News media and public officials did not wait for the full story to emerge before jumping to the conclusion that Jewish “worshippers” had been killed in a Palestinian ambush in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron on Friday. In fact, those killed were all Israeli soldiers and armed paramilitary settlers.
Many media accounts reported the initial Israeli government version of the events with little question and no cautions that the information was coming from one source and that it had not been confirmed. Almost every report said that Palestinian militants had first attacked “Jewish worshippers” and then ambushed soldiers who attempted to come to their rescue.
On its website, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared, “At least 12 persons were killed Friday night in Hebron when Palestinian terrorists opened fire and threw grenades at a group of Jewish worshipers and their guards as they were walking home from Sabbath prayers at the Machpela Cave. The dead included civilian worshipers and soldiers, some of whom were caught in an ambush as they pursued the attackers.”
Yet by the morning, the Israeli media were reporting that an intial army investigation had found that the Palestinian attackers had instead targeted the Israeli army, not the settlers, and those killed in Hebron were nine armed occupation soldiers, and three armed paramilitary settlers. No civilian worshippers were killed.
Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper reported on its website on 16 November that:
“According to an initial investigation by the army, in contrast to a version of events given by the foreign ministry, the Islamic Jihad fire was not directed at worshippers but at the security forces escorting them. All of the dead were from the IDF, Border Police or emergency security team of the settlers of Kiryat Arba and Hebron, who came to help evacuate the wounded.” (“Hebron brigade commander among 12 killed in Jihad attack,” Ha’aretz (website), 16 November 2002)
According to Ha’aretz, 14 people were wounded in the attack, but it did not specify how many were soldiers and if any were settlers. On November 16, the Associated Press reported that “Fourteen soldiers and border policemen were hurt,” suggesting that no non-combatants were even injured in the fight or ambush. (“Mideast-Shooting Reconstruction,” Associated Press, 16 November 2002)
Even an account of the attack on the Hebron settlers’ own website seems to contradict the widely reported Israeli government claims. The settlers’ report begins, “Last night at 7:00 Arab terrorists attacked soldiers and security forces between Hebron and Kiryat Arba.”
Citing “security sources,” the settler report continues:
“the terror attack began shortly after evening prayers ended at Ma’arat HaMachpela - the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron. Worshipers from Kiryat Arba had just finished the 10 minute walk up a steep hill leading from Hebron, when a terrorist opened fire, not hitting anyone.”
“At that point,” the settler account continues, “three other terrorists began shooting from inside a house on a side road. A border police jeep was attacked and its occupants killed. Shortly afterward, the commander of the Hebron Brigade, thirty eight year old Colonel Dror Weinberg arrived at the scene. While charging the terrorists he was also shot and killed. Other security forces arriving at the area were also killed trying to reach the terrorists.”
The three armed settlers who were killed, died not as a result of the initial ambush, according to the settlers, but when they “attempted to reach the wounded and killed soldiers.”
Yet on the day of the attack it was the Israeli official claim of a “massacre” of innocents that ruled the airwaves. As soon as reports of the attack emerged, Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Gilad Milo labeled it an “atrocity” and dubbed it the “Sabbath Massacre.” (“12 killed, 13 wounded in Hebron shooting attack,” Jerusalem Post (website), 15 November 2002)
Even after it began to emerge that all of the dead were armed combatants, few reports pointed out inconsistenties with the official Israeli version. If the attack had unfolded in the manner first claimed by the Israelis, many settlers and far fewer soldiers are likely to have been killed.
In perhaps the most egregious blunder, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan accepted completely Israeli government claims about a massacre of innocent worshippers.
“In an extraordinarily harsh statement, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan deplored the killing of Jewish worshippers in the West Bank on Friday, calling it a “despicable terrorist attack” and urging Palestinian groups to halt the violence,” stated an Associated Press report (“In extraordinarily harsh statement, Annan condemns killing of Jewish worshippers,” Associated Press, 15 November 2002)
Annan’s spokesman, Hua Jiang, said “The secretary general is horrified by the despicable terrorist attack…He condemns this latest terrorist attack against Israeli civilians in the strongest possible terms and conveys his heartfelt condolences to the families of the victims and the government of Israel.” (“Annan condemns attack on Israelis in Hebron,”Agence France Presse, 15 November 2002)
While Annan issued his statement on the day of the attack, when an accurate picture had yet to emerge, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell issued a harsh condemnation on November 16, after it should have already been clear to the State Department that the Israeli claims were false.
Powell, whose statement was posted on the State Department website declared, “The United States condemns in the strongest possible terms the shocking and reprehensible attack on Jewish worshipers on Friday. The fact that these worshippers and Israeli security personnel who came to their rescue were gunned down on the way back from Sabbath prayers only adds to the horror of this attack.” He also expressed “our deepest sympathy and condolences for the victims and their families.”
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, was also misled by the Israeli claims, issuing a statement saying, “I condemn in the strongest terms today’s attack against Israeli civilians…I am sad to see that once again, this attack occurs when efforts were being made to end violence.” Solana extended his condolences to the victims and to the Israeli government. (“EU foreign policy chief Solana slams deadly Hebron attack,” Agence France Presse, 16 November 2002)
These officials should certainly have been more circumspect before accepting Israeli government claims of a “massacre” of worshippers. But, had they been relying on the media to provide them with an accurate or cautious picture of events, they would have been disappointed, as most reports gave the impression that civilian settlers or worshippers had been the primary victims.
The Associated Press stated in one of its early reports that “Palestinian militants opened fire on Jewish worshippers as they walked toward a shrine after sundown Friday in this divided city, killing at least 11 people and wounding 15 others, the Israeli military said.” (“11 Israelis Die in Hebron Shootings,” Associated Press, 16 November 2002)
According to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “As we told you at the top of the hour, a Jewish Sabbath celebration turned deadly in the West Bank today. Israeli authorities say at least 12 people were killed in Hebron when Palestinian militants opened fire on a group of Jews on their way to prayer services. CNN’s Matthew Chance is covering the story. He’s joining me now live from Jerusalem — Matthew.”
Chance responded: “Thanks, Wolf, and those are indeed the latest casualty figures that we have from the Israeli security forces saying that 12 people have been killed as a result of that Palestinian gun attack on the group of Jewish worshippers leaving, we’re told, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in central Hebron. They were set upon as they moved to the southern outskirts of the city, ambushed by those Palestinian gunmen.” (CNN, 15 November 2002)
NPR’s website carried a link to an audio report, which declared “Palestinian Attack Kills Jewish Worshipers in Hebron,” while the news website IsraelInsider.com claimed “Arabs massacre Jewish worshipers and soldiers in Hebron: 12 dead”
The Knight-Ridder news service carried a story with the headline “Palestinian Gunmen Kill 12 Jewish Settlers in Ambush in Hebron,” which reported “Palestinian gunmen ambushed Jewish settlers in the biblical West Bank city of Hebron on Friday night, killing at least 12 and wounding 15, as they walked to a shrine in a Sabbath ritual.”(16 November 2002)
Many reports contained inconsistencies, which reflect the difficulty of reporting any event from a distance and the danger of making conclusive statements based on one source in the immediate aftermath of the event. Some reports had the settlers on their way to prayers, while others had them on their way home. Careful readers will note that CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and Matthew Chance manage to contradict each other on this point without noticing, in the space of a few seconds.
Not all reporters unquestioningly accepted the official Israeli version, with all its contradictions. The New York Times’ James Bennet cautioned readers that, “How many of the dead and wounded were civilians and how many were security forces was not clear early this morning,” and also pointed out that “accounts of the attack varied slightly.” (“12 Israelis killed in Hebron ambush near prayer site,” The New York Times, 16 November 2002)
Similarly, the BBC, apparently refusing to rely on Israeli accounts or make the assumption that all or most of the victims were “worshippers,” cautioned “it is not yet known how many of those killed were settlers.” (“Hebron settlers die in gun attack,” BBC News Online, 15 November 2002)
With Ha’aretz’s confirmation that all of the dead were armed combatants and the Israeli army’s reported revelation that the attackers did not target “worshippers,” the abysmal coverage of this event once again highlights the willingness of the American media to accept Israeli government claims without question, and as a result to woefully mislead their audience.
Earlier this year, Israeli officials and many media commentators were sharply critical of Palestinian officials for describing Israel’s actions in Jenin as a “massacre.” No such qualms restrain those who adopt this term to describe attacks in which Israelis are victims. Hence an ambush which killed only armed combatants became the “Sabbath Massacre.”