The IDF: Judge, Prosecutor, Executioner and Witness

“Israeli Raid Leaves 3 Dead In West Bank Refugee Area.” So reads yesterday’s headline in The New York Times. We learn that Israeli forces came to the Jenin refugee camp to arrest Hamza Abu El-Hijja, 22, in a pre-dawn raid, that a gunfight broke out, and that he was killed as he tried to escape capture.

Then there is a curious lapse. We learn the names of the other men who died but nothing of the circumstances of their death, in spite of the fact that there was an arresting story to tell: Witnesses said the men were killed as they tried to carry their friend’s body away from the scene of conflict.

How does the Times handle this news? It lists the names of the two men and says “Palestinian news media reported that they were unarmed, though Colonel Lerner [the army spokesperson] said they had ‘weapons or explosive devices’ and were ‘part of a contingency plan’ to corner the Israeli troops.”

The reporter, Jodi Rudoren, says nothing about the context of their death. She quotes Lerner directly but briefly paraphrases the Palestinian press and omits any reference to the testimony of witnesses. If readers had heard the full account, they might be asking how men carrying a body, armed or not, posed any threat to troops.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has given us a different perspective on this almost routine account of Palestinian deaths. Gideon Levy, a longtime voice for justice, writes of the wanted man as a human being, someone he remembers as a child, the son of militants, a family man close to his mother and siblings.

In the Israeli army’s words, Hamza was “a ticking time bomb,” nothing but a terrorist, and his death “actually saved lives” by thwarting an attack. Levy’s story comes with a photo of Hamzi [his name is spelled differently in Haaretz], smiling and holding a young girl on his lap: “Wearing sweats, he was playing with his little niece and joined the conversation we were having with his mother. He smiled a lot and said he was not afraid.”

Then Levy goes on to tell of the other two men, saying eye witnesses reported that “they were killed as they were carrying Hamzi’s body to his family home, which is a distance from where the gun battle had occurred.” This had also been reported in an earlier Haaretz story by other writers, and came out in a detailed press release today by the Palestinian Center for Human Rights.

In the Times the army has the first and last word on Abu El-Hijja. Readers see no photo of a smiling young man. Instead, the story comes with an aerial shot of his funeral, showing a seething mass of mourners, the usual Times take on Palestinians as a threatening group, members of the angry “Arab street.”

We can also thank Haaretz for memorializing a young Palestinian shot last Wednesday, Yusef Abu Aker Shawamreh, 14, who was killed when he went out with friends to gather a wild plant called tumble thistle near the separation barrier. “Poor families receive five shekels, less than a dollar and a half, for every kilogram that children like Yusef harvest from the fields,” Amira Hass writes.

In an open letter to the soldier who shot the unarmed boy, Hass says that Yusef and his friends headed for “a large opening in the fence there that surely had been made over several days,” that the children left their village of Deir al-Asal al-Fauqa at 6:30 a.m. and that shots were heard a half hour later.

A sniper team had been waiting in the dark and opened fire on the three boys from 50 to 70 yards away. Yusef’s friends dropped to the ground, but he continued running and was killed with a shot to the back. The friends, 12 and 17 years of age, were arrested but later released.

Hass deals head-on with the army’s account: “According to an official at the IDF Spokesman’s Office, you claimed you fired on a Palestinian because he had sabotaged the separation barrier. You’re not only judge, prosecutor and executioner, but also witness.”

This kind of challenge is missing from the Times, which shows deference to army pronouncements. Even when later accounts and investigations blow holes in official responses to yet another Palestinian death, the Times avoids follow-up. In the case of Yusef Abu Aker Shawamreh, it never bothered to mention his death at all.

Barbara Erickson 






Israel “Retaliates” in Gaza, Bombing Greenhouses and Chicken Farms

Bombs fell on Gaza again yesterday, and the Times tells us that the target was a Palestinian militant responsible for firing rockets into Israel. He was critically injured and a bystander was wounded.

Isabel Kershner reports that Israel was responding to an increase in rocket fire from small radical groups in Gaza, that it has revived a practice of “targeted killing” and that it has carried out “retaliatory airstrikes against facilities associated with militant groups.”

This, at least, is what the Israeli army claims: It is going after the rockets and the militants. Kershner takes their word for it. A UN report, however, provides a different perspective, noting the following damages in a Jan. 31 strike: two civilians wounded, about 1,200 small livestock killed, including 150 cattle, 400 rabbits, 600 pigeons, and 60 hens; and damage to five homes, two schools, an educational center and an office building.

And that was not all: “Another strike directed at a building inside Gaza city, ended with two women injured, as well as damage to four homes and a school. Finally, in a strike targeting a site northwest of Rafah, six civilians, including a child and a woman, were injured, and two homes, 13 greenhouses and a water well were damaged.”

Water wells, greenhouses, rabbits, chickens, houses, pigeons and educational centers. Are these really threats to Israeli security? This is just the question Kershner should be asking of the air force.

Kershner also states that the “retaliatory strikes” and clashes along the border fence have been “straining the cease-fire on both sides.” What she does not say is that Israel breached the ceasefire immediately after it went into effect in November 2012, killing four unarmed civilians in the first month and injuring 78.

Today’s story mentions rocket attacks on southern Israel in recent weeks, listing no damages to people or property. But the damage inside Gaza has been considerable. Last year, the UN reports, 11 died at the hands of Israeli forces, and 83 were injured. This year promises to be worse. In January alone Israeli forces killed at least four residents of Gaza and injured 43.

In the Times, however, only Israeli attacks are considered “retaliatory,” and only its strikes on militants are fit to make the news.

Barbara Erickson 

Man Killed: What More Do You Need to Know?

Muhammmad Mahmoud Mubarak, 21, died at the hands of Israeli soldiers yesterday in the West Bank. The New York Times tells you that much. It also tells you that the details of the story are in dispute and that observers contradict the army’s account.

But there is much the brief by Isabel Kershner leaves out, and the print edition includes even less than the already abbreviated online account. Times readers in both formats, however, are denied crucial details provided elsewhere, even by mainstream media such as the BBC, Los Angeles Times, Agence France-Presse and other news outlets.

Neither Times story says, for instance, that soldiers refused to let medics get to the dying man for an hour, that they shot stun grenades at people trying to approach the body, and that when an ambulance was finally allowed through, they prevented it from leaving for another hour still.

The army, predictably, called Mubarak a “terrorist” and said he was killed after he opened fire on vehicles and an army post. They later showed a photo of the alleged weapon. No one (oddly enough) was injured by his shooting spree, the army said.

Witnesses said Mubarak was working on a USAID-funded road project and carrying nothing more than a stop sign when he was shot. Here is an account from the LA Times: “A Palestinian witness, Yasser Khalil of Ramallah, said Mubarak was standing in the middle of a road north of Ramallah, wearing an orange construction vest and directing traffic, when soldiers ordered him to remove the vest and then shot him.”

Ma’an News Agency, citing a Palestinian official in the military liaison department, said that Mubarak was shot dead by a soldier in a military watchtower. It also noted that several co-workers and an executive of the company the victim was working for were among the witnesses. Palestinian officials backed up their account.

Mubarak was the son of the elected leader of Jalazun refugee camp, not far from where he was working. At the time he was killed, he was helping refurbish a road through the village of Ein Siniya near Ramallah.

His father, Mahmoud, said his son had done nothing wrong. “This is murder in cold blood,” he told reporters at the Palestine Medical Complex in Ramallah after his son’s body had been transported there.

The Times would rather not dwell on the grieving father or other details of this tragedy. By the time the article appears in print, the headline has even dropped mention of who shot Mubarak; it becomes simply “Palestinian Killed in West Bank.” It is no longer a story, just a note, one paragraph at the end of World Briefing on page 7.

Barbara Erickson