The Strange Tale of Two Fugitives and How They Met Their End

A months-long manhunt for two men suspected of killing three Israeli teenagers has ended with their death, and The New York Times has provided readers with a story about their killing. It is heavy on talk of Hamas, short on details of just how the men died and oddly inconsistent.

In “Israeli Forces Kill 2 Palestinian Suspects in Murders of Jewish Teenagers,” Jodi Rudoren writes that Marwan Qawasmeh and Amer Abu Aisha died in a shootout after they were surrounded in Hebron. She quotes Israeli army spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner who said the men “came out shooting” and one was killed on the spot. The other, in Rudoren’s words, “fell back into the destroyed building, where the troops then tossed grenades.”

There is a peculiar hiatus here. If the building had already been destroyed, the confrontation did not begin with a firefight. Rudoren’s own words thus give credence to other accounts, such as this from Haaretz: “Israeli forces approached the house with an excavator vehicle and fired a rocket at the house, according to Palestinian reports.”

As blogger Richard Silverstein notes, “You fire a rocket into a house to kill those inside. You bring an excavator to bury the victims alive. If there was a firefight as claimed, it was the equivalent of a peashooter against an F-16. This was an execution. The state equivalent of a mob hit.”

He titles his post “Shin Bet Murders Palestinians Who Killed Three Israeli Youth” and states, “A joint team of IDF, Shin Bet [the Israeli security agency] and Border Police cornered the two Palestinian boys and murdered them.” Silverstein, who is fluent in Hebrew and has connections within Israel, also writes, “My Israeli source called it a ‘targeted killing.’ He says the force intended to liquidate them. It hardly mattered whether they fought back or surrendered.”

Rudoren dismisses this kind of talk in one sentence: “Some Palestinians denounced the shootout early Tuesday as an extrajudicial assassination.” Her brief aside provides no names and no details and ignores the charges by Silverstein and others who state outright that the killing was targeted.

The Times also runs a photo with the story. It shows a building devastated by heavy fire, an emptied shell of rubble and dangling rebar. Neither the text of the article nor the caption explains what happened here, but it is obvious that the structure was hit by more than a few grenades.

Other accounts report that Israeli forces damaged not only the building where the men had been hiding but others in the neighborhood as well. Rudoren does not mention this although she quotes a resident who says he came to see “the barbaric action committed by Israel,” omitting the inconvenient fact of a devastated neighborhood and allowing us to believe he spoke from pure spite.

And then there is the subject of Hamas. Rudoren notes that some Hamas leaders “at first denied knowing anything about” the kidnapping. But, she adds, “In recent weeks, though, and again on Tuesday, several Hamas officials embraced the suspects.”

Offering praise is one thing and confirming knowledge of a plot is another, and although she would like to make something more of these statements, Rudoren is forced to add that “no evidence has yet been made public showing that the men acted on Hamas’s direction.”

She is implying that there is more news out there yet to come, and she omits findings that have been publicized, in the Times no less. In a Sept. 4 story Isabel Kershner wrote, “They [Shin Bet] depict the plot as more of a family affair, a local initiative organized and carried out by members of a clan in Hebron, the West Bank city that has often been a flash point of Israeli-Palestinian tensions, and a few additional associates.”

In spite of these tenuous and contradictory claims, Times editors willingly support the Israeli effort to blame Hamas at all costs. They have provided this subhead to the story today: “Pair Are Hailed As Hamas Heroes.”

The full story of the killings in Hebron is missing from the Times. Readers learn only of the official Israeli army version and receive no hint that there is another narrative to consider. And yet, in its rush to provide the “correct” spin to this piece, the paper provides us with clues that all is not right in this tale. Careful readers will take note and look elsewhere for their news.

Barbara Erickson

In The NY Times: Blaming the Extremists, Absolving the State

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is outraged by the murder of Palestinian teenager Muhammad Abu Khdeir, The New York Times reports, and he has vowed to bring the killers to justice. A front-page story quotes Netanyahu and a number of Israeli officials who condemn the act along with the radical extremists behind it.

All this is well and good. Every decent Israeli and Palestinian is dismayed by the killings of four innocent youths in recent weeks; all of them condemn violence and hope for justice. But the Times story by Isabel Kershner omits two crucial aspects of the crisis: calls for vengeance have come from higher ups as well as fringe elements, and the arrests in this case are rare events in the search for justice in Palestine.

Just how rare is underscored in two reports: The Israeli human rights organization Yesh Din found that of 642 cases of settler violence against Palestinians reported to Israeli police, 90 percent were closed after the authorities failed to investigate. After another Israeli rights group, B’Tselem, filed nearly 60 complaints against Israeli soldiers who stood by as settlers attacked Palestinians and their property, officials investigated only four complaints and closed two without taking action.

This state of affairs has also disturbed two former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli secret police, who said recently that the Netanyahu administration has no interest in stopping hate crimes against Palestinians. Their charges echoed those made by a former chief of staff of the Israeli army in June 2012.

Even those entities that usually stand behind Israel, the European Union and the United States, have spoken out. A confidential EU report of 2012 found that settler violence is growing and systematic and “enjoys the tacit support of the state of Israel.” Likewise, a U.S. State Department report on terrorism released this year noted numerous attacks by extremist settlers and the fact that these attacks “were largely unprosecuted.”

The Times story gives no hint of this complicity at the highest government levels although it quotes Prof. Shlomo Avineri of Hebrew University, who faults the government and security forces for failing to deal with “extremist, nationalist fringe” in recent years.

But the case of Israeli Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman shows that it is more than a failure to act that underscores government culpability. In February 2012 it was revealed that Neeman had been advising extremists already convicted of violent attacks against Palestinians and others, helping them apply for pardons. In other words, he was an active participant in their efforts.

Yet readers do not hear of Neeman’s actions, of the soldiers who stand by as settlers attack Palestinian villagers nor of the failure to investigate reported crimes. If they did, it would give weight to the statement by Muhammad’s father, quoted in the article: “There is no justice in Israel.” As it stands, his comment appears to be a bitter complaint without substance.

The Times story notes that after the bodies of the three teenagers were found near Hebron, Netanyahu called the killers “beasts,” and there were calls for harsh military action against Palestinians. It fails to say just how provocative many of these statements were. Knesset member Nissan Slomiansky, for instance, said the murderers were “animals without any semblance of humanity.”

Others called for retribution, “The blood of the boys must be redeemed. It’s an eye for an eye today, and tooth for a tooth,” said Shuli Muallem-Refaeli of the Knesset. And Aryeh Deri, chairman of the Shas party evoked the boys by name and called for revenge: “Gilad, Naftali and Eyal—may God avenge their blood.”

The world now knows their names and that of Muhammad Abu Khdeir. The Times has covered the deaths of the four boys in detail, but many of the Palestinian dead are never acknowledged in Israeli or international press accounts. Who has heard, for instance, of Amin Al-Faqeer, 13, who died last Dec. 21 after a settler deliberately rammed his car into the boy as he rode his donkey near Jerusalem?

There were no outcries over his death and no calls for justice, no official hand wringing or vows to bring the full weight of the law on the killer. But the murder of Muhammad made the news in a big way. The world soon knew about his terrible death by burning, and Israeli officials were under pressure to redeem their country’s image.

This led to Netanyahu’s rare public condemnation of settler violence and the chorus of support among Israeli officials. The Times is helping this Israeli effort with its front- page report of Netanyahu’s pledge to pursue justice.

But readers should also get some of the context here, the facts that reveal government complicity in extremist violence and the numbers that show this tough stance against
an “extreme, nationalist fringe” is an exception in the history of Israeli relations with its Palestinian population.

And beyond this focus on settler attacks, there is the larger framework, missing once again in The New York Times: the numbers that show Palestinian deaths outnumbering Israeli deaths by a factor of some 30 to 1 in the West Bank and Gaza, the underlying cancer of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land and the crushing asymmetry of a military power dominating a civilian population.

Without this background, readers are shortchanged, left with vague impressions of “cycles of violence.” The deaths of four teenagers demand much more.

Barbara Erickson

So Maybe It Wasn’t Hamas After All

The New York Times is not shouting about it, but reports are emerging that point to rogue actors, not Hamas, as the culprits behind the abduction and death of three Israeli teenagers whose bodies were found last weekend.

This should be big news. Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, have been blaming Hamas from the start, vowing to crush the movement in Gaza and the West Bank. In the course of more than two weeks, they have tried to do just that.

During an aggressive search operation condemned by human rights groups, Israeli forces have arrested 335 persons affiliated with Hamas, according to data reported in the Times. They have also ransacked offices of charitable organizations and other groups , often confiscating and trashing their contents.

The Times has been reporting the threats and charges against Hamas ever since Netanyahu announced on June 15 that Israel knew “for a fact” that the Islamic movement was responsible for the kidnapping. He vowed to produce the evidence and repeatedly called for the secular Fatah movement to break its bonds with Hamas and end the alliance recently formed in a new Palestinian unity government.

In spite of Nethanyahu’s promises, the only evidence linking the crime to Hamas so far has been the announcement that two Hebron men, identified as “Hamas activists,” are prime suspects in the crime. Now reports inform us that the men were part of a family group that includes extremists who frequently defy Hamas directives and act on their own.

In BuzzFeed, Sheera Frenkel reports that rather than possessing proof of Hamas culpability, Israeli officials “remain divided” over whether the two men had direct ties to the organization at all. She also writes, “Israeli and Palestinian officials told BuzzFeed it was more likely that the teens were taken without the knowledge of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or any other senior militant movement.”

Shlomi Eldar, the author of a book about Hamas, writes in Al Monitor, “Palestinian security forces attribute the abduction to the Qawasmeh clan of Hebron specifically.” The group, Eldar says, is known to act “counter to the policies being advocated by [Hamas]” and to deliberately disrupt Hamas ceasefires and other arrangements. (A third media report noted that the clan includes members of Fatah and respected professionals as well as some rogue individuals.)

The Times manages to report some of this in a July 2 story, but the message is muted. Although the article quotes Eldar and others who have cast doubt on the charges against Hamas, this news is buried under a misleading headline, “A Trail of Clues Leading To Victims and Heartbreak.” The selected quotes also leave open the possibility that Hamas at least inspired the crime.

Readers should expect more. They deserve a story that takes the new developments head on and challenges the official narrative of Hamas culpability. Times reporters should be asking tough questions of Netanyahu and other officials: How long have they known that members of the Qawasmeh clan are the prime suspects and not Hamas? In the light of this latest information, what is their justification for detaining more than 300 persons affiliated with the movement?

Other developments should also be prompting questions. Israeli media report that security forces knew within a few days that the boys were dead after forensic evidence from a burned car revealed blood, bullet shells and some items belonging to the teens. Moreover, in a taped phone call from one of the teens a bullet shot can be heard, but this information was kept under a gag order until recently.

The question now is why we were told this was a rescue operation well beyond the time the victims were considered dead. The Times makes no mention of the gag order, and it seems its reporters are unwilling to challenge officials to ask the obvious question: Was this order meant to give cover to the hundreds of arrests and raids carried under the guise of a desperate bid to rescue the boys?

Readers should also take note of a claim in the July 2 story that Israeli soldiers “killed six Palestinians who confronted them, with the latest a wanted man who threw a grenade as they approached Tuesday morning in Jenin.”

These murdered Palestinians included a mentally disabled man, Ahmad Said Suod Khalid, shot when he was on his way to a mosque for morning prayers; Mahmoud Ismail Atallah, killed by an Israeli sniper as he stood on a rooftop in Ramallah; and Mohammad Dudeen, 15, who was throwing rocks at soldiers as they stormed his village of Dura. In every one of the six cases, it was the soldiers who invaded, not the victims.

The Times, however, would have you consider the Israeli killings as justified actions, taken only because the Palestinians had “confronted” the soldiers.

It would also like to give nothing more than cursory notice to the new information about who was behind the kidnapping. If challenged, Times editors can now say that they have reported these developments. But just barely. Readers may have read the article about “A Trail of Clues,” but only the most disciplined will get the full import: Hamas is no longer the prime suspect in this tragedy.

Barbara Erickson

In The NY Times (and Israel) Abbas Gets a New Role

Mahmoud Abbas, once skewered in The New York Times as the villain in the peace talks debacle, has been cast in a new role: He is now the victim of Palestinian fanaticism.

In a front-page article about the disappearance of three teenage Israeli settlers nearly two weeks ago, Jodi Rudoren writes that the Palestinian Authority president “is under unprecedented attack for cooperating with Israel’s search for the teenagers.” The assaults are coming on social media, she notes, where he has been called a traitor and threatened with death, and even members of his Fatah party are challenging his control.

Meanwhile, in the Fatah stronghold of Ramallah, Palestinians fought with PA security forces, “smashing at least four police cars and storming a police station.” This was a first time occurrence, Rudoren writes, and she goes on to marshal quotes that show Palestinians cheering in support of the abduction and calling for more kidnappings.

In Rudoren’s telling it seems that Abbas is the only reasonable Palestinian in sight and that he is under attack for nothing more than an offer of help in the search for three missing teens.

Times readers, however, hear nothing of the wider context in this story, the occupation itself, the brutality of the search operation, and the role of the Palestinian Authority that compounds the misery of its own people.

Last Friday, the U.S. trained PA troops attacked nonviolent demonstrators and a CNN crew in Hebron as they rallied in support of hunger strikers in Israeli detention. Wives and mothers of the detainees were injured. Earlier this month, the PA roughed up journalists during another demonstration, and this week, the PA worked hand in hand with Israeli soldiers when they invaded Ramallah, the PA stronghold.

“Both forces, Israeli and Palestinian, were attacking the Palestinian people on the streets [of Ramallah],” writes Allison Deger in Mondoweiss. She also reports that the PA had been notified in advance of the invasion and Ramallah residents were dismayed at the PA’s failure to protect them against Israeli fire.

The incursion into Ramallah came after more than a week of violent searches and mass arrests throughout the West Bank, well beyond the Hebron area where the teens went missing. Soldiers trashed homes and offices, injuring hundreds and leaving at least five dead.

In this context and in light of the PA’s actions against its own people, the anger with Abbas is reasonable and expected. The Times, however, would have you believe he is the victim of irrational rage.

Although Rudoren provides some data—the number of Palestinians arrested (340), the number of searches conducted so far (1,350), even the number of Palestinian dead (four at the time of writing, now five, or six, if we include a heart attack victim)—there is no hint of the suffering inflicted on innocent residents of the West Bank and Gaza.

Rudoren has also failed to report that the violence of Israeli’s raids on Palestinian communities prompted a consortium of 12 rights groups to condemn the collective punishment of an entire population. Amnesty International also demanded a halt to the incursions last week, and reports say that the Palestinian Authority (incoherently, in view of its collaboration with Israel) is planning an appeal to the United Nations Security Council to force a halt to the raids.

Her story also comes up with a peculiar phrase in her description of this latest crisis. She writes of the “huge gulf, political and psychological, between the long-warring neighbors,” as if we had two separate states here, longtime neighbors with their grievances. This is an odd way to speak about the military occupation of a beleaguered land.

The Times follows Israeli hasbara (propaganda) conscientiously. Omitting any mention of the hard realities of occupation and military abuse, it would have you believe that Palestinians are caught up in a culture of hate, a free-floating hostility without reason.

Not so long ago, Abbas was the villain who destroyed the peace process by acceding to international organizations. Today he is the good guy facing off against his fanatical constituents. It is all about Israel. When he went against the demands of the Israeli state, he was vilified. Now that he is cooperating, it is those who oppose him who take the heat.

Barbara Erickson