The two faces of Ha’aretz

Jonathan Cook

Israel’s leading “liberal” newspaper, Haaretz, has received numerous accolades from its foreign readers (who are able to access its English edition on the Internet) for its coverage of the Intifada. Prize-winning journalists Amira Hass and Gideon Levy have won an enthusiastic audience abroad since their reports started being regularly translated into English three years ago, contributing to the newspaper’s image as Israel’s conscience. For many outside Isarel, Haaretz is their main window on the Jewish state.

Hass and Levy, however, contribute only a tiny fraction of Haaretz’s daily output, and it is getting hard to ignore a disturbing trend: the paper’s senior editors are increasingly shading the events of the Intifada in a very different light than that provided by Hass and Levy, the paper’s two moral beacons.

As several commentators have noted, the Hebrew edition of the paper has drifted rightwards, in line with the rest of Israeli society. The paper’s stance also reflects a more general mood of belligerence among a large segment of Israel’s former peace camp, which feels betrayed by the Palestinians and their rejection of former prime minister Ehud Barak’s “generous offers” at Camp David and Taba.

Other analysts pinpoint another phenomenon: the tendency of Haaretz to say one thing to its Hebrew-reading audience (Israelis) and quite another thing to its English-reading audience (mostly non-Israelis). Ran HaCohen, in his regular “Letter from Israel,” has charted the corruption of the newspaper’s professional standards, revealing what can only be characterised as an attempt to deceive foreign readers about the moral state of the Israeli polity.

HaCohen points to the ommission of Intifada stories that might cast an unsympathetic light on Israel as well as the willful mistranslation of passages that reveal the depth and extent of racist attitudes towards Palestinians now prevalent in Israel.

One example features a quote from an Israeli army officer on the use of Palestinians as “human shields” in the editions of August 16, 2002. The officer tells the paper that Palestinian neighbours are forcibly taken from their homes and made to knock on the door of a wanted suspect. In English the story continues: “If nobody answers, he [the neighbour] comes back and we go to work.” But, as HaCohen points out, this sentence is a “nationalistically correct” translation of the following Hebrew sentence: “If nobody answers, we have to tell the neighbour that he will be killed if no one comes out.”

Alternative — and unfortunately marginal — local media outfits like Between the Lines magazine have been left with the job of translating a selection of the more important Haaretz articles that were never meant for foreign eyes.

It would be a mistake to assume, however, that this kind of deception is limited to concealing the harsher aspects of the occupation from foreigners. Day-to-day coverage of internal affairs is similarly skewed, particularly in relation to Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens. Haaretz has been recruited, along the rest of the Israeli media, for a concerted campaign to demonise the non-Jewish minority as terrorists. This campaign has been personally instigated by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who recently warned, for example, that completion of the security fence around the West Bank would not deter suicide attacks, merely encourage Israeli Arabs to commit such attacks on the Palestinians’ behalf.

Stories about “Israeli Arab terror” are to be found equally in the English and Hebrew editions of Haaretz. The difference is that at least in the Hebrew edition they are balanced by other reports of what is happening to the minority (after all, the Hebrew newspaper is bought and read by the Arab middle classes and presumably Haaretz’s editors do not want to lose this sector of the paper’s readership).

Take Tuesday’s paper (April 1) for instance. In the Hebrew edition, the front page featured a lengthy report on discriminatory land policies in the Galilee. The article included maps showing how small Jewish farming co-operatives (kibbutzim and moshavim), as well as the umbrella Misgav regional council, which is controlled by Jews, have been given jurisdiction over almost all private Arab farming land in the area. Despite their ownership of land, Arab families have no say in how it can be used. The effect is that their Jewish neighbours own the land in all but name.

The story illuminates one piece of a complex jigsaw puzzle of legislation used to discriminate against Arab citizens: through a series of laws, the state has given itself the right to confiscate almost all Arab properties and now owns some 93 per cent of the land, most of which is effectively off-limits to non-Jews. This report demonstrates how even a significant proportion of the three per cent of land still privately owned by Arabs (the rest is in Jewish hands) has, in effect, been stolen from them.

So where was this story in Tuesday’s English edition of Haaretz? Nowhere. A report deemed worthy of the front page of the Hebrew newspaper was considered unworthy of coverage in the English edition. But there was space to include two lengthy and prominent reports on the Arab minority in that day’s edition. Both featured the word “bomb” in the headline and concerned court cases involving Arab citizens accused of aiding Palestinian attacks inside Israel.

There is no doubt that a rising trend can be detected among the Arab minority of active assistance in, as opposed to mere support for, the Palestinian nationalist war against Israeli occupation — but it occurs among only among a tiny fraction of the population. A total of 35 instances of Arab citizens aiding or communicating with Palestinian militant groups were recorded last year — and note that even of this group, most were not accused of being directly involved in attacks.

But reading the English edition of Haaretz one quickly gets the impression that most of Israel’s Arab citizenry is plotting terror attacks against the Jewish state. In fact, this is just about the only context in which they merit mention.

The problem with this approach, as Haaretz’s senior staff surely know, is that it presents the Arab minority devoid of any context: we see the diseased symptoms of extreme Palestinian nationalism without being offered a chance to understand the causes of its emergence and growth. The land discrimination story, alongside the terror reports, might have shed some needed, though disturbing, light on why a tiny number of Arab citizens ally themselves with violence.

The error was repeated on Thursday’s English Internet edition (April 3). All day its front page prominently displayed a report (of the same incident described in Tuesday’s paper) of a terror cell discovered in the Arab village of Jaljuliya. What was not offered that day to Internet browsers was an equally important — and far fresher (i.e., newsworthy) story — about the dispatch by the Israel Lands Authority of planes to spray herbicides over hundreds of acres of fields owned by Bedouin farmers in the Negev.

Ariel Sharon’s government is currently waging a low-level war against Bedouin farmers in an effort to herd them off their historic lands and into planned urban reservations. Revealingly, the farmer who lost most of his crops to the toxic spray was Jabr Abu Kaff, the leader of the biggest Bedouin lobbying group, the Regional Council of the Unrecognised Villages in the Negev, which is opposed to Sharon’s plan.

Dear reader, as Israel slides ever deeper into a morass of racism and ethnic solipsism, please do not lean too heavily on Haaretz to understand how or why this “light unto the nations” has grown so dim.

Jonathan Cook is Israel/Palestine correspondent for Al-Ahram Weekly, he wrote this analysis exclusively for the Electronic Intifada..