The NY Times Maps Jerusalem: Distilling the Worst of Israeli Propaganda

In a new multimedia production The New York Times is now offering us “The Roots of the Recent Violence Between Israelis and Palestinians,” a series of 13 images accompanied by brief notes. The title promises much, and the teaser adds that this new offering presents us with “the geography of the issues surrounding the ongoing violence.”

Here, it seems, the newspaper has an opportunity to provide the context so often missing from Times stories about Palestine and Israel. With such an introduction readers might hope to learn about the historical beginnings of the conflict and to perceive the effects of occupation on the face of the land.

It was not to be. In fact, this slick presentation distills the worst of the Times reporting on the issue. The text never once mentions the occupation; it provides no historical context of any kind, and it blindly follows the preferred narrative of Israeli propagandists.

The visuals never leave Jerusalem, and the text sticks to events there. The presentation opens with an image of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, accompanied by the comment that the violence “was set off in part over a dispute over Al Aqsa Mosque compound.” Nothing more is said about this complex issue.

The images then move on to highlight Jewish “neighborhoods” in Palestinian East Jerusalem and Jewish homes dotting the Palestinian neighborhoods, and we learn that the “neighborhoods” are “considered illegal settlements by most of the world.” This is the Times’ usual formulation, which distorts the fact that the entire international community—outside of Israel—deems the settlements illegal.

There is no mention of the impact these settlements have on Palestinians’ lives. We get nothing but maps and terse comments about who lives where, but the Times does finally provide a motive for the recent attacks: It comes from “frustration” over the lack of basic city services.

We are set up for this trivial claim in the fourth visual, which shows us Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem surrounded by a yellow line. “Israel built a barrier in response to Palestinian attacks from the West Bank in the early 2000s,” the text notes. “While effective at stopping suicide bombers, it cut off several East Jerusalem neighborhoods from the rest of the city, leaving them without basic services.”

In the following image the narrative continues, “Palestinians say these frustrations are at the root of the recent attacks. Israelis officials accuse Palestinian leaders of inciting violence.”

There we have it. Not a word about loss of land, the confiscation of resources, military incursions and all the many miseries associated with military occupation. So much for the “roots” of the conflict.

Although the Times attempts a show of balance, by referring to both sides, the text is heavily weighted toward the Israeli point of view. It twice mentions Israeli actions as “responses” to violence and never suggests that Palestinians are responding to oppression.

It repeats the Israeli claim that Palestinians who died in the recent uprising were all involved in attacks or “clashes” with troops, omitting the reports of human rights groups and others who charge Israel with “street executions” of Palestinians who pose no possible threat to security forces or civilians.

In addition, the Times gives a distorted account of the Separation Barrier. It fails to say that the 2004 International Court of Justice decision held that the wall is illegal and that its route (85 percent of it inside the West Bank) threatens “de facto annexation.” The newspaper also repeats the Israeli claim that the wall “effectively stopped suicide bombers.”

As an Israeli journalist recently observed in 972 Magazine, the recent assaults have demolished this facile claim. The latest attackers could have come with bombs instead of knives; the wall did not keep them out. The bombings ended when militants abandoned the tactic.

If the Times truly intended to illustrate the “geography of the issues surrounding the ongoing violence,” it could have shown some dramatic effects of the occupation on the landscape, such as:

  • The route of the Separation Barrier, snaking well inside the boundary between the West Bank and Israel
  • The rows of dead parsley and spinach fields in Gaza, where Israel has deliberately sprayed herbicides on hundreds of acres
  • The contrast between lush West Bank settlements, with their lawns and swimming pools, and parched Palestinian villages nearby
  • The shrinking cantons of the West Bank, where Israel is illegally confiscating more and more Palestinian territory
  • The dead strip of land inside Gaza, where Israel has imposed a firing zone and has frequently entered to bulldoze crops and soil

Images such as these might provide a real sense of the “roots” of the recent violence. Instead, the Times has chosen to encapsulate Israeli propaganda in this latest presentation, perpetuating its ingrained bias in a package of misleading notes and slick visual effects.

Barbara Erickson

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Al Aqsa Under Attack: The NY Times Blames Its Youthful Defenders

Tensions are running high at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque, and The New York Times can tell us where to place the blame: It’s not the fault of extremists who plan to destroy the landmark, according to the Times, nor is it recent Israeli moves to restrict Muslim access to the site; it is the fault of hot-headed Palestinian youth.

In a story today and in a similar article last July Isabel Kershner points directly to these young people as the source of trouble in clashes with police. This is how the police have framed the issue, and Kershner gives prominence to their claims.

The Times story contrasts with reports from international media and Palestinian sources. From these accounts we learn that the youths were volunteer guards helping defend the holy site against Israeli incursions and that police stormed the mosque while Muslims were inside, beating and injuring worshippers and damaging prayer rugs and other articles. We also learn that these actions prompted even Arab nations on good terms with Israel to speak out in protest.

Kershner quotes Palestinian Liberation Organization secretary Saeb Erekat and a Hamas spokesman who condemn the Israel invasion of the mosque, but she fails to tell readers that both Jordan and Egypt, two nations friendly to Israel, also protested, along with the Arab League and the United Nations representative for peace talks.

The Al Aqsa Mosque has stood at its site in Jerusalem for a thousand years and is revered by Muslims everywhere, but Jews also consider the area as holy ground, where the Second Temple once stood. Extremists openly call for the destruction of both Al Aqsa and the even more ancient Dome of the Rock, which dominates the Jerusalem skyline. They plan to raze the edifices and replace them with a Third Temple.

The Times story fails to acknowledge these real threats that cause anguish among the followers of Islam. It has also neglected to report on Israel’s numerous efforts to restrict Muslim prayer at the mosque and the increasing presence of Jewish worshippers, who are protected by troops when they visit the compound.

Muslims know that another holy site, the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron, has been divided between a Muslim and a Jewish section, and that Israeli officials often choose to ban Muslims from entering altogether. This month, worshippers have been excluded from the Hebron mosque for six entire days.

Kershner reports that Muslims charge Israel with plans to divide the Al Aqsa compound, but she says that this is “an assertion vehemently denied by Israel.” Missing from her article is the history of Hebron and the restrictions Israeli authorities frequently impose on Muslim worshippers in both sites.

In recent weeks, for instance, Israel has prevented women from entering the Al Aqsa area, retained the identify cards of worshippers, allowed Jewish extremists to enter the mosque compound for “tours,” restricted the entry of students attending schools in the Al Aqsa compound and confiscated land in an Islamic cemetery next to the mosque.

After the latest incursion, the director of the mosque compound, Sheikh Omar al-Kiswani, said that Israel occupation authorities “have imposed their sovereignty over [the mosque compound] by power of force.” Israel controls who enters and exists, he said, and officials use force against anyone who challenges them.

This is a cry of alarm from a site revered by millions of Muslims throughout the world, but it found no mention in the Times. Instead, we receive the Israeli spin on this tragic saga as the newspaper glosses over the expansionist aims of a Zionist state.

Barbara Erickson

How to Spell Aqsa: A Sign of Contempt in the NY Times

[Update: The Times has responded to this post. See note at bottom.]

Here are two questions to pose to The New York Times Jerusalem bureau: Why has Al Aqsa Mosque become Al Aksa in the Times’ reports? What guides the decision to reject Arabic spelling, especially at this critical moment of conflict over the holy site?

News of tensions over the ancient Al Aqsa Mosque has been circulating in Palestinian news service reports for many months but has only recently appeared in the Times, and with this sudden interest has come a new phenomenon—a change in orthography.

Past Times articles about the site almost always use the correct Arabic transliteration, with a “q,” but since the story broke into the newspaper last week, it has consistently been Al Aksa in five articles over four days (for example, here and here). It is not a sudden change of policy for rendering Arabic in English—Al Quds (Jerusalem) and other words remain as always in these stories and elsewhere the Times still uses Al Aqsa. The change emanates from the Jerusalem bureau and refers solely to Al Aqsa Mosque and its compound.

Readers should note that “Aksa” is the way Hebrew speakers (and many other non-Arabic speakers) pronounce the word. In modern Hebrew there is no “qaf” sound, except in the speech of some Mizrahi Jews (those hailing from Arab countries). The difference is that the Arabic “qaf” is pronounced deep in the throat, while the Hebrew “kaph” is like the familiar “k” sound we use in English.

As recently as September, Al Aqsa was appearing in the stories of Times Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren, but this changed when she began to write about Jewish efforts to get greater access to the area. [See her explanation below.] Significantly, the deviant “Aksa” had appeared in her writing at least once before, and this also was in a story last year about Jewish pressure for changes at the holy site.

Other publications, even those by activists for greater Jewish access, use Aqsa (The Jerusalem Post is an exception), and over the years the Times has almost always stayed with the correct Arabic transliteration, but there is at least one notable (perhaps ominous) exception.

In September 2000 Likud leader Ariel Sharon visited the Al Aqsa compound (known as the Temple Mount to Jews). He was accompanied by 1,000 troops, and the deliberately provocative event set off the Second Intifada, also known as the Al Aqsa Intifada.

In its coverage of Sharon’s visit 14 years ago, the Times turned to the “Aksa” spelling. He went, the story said, “to assert Jewish claims there” and spent an hour at the site, setting off violent protests from the moment he arrived.

Sharon’s visit and the present efforts to increase Jewish worship at the site threaten what commentators have described as the “last Jerusalem bastion that expresses the national and religious identity of most Palestinians” and “the last leg of institutional Palestinian life in Jerusalem.”

The mosque compound is nominally under the authority of Jordan and run by an Islamic trust called a waqf, although Israel controls access and patrols the area. Jordan has joined Palestinian parties in calling for an end to Jewish demands for change at the site, but the Israeli Knesset is considering a bill that would create a significant alteration—the division of Al Aqsa Mosque into Jewish and Muslim sections.

The Times stories fail to inform readers of this threat to the status quo and say nothing about extremist plans to destroy Al Aqsa and the glittering Dome of the Rock in order to replace them with a third Jewish temple. Instead, the readers learn only that Jews want the right to pray at the site, a seemingly innocuous demand.

Larry Derfner, writing in 972 Magazine, states that the goal of the Jewish lobbyists is something more: “The Temple Mount movement is and always has been a movement not for religious equality, but for Jewish religious domination and contempt for Muslims and Islam.”

When the Times chooses “Aksa,” the Hebrew pronunciation, over the correct “Aqsa” of Arabic, it is sending a subtle signal, picking up on this contempt. This is not an open challenge—Arabs hear the word simply as an error—but it shows once again that faced with a choice in presenting the narrative of Palestine and Israel the Times favors the voice of the occupier.

Barbara Erickson

[Note: In two stories (here and here) published in the Times on Nov. 7, the spelling reverted to the correct Al Aqsa. The day before it had still been Aksa. Jodi Rudoren wrote TimesWarp to say that she has always spelled the name correctly, but her copy was changed by staff in New York. After complaints, she said, they have changed it back. Her explanation falls short of clarifying all the timelines and coincidences here, but it is worth noting that she insists there was no motive to Hebraize the word.]

In the NY Times, It’s a “Contest” for Al Aqsa

Al Aqsa Mosque, once a firmly Muslim house of worship, has now become a “contested holy site” in The New York Times. Both the online headline and the lead paragraph of a story today use this phrase, which hints ominously at the threat of future Palestinian loss.

“Contested” or “disputed” are terms the Israeli government uses when it is taking over West Bank land. Fields that were formerly Palestinian become “disputed” when settlers begin to move in, and they eventually become settlement territory after the apparent “dispute” is decided within the Israeli courts or bureaucracy.

Here it refers to Israel’s move to temporarily close the mosque compound after the attempted assassination of an activist rabbi, and by using this word so prominently, the Times is supporting the efforts of Israeli activists and government officials who are pressing for a change in status at the site.

So it is no surprise that the story by Isabel Kershner and Jodi Rudoren presents the current conflict as stemming from a benign-sounding goal: to allow Jews the right to pray at the Al Aqsa compound, the site considered to have once held the First and Second Temples. Extremist Jewish aspirations, however, call for something more: the ultimate destruction of the mosque, a revered site in the world of Islam and a notable landmark of Jerusalem.

It is also no surprise that the story glosses over another aspect of the latest crisis: the police killing of a man suspected of shooting the rabbi. The Times account varies greatly from other media reports.

From the beginning of the article, the Times fails to tell readers that it is the extremist threat that is fueling Palestinian protests. It also makes no mention of the fact that Yehuda Glick, the rabbi who survived the assassination attempt, is part of this movement to build a third temple on the site of the present mosque.

Glick is the former executive director of Temple Institute, which holds as its ultimate aim the restoration of Jewish control at the Al Aqsa site, with a new temple built on the compound. Rudoren and Kershner, however, say only that Glick is “a leading agitator for increased Jewish access to the site.” (For information on government collusion with activists such as Glick, see the TimesWarp post of Oct. 15.)

Times readers hear nothing about Glick’s ultimate aim; they also hear nothing of reports that throw doubt on police actions during the confrontation with the man suspected of shooting him, Mutaz Hijazi, 32, who was killed on the rooftop of his home  just hours after Glick was shot.

The Times is brief in its account of Hijazi’s killing but leaves the impression that there was a shootout between Israeli police and the suspect. Readers, however, can find detailed reports elsewhere with eyewitness accounts claiming that Hijazi was unarmed at the time of his death. Witnesses also say that Israeli forces broke into his home and went to the rooftop only after he was shot and unable to move.

“He was on the roof, so the police could have captured him but they didn’t want to. They wanted to kill him,” said one neighbor.

Another neighbor described how after riddling Hijazi’s body with bullets, Israeli police swooped in to deliver one final shot to his head at point-blank range to “confirm the kill.”

Adding further suspicion to Hijazi’s death was news that Israeli intelligence agents stopped a Red Crescent ambulance carrying Hijazi’s body and whisked his corpse away for “medical testing.”

Times readers will also find no mention of questions surrounding the identity of Glick’s shooter, but some may be interested in Ali Abunimah’s story it the Electronic Intifada in which he speculates that Glick could have deliberately provoked the shooting..

The Times story today supports Israeli claims in its language and omissions, in tagging Al Aqsa as a “contested” site and in failing to clarify two major elements: the threats to the present status of Al Aqsa Mosque and the competing narratives about police action that left a Palestinian man dead. The Times betrays its readers once again, refusing to tell the story in full.

Barbara Erickson

(with Ryan Erickson)

Israeli Provocation at Holy Sites: Unfit to Print in The NY Times

Jodi Rudoren this week reports on clashes and tensions at the revered Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and lays the blame squarely on Palestinians. Her story omits the recent history of extremist Jewish efforts to take over the site and government support for their incendiary cause.

In an article titled “U.N. Denounces ‘Provocations’ at Holy Sites in Jerusalem,” Rudoren quotes United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as saying that he was “deeply concerned by repeated provocations” at the compound encompassing Al Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, two ancient and revered Islamic sites in the heart of Jerusalem.

Ban does not say who is responsible for the provocations, but Rudoren implies that he was aiming at Palestinians. She reports Israeli police who said that they thwarted a riot at the mosque on Monday by locking a group of armed Palestinians inside.

Palestinians gave a different account, but their response to the charges comes far down in the story. There Rudoren quotes a Palestinian radio report that Israeli forces fired rubber bullets and tear gas inside the mosque. (She is quick to include the police refutation of this accusation.)

Her story grants 12 paragraphs to Israeli charges and commentary and a mere two paragraphs to Palestinians. She thus attempts to blame Palestinians as the instigators even as she omits the provocative history of religious Zionists who want to gain control of the site, destroy the Muslim presence and replace it with a Jewish temple.

When Israel occupied Jerusalem in 1967, the Al Aqsa compound was left in the hands of Muslims, and Jews were forbidden from praying there. But from the beginning of the occupation, extremists have pressed for a takeover of the site (known as the Temple Mount in Judaism), and these efforts have gained strength in recent years.

One of these extremists is Knesset deputy speaker Moshe Feiglin, who was at the site on Monday. He has called for the destruction of Al Aqsa and is so inflammatory he has been banned from the United Kingdom, but Rudoren’s description of him falls short. She says only that he is “an ultranationalist” and “a right-wing Israeli lawmaker, whose prior pilgrimages to the site have been a focal point for clashes.”

Readers deserve more. They should be informed that Feiglin has made statements like this: “The Temple Mount must be thoroughly cleared of the wild rabble. They should not be allowed to step foot on the Mount and should not be able to seek refuge in their ‘holy’ places.”

The Times should also make it clear that Feiglin is not a lone voice in the Israeli government and that the Knesset has been considering new laws, which would erode the Islamic presence at Al Aqsa.

Over the past year the Israeli parliament has debated lifting the prohibition on Jewish prayer at the compound, opening a second gate for Jewish worshippers to the Temple Mount and dividing Al Aqsa Mosque into two sections, one for Jews and another for Muslims (as is the case at the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron).

The seemingly innocuous call for the right to pray is often something more insidious, according to Nicholas Saidel, writing in 972 Magazine: “Many of the provocative calls to prayer are made by a messianic organization called the Temple Institute, whose mission is to rebuild the ancient Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount grounds – thereby destroying both the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.”

A report by two Israeli monitoring groups, Ir Amin and Keshev, demonstrates that the Israeli government supports these efforts. The report calls the collaboration between the government and Temple movements a “dangerous liaison” and states that “senior politicians from the heart of the establishment, rabbis who serve in public offices, officials in the Ministry of Education and educators provide sponsorship for the Temple movements and help to promote their message.”

The report concludes that this support could lead to “severe ramifications …on the security of Israel and the lives of Jews and non-Jews in the region and throughout the world.” In other words, Keshev and Ir Amin say, the government and Temple groups are playing with fire.

Rudoren fails to inform readers of this “dangerous liaison.” Instead, she quotes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who insists that “Muslim extremists” are spreading “false and baseless rumors that we are threatening the holy places.” Readers hear nothing of the facts that throw doubt on Netanyahu’s statement—the Knesset bills, the Temple Mount movements and the collusion of the government.

The Times should inform readers that the Knesset debates and the incendiary statements of Temple advocates raise grave concerns among Palestinians, who have already lost land, resources and the right to move freely under Israeli rule. Recent moves to allow more and more Jewish worshippers to access the site and to restrict Palestinians have added to these fears

These moves have intensified throughout this year and last as Israel allowed settlers, tourists and security forces to enter the compound, while it has prevented Muslim men under the age of 50 and all Muslim women from worshipping there. (See here and here.)

From the Palestinian point of view, these developments are an ominous sign that Israel will some day destroy the 1,000-year-old Al Aqsa Mosque and the glittering, 1,300-year-old Dome of the Rock to make way for Jewish claims on the site.

Rudoren alludes to these fears only in quoting Netanyahu’s words about “baseless rumors.” The Times should do much more. Readers need to hear about the Temple movements, the government debates and the increasing restrictions on Palestinian access. They need to know the context of the recent “tension and violence” to understand that Palestinian protests have a basis in concrete events. This, in truth, is the news that is “fit to print.’

Barbara Erickson