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Media Analyses





The Washington Post's Israel Problem


The power of biased reporters to mold a story is nowhere more dramatically apparent than in the Washington Post's recent coverage of the July 30th suicide bombing of the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem and its aftermath.

The 14th terrorist bombing in Israel since the signing of the Oslo Accords in September 1993 snuffed out the lives of 15 innocent people, maimed dozens more and spread fear in a vulnerable society. Israel demanded that Palestinian Authority President Yasir Arafat desist from abetting such savagery and abide by his commitment under Oslo to fight terrorism. He refused. Instead, three weeks after the murders, he embraced and kissed leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad in a public show of defiance.

How did the Washington Post cover the attack and the political struggle that ensued? The prestigious newspaper–read by the President, Congress, the State Department, the diplomatic corps, 800,000 area subscribers and countless thousands of Internet users worldwide–passed speedily over the torn bodies of the bomb victims to focus a hostile eye on Israel. The Post obscured Yasir Arafat's responsibility for violence, all but omitted his high-profile rapprochement with Islamic radicals, relied disproportionately on Arab views in numerous reports, and ran distorted, anecdotal stories critical of Israel.

What the Post did not do was especially reprehensible. This 14th bomb attack did not prompt a thorough look at the implementation of the Oslo Accords by each party, or a review of the grim record of violence against Israel. The Post did not examine the constant drumbeat of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric by Palestinian officials that has created a palpable climate of hatred and violence–in violation of Oslo.

In the days after the bombing, the Post bureau chief in Jerusalem, Barton Gellman, blurred responsibility for the attack. In his August 1st column, irate Palestinians took precedence over anguished Israelis burying their dead. Just three sentences in a 30-paragraph report described a Jewish funeral, while angry Palestinians were quoted at length deploring Israeli policies. The last word went to an Arab man warning Israel to "think twice" or expect more assaults.

On August 3, when Israel vehemently denounced Arafat's negligence in fighting terrorism and accused him of abetting violence, Gellman cautioned readers that: "Independent assessment of the central factual dispute–whether Arafat has winked at the use of violence against Israel–is difficult."

Difficult? Only for a reporter determined to avoid the facts. Numerous "independent" sources as well as Israeli government ones have documented official Palestinian endorsement of violence. Calls for jihad and praise of terrorists by Arafat himself, along with virulent incitement by Palestinian officials and religious figures–often broadcast on PA-controlled media–have fueled support for violence.

Specifically, in the weeks leading up to the bombing, Arafat and his lieutenants applauded Hamas, the organization responsible for hundreds of Israeli casualties. On May 25th Arafat called Hamas a "patriotic" movement, explicitly refused to characterize it as a terrorist group, and extolled its "military wing." Likewise, Muhammad Dahlan, head of a PA Security group in Gaza, lauded Hamas on June 15, saying it "is very important for building the Palestinian homeland."

Incendiary language about Israel and Jews has emanated from a wide variety of official PA sources. In a sermon on July 11 the PA-appointed Mufti of Jerusalem promised revenge "against the colonialist settlers who are sons of monkeys and pigs..." The PA Sport Minister declared on July 22 that "All of Palestine is the homeland of the Palestinian people, beginning with Acre, Haifa and Jaffa." And so on and on.

Moreover, Arafat has sanctioned violence in other ways, allowing PA security services to recruit into their own ranks members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad who had been involved in terrorist attacks against Israelis.

Gellman's refusal to report all this information is consistent with the overarching message of his coverage, which is that regardless of Israeli protests about Palestinian violence, Israeli assertions–however well-documented–are suspect and to be discounted while Palestinian views are to be taken at face value as authentic and credible.

The same message of Israeli wrongdoing was featured in a spate of "human interest" stories in the weeks after Mahane Yehuda. (The Post carried no human interest pieces on the victims of the bombing.) In one a Palestinian's house was torn down by Israel. The correspondent wrote mockingly of Israeli "hasbara," or public relations, that claims the demolition of illegally built houses is consistent with orderly urban governance.

As in the noncoverage of Arafat's penchant for violence, the starting point was a kneejerk contempt for information put out by Israeli sources. Gellman wrote that Arabs have been issued "fewer than a 100" permits a year but that "new neighborhoods for tens of thousands of Jews have sprung up."

In fact, Arabs have been issued permits at roughly the same rate as the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Jerusalem, whose population is approximately equal that of the Arab sector. More striking still, during the period 1971-1994, permits were issued for 1.1 million square meters of residential construction to the Arab population. During the same time the ultra-Orthodox Jewish sector received permits for 954,000 square meters of residential construction.

Moreover, there has been an explosion of unlicensed building by the Arabs, only a small fraction of which the Israelis have taken down. A recent, exhaustive study by Israel Kimhi, former Jerusalem city planner for thirty years under Mayor Teddy Kollek, showed that total Arab building, with permits and without, has actually outpaced total Jewish building!

Any reporter based in Jerusalem has only to drive through Arab neighborhoods to see first hand the remarkable building boom, but Gellman followed a well-trod journalistic path, preferring the caricature in which a few Palestinians have struggled to build a few houses that were then levelled by stonehearted Israelis.

Nor does Gellman include other information to contradict his picture of ruthless Israeli behavior. He omits mention of the acceleration of longstanding Arab campaigns to acquire property not only in Jerusalem, but in other parts of Israel and the West Bank and to establish "facts on the ground" through building. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being channeled by Palestinians, Jordanians, Saudis, and Moroccans, as well as by Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, into land acquisition and building. Among the organizations established to press the effort aggressively is the Jerusalem Development and Investment Co. (JEDICO).

In some neighborhoods blocks of Arab housing have stood empty for more than a decade, constructed for the purpose of staking claim to land and preventing Jewish building.

As August progressed, and Israel continued to protest Arafat's refusal to crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Washington Post correspondent William Drozdiak offered readers a profile of Hamas. The radical Islamic group emerged as a benevolent community organization "quietly expanding its appeal through a network of charities that aims to soften the misery of Gaza's poorest inhabitants." The misery of Hamas victims–the dead, wounded and bereft–is nowhere to be found in the Drozdiak account. Even Hamas' violent opposition to the peace process is sanitized–the group is said to be "steadfastly" against Oslo.

Drozdiak cannot even bring himself to apply the term "terrorist" to the bombers of women and children. He calls them "fighters" who commit "attacks" and he includes nothing about Hamas's virulent anti-Semitic ideology, their incitement or their indoctrination of children.

Given the Post's whitewash of Arafat and Hamas, and its hostile treatment of Israel, it was perhaps not surprising that on August 21st when Arafat embraced and kissed the Hamas leader defiantly, in front of cameras, the Washington Post was all but silent, burying the event at the end of a story on Lebanon border violence.

The New York Times carried an enormous front page photograph of the fateful encounter, an image that also appeared in media around the world. The photo, with its message of ostentatious betrayal, stirred widespread revulsion, but it did not appear in the Post. Letters to the editor urging the newspaper to explain why it deemed Yasir Arafat's embrace of terror a minor affair have gone unanswered.

Readers may yet decide the Post's own indefensible record of betrayal–of elementary standards of fairplay, balance and accuracy–deserves serious public protest.



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