The New York Times’ coverage of Operation “Days of Penitence” in Gaza

A Palestinian home destroyed during Israel’s “Operation Days of Penitence”, Beit Lahiya, Norther Gaza Strip. (Photo: PCHR)

It is difficult to say when The New York Times abandoned its journalistic ethics to write about Israel. In late 1985, the Times was probably the last progressive newspaper to acknowledge that Joan Peters’ bestseller history on Israel, From Time Immemorial, was a pre-meditated fraud. After escalating accusations of censorship from the British press, the Times’ finally ran an admission on the theatre page of the Thanksgiving Day issue, with no index listing.[1]

Shift forward to 2001, when a study revealed that 25 of the Times’ 33 op-eds published during the first four months of the new Intifada were pro-Israeli, while only six were sympathetic to Palestinian views.[2] Meanwhile, pundits on the left, such as the UK’s Tariq Ali, continually criticize the Times for reporting Israeli policies less critically than Ha’aretz or the Jerusalem Post.

As recently as August 15, 2004, the Times’ James Bennet, now safely home from his three-year tour as the Jerusalem bureau chief, authored an epic hagiography of Ariel Sharon that appeared on the cover of the Times’ Sunday magazine. Not one of Bennet’s 8,692 words alluded to the 20,000 civilians killed in Sharon’s 1982 bombing of Beirut; nor did Bennett’s research cover Sharon’s missives to South Africa’s apartheid regime, urging them to beef up their military. Rather, Bennet’s Sharon “is Andrew Jackson, George Patton, Robert Moses.”

(Got a Nexis password and an afternoon to kill? Paste the text of that article into a Word document, and replace every “Ariel Sharon” with “P.W. Botha”; every “Gaza” with “Soweto”; and so on. See how it reads.)

Are claims of media bias so outrageous?

One need not look further than the present, Gaza’s “Red October”. To date, Israeli forces have killed over 140 Palestinians, while some ten-times that number are homeless and starving. For the most part, the Times has its snake oils out again. A few exceptions stand out, like the vaguely balanced and grimly titled feature by Steven Erlanger, “Intifada’s Legacy at Year 4: A Morass of Faded Hopes”; or the October 4 op-ed by Michael Tarazi, which, unlike other Times op-eds, was pulled from the Web site and transfered to the “pay per view” archive the following day.

But the Times’ deception, which is probably more pathological than intentional, is not blatant. A notable example was Greg Myre’s October 5 report, “Palestinian Rockets Miss Some Targets, but Hit Israeli Nerves.” The piece opens with an almost comical description of the homemade Qassam rockets used by Palestinian militants: “In flight, the rocket’s trajectory is so random it often misses the Israeli town that is its target.”

Although this is a very effective way to characterize the crudeness of Palestinian weaponry, Myre immediately moves on to describe the rockets as a “constant threat to the southern Israeli town of Sederot,” and holds these rocket attacks responsible for “prompt[ing] the largest Israeli military operation into the Gaza Strip.”

In so many words, Myre has said that Palestinians choose careless weapons to conduct slapdash assaults – as any terrorists would – and have only themselves to blame for the consequences. If this is the extent of Myre’s introduction, he has failed his readers.

Myre omits the fact that Palestine has never had a formal army, much less a sophisticated arsenal. He then uses the semantics of conventional warfare to say that Israel’s offensive is an attempt to “at least drive [the militants] back,” as if they had a visible front.

In the following paragraph, Myre lists the casualties from the past six days of “clashes,” citing “more than 60 Palestinians” killed (The Guardian said 68; the Palestinian Red Cross Society counted 75), which included a 14-year-old girl and a 4-year-old boy. Myre gives no qualification for the 60+ deaths, and indicates that the girl and boy were killed “in fighting Monday.” The boy was actually shot while helping his mother in the kitchen, the PRCS said.

Presumably, seven of Myre’s reported casualties were the boys who were obliterated by a tank shell that landed near a school in Jabaliya, but a Times reader wouldn’t know it. A Times reader might know that Israel’s stat-of-the-art tanks have precision aim, unlike Qassam rockets.

In reality, Myre’s “clashes” involved some 200 tanks and 2,000 soldiers, according to Israeli news estimates, against a virtually defenseless population. Despite the countless, documented instances in which Israel has used collective punishment, targeted children, or used Palestinian civilians as human shields, Myre reports this illegal incursion like it was the first of its kind.

Lost in the wake of Myre’s war tale is a rather important question: why was Sederot a target? Israeli settlements, like Sederot, are procured by Israel’s Defense Ministry, whose policy – unless something has suddenly changed – is to surround, expropriate and ethnically cleanse Arab-owned lands. (This is one reason Sharon sounds absurd when he criticizes Yasser Arafat for not being a willing peace partner.) In short, the settlements are an aspect of Israel’s colonial military front. Sederot’s residents, especially their children, don’t deserve to be killed by Qassam rockets. They also don’t deserve to be used as proxy weapons.

Of course, by ignoring the broader narrative of colonization and resistance, Myre looks like an inexperienced fisherman who tries every lure in the tackle box. First he explores what has worked as “effective countermeasures to a wide variety of Palestinian attacks.” Naturally, Myre cites the “West Bank barrier that Israel credits with greatly reducing the suicide bombings.”

It does not seem too important to Myre – that is, he does not mention – that this “barrier” is, in fact, a 25-foot-high wall, and that it was recently condemned by the International Court of Justice for serving not as a security barrier, but as a land-grab device. Nor is it noteworthy that the desperation inherent in suicide bombers might result from their legitimate worry that they face physical and cultural annihilation at the hands of a “state” that is immune to international law.

So it comes as little surprise when Myre concludes that Qassam rockets have, to some extent, replaced suicide bombers. Here, it would be logical for Myre’s story to take a new direction. For instance, he could interview people who can articulate why this violence persists, or how it first took root.

Instead, Myre gives more examples of countermeasure tactics: “Israel has repeatedly raided northern Gaza, tearing down buildings and bulldozing orchards…” But that hasn’t worked either!

Myre then presumes that the blame goes to “the Palestinian leadership, [which] has made no serious effort to prevent rocket fire.” (Bennett also made this mistake in his July 16, 2004 feature, “Isolated and Angry, Gaza Battles Itself, Too,” which measured the Palestinian Authority’s success in terms of how well they served US and Israeli interests.)

From this point, little remains of Myre’s story that contributes to a sensible conclusion. One side acts, the other reacts, and this correspondent cannot grasp the full equation. In the end, Myre misses some targets, and hits his readers’ nerves.

1. Finkelstein, Norman G. Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict. Verso. London and New York. 1995.
2. Abunimah, Ali; Hussein, Ibish. “The US Media and the New Intifada” The New Intifada Verso. London and New York, 2001.

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    Zachary Wales works with the New York Chapter of Al-Awda, the Palestinian Right of Return Coalition. He moved to New York in October 2003 after working in Namibia and South Africa for four years as a media research consultant and news correspondent.