Nablus bullets ricochet in Hartford

When Richard “Ricky” Greenfield bought the Connecticut Jewish Ledger weekly in 1994, the former senior managing director of Bear Sterns didn’t realize he was also buying into a long-term ideological battle with the Nutmeg State’s biggest daily newspaper, The Hartford Courant.

But that’s more or less how things have turned out.

The latest skirmish can be traced directly to Nablus and the death on Friday, October 11, of a 60-year-old Palestinian woman named Shaden Abu Hijleh.

The following Wednesday, Greenfield and the Ledger’s veteran managing editor Lisa Lenkiewicz were stunned to read a paid, unsigned obituary addressed to the Courant’s 207,511 daily readers that read in part: “Condolences are offered to the family and friends of Shaden Abu Hijleh, who was shot dead in her home in Nablus, Palestine, by an Israeli occupation soldier on Friday. Shaden Abu Hijleh was sitting in front of her glass balcony inside her house with her husband, Dr. Jamal Abu Hijleh, and her son Saed, a professor of social geography at Najah University in Nablus, when she was shot. According to her family members, an Israeli jeep stopped in front of the family’s house, a soldier got out, went to the back of the jeep, picked up a weapon and opened fire at the Abu Hijlehs.”

Lenkiewicz describes her reaction: “I thought it was political propaganda and not a proper death notice. The ‘news’ about her death, if the Courant thought it was a news story, should have been told in the news section of the paper, not in a paid death notice.”

She continues: “Every week here at the Ledger, we run a page called ‘We Should Not Forget.’ On that page, we put a picture and brief write-up of every person killed in Israel as a result of Palestinian violence. The Jewish community does not take out paid death notices in the Courant for each of these people, with information about how they were blown up eating pizza! Would the Courant accept such death notices? I think this was an error in judgment, and another example of how the Courant uses poor judgment when it comes to stories about Israel.”

Greenfield says he was “in the office around 9 a.m. when someone brought the obituary to me, and at almost the same time the phone started ringing. Michael Weinstein, who manages the local funeral chapel, said ‘did you see…’”

For the 73-year-old Ledger, which reaches 14,000 Jewish homes and is frequently at odds with the Courant’s editorial policies on the Arab-Israel conflict, this obituary opened a new chapter in what Greenfield says is the Courant’s “virulent campaign against the Jewish state.”

GREENFIELD says the latest episode is part of a string of run-ins that he traces to the arrival in the early 1990s of Courant columnist Amy Pagnozzi. But elements in the Jewish community had been monitoring the daily’s Middle East coverage since the 1982 war in Lebanon.

Local Jewish leaders met in April with the Courant’s publisher, Jack Davis, editor Brian Toolan, and John Zakarian, the editorial page editor, to complain about anti-Israel bias. Several dozen members of the Jewish community subsequently met at Congregation Agudas Achim in West Hartford, where calls were heard for a boycott of the Courant.

A recent American Jewish Committee study of The Hartford Courant concluded that the paper showed a “general pattern of bias against Israel” during a six-month period from October 2001 to March 2002. The report charged that the Courant printed a disproportionate number of photos highlighting Palestinian over Israeli suffering. Some photos had no connection to the accompanying coverage. For instance, a picture showing a well-dressed Palestinian running from a bombed-out building was selected by Courant editors to illustrate an article about US President George W. Bush’s decision to freeze the assets of terrorist groups.

The study said that the Courant - which is owned by the LA Times-Mirror syndicate - makes a habit of including “articles that focus on the devastation of Palestinian Authority areas, and only at the end of the article is there an explanation that the attack took place in retaliation for suicide bombings.”

The Courant has also run articles that make unattributed accusations against Israel, according to the study. A November 7, 2001 piece charged Israel with executing wounded Palestinians. There was no attribution for this allegation, and it was never followed up.

Courant columnist Pagnozzi has asked her readers to “not forget the American-Israel ethnic cleansing venture to rid Palestine of Palestinians.”

Greenfield has also taken the Courant to task for how it is handling the Bush administration’s dealings with Iraq. “There is an insensitivity toward Jews. They did a front-page feature about local groups opposed to the war, and then juxtaposed a headline that essentially implied ‘Jews favor war.’”

THE OBITUARY, it turns out, was placed anonymously by Gale Courey Toensing, 56, of Canaan, wife of the chairman of the Connecticut board of education, Craig Toensing. What motivated Toensing, an Arab-American, to pay $ 300 for the notice was a posting by Amer Abdelhadi “writing from Nablus, occupied Palestine” on a Web site called Electronic Intifada Diaries.

“The reason I did it was so people would know what’s going on there,” Toensing told the Courant after her involvement became public.

The true circumstances of Hijleh’s death remain obscured by the fog of war, though the IDF says it has launched a serious investigation. Much of what the world initially knew about the incident came from the Web site report by Abdelhadi, who describes himself as “General Manager of Radio Tariq Al Mahabbeh” in Nablus.

He writes: “It is true that many Palestinians have been murdered, slaughtered and massacred, but Shaden’s killing seems somehow more brutal and shocking.” Hijleh was “murdered in cold blood” while knitting on the veranda of her home. “Her husband Dr. Jamal and her son Saed, an engineer, who were also sitting near her, were injured but have survived their shrapnel wounds.”

Abdelhadi continues: “The soldiers who committed this war crime in front of dozens of eye witnesses have denied being in the area or at the scene of the shooting. They claim they were not the ones who pulled the triggers. Saed, after managing to sending his mother to hospital before the jeeps returned, was about to be taken to hospital himself when the army jeeps returned and stopped again in the spot where they had earlier committed the crime. Saed leaned out of a window and asked them, ‘Why did you shoot my mother? Why don’t you try to kill all of us? We are civilians! Why, why, why?!’ His shirt was stained with blood at the time. It was obvious that he was one of their victims. The soldier got down from his jeep, raised his gun and aimed, shouting, ‘Go, go before I shoot again!’”

When Toensing approached the Courant with the obituary, the paper says it confirmed the killing from an October 11 New York Times account and didn’t think it appropriate to edit a paid notice.

“People want to honor a person’s life, and we try to respect that,” Ken DeLisa, the Courant’s corporate affairs manager, said in a follow-up story, “We felt the New York Times was a credible source.”

At any rate, Zakarian told The Jerusalem Post that “the decision to accept the paid ad was made by the advertising department; no one in the news or editorial departments knew about it. News subsequently wrote a story on the controversy, but that’s the extent of it.”

The Times account reported that the victim’s son, “who witnessed the shooting, said a soldier in a jeep had fired at the house without provocation.” Further on in the story, published October 14 and headlined “In Letter to Sharon, US Criticizes Killing of Civillians,” reporter Joel Greenberg wrote that, “hundreds of mourners joined the funeral of Shaden Abu Hijleh, 60, who was killed by Israeli gunfire as she sat on her veranda on Friday evening during a curfew.”

LENKOWITCZ assigned reporter Stacey Dresner to cover the local Jewish reaction, turning the 400-word death notice that ran in the Courant on page B8 into the Ledger’s main story of the week.

She found local Jewish reaction predictable.

“When the obituary was brought to my attention, I was shocked, angry and upset. It was political propaganda, and I haven’t seen anything like this in a local newspaper before,” Jann Renert, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Connecticut chapter, told Dresner.

Adam Schupack, assistant director of the Connecticut regional office of the Anti-Defamation League told the Ledger reporter that “The use of such language strikes us as extremely unusual in a newspaper obituary. We would be very distressed to learn that the Courant’s obituary page has become a forum for political propaganda.”

Cathy Schwartz, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford, told the Ledger that her office received numerous calls after the obit appeared.

“This is an effective tactic for pro-Palestinians to use to generate anti-Israel sentiment. Obits are the most read part of the newspaper, and because it is paid advertising, there is little if any editorial oversight,” she said.

Next, Dresner spoke to Karen Hunter, the Courant’s reader representative, who acknowledged that the paper received about 15 phone calls complaining about the obituary. Meanwhile, Mark Aldam, the Courant’s general manager, told Dresner that the obit “was unusual enough to involve a number of managers in the process of accepting the ad. It is highly unusual that we receive that much detail concerning the circumstances of someone’s death. We were concerned about the validity of the description, and took every effort to validate the sources.”

But Aldam argued that since the obituary was a paid ad “the party placing the obituary has a bit more latitude in terms of how they want to memorialize the deceased.”

GREENFIELD also took aim at the Courant in an editorial that began: “The Hartford Courant expresses its bias against Israel in a number of ways - in the headlines of its stories; in what they choose to cover and what they omit; what pictures they print and the captions they use; by the people they quote and those they never call; and with an op-ed page that mirrors its editorial policy instead of presenting alternatives to it. That an unrelenting objection to Israel’s existence is embedded in Connecticut’s largest newspaper is hardly debatable anymore, but now the Courant has gone even further.”

Now, the Ledger’s editorial charged, the obituary pages of the Courant, “like the rest of the paper,” exhibit a “toxic bias against Israel.”

The editorial went on to say: “Recently, the Courant made judgments about accepting an ad from the Hemlock Society, a group that advocates assisted suicide. At first the Courant refused the ad, but then it changed its policy. The media wrestles with these dilemmas all the time. We don’t know how much wrestling the Courant did about the Hijleh obituary, but the decision came out all wrong.”

IN A telephone interview with the Jerusalem Post, Sa’ed Abu Hijleh says he does not want his mother’s death used for propaganda purposes. He is aware of the Connecticut obituary and the controversy surrounding it, but for him, the story is his mother’s “murder” - she died in his hands - and not the discomfiture of the Jewish community.

“I have studied in the US, have Jewish friends, and I was never against Jews or Judaism.”

Acknowledging inaccuracies in the obituary, Abu Hijleh says nevertheless: “Why is the reaction of the Jewish community always denial? They should sympathize. Instead of denying the truth, they should start saying ‘no’ to the occupation.”

Turning to the specifics of the killing, he insists: “This murder happened. They committed the crime.”

The obituary’s assertion that “an Israeli jeep stopped in front of the family’s house, a soldier got out, went to the back of the jeep, picked up a weapon and opened fire at the Abu Hijlehs” is not accurate, he says. But “my mom was killed in cold blood.”

According to Sa’ed, at dusk that Friday - around 5: 40 p.m., just after the call to Muslim prayer - two IDF jeeps pulled up in front of the family’s villa in the middle- class neighborhood of Rafeedia in west Nablus.

The house, he says, is set back about 30 meters from the street. A glass balcony fronts the home.

The town had been under curfew all day, and the street was calm. The family - Sa’ed, his mother and father - were sitting in the well-illuminated balcony, and his mother was doing “Palestinian embroidery.”

Two jeeps, heading west on 15th Street, stopped nearby. “With no warning, no provocation, they opened fire.” Sa’ed and his father were hit by flying glass, his mother was felled by automatic weapons fire.

“I felt the bullets miss me. The glass debris hit me in the neck. I fell on the floor. I was thinking, ‘I’ve been shot.’ Even now, I cannot believe they shot from inside the jeep, from the back of the jeep.”

Hearing the shots and screams, neighbors came rushing to see what had happened. One took Shaden Abu Hijleh to Rafeedia Hospital, while Sa’ed got into the car of another neighbor. “The neighbors risked their lives despite the curfew” to drive to the hospital.”

By then, the jeeps had turned around and, Sa’ed says, he came “face to face” with the soldiers.

He removed his bloody shirt and was screaming hysterically - he thinks in English, but maybe in Arabic - “don’t shoot… don’t kill me.”

Sa’ed continues: “I got out of the car. One soldier opened the front door, but held it as a shield. He aimed at me” and motioned Sa’ed to move back. “They shot two bullets in the air, got back in the jeep and drove away.”

Told that the Connecticut Jewish community was incredulous at the obituary’s brutal description of events, and might find his narrative difficult to accept, Sa’ed reiterated that he had nothing to do with the death notice, but added: “The soldier who shot saw us sitting peacefully. He simply had no regard for Palestinian life.”

He also says the family is discussing how best to proceed, but that it would file a formal complaint with the IDF. So far, he says, no one from the army has spoken to the family.

GREENFIELD says that the Ledger deplores any loss of life, “and our sympathies go out to the Hiljeh family. If the facts are as her son has stated, then it compounds our sadness.”

But for him, Hijleh’s death “is unfortunately another casualty of a war that is as senseless as it is brutal. But the fact remains that using a tragedy as political propaganda is unacceptable. The Courant used the obituary pages as a stage for what should have been a news story. The facts conveyed in the paid death notice may or may not be true, but the obituary page is not the place to argue them out.”

Meanwhile, Greenfield says, “We are inured to the Courant. It’s like living next to a volcano. It erupts often, and as a weekly paper with fewer resources and less space - and a statewide constituency that probably tires and says ‘that’s Hartford’s problem’ - we don’t rise to every insult.”

For their part, the Courant’s Ken DeLisa, while maintaining that there was nothing wrong with the way in which the obituary was handled, now says: “One obituary of this nature does not set a policy. If we were to receive requests for similar paid obituary notices that were of a frequency that was out of the ordinary, we would certainly take heed and question the motives of the person(s) placing the paid obituary notices as part of our decision whether or not to accept the notices.”