By Barry Rubin
A 13-year-old Israeli boy is killed by a Palestinian ax-murderer; a 7-year-old is wounded. How is it covered? Let’s take a look at the April 2, 2009 article posted by the Inquirer, by Sebastian Scheiner of AP, entitled, “Palestinian kills Israeli teen with pickax.”
The lead is matter-of-fact:
“BAT AYIN, West Bank – A Palestinian armed with a pickax went on a rampage Thursday in this West Bank Jewish settlement, killing a 13-year-old Israeli and wounding a 7-year-old before fleeing the area.”
The next paragraph is badly written:
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“Israeli television stations showed pictures of the dead teenager, bespectacled with long sidecurls and a large skullcap worn by observant Jews.”
It appears that the pictures shown were of his dead body when it was a photograph from the past of him alive. Israel does not use pictures of its dead for propaganda purposes, unlike the Palestinian Authority, Hizballah, and Hamas. I don’t think the writer intended to suggest otherwise but proper editing should be expected of AP and the Inquirer.
“The attack posed an important test for new Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has promised a firm hand against militants and expressed skepticism about prospects for peace. Government spokesman Mark Regev called it a `senseless act of brutality against innocents.’”
The militants in question should have been identified as Palestinian militants, but that does not seem so much bias as poor editing.
There follows some paragraphs on the search for the attacker, and a quote from an adult who survived being attacked. The settlement where the boys lived is described as being “home to extremist religious settlers,” which might be true but it should be noted that the Palestinian Authority and Fatah, despite the former’s involvement in incitement to violence and the latter’s in terrorist attacks are always called “moderate.”
Next the article notes that “a murky militant group calling itself the Martyrs of Imad Mughniyeh claimed responsibility for the attack in an e-mail sent to the AP. The group is named for a Hezbollah mastermind killed in Syria last year in what is believed to have been an assassination by Israeli intelligence. It has claimed a number of past attacks, but Israeli defense officials believe it is likely a name used by other groups to avoid Israeli reprisals.”
It would seem appropriate to mention the involvement of Mughniyeh in major terrorist attacks, not only against Israel but against American personnel and his connections with Iran and Syria. Otherwise, it is not clear what “a Hezbollah mastermind” does or why Israel would want to assassinate him.
Up to now, though, by AP’s usual standards—though less so by traditional and proper journalistic ones—the article has been relatively balanced. Of course, there is no emotional discussion of the boy’s family, hints of the dastardly nature of the deed, implication of political blame for the act, in short all the things that are done when Israelis allegedly kill Palestinians. This is the background double standard of most AP reporting.
But then we get to the message, as follows:
“The attack will likely heighten tensions between Palestinians and Israel’s new hard-line government, which has already voiced skepticism about peace negotiations in its first days in office.”
Note how the text tells the reader how to think about who is the real bad guy really responsible for the lack of peace. Israel’s government is said to be “hard-line.” This is a phrase literally never used to describe any Palestinian or Arab factor in the region.
Moreover, if the reporter is going to inject this point about skepticism he should give some sense of why there is skepticism. Little things like repeated acts of terror, incitement to kill Israelis by PA media and schools, and so on. Otherwise, as so often happens, Israel’s policies or actions are deprived of context and hence rationality.
True, an Israeli official is quoted as saying: “The Palestinian leadership must both in word and in deed to have a zero tolerance policy to this sort of attack to demonstrate its commitment to peace and reconciliation.” But the reader is not told how that leadership has so often contradicted such a commitment. Presumably, since the Israeli government is “hard-line” it is seeking excuses for saying these things.
The next paragraph is also subtle yet politically loaded:
“Netanyahu was elected to office on a campaign that criticized his predecessor’s peace negotiations with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.”
That is true, of course, but it omits the fact and contents of his and other Israeli leaders’ criticism of Abbas and his PA. As I have often documented, the AP can criticize Israel, it can criticize Hamas at times, but it never criticizes Fatah or the PA or the Palestinian side.
Another partial truth follows: “Since then Netanyahu has said he will seek peace, but has given few details about his vision for a final agreement.” But can the AP tell us whether the Palestinian side has given details about its vision of a final agreement? True it demands all the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem territory captured by Israel in 1967 and the right of all Palestinians to go to live in Israel if any of their ancestors lived on its territory.
Yet another principle in AP coverage is that it never discusses what Israel wants from a negotiated agreement: end of conflict, security guarantees, no foreign troops on the Palestinian state’s territory, and resettlement of refugees in their own new country.
Note that once more the article is one-sided:
“He has specifically refused to endorse the idea of an independent Palestinian state, a key demand of the Palestinians and centerpiece of U.S. diplomacy in the region.”
Yet there is no discussion of what the Palestinians have refused to give Israel. Always the impression is given—sometimes explicitly, sometimes subtly—that Israel is completely and solely responsible for the lack of peace.
There then follows a travesty of what the new Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said:
“On Wednesday, Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said Israeli concessions to the Palestinians would only bring more war. He also rejected the previous government’s peace talks, launched at a U.S.-sponsored conference in 2007.”
This is nonsense. First, Lieberman gave a long list of examples of how past concessions had brought violence. Second, he was referring to unilateral concessions, not agreements made with mutual compromises. Third, he did not reject the previous government’s peace talks. In fact he accepted the roadmap plan. But the problem for the reporter and AP is that Lieberman listed the things the Palestinian Authority must do—and has not done—under the plan. And the AP can never permit itself to show how the Palestinian side has blocked peace.
While there is no space to quote what Lieberman had actually said, the article does report with a quote the Egyptian response calling his remarks, “regretful and considered a setback to peace efforts.”
Thus we are told: Lieberman is a bad man, he is against peace, he is setting back peace, and given a false picture of what he said in order to “prove” this point.
Oh, and while Lieberman is not quoted we do get a quote from Tzipi Livni attacking him. It is a very strange way of presenting it that is either an example of political bias or very bad editing:
“Israel’s former chief peace negotiator, Tzipi Livni, said Lieberman’s scathing rejection of recent negotiations shows the new government is not a partner for peace with the Palestinians.
`What happened yesterday is that the Israeli government announced that Israel isn’t relevant, isn’t a partner,’” Livni, the former foreign minister, told Army Radio.”
Yes, she was a negotiator and former foreign minister, she also happens to be leader of the opposition and Netanyahu’s opponent in the election. By mentioning these facts, the article might have made the reader think that she has political reasons for this attack. Otherwise, she is made to seem like some former official giving an expert opinion based on her knowledge. And again, this scathing quote is not accompanied by what Lieberman said.
Do we now know that Lieberman is a bad guy? Well, the AP always feels the need to drive home its points:
“The appointment of the ultranationalist Lieberman has angered Palestinians and raised international concerns because of his hard-line positions on peace and an election campaign that was widely seen as racist.”
So the article managed to get “ultranationalist,” “hard-line,” and “racist” into one sentence. True, this is attributed to unnamed Palestinians but this is the impression that the reader is left with. Again, these terms are never used for Palestinian or Arab leaders.
We are also let know that Lieberman isn’t liked by America either:
“His comments on Wednesday signaled a difficult road ahead for President Barack Obama’s Mideast policy, especially its push for a Palestinian state.”
Oh, and finally, notice what the goal of Obama’s Mideast policy is: Not a secure Israel at peace with the region plus a Palestinian state, but only a Palestinian state. As noted above, Israel’s security needs or even its demands are just ignored.
This is not a balanced article. It is one where Palestinians are implied to be peace-loving or at least dealt with in neutral terms while Israel is seen as being hard-line, ultra-nationalist, blocking peace, etc. It is an article in which Palestinian demands are listed—and said to be endorsed by America—but where Israeli ones aren’t mentioned. In which Israeli government figures are not quoted but their enemies are. In which those on the other side from Israel are identified in a way to make them seem most credible and sympathetic.
And this is one small article, a round-up, commencing with a deliberate murder of a little boy. If Israel is not given fair treatment in this article, how can it expect it in the hundreds of AP articles that repeat these same themes every day.
A Los Angeles Times article by Richard Boudreaux used by the Philadelphia Inquirer
April 3, 2009, picks up a lot of the AP language but has some interesting twists of its own. In this article entitled, “Israeli boy killed, spurring calls for tighter security,” he includes the following points:
- He calls the new Israeli government “conservative,” a fairer term though not quite accurate since it includes the Labor party. Better than AP but still pejorative. He says that the pressure to “react forcefully” is due to “pressure from the extreme right.” The problem here is that it implies that one has to be an extreme rightist to favor improved security measures when Israel is under attack. No quotes are given or individuals are named to prove this point.
- We are signaled that Israel is mistreating the Palestinians since the call is “to tighten Israel’s already stringent curbs on Palestinians’ freedoms in the West Bank.”
At this point I could argue that this characterization is unfair but there is a more basic point: why does the reporter need to do so at all? Isn’t it enough to report that there are calls for tightening security? In traditional journalism, this would have instantly been edited out. The journalist was not supposed to tell the reader how to think but present the facts.
In addition, there is no relationship of curbs to attacks, of which there have been many. Israeli politicians frequently point out that loosening curbs have led to increased attacks, giving some motive for Israel’s need for them in the first place. If the Palestinian Authority prevented attacks, no curbs would be necessary.
And of course phrases like this are never used to characterize Palestinian or Arab actions toward Israel.
An improvement on the AP piece is that this article at least gives some sense of what Netanyahu said:
“Netanyahu campaigned for office on a pledge to work toward peace by improving living conditions in the territory. While refusing to recommit Israel to the goal of an independent state for the Palestinians, he said he was willing to grant them the powers needed to govern themselves, as long as they did not jeopardize Israel’s security.”
Note that the AP story ignores these points.
But here, too, there is a very strange formulation that indicates bias in the story:
“Yesterday’s rampage in the militant Jewish settlement of Bat Ayin prompted warnings from settler groups and right-wing politicians that any concessions – such as easing travel restrictions and halting settlement expansion – would amount to surrender to the enemy.”
On examination this sentence doesn’t make sense. If anything it was the attack itself that would prompt such warnings, not the rampage. Again, Israel’s motives for strengthening security measures are not only undercut but in fact turned into something aggressive and bad, the kind of thing said by aggressors who have just gone on a rampage against Palestinians.
There is only one person quoted in the article as calling for security measures and explaining the case but he is discredited by being identified as “ultranationalist,” to suggest the point that only extremists speak of Palestinian terror and link it to past Israeli concessions:
“`When you respond forgivingly and ease restrictions, you do not get results,’’ said David Rotem, a member of parliament from Israel Is Our Home, the ultranationalist party led by new Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. `What you get is terror rearing its head.`”
It would have been easy to get such a quote from a centrist, left of center or security official.
Finally, one more point in the article should be noted:
“Bat Ayin, with a population of 1,000, is notorious as the base of a militant settler group formed during a Palestinian uprising early this decade. Three of its members were convicted of trying to plant an explosive device outside an Arab girls’ school in East Jerusalem in 2002. One of them, the wounded boy’s father, is serving a 15-year sentence.”
This is all perfectly legitimate. But note that there is no broader discussion of Palestinian violence, terrorism, their use of Israeli concessions to launch attacks, incitement, or anything else like that. The only exception is that one can mention a Palestinian uprising in the context of there being Israeli Jewish terrorists.
While preferable to the AP story, the Los Angeles Times article is also a result of the bias that is so often repeated that it is taken for granted, as if historical journalistic norms of fair and balanced coverage never existed.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org