Barely a week ago a gunman killed two Israelis in a Tel Aviv bar, setting off a manhunt and raising fears of more attacks. Yesterday the Palestinian suspect died in a hail of gunfire, and The New York Times, which reported the original story and ran a piece speculating on the man’s motives, has now become oddly reticent.
The paper devoted a scant 100 words to the print story of his killing in the World Briefings section and managed to provide only slightly more details online. This should be a sign to careful readers that something is amiss, and so it is.
The Times has not told the full story all along, and now it appears to be withholding even more. Isabel Kershner in the briefings piece writes that “many details of the case were unavailable because of a government order of silence,” but this appears to be a lame excuse: Israeli media outlets had already published much of significance that never appeared in the Times.
For starters, we have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanuyahu’s rant against Arab and Muslim Israeli citizens, which he delivered at the site of the shooting one day after the event. He accused “the Muslim sector” of “wild incitement against Israel,” and said he would “not accept two states within Israel, a state of law for most citizens and a state within a state with Islamist incitement and illegal arms.”
One Israeli newspaper called his speech a “a shameful, fear-spreading horror show.” Opposition politicians, including the mayor of Tel Aviv, accused him of stirring up hostility against the country’s Palestinian citizens.
The Times, however, had nothing to say about the prime minister’s comments. Instead, in a story about possible motives for the crime, Kershner presents him as thoughtful and measured in his reactions. “Netanyahu and police officials,” she writes, “have been careful to refer to the gunman as a ‘murderer’ rather than a ‘terrorist.’” It appears, then, that Kershner is doing damage control for Netanyahu.
Then there is the matter of the assailant’s gun. Israeli media have reported that the gunman, identified as Nashat Melhem, 31, of Arara in northern Israel, used a Falcon submachine gun stolen from his father’s safe. This kind of weapon, used by the Swiss and Italian military, is “hardly available” in Israel, The Times of Israel stated, with perhaps 10 in the entire country.
Moreover, Melhem’s father, Muhammad, had a license for the weapon, an extremely rare privilege for Palestinian citizens of Israel. It had been confiscated by the police earlier this year, after a complaint that a family member used it to threaten someone, but the police returned it to the suspect’s father.
This is a most peculiar affair, but journalist Richard Silverstein of Tikun Olam has provided an account that could explain the gag order on the story as well as the strange tale of the Palestinian with a licensed submachine gun. Muhammad Melhem, according to an Israeli source, is a collaborator working with the Israeli security service Shin Bet, and his son was aiming to kill his handler, a man known as “Shin,” but missed and killed the man’s friend instead, along with an employee of the bar.
It’s all very ugly and murky, and the Times would rather avoid tarnishing Israel with such affairs. Reporting the Netanyahu rant would expose the fact that Israeli racism is in full flower at the top and is more than the affair of extremists. To tell the strange tale of Muhammad Melhem and his submachine gun would raise suspicion and hint too clearly at the web of double-dealing and subterfuge in the state security services.
As the story developed, the Times had less and less to say. In the end it chose to hide the final chapter in a roundup of briefs and to provide readers with nothing more than a single paragraph, an evasive fragment of news.