The NY Times Plays the Israeli Army’s Game: Hyping Threats, Shielding Criminals

The New York Times reports today that Israel faces “monumental security challenges” and is now caught in a debate over just how tough the military should be with those who threaten to harm its soldiers and civilians.

The story, by Isabel Kershner, is framed around “months of Palestinian attacks” that have left some 30 Israelis dead. She makes no mention anywhere of the more than 200 Palestinians killed by security forces over the same time period, nor does she say anything about the brutal conditions of the occupation that provide the impetus for Palestinian assaults.

Kershner briefly notes that Palestinian and human rights groups have accused the Israeli military of “excessive force,” but she fails to say that the charges go beyond this vague reference: In fact, numerous groups have accused Israel of carrying out “street executions” of Palestinians who posed no real threat to soldiers or civilians.

The mostly youthful Palestinian attackers over the past eight months have been armed with nothing more than knives, vehicles and even scissors, but they have carried out their assaults (some alleged, some substantiated) against an army equipped with submachine guns, drones, tanks, surveillance equipment, nuclear warheads, fighter jets, attack helicopters and naval gunboats.

In spite of this immense disparity, Kershner is able to claim that Israel faces “monumental” security challenges. It never seems to occur to her that Palestinians face immense security concerns of their own.

Moreover, she presents the Israeli Defense Force as an army operating under humane policies, which are now under attack by politicians and a vocal segment of the public. “The military chiefs have urged restraint and a strict adherence to open-fire regulations, saying a soldier should shoot to neutralize a threat, but not beyond that,” she writes.

When army officials have promoted these guidelines, she says, they have been “attacked by rightist politicians who advocate a policy based on the Talmudic lesson ‘Whoever comes to slay you, slay him first.’”

Kershner thus gives voice to army leaders who have criticized the trigger-happy responses of security forces, but she fails to quote from those human rights groups who have frequently raised the alarm over the killings of Palestinians who posed no real threat.

Readers are left with the impression that the army has been operating with restraint, following a set of humane policies, but is now being challenged by rightists who urge even tougher measures against would be attackers.

Missing from her story is the fact that army and police have operated with impunity over many years, even when cases of abuse and criminal behavior are well documented. Two recent statements by Israeli rights groups, Yesh Din and B’Tselem, bear this out.

Yesh Din, which works for structural changes in the occupied territories, reported last month that 5,500 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces over the past 15 years, yet not one Israeli soldier has been charged for murdering a Palestinian.

Just last week the monitoring group B’Tselem announced that after more than 25 years of cooperating with the military, sharing information on cases that merited action, it has now suspended all of these efforts because of this record of impunity.

When Israel claims to investigate charges against the military, B’Tselem said, “not only does the state manage to uphold the perception of a decent, moral law enforcement system, but also maintains the military’s image as an ethical military that takes action against [ostensibly prohibited] acts.” In fact, the organization stated, the system is nothing more than “an outward pretense,” and an effort to whitewash criminal activity.

The rights group concluded that it would “no longer play a part in the pretense posed by the military law enforcement system and will no longer refer complaints to it.” After 25 years of consistent effort, the group concluded that “there is no longer any point in pursuing justice and defending human rights by working with a system whose real function is measured by its ability to continue to successfully cover up unlawful acts and protect perpetrators.”

This is far from the impression we get from Kershner’s story. She quotes military officials who insist on the moral standards of the Israeli army without a hint of irony or any effort to challenge their claims.

The Times is a willing partner in the whitewash of Israel’s military. Its editors accepted Kershner’s characterization of the army without asking for any follow up. They were aware of the B’Tselem announcement, however, running two wire service accounts of the move online but failing to assign any reporter to the story. The newspaper made no mention of the Yesh Din findings.

Kershner’s story plays perfectly into the scenario described by B’Tselem. It provides the impression of a functioning military justice system, an army run on moral principles but under attack by “terrorists”. It is all part of the narrative of Israeli victimhood, even though its chief threat comes from teenagers armed with kitchen knives.

Barbara Erickson

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Gaza Despair, Israeli Culpability, Unfit to Print in The NY Times

Gaza made the front page of The New York Times recently, with an article highlighting the fears of residents who suspect Hamas of building tunnels under and near their homes. The topic was ready-made for the newspaper, fitting perfectly into the Israeli (and Times) spin on the besieged enclave.

According to the accepted narrative, the problems in Gaza are due to Hamas, and Israel is free from blame. Thus we find the tunnel story played prominently on the front page under the headline “As Hamas Tunnels Back Into Israel, Palestinians Are Afraid, Too.”

There is much cause for despair in Gaza—fishermen and farmers come under attack, drinking water is ever more scarce, patients are desperate for adequate medical care—but the Times has failed to highlight any of these issues, which are so clearly due to Israeli actions and policies.

The official Israeli line is that Hamas oppresses the residents under its control, and Israeli political leaders use this charge to help justify their airstrikes on Hamas sites and other actions, such as restrictions on the delivery of building materials to Gaza. The Times has been a willing partner in this effort.

So it is no surprise when the newspaper informs us that Hamas has rebuilt many of the tunnels it used during the assaults on Gaza in the summer of 2014, and this is causing anxiety for some Gaza residents who live near signs of underground construction work. They fear that Israel will bomb their neighborhoods to destroy the tunnels.

The story is just what the Israeli army press office ordered, and the Times willingly promotes this propaganda effort even as it shows little interest in even more urgent concerns that plague the residents of the strip. It had nothing to say, for instance, when Israel arrested 20 Gaza fishermen over less than a week this month and confiscated seven of their boats (here and here) even though they were fishing within the approved limit set by Israel.

Israeli harassment of the beleaguered fishermen has been a constant over the years: According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Israeli forces detained 71 fishermen and confiscated 22 fishing boats in 2015, firing on fishing boats at least 139 times, wounding 24 fishermen and damaging 16 boats. The attacks have continued without letup this year.

The Times, however, has almost totally ignored the subject. The paper took notice briefly last month, when Israel announced new rules allowing Gaza boats to sail farther out to sea, and the story most certainly made the grade because it was a chance to show Israel in a benevolent light. The Times has been silent on the issue ever since.

Farmers with land near the border fence also face frequent attacks by Israeli soldiers who fire live ammunition at workers tending their fields, and Israel has destroyed crops and farm buildings, spraying fields of spinach and peas with herbicides and leveling land with bulldozers.

The Times has failed to report these incursions as well, although the United Nations documents them in weekly reports, and other news sources routinely tell of the assaults.

According to the UN, as of May 16, the Israeli military had made 30 incursions into Gaza this year. Its forces entered the enclave at least 56 times during 2015. These mini invasions—which include tanks, bulldozers and live fire—are breaches of the truce agreement made to end hostilities in 2014, but the Times has not seen fit to report them.

Instead, the newspaper prefers to raise the alarm about possible attacks from Gaza via the tunnels, ignoring the relevant context: the frequent shootings and other assaults by Israeli forces and the nine-year blockade, which finds not a single mention in the tunnel article.

Israel blocks the entry of needed medical supplies into Gaza, denies doctors the right to upgrade their skills in foreign countries and prevents many patients from leaving the enclave to receive the treatment they need. It has destroyed electrical equipment, wells and water treatment plants, and the lack of potable water has reached such a critical stage that only some 5 percent of the water in Gaza is safe to drink.

The Times, however, has shown no interest in exploring these crucial issues. It follows a prescribed narrative in deflecting blame from Israel and demonizing Hamas. The tunnel story fit this bill and thus merited a prime placement on page 1 above the fold.

Barbara Erickson

How The NY Times Whitewashes the Scandal of Israel’s Child Prisoners

Dima al Wawi, 12, was released from an Israeli prison last week, and according to The New York Times, her experience there was not all that bad. She played shuffle ball and went to classes, and when she came home after more than two months, she remained her spunky self.

This is the tenor of a piece by Diaa Hadid that ran on page one recently under the headline, “As Attacks Surge, Boys and Girls Fill Israeli Jails.” The tone here is in stark contrast to other accounts. The Daily Mail, for instance, ran the story with this title: “Haunted face of a 12-year-old girl broken by jail.”

A YouTube video of Dima’s reunion with her family also reveals a stony-faced child with dull eyes, and her mother speaks of her dismay at seeing her like that: “It seems like she is living in another world, in shock, not aware of what is happening.” She adds, “It feels like our suffering has increased.”

But Hadid gives us nothing like this. Her piece opens with a description of a benign Israeli prison experience and ends with Dima talking back to her mother like a normal, spirited pre-teen. Only far into the story do readers learn that Dima was not allowed to have either her parents or a lawyer present when she was interrogated and that she was shackled when she appeared in court.

Also missing from Hadid’s article is a full account of Israel’s scandalous treatment of Palestinian children and its apartheid court system. She describes these euphemistically as “a debate over how Israel’s military justice system, which prosecutes Palestinians from the West Bank, differs from the courts that cover Israeli citizens…and especially how it handles very young offenders.”

In fact, this is more than a debate. It is an atrocity that monitoring organizations have been documenting and publicizing for years: Israel routinely abuses Palestinian children in custody, deprives them of access to their parents and lawyers and coerces them into confessions. (See list of sources below.)

In addition, Israel is the only country in the world that systematically tries children (but only Palestinian children) in military courts, and it has two distinct systems for Jews and Palestinians in the West Bank. The former are tried in civil court while Palestinians face military trials.

In the Times story, however, this scandalous state of affairs becomes little more than a bureaucratic matter, a problem that calls for bringing two separate justice systems “more in line with one another.”

Hadid writes that Israel is trying to correct this deficiency, and she lists some policy changes made since a 2013 UNICEF report outlined abuses, but she fails to clarify either the extent of these abuses or the consistent and widespread condemnations of Israeli practices.

It is not only UNICEF that has raised alarm over the scandal: Human Rights Watch, Defence for Children International, the Israeli monitoring group B’Tselem, Amnesty International, Military Court Watch, several members of the U.S. Congress, the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child, Breaking the Silence (a group of former Israeli soldiers) and the U.S. State Department have done the same over several years.

It should also be noted that Israel, even as it claims it is correcting the problems, recently denied a delegation from the UK the right to witness child detainees in court. Additionally,  the DCI report, cited in Hadid’s article, states, “Despite repeated calls to end night arrests and ill treatment and torture of Palestinian children, Israel has persistently failed to implement practical changes to stop violence against child detainees.”

Missing from the Times story is a major abuse cited in the above quote: the arrest of young Palestinians during night raids. Israeli soldiers routinely invade Palestinian homes after midnight—terrorizing families and neighborhoods in the process—and haul away teenagers and children accused of throwing stones or other offenses.

After a drumbeat of criticism from rights groups, the military announced that it would try a pilot program to cut down on night raids by delivering summonses to suspects, demanding that they turn themselves to the authorities.

But as the online magazine 972 reported, little has changed. The program has affected only 5 percent of these arrests, the documents are often handwritten in Hebrew without translation and soldiers are delivering the summonses during night raids.

DCI noted in its report that Israel has an obvious interest in continuing the raids: “Arresting children from their homes in the middle of the night, ill-treating them during arrest and interrogation, and prosecuting them in military courts that lack basic fair trial guarantees, works to stifle dissent and control an occupied population.”

Hadid’s story makes no mention of the night raids nor of the possible Israeli strategic interest mentioned by DCI. We get glimpses of the hardships Dima’s family has faced, but overall the effect is to minimize the trauma Israel inflicts on Palestinian children.

As the Times tells it, the treatment of these young detainees is simply “different” from that of young Israelis who run afoul of the law. It’s a matter of making a few adjustments, not a matter of ingrained racism and a brutal occupation.

Online readers can get a more complete story by clicking on the links to the DCI and UNICEF reports, but in the Times itself only fragments of the truth are allowed into print. The result is to obscure the cruel reality of routine abuse in the cells and interrogation rooms of Israel’s crowded prisons.

Barbara Erickson

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