Time to put the US media on trial for complicity in genocide?

Palestinian family members in the wake of Israel’s “Operation Rainbow” in Rafah. (Johannes Abeling)

Following pressure from the Israeli public, international condemnations and a UN resolution, and a flurry of rare coverage of Rafah from American cable news networks, Israel’s “Operation Rainbow” was ‘concluded’ in Rafah on 24 May 2004. According to Israel at least.

Since then, during a one week period in Rafah (27 May-2 June 2004), Israel destroyed another 39 Palestinian homes, leaving at least another 485 Palestinian civilians homeless, and razed another 24 dunums[1] of Palestinian land.

Google News continuously crawls more than 4,500 news sources from around the world, yet a search for the keyword “Rafah” shows that, beyond the Israeli press, supplementary news websites such as the Electronic Intifada, and a handful of US newspapers, coverage of the latest demolitions following “Operation Rainbow” has been minimal, particularly in the United States.

CNN’s most recently published article on Rafah “Israelis: IDF forces out of Rafah camp” is dated Monday 24 May 2004, and reads as if it were an Israeli government press release:

JERUSALEM (CNN) — Israeli military officials said Monday evening that all Israeli troops and tanks have withdrawn from Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza, marking the end of Operation Rainbow.

The officials said that during the operation three arms-smuggling tunnels under the border into Egypt were found and destroyed, 40 armed militants were killed, and other wanted militants were arrested.

Twelve civilians were killed and 56 buildings were destroyed during the mission, according to the officials.

The article, credited to CNN’s Jerusalem Bureau, is a good example of CNN’s lack of credibility in covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The fact that this “It’s all over in Rafah” article is the most recent article that CNN.com’s search engine or archive returns for the keyword “Rafah” — when the following week was characterised by massive Israeli violence against Palestinian civilians and their property — says much about CNN’s priorities in covering stories in which Palestinians are the victims, and not Israelis.

One is left imagining that CNN’s editors took the Israelis at their word, and ceased their Rafah coverage after being told it was ‘all over’.

Jarringly, at no point in the article does CNN even consult any Palestinian sources for comment, only a variety of “Israeli military officials” and senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Ra’anan Gissin.

And then there’s the problem with statistics.

The statistics

In the 24 May 2004 article, CNN’s total reliance on Israeli military sources for the grim statistical tally of the human cost of “Operation Rainbow” is unacceptable for any international media organisation that claims balanced coverage.

Israel claims that during the 13–24 May 2004 “Operation Rainbow” (which saw a brief pause between May 15-17), that 40 “armed [Palestinian] militants” and 12 Palestinian civilians were killed, and 56 buildings were demolished. No figure for the number of injured Palestinians or land razed was given.

During the same period, fieldworkers from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, based in Gaza, recorded that “56 Palestinians, 45 of whom are civilians, including 10 children, were killed and at least 200 others were injured”

PCHR continues to note that “220 houses were completely destroyed and 140 others were partially destroyed, leaving 4,847 people (821 families) homeless. 220 of these houses were destroyed in al-Brazil and al-Salam neighborhoods, 9 in Um al-Nasser village, north of Rafah, 15 in Qeshta and al-Sha’er neighborhoods and 128 in Tal al-Sultan neighborhood. At least 700 donums[1] of agricultural land were razed, and 46 shops, several civilian facilities, including a mosque and cemeteries, and the civilian infrastructure were destroyed.”[2]

CNN vs. Reality: “Operation Rainbow” statistics
Deaths (Civilians) Deaths (“armed militants”) Buildings Demolished No. of Homeless Land Razed
Israel/CNN 12 40 56 No mention No mention
PCHR 45 11 220 homes (complete), 140 homes (partial), 46 shops 4,847 people 700 dunums[1]
Israel/CNN Disparity -33 +29 -350 -4,847 -700 dunums[1]

CNN’s reliance on Israeli sources for what happened during “Operation Rainbow” and its lack of attention to what happened after the operation, convey a grossly misleading impression of recent events in Rafah. Regardless of how this came to be, CNN’s selective coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict undeniably acts to obscure the true scale of Israel’s genocidal policies in Rafah, just one Palestinian area among many that suffers ongoing Israeli attacks.

CNN’s record

For years, EI team members and correspondents have approached CNN executives privately and in public action items with specific examples such as the one above, with no real improvement in the network’s coverage. To date, CNN has been called on:

  • Describing periods in which many Palestinians but no Israelis were killed as “relative calm” or “comparative calm”. (See FAIR’s advisory about exactly the same issue during another period.)
  • Reporting on events in which Israelis were killed while ignoring simultaneous events in which Palestinians were killed
  • Misrepresenting the facts of where Israel’s West Bank barrier runs, again and again
  • Using misleading terminology to describe Israel’s West Bank barrier
  • Presenting attacks on Israeli military positions in occupied territory as if the the target was located inside Israel’s borders
  • Failing to report that the Israeli cabinet formed by Ariel Sharon in February 2003 included parties with an ethnic cleansing platform
  • Falsely claiming that Al-Qaida was loose in Gaza
  • Falsely portraying an attack on Israeli soldiers in occupied Hebron as a massacre of “worshippers”
  • Claiming that two Palestinian children killed in an Israeli attack were “bodyguards”
  • Covering the 30th anniversary of the Munich Olympics massacre while ignoring the 20th anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacre
  • Describing lethal rubber-coated metal bullets with the diminutive term “rubber bullets”
  • Repeating Israeli claims that all Palestinians inside the Church of the Nativity during the siege were “armed”
  • Portraying a period of intense violence perpetrated by Jewish settlers as taking place by both sides
  • Under-reporting the number of Palestinians killed
  • Producing a lavish series and website on “Israeli victims of terror” without mentioning in either the killing of more than 1,000 Palestinian civilians, one quarter of them children, and the 19,452 Palestinians injured
  • Promoting misleading Israeli documents as proving a link between Arafat and suicide bombings
  • Correspondent Jerrold Kessel presenting the existence of the Israeli military occupation as a Palestinian ‘point of view’ and again
  • Referring to the West Bank and Gaza Strip as part of Israel
  • Misrepresenting the Nakba as an anti-Israeli protest instead of a Palestinian commemoration
  • Describing the occupied territories as “disputed territories”, in defiance of their international legal status

    CNN: “jingoistic, amateurish, shallow, and speculation-crazy”

    In a 13 January 2003 article entitled ‘Lovely Outrage’ on TomPaine.com, award-winning journalist Russ Baker reported on a media training visit he made to Belgrade. Baker wrote:

    Vladimir Milic, a producer with Mreka, a news production company, expressed the group’s disillusionment succinctly:

    “What a paradox: the United States is the global leader, yet you can’t find information about the world your country controls.”

    To Milic, local TV news programs — where statistics show most Americans get their “news” — came across as bewilderingly provincial. He swears he saw a segment labeled “international news” that featured a story on… Nevada.

    He’s right, of course: Frontline aficionados to the contrary, most Americans today are woefully uninformed about the world in general compared to their Serbian counterparts — who know not only a lot about the United States, but about scores of other countries.

    Even CNN, America’s premier showcase for international news, struck the Serbian journalists as jingoistic, amateurish, shallow, and speculation-crazy, especially when compared to the generally calm and thoughtful BBC. As for the Fox News Channel, its daily fare sounded suspiciously like the rabidly nationalistic, pro-Milosevic propaganda the Serbs are still trying to flush out of the system here.

    The unaccountability of the media

    Unlike the UK, which has a Press Complaints Commission, there is no ethics mechanism in the US through which inaccurate and distorted coverage can be challenged, beyond direct appeals to the media organisations to self-regulate or suing them in court (which is almost impossible due to a requirement that the media organisation’s intent is proven to be “malicious”).

    Palestinians and Israelis continue to die because citizens of the US — the country that intervenes more than any other to perpetuate the status quo on the ground — are offered a grossly distorted account of events on the ground that gives them no real sense of the imbalance of power between the two sides in the conflict, no idea of the extent of the US role in the conflict, and little impetus to call for a more even-handed US foreign policy in the Middle East.

    It is hard to quantify in absolute terms, but most regular readers of the extremely detailed Palestinian Center for Human Rights’ Weekly Reports on Israeli Human Rights Violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories would be willing to make a safe guess that somewhere in the region of 98% of the violence perpetrated against all civilians in the conflict is violence perpetrated by Israel against Palestinian civilians, their property, and their land.

    Consumers of the US media can be forgiven for concluding that the majority of violence is perpetuated by Palestinians against Israeli civilians, as this violence receives grossly disproportionate coverage.

    In the same way that Serbian state television was considered complicit in Serbian war crimes by communicating a distorted view to its people of the decade-ago conflict in the former Yugoslavia, it is time that people begin to consider the culpability of the US media.

    In the case of CNN’s coverage of Palestine, the lie is one of omission. The effect of the majority of US news coverage is to promote an unbalanced view of who is perpetrating the violence, which has the potential to affect reality in disturbing ways.

    The effect

    Since the beginning of the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, American politicians, entertainers, and religious groups have gone on record calling for genocide of the Palestinian people[4]. On 18 October 2003, The Forward reported that:

    Thousands of Evangelical Christians waving Israeli flags cheered last week as Knesset member Benny Elon called for the “relocation” of Palestinians from the West Bank into Jordan.

    The enthusiastic crowd at the annual convention of the Christian Coalition in Washington also cheered House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, who urged activists to back pro-Israel candidates who “stand unashamedly for Jesus Christ.”

    Elon, whose Moledet Party advocates the “transfer” of Palestinians to Arab countries,said that a “resettlement” of the Palestinians is prescribed by the Bible.[3]

    Similarly, on 22 February 2002, EI reported that Emanuel A. Winston wrote an article in USA TODAY that expressed extreme racist sentiments towards Arabs and advocated the “resettlement” of Palestinians in Jordan.

    On 2 May 2002, EI reported how House Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-TX) recommended the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their land and endorsed Israel’s illegal conquests of the occupied territories on MSNBC’s Hardball programme.

    EI reported on 28 August 2002 that a US tax-deductible charity was channeling funds to an Israeli political organisation that had published detailed plans for the “complete elimination of the Arab demographic threat to Israel.”

    On 6 February 2003, EI reported that comedian Jackie Mason published an article in The Jewish Press stating “We will never win this war unless we immediately threaten to drive every Arab out of Israel if the killing doesn’t stop”.

    All of these instances constitute public calls for genocide.[4]

    Hatred of Palestinians is apparently deeply rooted in some sectors of American society. After suicide attacks, EI’s mailbox is typically flooded by people writing from US-based e-mail addresses, many “Christians”, many calling for the genocide of Palestinians. Needless to say, there is no comparable response from the same people after events such as Israel’s May 19th use

    The image formerly on the front of EI 2.0. Taken in Dheisheh Refugee Camp on 2 July 2002, this image is one of hundreds of images showing Palestinian children throwing stones at Israeli tanks that have appeared on the wire services. This image was featured in MSNBC.com’s well-known Week in Pictures feature for the week of June 27-July 4, 2002. (Musa Al-Shaer)

    of combat helicopters and battle tanks against a peaceful demonstration in Rafah, killing nine.

    The level of reflexive support for Israel is so entrenched in some minds that, during the period of a couple of months last year, EI received more than 5 e-mails from American supporters of Israel making the same claim — that the Agence Presse France/Musa Al-Shaer photo on the front of EI which depicted a Palestinian child throwing a stone at an Israeli tank was “faked”, even though similar images of children confronting tanks can be found on the wire services every week.

    The shocking image contradicted their fundamental view of the conflict, a view in which Israel — while militarily occupying another people’s land — is widely perceived to be under attack.

    Conclusions

    When one is regularly treated to lavish on-the-spot coverage of suicide and car bombings by unelected Palestinian militant groups, while brutal Israeli military operations sanctioned by a ‘democratic’ state go completely unreported — such as last week’s events in Rafah — it is understandable that people draw the distorted conclusion that Palestinians are the primary perpetrators of the current violence. After all, that’s what it looks like on TV.

    Defendants and witnesses in US courts are asked to swear an oath to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” CNN’s inability to tell “the whole truth” is historically and empirically demonstrable as in the case of last week in Rafah, the stunning litany of examples above (by no means a total analysis of all of CNN’s Palestine coverage), and by the network’s daily, studied avoidance of acknowledging the most obvious root of the conflict — Israel’s military occupation.

    And CNN is just one of several American networks against which the same charges could be leveled — of grossly distorting the realities of an ethnic conflict in favour of the aggressor and therefore prolonging, thanks to our resulting ignorance, our societal apathy about the ongoing genocide[4].

    With no US ethical body to deal with the pervasive distortion, it is time for international legal experts to begin exploring ways to hold the US media legally accountable for its failure to report accurately from both sides of the conflict — specifically for the real-life implications of that failure. Freedom of information is fundamental to informed democratic choice, and lives on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict literally depend on it.

    Nigel Parry is one of the founders of the Electronic Intifada.

    Related Links

  • BY TOPIC: Israel’s “Operation Rainbow” in Rafah, Gaza

    Footnotes
    1. 1 dunum = ¼ acre= 1000m². An English transliteration from the Arabic, the area measurement is often spelt in a variety of ways, eg. dunum, dunom, donum, etc.
    2. Weekly Report on Israeli Human Rights Violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories No. 20/2004, Palestinian Center for Human Rights, 20-26 May 2004.
    3. Christians Hail Rightist’s Call To Oust Arabs, Forward Staff, 19 October 2002.
    4. It is a common fallacy that the word “genocide” only refers to mass killings of a group. For a discussion of the international legal definition and application of the term “genocide” — which is under discussion in this article — please see www.genocidewatch.org/whatisgenocide.htm.