Letter from Ma’ariv Editor Justifies Lack of Gaza Beach Coverage

Palestinian women watching the funeral of three children and other family members killed yesterday in Israeli shelling of the northern Gaza Strip’s seafront, in the town of Beit Lahiya June 10, 2006. Palestinian officials said Israeli air strikes and artillery fire had killed 10 Palestinians, including three children and on a crowded Gaza beach, the highest Palestinian death toll in a single day since late 2004. (MaanImages/Wesam Saleh)

Below is a translation of correspondence between Keshev, an Israeli organisation that monitors the Hebrew media, and Amnon Dankner, the editor of Israel’s second largest newspaper, Ma’ariv. It offers an illuminating insight into the news priorities of an Israeli national newspaper, and why Israeli readers are so often misinformed about what is being done in their name in the Occupied Territories.

Keshev wrote to Dankner after the paper failed to offer coverage on its front page of the shelling of a beach in Gaza on Friday 9 June that killed seven members of one family and caused dozens of injuries. All of the Palestinian dead were civilians. Maariv buried the details of the deaths inside the Sunday paper, the first to be published after the incident.

Dankner’s main defence of his action in his letter is that he preferred to give space to the story of an American Jewish student who was abducted in Nablus. The student was released unharmed a short time later. Dankner says, however, that, if asked whether the abduction and possible danger to one Jew were more important than the known deaths of seven Palestinians in Gaza, “My answer is a resounding Yes”. To paraphrase Dankner, he believes his first duty is to his own kind, or “the people of our own city” as he puts it. His duty to search out the truth, or just to provide important information, obviously come far lower in his list of priorities.

It is also worth noting that his argument implies he considers the deaths in Gaza less important than the two other stories on the front page: one on the World Cup, and the other on a cat that does not provoke allergies.

Dankner justifies his editorial decision in several other ways that do not accord with normal journalistic practice. He suggests that Maariv had a prior sense that the Israeli army was not responsible for the missile that killed the family on Gaza’s beach. At the time of the deaths he was “unconvinced” of Israeli responsibility and now congratulates himself for forseeing that the army would subsequently deny that they fired the lethal rocket.

He believes that it is inevitable that Palestinian civilians will be hurt in the fighting, given how crowded Palestinian areas are, and that his editing of the paper “takes this into account” — presumably meaning that he doesn’t think such injuries or deaths merit much attention.

And he calls Keshev’s demand that the paper inform its readers about the deaths of civilians in the occupied territories “hysterical”, labelling Keshev an “extremist organisation”. He argues that exposing the Israeli army to this sort of criticism “weakens” it.

Dankner’s response poses more questions than it answers about the standards of Ma’ariv’s journalism.

First, why is Dankner using the army’s later denials to justify retroactively his decision? How could he have known that the early reports of the Israeli army shelling of the beach might be disputed when Israeli spokespeople were still apologising for the deaths? Does he possess a sixth sense, and is this the basis of his editorial decisions? And, in any case, what difference would it make if there was genuine doubt about the Israeli army having shelled the beach? Does that mean the deaths are no longer newsworthy, and that Maariv has no public duty to report prominently the debate about who is responsible?

Second, why as the editor of a national newspaper is Dankner so ready to accept without question the story now being offered by the Israeli army? Obviously the army has a strong interest, as does the Israeli government, in deflecting responsibility for the deaths to the Palestinians and trying to reverse the damage done to Israel’s image. A leading expert from the Pentagon on the battlefield effects of weapons has already dismissed the Israeli version as implausible after conducting field research. Is Dankner incapable of keeping his own critical distance when examining the evidence? And does he also not believe that at the very minimum this evidence ought to be placed before readers?

Third, why does Dankner think it “hysterical” to want Palestinian deaths covered? Is this related to his view that such coverage will increase criticism of the army and thereby weaken it? And does this mean that Dankner’s first priority as editor is to shield the army from criticism by censoring his paper’s coverage?

Dankner argues that his duty of responsibility as editor means he must take “a more reserved approach” than Keshev. This apparently means preventing his readers from having the information necessary to reach their own conclusions about the nature of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinians.

Letter from Keshev to Amnon Dankner

June 11, 2006
Mr. Amnon Dankner
Editor, Ma’ariv

Dear Sir,

We wish to strongly protest at the manner in which the newspaper Ma’ariv presented, in its edition of 11 June, the serious incident in which seven members of one Palestinian family were killed, and many other injured, on the beach at Beit Lahiya, Gaza, on 9 June.

The major communication media, both printed and electronic, in Israel and worldwide, devoted extensive time and space to a review of the tragedy at Gaza and its implications. The two other large Israeli newspapers, Yediot Aharonot and Haaretz, devoted their front pages to the incident and mentioned it in their headlines. They related to the event very seriously — from the humanitarian aspect, from the incident’s possible contribution to the escalation of the conflict, and from the aspect of the hard questions which need to be asked concerning the IDF’s [Israeli army’s] functioning with respect to the incident. We regret to say that the same cannot be said for Ma’ariv.

The newspaper’s front page made no mention of the incident. Just so. Instead, room was found on the front page to report a state of readiness for attacks (for which no explanation was given), the World Cup, and even a headline on a “non-allergenic cat”. The tragedy in Gaza appears on page 2 of the paper, in an indirect mention by Palestinian spokesmen on the killing of innocents, and on page 3 — as part of some commentaries. The first factual report on the incident appears only on page 4.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance of these facts: As part of our ongoing monitoring of Israeli reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, editing patterns of decisive significance are repeatedly seen: giving prominence or downplaying news items in newspapers and news editions have an immense effect on the awareness of media consumers. Removing the Gaza incident from the front page of Ma’ariv sends an unequivocal message to readers: This is an event of limited importance. In order to understand the bloody cycle of this conflict, and to find ways of ending it, we must also look at ourselves. In its edition of 11 June, Ma’ariv prevented its readers from taking that necessary look.

Lastly, on page 7 of the same edition, a unique headline appeared, which we found nowhere in any other Israeli publication. The headline said: “Despite the bombing of Gaza, the firing of Kassams has not lessened.” The secondary heading said: “The country’s money is being wasted for nothing.” (Quotation marks in the original.) There you have it, deep inside the newspaper, appears a most significant criticism, from military sources, of the operation in Gaza and its implications. It is important, but one could have expected Ma’ariv to publish such a headline on its front page. Perhaps even at the expense of the “non-allergenic cat”. If Ma’ariv had done so, it would have made a great contribution to its readers’ understanding of the reality of their lives.

Dr Daniel Dor
Mr Yizhar Beer

Letter from Amnon Dankner to Keshev

June 12, 2006
Dr Daniel Dor
Mr Yizhar Beer

Dear Sirs,

I really, and sincerely, approve of the existence of various entities wishing to promote various agendas in the media because I believe in the blooming of a thousand flowers, and also in the saying “I have learned from all my teachers”. One does not always see everything, and it is a good thing that there are entities who place mirrors from various angles, and make critical comments from which one can often learn and even correct one’s conduct accordingly. Even when such entities have agendas that are foreign to my way of thinking, and which I find irritating. I am not one of those who believe they know it all, and are always right, and it is good to stop and think, and I always thank those who encourage me to do so. Having said all that, I cannot accept the complaint in your letter to me of yesterday, neither its content not its tone.

The Ma’ariv edition you mentioned is the second edition, received by only some of the readers, and was issued hurriedly at a late hour, after we had learned of the kidnap of the Jewish student in Shechem [Nablus]. The edition received by the majority of readers contained a serious and comprehensive review, on the first page, of the incident on the Gaza beach. Was it still necessary to edit the first page of the second edition otherwise, to give the Gaza beach incident prominence? In my opinion — No. Is certain danger to a kidnapped Jew more interesting and important than the Palestinians who were killed? My answer is — a resounding Yes. The “poor people of your own city come first”, and not only do I believe that such a topic is more interesting to our readers — it is more interesting to me, and in my opinion the implications of this case, if it had developed in bad directions, would have been more serious and extensive than the incident on the Gaza beach. Luckily, the matter ended well, however when we were dealing with the second edition, in view of the worrying news, we could not have known that.

But I do not want to hide behind this explanation, which presents only part of the picture, and from our viewpoint at Ma’ariv, on the matter you raised in your letter. I hope that you will also not hide behind some of the wording in your letter, and I hope you will admit that when you wrote it you were convinced that the killing and injuries on the Gaza beach were the result of IDF activities. It is sad, but true, that we were not so convinced, and today we are even less certain. I recommend to you to comply with what you wrote in your letter — “We must also look at ourselves”, and really look at yourselves and your letter to me, and you will notice the attitude peeping out of it that Israel is certainly suspect and responsible for the incident.

The duty of caution and responsibility dictates a more reserved approach on our part than an organization with such an extreme agenda as yours permits itself. We, of course, will neither distort nor twist, nor shall we make concessions for the IDF where it operates inappropriately. However, on the other hand, we will not act hysterically, with unnecessary self-flagellation, casting unfounded accusations and creating the impression that our hands are covered in blood.

Ma’ariv’s editing line takes into account that we are fighting a battle against enemies operating out of closely populated areas, thus sentencing the region to the danger of unnecessary injury, to both the injured and the injurers. Our editing line takes into account the situation in which being dragged into unexamined accusations and piling uncalled-for invectives on the head of the security forces weaken them and us in this bloody struggle whose end is nowhere to be seen and is unknown. On the other hand, all management personnel at Ma’ariv will be able to tell you how, in cases in which the security forces or the settlers have obviously caused injustice and willful damage to Palestinians, such as cutting down olive trees or cruel ill-treatment or murder, I was careful not to let go of the affairs and wrote about them until the matters were clarified and the guilty brought to justice. All as the case may be and as the circumstances warrant.

Amnon Dankner

I’lam Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel is a non-profit organization based in Nazareth. It was founded in 2000, by a group of Arab journalists and academics. As the only Arab Palestinian media organization in Israel, I’lam is deeply committed to the democratization of media policies, media practices, and the media landscape in Israel.