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

  1. I’m reading your website from Abu Dis, Palestine. I’m spending the summer here, teaching at Al Quds University.

    I generally agree with your take on things, but after the Tel Aviv attack, some of what you’re saying seems misplaced. There’s no point in denying that Israelis face real, lethal threats that go well beyond teenagers armed with kitchen knives. But then, after the attack in Orlando, there’s no point in denying that Americans face real, lethal threats that go beyond what happened in Tel Aviv. Instead of downplaying the threats to Israelis, I think it makes more sense to emphasize the contrast (at least so far) between Israeli and American approaches to terrorism.

    What happened in Orlando was evil and horrific–50 people murdered in cold blood. But something worth noting about it: it’s very unlikely that the Orlando murders, however heinous, will become a pretext for responding as Israel has responded to terrorism: blowing up the suspects’ family home regardless of any connection to the crime; imposing a court order on 83,000 Afghan Americans to prevent them from leaving their counties of residence; shutting down whole counties in central Florida as a means of intimidating or punishing Afghans or Muslims; or even enforcing heavily weaponized “dynamic entries” without warrants to search homes at will.

    At least so far, such actions would be regarded as beyond the pale in the US. But they are par for the course in “Judea and Samaria.” I was in the Old City of Jerusalem last night for iftar, and it was noticeably quiet there: the throngs that would usually be there were not there. It was as though no one had showed up for a Notre Dame football tailgate.The people who would have showed up were denied permits.

    This is how Israel’s collective punishment after Tel Aviv was covered in The New York Times (I hope the links come out):

    http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2016/06/11/world/middleeast/ap-ml-israel-palestinians.html?_r=0

    And this is how it was covered in the Times of Israel:

    http://www.timesofisrael.com/idf-seizes-gun-making-machinery-ammo-in-west-bank-sweeps/

    It’s worth noting how the Times of Israel article presumes guilt where none has been demonstrated and assigns collective guilt by equating “home where the terrorist lives” with “terrorist’s home,” regardless of ownership. There is no indication of who else might be living in “the terrorist’s home” and what relation they bear to terrorism.

    That said, the Times of Israel offers more detail than the NY Times. The Lieberman quote in the TOI piece is itself worth the price of the author’s wretched prose and tendentious polemicizing. (Interestingly, the NY Times omits reference to Lieberman’s demand for expedited demolitions in its coverage of the same event: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/10/world/middleeast/israel-palestinians-violence.html.)

    That contrast illustrates what I see as the basic problem. The problem with the NYT is not that they are discussing Israel’s security problem, per se. It’s undeniable that Israel has a security problem, and there is nothing to be gained by denying it. The problem with the NYT is that it can’t seem to ask questions of Israel that would be asked if the U.S. did the same things (or report accordingly). Why is it self-evident that a security problem should become militarized? Why is it obvious that a security problem should be carried out by a “civil administration” that is in fact a military dictatorship? And where is the NYT’s reporting on the details of the occupation? Why has it left that job to Ha’aretz, the Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and Maan? Those are the questions that need emphasizing.

    But I mean all this as friendly criticism–criticism from a perspective sympathetic to the overall project. I regard your site as indispensable and sui generis. Please keep it up.

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      • Understood. My point was that in retrospect, the Tel Aviv attack shows that the threat Israel faces is more menacing than the post suggests. That said, you’re absolutely right to point out that The Times’s reporting altogether fails to register the security challenges faced by Palestinians.

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