* Israel’s actions in Jenin were “every bit as repellent” as Osama Bin Laden’s attack on New York on September 11, wrote Britain’s the Guardian in its lead editorial of April 17.
* “We are talking here of massacre, and a cover-up, of genocide,” said a leading columnist for the Evening Standard, London’s main evening newspaper, on April 15.
* “Rarely in more than a decade of war reporting from Bosnia, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, have I seen such deliberate destruction, such disrespect for human life,” reported Janine di Giovanni, the London Times’s correspondent in Jenin, on April 16.
Now that even the Palestinian Authority has admitted that there was no massacre in Jenin last month — and some Palestinian accounts speak instead of a “great victory against the Jews” in door-to-door fighting that left 23 Israelis dead — it is worth taking another look at how the international media covered the fighting there. The death count is still not completely agreed. The Palestinian Authority now claims that 56 Palestinians died in Jenin, the majority of whom were combatants according to the head of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah organization in the town.
Palestinian hospital sources in Jenin put the total number of dead at 52. Last week’s Human Rights Watch report also said 52 Palestinians died. Israel says 46 Palestinians died. Israel says that 46 Palestinians died, all but three of whom were combatants. Palestinian medical sources have confirmed that at least one of these civilians died after Israel withdrew from Jenin on April 12, as a result of a booby-trapped bomb that Palestinian fighters had planted accidentally going off.
Yet one month ago, the media’s favorite Palestinian spokespersons, such as Saeb Erekat – a practiced liar if ever there was one — spoke first of 3000 Palestinian dead, then of 500. Without bothering to check, the international media just lapped his figures up.
The British media was particularly emotive in its reporting. They devoted page upon page, day after day, to tales of mass murders, common graves, summary executions and war crimes. Israel was invariably compared to the Nazis, to Al Qaeda, and to the Taliban. One report even compared the thousands of supposedly missing Palestinians to the “disappeared” of Argentina. The possibility that Yasser Arafat’s claim that the Palestinians had suffered “Jeningrad” might be — to put it mildly — somewhat exaggerated seems not to have been considered. (800 thousand Russians died during the 900-day siege of Leningrad; 1.3 million died in Stalingrad.)
Collectively, this misreporting was an assault on the truth on a par with the New York Times’s Walter Duranty’s infamous cover-up of the man-made famine inflicted by Stalin on millions of Ukrainians in the 1930s.
There were malicious and slanderous reports against Israel in the American media too — with Arafat’s propagandists given hundreds of hours on television to air their incredible tales of Israeli atrocities — but at least some American journalists attempted to be fair.
On April 16, Newsday’s reporter in Jenin, Edward Gargan, wrote: “There is little evidence to suggest that Israeli troops conducted a massacre of the dimensions alleged by Palestinian officials.” Molly Moore of The Washington Post reported: “No evidence has yet surfaced to support allegations by Palestinian groups and aid organizations of large-scale massacres or executions.”
Compare this with some of the things which appeared in the British media on the very same day, April 16: Under the headline “Amid the ruins, the grisly evidence of a war crime”, the Jerusalem correspondent for the London Independent, Phil Reeves, began his dispatch from Jenin: “A monstrous war crime that Israel has tried to cover up for a fortnight has finally been exposed.” He continued: “The sweet and ghastly reek of rotting human bodies is everywhere, evidence that it is a human tomb. The people say there are hundreds of corpses, entombed beneath the dust.”
Reeves spoke of “killing fields,” an image more usually associated with Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Forgetting to tell his readers that Arafat’s representatives, like those of the other totalitarian regimes that surround Israel, have a habit of lying a lot, he quoted Palestinians who spoke of “mass murder” and “executions.” Reeves didn’t bother to quote any Israeli source whatsoever in his story. In another report Reeves didn’t even feel the need to quote Palestinian sources at all when he wrote about Israeli “atrocities committed in the Jenin refugee camp, where its army has killed and injured hundreds of Palestinians.”
LEFT AND RIGHT UNITE AGAINST ISRAEL
But it wasn’t only journalists of the left who indulged in Israel baiting. The right-wing Daily Telegraph — which some in the UK have dubbed the “Daily Tel-Aviv-ograph” because its editorials are frequently sympathetic to Israel — was hardly any less misleading in its news coverage, running headlines such as “Hundreds of victims ‘were buried by bulldozer in mass grave’.”
In a story on April 15 entitled “Horror stories from the siege of Jenin,” the paper’s correspondent, David Blair, took at face value what he called “detailed accounts” by Palestinians that “Israeli troops had executed nine men.” Blair quotes one woman telling him that Palestinians were “stripped to their underwear, they were searched, bound hand and foot, placed against a wall and killed with single shots to the head.”
On the next day, April 16, Blair quoted a “family friend” of one supposedly executed man: “Israeli soldiers had stripped him to his underwear, pushed him against a wall and shot him.” He also informed Telegraph readers that “two thirds of the camp had been destroyed.” (In fact, as the satellite photos show, the destruction took place in one small area of the camp.)
The “quality” British press spoke with almost wall-to-wall unanimity. The Evening Standard’s Sam Kiley conjured up witnesses to speak of Israel’s “staggering brutality and callous murder.” The Times’s Janine di Giovanni, suggested that Israel’s mission to destroy suicide bomb-making factories in Jenin (a town from which at the Palestinians own admission 28 suicide bombers had already set out) was an excuse by Ariel Sharon to attack children with chickenpox. The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg wrote, “The scale [of destruction] is almost beyond imagination.”
In case British readers didn’t get the message from their “news reporters”, the editorial writers spelled it out loud and clear. On April 17, the Guardian’s lead editorial compared the Israeli incursion in Jenin with the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11. “Jenin,” wrote the Guardian was “every bit as repellent in its particulars, no less distressing, and every bit as man-made.”
“Jenin camp looks like the scene of a crime… Jenin already has that aura of infamy that attaches to a crime of especial notoriety,” continued this once liberal paper, which used to pride itself on its honesty — and one of whose former editors coined the phrase ‘comment is free, facts are sacred.’
Whereas the Guardian’s editorial writers compared the Jewish state to Al Qaeda, Evening Standard commentators merely compared the Israeli government to the Taliban. Writing on April 15, A.N. Wilson, one of the Evening Standard’s leading columnists accused Israel of “the poisoning of water supplies” (a libel dangerously reminiscent of ancient anti-Semitic myths) and wrote “we are talking here of massacre, and a cover-up, of genocide.”
He also attempted to pit Christians against Jews by accusing Israel of “the willful burning of several church
buildings,” and making the perhaps even more incredible assertion that “Many young Muslims in Palestine are the children of Anglican Christians, educated at St George’s Jerusalem, who felt that their parents’ mild faith was not enough to fight the oppressor.”
Then, before casually switching to write about how much money Catherine Zeta-Jones is paying her nanny, Wilson wrote: “Last week, we saw the Israeli troops destroy monuments in Nablus of ancient importance: the scene where Jesus spoke to a Samaritan woman at the well. It is the equivalent of the Taliban destroying Buddhist sculpture.” (Perhaps Wilson had forgotten that the only monument destroyed in Nablus since Arafat launched his war against Israel in September 2000, was the ancient Jewish site of Joseph’s tomb, torn down by a Palestinian mob while Arafat’s security forces looked on.)
Other commentators threw in the Holocaust, turning it against Israel. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, a leading columnist for the Independent wrote (April 15): “I would suggest that Ariel Sharon should be tried for crimes against humanity … and be damned for so debasing the profoundly important legacy of the Holocaust, which was meant to stop forever nations turning themselves into ethnic killing machines.”
Many of the hostile comments were leveled at the US. “Why, for God’s sake, can’t Mr Powell do the decent thing and demand an explanation for the extraordinary, sinister events that have taken place in Jenin? Does he really have to debase himself in this way? Does he think that meeting Arafat, or refusing to do so, takes precedence over the enormous slaughter that has overwhelmed the Palestinians?” wrote Robert Fisk in the Independent.
STAINING THE STAR OF DAVID WITH BLOOD
In the wake of the media attacks, came the politicians. Speaking in the House of Commons on April 16, Gerald Kaufman, a veteran Labour Member of Parliament and a former shadow foreign secretary, announced that Ariel Sharon was a “war criminal” who led a “repulsive government.” To nods of approval from his fellow parliamentarians, Kaufman, who is Jewish, said the “methods of barbarism against the Palestinians” supposedly employed by the Israeli army were “staining the Star of David with blood.”
Speaking on behalf of the opposition Conservative party, John Gummer, a former cabinet minister, also lashed out at Israel. He said he was basing his admonition on “the evidence before us.” Was Gummer perhaps referring to the twisted news reports he may have watched from the BBC’s correspondent Orla Guerin? Or maybe his evidence stemmed from the account given by Ann Clwyd, a Labour MP, who on return from a fleeting fact-finding mission to Jenin, told parliament she had a “croaky voice” and this was all the fault of dust caused by Israeli tanks.
Clwyd had joined a succession of VIP visitors parading through Jenin — members of the European Parliament, U.S. church leaders, Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan, Bianca Jagger, ex-wife of pop music legend Mick Jagger. Clwyd’s voice wasn’t sufficiently croaky, though, to prevent her from calling on all European states to withdraw their ambassadors from Israel.
Not to be outdone by politicians, Britain’s esteemed academics went further. Tom Paulin, who lectures in 19th- and 20th-century literature at Oxford University, opined that the US-born Jews who live on the west bank of the river Jordan should be “shot dead.”
“They are Nazis, racists,” he said, adding (though one might have thought this was unnecessary after his previous comment) “I feel nothing but hatred for them.” (Paulin is also one of BBC television’s regular commentators on the arts. The BBC says they will continue to invite him even after these remarks; Oxford university has taken no action against him.)
ONLY ONE WITNESS?
On closer examination, the “facts” on which many of the media reports were based — “facts” that no doubt played a role in inspiring such hateful remarks as Paulin’s — reveal an even greater scandal. The British media appear to have based much of its evidence of “genocide” on a single individual: “Kamal Anis, a labourer” (The Times), “Kamal Anis, 28″ (The Daily Telegraph), “A quiet, sad-looking young man called Kamal Anis” (The Independent), and referred to the same supposed victim — “the burned remains of a man, Bashar” (The Evening Standard), “Bashir died in agony” (The Times), “A man named only as Bashar once lived there” (The Daily Telegraph).
The Independent: “Kamal Anis saw the Israeli soldiers pile 30 bodies beneath a half-wrecked house. When the pile was complete, they bulldozed the building, bringing its ruins down on the corpses. Then they flattened the area with a tank.”
The Times: “Kamal Anis says the Israelis levelled the place; he saw them pile bodies into a mass grave, dump earth on top, then ran over it to flatten it.”
Evidently, as can be seen from the following reports, British journalists hadn’t been speaking to the same Palestinian witnesses as American journalists.
The Los Angeles Times: Palestinians in Jenin “painted a picture of a vicious house-to-house battle in which Israeli soldiers faced Palestinian gunmen intermixed with the camp’s civilian population.”
The Boston Globe: Following extensive interviews with “civilians and fighters” in Jenin “none reported seeing large numbers of civilians killed.” On the other hand, referring to the deaths of Israeli soldiers in Jenin, Abdel Rahman Sa’adi, an “Islamic Jihad grenade-thrower”, told the Globe “This was a massacre of the Jews, not of us.”
Some in the American press also mentioned the video filmed by the Israeli army (and shown on Israeli television) of Palestinians moving corpses of people who had previously died of natural causes, rather than in the course of the Jenin fighting, into graveyards around the camp to fabricate “evidence” in advance of the now-cancelled UN fact-finding mission.
But if Europeans readers don’t trust American journalists, perhaps they are ready to believe the testimony given in the Arab press. Take, for example, the extensive interview with a Palestinian bomb-maker, Omar, in the leading Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram.
“We had more than 50 houses booby-trapped around the [Jenin] camp,” Omar said. “We chose old and empty buildings and the houses of men who were wanted by Israel because we knew the soldiers would search for them… We cut off lengths of mains water pipes and packed them with explosives and nails. Then we placed them about four meters apart throughout the houses — in cupboards, under sinks, in sofas… the women went out to tell the soldiers that we had run out of bullets and were leaving. The women alerted the fighters as the soldiers reached the booby-trapped area.”
Perhaps what is most shocking, though, is that the British press had closed their ears to the Israelis themselves — a society with one of the most vigorous and self-critical democracies in the world. In the words of Kenneth Preiss, a professor at Ben Gurion University: “Please inform the reporters trying to figure out if the Israeli army is trying to ‘hide a massacre’ of Palestinians, that Israel’s citizen army includes journalists, members of parliament, professors, doctors, human rights activists, members of every political party, and every other kind of person, all within sight and cell phone distance of home and editorial offices. Were the slightest infringements to have taken place, there would be demonstrations outside the prime minister’s office in no time.”
ONLY AN INTELLECTUAL COULD BE SO STUPID
George Orwell once remarked to a Communist fellow-traveler with whom he was having a dispute: “You must be an intellectual. Only an intellectual could say something so stupid.” This observation has relevance in regard to the Middle East, too.
So far only the non-intellectual tabloids have grasped the essential difference between right and wrong, the difference between a deliberate intent to kill civilians, such as that ordered by Chairman Arafat over the past four decades, and the unintentional deaths of civilians in the course of legitimate battle.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the mass-market papers have corrected the lies of their supposedly superior broadsheets. On April 17, the New York Post carried an editorial entitled “The massacre that wasn’t.” In London, the most popular British daily paper, the Sun, published a lengthy editorial (April 15) pointing out that: “Israelis are scared to death. They have never truly trusted Britain — and with some of the people we employ in the Foreign Office why the hell should they?” Countries throughout Europe are still “in denial about murdering their entire Jewish population,” the Sun added, and it was time to dispel the conspiracy theory that Jews “run the world.”
The headline of the Sun’s editorial was “The Jewish faith is not an evil religion.” One might think such a headline was unnecessary in 21st century Britain, but apparently it is not.
One would hope that some honest reflection about their reporting by those European and American journalists who are genuinely motivated by a desire to help Palestinians (as opposed to those whose primary motive is demonizing Jews), will enable them to realize that propagating the falsehoods of Arafat’s propagandists does nothing to further the legitimate aspirations of ordinary Palestinians, any more than parroting the lies of Stalin helped ordinary Russians.
Tom Gross is former Middle East reporter for the London Sunday Telegraph and New York Daily News.