Journalists find “calm” when only Palestinians die

The deadly bus bombing in Jerusalem on August 19 was foreshadowed by a pair of suicide attacks a week earlier which killed two Israeli civilians. While U.S. media tended to portray these attacks as a return to violence after a relatively peaceful period, there were numerous killings in the weeks leading up to the suicide bombings that underscore the lack of evenhanded attention given to loss of life in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

When the two Palestinian suicide bombers each killed an Israeli civilian along with themselves on August 12, U.S. news outlets immediately depicted the attacks as an apparent resurgence in Mideast violence. “Summer truce shattered in Israel,” announced CBS (8/12/03), while NBC (8/12/03) reported that “the attacks broke more than a month of relative silence.” The Los Angeles Times (8/13/03) wrote that the bombings “broke a six-week stretch during which the people of this war-weary land had enjoyed relative quiet.”

During this six-week period of “relative quiet,” however, some 17 Palestinians were killed and at least 59 injured by Israeli occupation soldiers and settlers, according to the Palestine Red Crescent Society. The dead included Mahmoud Kabaha, a four-year-old boy, who was sitting in the back seat of a jeep with his family at a checkpoint when an Israeli soldier shot him dead— in a spray of bullets that the army simply called an “accidental burst of gunfire” (Associated Press, 7/25/03). Virtually none of the major U.S. news reports on the August 12 bombings alluded to the Palestinian death toll in this period, leaving out a key piece of the story: For Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the violence had never ceased; while the Israeli attacks had decreased, there had never been anything like an Israeli cease-fire.

An Associated Press report on August 19 (filed prior to that day’s bombing) did acknowledge that since June 29, “more than 20 people have been killed on the Israeli and Palestinian sides.” What it didn’t note was that of those “more than 20,” at least 21 were Palestinian, according to the Red Crescent.

After a month and a half in which Palestinians were being killed several times a week and receiving relatively little mention, the Washington Post and New York Times both put the bombings on their August 13 front pages, each declaring the violence a break from weeks of “relative calm,” and each including a front-page photo of the victims’ relatives in mourning. USA Today also put grieving relatives on the front page, along with the headline, “Two Suicide Attacks End a Six-Week Lull in Conflict.” One can empathize with the losses of those survivors while recognizing that the families of the Palestinians who died during the “lull” were virtually invisible.

On CNN, the August 12 bombings were a major story, with eight separate segments mentioning the attacks in a three-hour period. Anchor Wolf Blitzer declared a “grim return to the battle days in Israel and the Palestinian territories.” His colleague Aaron Brown echoed that theme, noting that “after a period of relative calm there has been a major surge in violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories.” Correspondent Jerrold Kessel reported that the bombings “cast doubt on the viability of this peace process known as the road map for peace.”

These bombings had killed four people, including the bombers. Just four days earlier, on August 8, two Palestinians and one Israeli were killed in an Israeli raid on a suspected militant, while two more Palestinians were killed at an ensuing rally— one shot, and the other killed by Israeli tear gas (Chicago Tribune, 8/9/03). But those five deaths— mainly Palestinian— were not deemed a “major surge in violence” or a “grim return to the battle days” on CNN. Instead, anchor Carol Costello (8/8/03) suggested that the Israeli raid “may be another smudge, a bump if you will, on that road map to peace.”

The media’s tendency to downplay— or completely ignore— Palestinian suffering and death is nothing new. In late 2001 and the beginning of 2002, for example, a loose cease-fire declared by Yasir Arafat led to a period of very few Israeli deaths, but sustained Palestinian deaths— and the American media repeatedly referred to it as a time of “relative calm” (FAIR Action Alert, 1/10/02, 2/5/02).

In order to convey the Mideast crisis in all its complexity, journalists need to take seriously the violence suffered by all communities. References to “relative calm” while Palestinians are being routinely killed only serve to trivialize human life and obscure the cycle of violence that afflicts the region.