israeli monitoring group Yesh Din reports that 94 percent of the investigations into complaints about Israeli soldiers suspected of violence against Palestinians and their property are closed without action.

Yet the Times, following the lead of the Israeli government, has focused on “extremists” as the problem, ignoring the officially sanctioned destruction wrought by the military: In defiance of international law, the army helps the state confiscate land and destroy property  to make room for illegal Jewish settlements.

In recent weeks and months, the Israeli army has been responsible for widespread destruction of Palestinian property in the West Bank. Here are a few examples:

  • On July 22 the army invaded the village of Beit Ula and destroyed a Roman-era water well and 450 olive trees.
  • On July 2 the army uprooted an acre of agricultural land west of Hebron and issued demolition orders for a home and a water well.
  • On June 15 the Israeli army uprooted dozens of olive tree saplings over five acres in Husan, a village west of Bethlehem.
  • On May 4 the army evacuated the residents of Wadi al Maleh in the Jordan Valley for “training exercises” and set fire to grazing land using live ammunition. Residents were denied access to the land to put out the fires.
  • During the month of June in the Jordan Valley the army forced hundreds of Palestinians from their homes for “military maneuvers” and used live ammunition that set fire to acres of grazing land.
  • As of Aug. 3 the army was responsible for demolishing 302 Palestinian structures in 2015, displacing 304 people in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Times readers almost never read of these actions taken by the military with the official blessing of the government, and they rarely learn of most settler attacks. (Nor do they learn that settlers are allowed to carry weapons while Palestinians are denied even the most basic arms for defense.)

Now the Times, in the face of an international scandal, has done what it can to minimize the damage to Israel, muting the charges of unequal justice, placing Israeli “soul searching” on prominent display, joining the Israeli effort to blame extremists and ignoring the officially sanctioned crimes against Palestinians.

Israeli angst is fit to print in the Times, but Israeli crimes against Palestinians are something else again. If they are deemed worthy of notice, they may come to light in the back pages, under evasive headlines—all part of an effort to protect Israel at the expense of our right to be informed.

Barbara Erickson