“The Awful Clarity” of Israeli Oppression Becomes Murky Spin in the NYT

When writer Michael Chabon visited the West Bank city of Hebron earlier this year, the brutal reality of the Israeli occupation hit him with force. During an interview with the Forward, he appeared “visibly jarred,” and he pulled no punches in describing his reaction.

“Once you see for yourself,” he said, “it is pretty obvious, I think, to any human being with a heart and a mind, it is pretty clear what to feel about it. It is the most grievous injustice I have ever seen in my life.”

His reaction echoes in the words of another author, Ben Ehrenreich, who recently published a book about the occupation, “The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine.” In his introduction Ehrenreich refers to “the awful clarity of the injustice,” and his book portrays Palestinian resistance under Israel’s state-sponsored system of oppression.

Both these American writers are saying that the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli rule is clear to see, an obvious truth to anyone who witnesses the situation firsthand.

Now, as Peter Baker, the latest New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, takes up his post, we can ask whether the newspaper will begin to convey this reality to its readers. Will Baker, a fresh new witness with full access to the sites under occupation, give voice to the oppression seen with such clarity by Ehrenreich and Chabon?

Baker’s predecessor, Jodi Rudoren, who left Jerusalem late last year, filed hundreds of stories over nearly four years at the post and managed not to clarify but to obscure the reality of occupation and dispossession. Her stories promoted a narrative of Israeli victimhood and Palestinian violence and deflected Israeli culpability. (See TimesWarp 12-22-15.)

Many voices vied for attention during her stint, but Rudoren turned a deaf ear to some of the most respected sources of information, not only the United Nations and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch but also Israeli monitoring groups and courageous Israeli journalists. These groups and individuals were constantly documenting and reporting abuses by the Israeli forces, but the news they bore rarely found even brief mention in the Times.

When a series of stabbing and vehicular attacks on Israelis began last fall, several monitoring groups issued alerts, charging that Israeli forces were using the situation to conduct “street executions” of Palestinians who actually posed no threat.

These accusations were bolstered by video and eyewitness evidence and came from groups such as the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Amnesty International and Euro-Med Monitor. To give even more weight to their claims, a group of nine Israeli organizations, including Physicians for Human Rights and the Public Committee Against Torture, issued a joint statement saying Israeli officials were responsible for the climate that fostered these executions.

The Times took little notice. The newspaper’s headlines remained focused on Palestinian attacks, and any quotes about extrajudicial executions were attributed to Palestinian officials, as if these charges were nothing more than the opinions of partisans taking one side in a bitter exchange.

Anticipating Baker’s arrival in Jerusalem, the Times produced a video featuring him in conversation with Rudoren and another former Jerusalem bureau chief, James Bennet. The trio made many references to “the conflict” (with only a single mention of the occupation), and they insisted that Times reporting strives to be balanced and neutral.

If reporters were sincerely looking for balance, however, it would seem that truly neutral parties, such as the United Nations and human rights organizations, would provide an essential antidote to the partisan claims of two adversaries. Yet the Times turns a deaf ear to these sources, no matter how fully documented their findings are, and relies heavily on Israeli officials.

Thus, Times readers are left in ignorance, hearing almost nothing about urgent and repeated appeals from these non-partisan groups. Beyond the latest accusations of extrajudicial killings, for instance, rights organizations have consistently highlighted the mistreatment of Palestinian children held in Israeli custody and the demolition of Palestinian structures, including everything from homes and workshops to cisterns and animal shelters.

Organizations such as UNICEF, Defence for Children International, Save the Children, B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child and the Committee Against Torture in Israel have tried over several years to publicize the abuse of Palestinian children (See TW 1-13-14.), but the Times has rarely mentioned these reports and then only in stories aimed to spin the information in favor of Israel.

Throughout 2015 some of these groups continued to issue frequent reports and news releases with headlines such as “Rising physical violence against Palestinian child detainees,” “UNICEF report confirms ill-treatment of Palestinian child detainees remains systematic,” and “New U.S. government report highlights violations against Palestinian kids,” but the Times showed no interest in exploring the problem.

Likewise, Israel’s rampage of demolitions in the West Bank is never brought to the attention of Times readers although the United Nations, B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and other groups have issued frequent statements and demands, urging Israel to end its policy of destruction.

While the Times has remained silent, Gideon Levy and Amira Hass, columnists for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, have often written about the terrible toll demolitions have exacted from some of the most vulnerable Palestinian communities.

Rudoren wrote occasionally about punitive demolitions, the Israeli policy of destroying the family homes of attackers, but her stories omitted any mention of the much more common demolition of structures because they lack building permits, which are rarely issued.

The policy is a constant threat to Palestinians in a large part of the West Bank, and over the decades of occupation, the state has demolished more than 48,000 Palestinian homes and other structures.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Israel has destroyed 726 Palestinian structures so far this year, displacing 1,020 people. In a recent report, OCHA noted that during one week this month, 42 structures were demolished or confiscated. The report stated, “Twelve of the targeted structures had been previously provided as humanitarian assistance, including emergency shelters, animal sheds, latrines, a community centre, and a water connection; the confiscation of the latter means that nearly 1,000 Palestinians in five herding communities in the Jordan Valley will continue to suffer water scarcity.”

The OCHA report continued, “This brings the number of assistance items destroyed or confiscated since the start of 2016 to 200, almost double the figure for the entire 2015 (108).” In other words, donors such as the European Union and International Committee of the Red Cross have stepped in to provide tents and other items when Israel has destroyed Palestinian homes, schools, playgrounds, water wells and other structures, but the Israeli authorities have demolished even this humanitarian aid.

In this brief report from OCHA “the awful clarity of the injustice” is evident, as it has been evident in hundreds of other reports issued over the years. The rising tide of demolitions, with all its human-interest value, is most certainly newsworthy, but will the Jerusalem bureau of The New York Times report it?

So far the Times seems determined to muddy the waters, avoiding a clear exposition of Israeli brutality, but with a new bureau chief now on board, some readers may hold out a faint hope for change, for an honest and full accounting at last.

Unfortunately, here at TimesWarp, the expectation is for more of the same. It seems unlikely that the Times would allow any straightforward reporting on Israeli oppression to appear in its pages. This would destroy its carefully fostered narrative of Israeli victimhood, “ancient hatreds” and the need to place Israeli security needs above all.

Barbara Erickson

 [Thanks to the TimesWarp readers who wrote to ask why this blog fell silent for most of the summer. It was on vacation during a stint of travel to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and other places. Regular posts should appear from now on.]