Journalism in Jenin: No Honor Among Thieves

The reality left behind by the Israelis in Jenin Refuge Camp defies even the most vicious imagination. One after another, the people of Jenin have been trying to tell anyone in the world who will listen what they have witnessed and lived through since the beginning of their most recent tragedy on April 3, 2002. Even though the Israeli checkpoints have been turning back aid workers, human rights monitors and journalists, some have made it through and as April ends, the horror of Jenin is left painfully visible for all who dare to look.

I went as a journalist, and it was as a journalist that I must say that some of the most disparaging things I saw were the actions of representatives of the English-speaking and other Western media. Not because the wreckage that had been the homes and livelihoods of thousands of people, or the stories of death, destruction and dehumanization, were not as awful as the most paranoid among us would imagine, but precisely because they were. Yet, to most of the journalists I encountered during my three days in Jenin, the people of Jenin and what remained of their world were secondary to the ‘real story.’ It would seem that the journalists who made it into Jenin had already writen their stories in advance with the assistance of the Israeli government while they were kept from setting foot in the camp; it was as if their only reason for going to the camp was to obtain visuals and carefully contrived soundbytes.

I watched as an English-speaking French journalist spent 15 minutes manipulating a 10-year-old boy into saying, ‘I want to be a fighter. I will kill Jews with my kalishnikov.’ It was quite a labor for him to get the child to enunciate ‘kalishnikov’ clearly enough to suit his eager cameraman. I saw an American photojournalist pressure a clean-up crew with one of the rare and much-needed bulldozers working to find bodies in one house to stop their work there and move to another area in order to get a ‘better shot.’

More than anything, I saw journalist after journalist ask person after person who came to them with their story, ‘Are you a fighter?’ When the answer was, ‘No, I’m just a regular person,’ the journalist moved on.

And just what happened when the journalist did encounter a ‘fighter’ (as though every person who survived what happened in Jenin does not have to fight every day of his or her life just to cope with the tragedy of this assault or others like it)? The stories of their suffering are barely listened to and are instead hastened to an end (one of which there never seems to be) so that the journalist might get down to the real business at hand—justifying Israeli claims that it was targetting ‘militant terrorists.’

I see this in passing several times, but I had the unfortunate opportunity to witness this debacle up-close and personal when I accompanied a British film crew through the camp along with a Palestinian journalist from Jenin who was translating. The first and most sought-after source on the film crew’s list was a fighter who saw is brother, also a fighter, killed by the Israeli troops after participating in an ambush. The man started by telling of how he saw his mother killed during a prior Israeli invasion and how it compelled him to be a fighter after resisting his brother’s arguments for so long. He spoke of how past incidents of Israeli agression in Jenin and ones that took place simultaneously in Nablus and Ramallah showed how their aim was not to target militants, but to kill the Palestinian people. He spoke of the fighters’ offer to allow the Israelis to come into the camp without being shot at so that the Israelis could get their wounded if only the Israelis would stop shelling the camp for two hours; instead the Israelis left their wounded to bleed to death. He spoke of how he himself was pinned beneath the wreckage of his house for several days…

…but he did not get to finish speaking of the prison that was once was his home. This was not the story the British film crew was looking for. They wanted to know if the fighters had figured out how to pinpoint the Israelis’ locations after watching them come into the camp during this encounter or others. They wanted to know how many ambushes the fighters had planned. They wanted to know if the fighters had plans for deploying more suicide bombers to Israel; if the man’s friends and sons would now become fighters for Israel to worry about; if he hated the Jews.

Maybe this could be written off to the hardening of an experienced journalist who had heard too many horror stories from past battles to let this one get to him and a green war reporter like myself just could not understand (although how any journalist can not also be hardened to the fact that the lies of the Israeli government are as numerous as the individual stories of people who have suffered because of them is also beyond my comprehension). But the crew’s charade was fully revealed during the filming of the widow of a man assasinated by the Israelis. She and her children watched his body reduced to nothing but ash after tanks ran over it again and again. She told of how her husband tried to preserve his devotion by praying before walking out to meet his assasins, of how he tried to maintain his dignity by asking the soldiers to let him put his clothes back on before they marched him to his death. Perhaps it was from numbed shock, perhaps it was from a strength that came from a place that only she and other widows like her know of, but she told her story stoicly, with a straight face and determined courage that dispelled any doubts about its absolute truth. This was how she told her story.

But this was not how the film crew wanted to hear her story. After she finished, the journalist began to ‘console’ her, to tell her how she would have to be strong for her children, to tell her that she must have loved her husband and how his loss must bring her great sorrow, that her children must be devastated, and on and on, until finally the tears began to stream down her cheeks. And all the while, his ‘consolation’ was delivered in front of a still-running camera, and when the moment came, the cameraman was more than ready to zoom in on her face.

Then the journalist turned to her 11-year-old son. He asked the boy if he was ready to ‘protect’ his family now that his father was gone, was he ready to ‘fight’ for them. By this time, the translator had stopped translating, an act with which the film crew voiced their discontent, and the boy was just left to wonder what the Englishman had done to make his mother cry.

It went on and on. The crying mother of a handicapped son crushed beneath bulldozers while he was still screaing was cut off in mid-sentance and left to talk to the air because her story was not what they were looking for. A man who was forced by the Israelis into acting as human shield was cajoled by the film crew into playing a human prop for a staged scene of his own ordeal, completely against his wishes; the reporter even made a joke about his fear that the man would actually shoot him.

What was the final outcome of their ‘investigation’ into the incidents at Jenin? ‘The Palestinians say there was excessive force used; the Israelis say they were justified in their actions. We found no evidence of a massacre.’ But what about the evidence they refused to find? They refused to interview a lawyer who had taken affadavits claiming that refrigerator trucks had carted off hundreds of bodies from the hospital. They refused to interview a woman who says she saw the dead bodies of people she knew and who have not been accounted for put into black bags and moved to the hospital, where no one but the Israelis were allowed to enter. They refused to interview a noted war crimes investigator who asked questions about missing bodies and the lack of severely injured, as well as what happened during the five days between when the shelling stopped and the Red Cross was allowed into the camp, that the Israelis had no answer for.

Instead, they spent their final moments in Jenin asking the Palestinian journalist translating for them, ‘If 13 soldiers are killed in an ambush, then don’t you think an army is going to take precautions before moving any more troops in?’

I’d like to think that these particular Englishmen just have no knowledge of their country’s reputation for good manners. After all, they didn’t even accept the tea that the homeless people they interviewed provided for them. But they were the rule, not the exception. By then end of my second day, the people of Jenin were sick of journalists with their ignorant questions and sensational pictures. Only the children still seemed hopeful that a passing camera might actually be able to relay some of their humanity to the outside world. This time, like all the others, the pleas of the Palestinian people were drowned out by the demands of the Israeli government and their international accomplices in the Fifth Estate.