Ten Years Since Something That Never Happened: A Learning Moment for the Guardian

Only on the tenth consecutive day of breathless Jenin Massacre reporting did Peter Beaumont report on detailed Israeli accounts refuting the massacre accusations, though predictably this was presented as part of an Israeli PR campaign rather than as conclusive proof.  Two days later, Beaumont conceded that there hadn’t after all technically really actually been a massacre but then proceeded to repeat a handful of falsities as fact all over again.  Without a doubt, though, the most memorable article The Guardian published on Jenin was its April 17 leader ‘The Battle for the Truth.’  The high dudgeon prose included the following sentences: ‘Jenin camp looks like the scene of a crime’; ‘Jenin smells like a crime’; ‘Jenin feels like a crime’; ‘Jenin already has that aura of infamy that attaches to a crime of especial notoriety’; and, unforgettably, the assertion that Israel’s actions in Jenin were ‘every bit as repellent’ as the 9/11 attacks in New York only seven months earlier.

No correction or retraction has ever been printed for this infamous editorial.  On the contrary, though mounting evidence emerged that the whole massacre calumny was a fabrication (never adequately reported by The Guardian), twice over the following year this leader article was obliquely cited — once in condemning another Israeli action by comparing it to the ‘repellent demolition of lives and homes in Jenin’ and most outrageously under the headline ‘Israel still wanted for questioning.’  The latter headline ran on top of the only leader that mentioned the UN report clearing Israel of the massacre charge.  Rather than humbly acknowledging their own role in the libelous crescendo of that spring, the editors reminded readers, ‘As we said last April, the destruction wrought in Jenin looked and smelled like a crime’ and assured them that this was still the case.  Someone who gets all their information about the world from The Guardian, a sizable phylum in the common rooms of my present university, would have no idea just how much of a lie the Jenin massacre was.

In fact, as aerial shots later showed, the pictures of ostensibly widespread destruction in Jenin and its adjacent refugee camp were all of the same tiny area within the camp which had been the scene of a tactically brilliant ambush — on the part of the Palestinians.  Thirteen Israeli soldiers were killed when a series of booby-trapped buildings collapsed on them.  It was the IDF’s deadliest engagement of the month-long offensive, and the impetus for Suzanne Goldenberg’s appraisal (in a news article, not an opinion piece) that the battle of Jenin was ‘a fiasco for Israel, an immensely costly victory for the Palestinians’ on April 10, before the circular feeding frenzy about the phoney massacre began.

It was this incident that made many Israelis question the wisdom of endangering so many ground forces rather than just relying on air power.  This would hardly be unprecedented.  And we don’t need to look to the behaviour of countries that Israel would never want to be compared to.  NATO fought two wars from the air — over Serbia in 1999 and Libya last year —with lopsided results.  Very lopsided.  Zero combat losses for NATO, roughly one thousand enemy combatants killed and slightly more than a thousand civilians as well.  Both wars were hotly debated in this paper, but neither of them ‘smelled like a crime.’

But let’s not be unfair to The Guardian and compare its coverage of Jenin to those popular NATO wars against violent dictators.  Let’s not even compare it to much bloodier conflicts in the past decade that gathered a lot less attention.  And naturally, let’s not compare the way The Guardian covered the non-massacre in Jenin to the suicide attacks on Israeli civilians which prompted the military operation.  No, I suggest making things as easy for The Guardian as possible, by comparing its coverage of Jenin to a remarkably similar pair of battles in the Iraqi city of Fallujah two years later in 2004.  These battles were led by occupying western armies (US and UK) in a war that for The Guardian at least had none of the ambiguity of Kosovo or Libya.  On the contrary, opposing the Iraq War was, second only to hating Israel, the great moral stand of the paper and its readership in the first decade of the 21st century.

In the two Fallujah battles, US-UK forces lost 126 men and killed nearly 1400 armed militants and about 900 civilians; in Jenin, recall, the respective numbers were 23 IDF killed, 38 Palestinian militants, and 14 civilians.  Though both Fallujah battles were covered extensively and critically, and though the second one involved troops from the UK, and though it was in a war that this paper viewed dimly, the number of times the words ‘massacre’ or ‘war crime’ appeared in its coverage was exactly zero (of if you prefer numbers: 0).  The only commonality in The Guardian’s coverage of the battle of Fallujah is that, as with Jenin two years earlier, no mention was made of Fallujah’s militants’ involvement in murderous attacks against British and American civilians at home.  This is less an editorial decision though, and more likely because there were no such attacks.

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