Steven Erlanger's Feb. 28 article (Talk Grows About Who Will Succeed Palestinians' Aged Abbas, Seen as Ineffective) isn't labeled a news analysis piece, but, at best, that's what it is. At worst, it's a thinly veiled opinion piece promoting the Palestinian narrative that Israel is responsible for violence against its citizens even while downplaying such violence.
Roots of Violence
Departing from the impartial reporting of facts, Erlanger editorializes about the cause of the latest round of Palestinian violence, opining in the second paragraph that:
The attacks that have killed more than two dozen Israeli and several others are an angry, frustrated response among Palestinian youth to ongoing Israeli occupation of the West Bank and expansion of its Jewish settlements, even as Mr. Abbas's Palestinian Authority continues to cooperate with the Israelis on security and other matters.
Later in the piece, Erlanger cites a poll showing that two-thirds of Palestinians favor an "armed intifada" against Israel, and proceeds to inject his own interpretation of why so many support violence against Israeli civilians. According to the reporter, it is because they have "lost faith" in the peace process.
A December poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 65 percent of Palestinians wanted Mr. Abbas to resign. A similar portion favored another armed intifada, having lost faith in a negotiated peace and the Oslo accords on which Mr. Abbas has staked his career.
But the poll, in fact, draws no clear causal relationship between a loss of faith and support for violence.
News articles in other media outlets have identified different alleged causes for the Palestinian violence. Reuters, for instance, recently claimed:
The recent violence has been stoked by various factors, including a dispute over Jerusalem's al-Aqsa mosque compound and the failure of several rounds of peace talks to secure the Palestinians an independent state in Israeli-occupied territory.
So which one is it? A dispute over al-Aqsa mosque? Failed peace talks? Expansion of Jewish settlements?
Or is it Palestinian incitement on the part of both the leadership as well as social media, as many Israelis say?
An article today by David Horovitz, for example, cites "another generation of Palestinians [that] has been educated to hate and hit out at Israel and Israelis rather than to seek coexistence alongside us." According to Horovitz, founding editor of the Times of Israel and a moderate on the Israeli political spectrum, "yet another generation of Palestinians has been brainwashed mis-educated to loathe the Jews as illegitimate usurpers, the source of their misfortune, the targets for their anger and violence."
(And it's not only Israelis who blame Palestinian incitement for violence. Some Palestinians do as well. See, for example, here and here.)
Given the apparent inability of reporters to agree on just what fueled the violence, perhaps the authors of news stories ought to stick to the facts and refrain from making such determinations.
Other media outlets take a more cautious, and journalistically sound, approach to reporting the cause of violence, sharing Palestinian and Israeli positions as claims, and not endorsing either. The Associated Press, for example, often reports:
Israel says the violence is fueled by a Palestinian campaign of lies and incitement, compounded on social media sites that glorify and encourage attacks. Palestinians say it stems from frustration at nearly five decades of Israeli rule and dwindling hopes for gaining independence.
But Erlanger demonstrates no such caution. Instead, he simply embraces the current Palestinian narrative in which settlements and occupation fuel the Palestinian knife intifada.
That, however, wasn't the Palestinian narrative at the start of the violence last September. At the time, Palestinian leaders, including Mahmoud Abbas, incited their people with unfounded claims of alleged Jewish plots to take over the Temple Mount. For instance, speaking on official Palestinian Authority TV on Sept. 16, Abbas stated:
The Al-Aqsa [Mosque] is ours
and they have no right to defile it with their filthy feet. We will not allow them to, and we will do everything in our power to protect Jerusalem
We bless every drop of blood that has been spilled for Jerusalem, which is clean and pure blood, blood spilled for Allah, Allah willing. Every Martyr (Shahid) will reach Paradise, and everyone wounded will be rewarded by Allah.
Indeed, earlier New York Times reports indicated that Palestinian fears regarding purported Israeli plans for the Temple Mount were at the heart of the violence. The Times reported Oct. 23 (Kerry Sounds a Cautious Note of Optimism After a Meeting with Netanyahu):
At the center of the crisis is a long-running dispute over Israel's management of an Old City holy site, known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims, and Israel's recent efforts to limit access to the area by young men who it says are instigating violence. The Palestinians say the Israelis are seeking to expand their presence at the site, despite the Israeli government's denials, and have accused Mr. Netanyahu of instigating the violence.
In an NPR interview with the mother of a Palestinian woman who was shot after stabbing an Israeli, the mother likewise tied this to concerns about the Temple Mount and Al Aqsa Mosque.
During the segment, NPR's Emily Harris explained,
does feel strongly about what can tip Palestinian anger. First on her list is what she calls defending the Al-Aqsa Mosque from an increased Jewish presence. The mosque sits on a site holy to Jews as well, and access to that site has been what touched off this latest flare-up in violence.
Even the poll cited by Erlanger explains that "an overwhelming majority [of Palestinians] believes that al Haram al Sharif," the Palestinian name for the Temple Mount, "is in grave danger: 51% believe that Israel intends to destroy al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock and replace them with a Jewish temple." In other words, Palestinians believe outlandish conspiracy theories about Israel's intentions, theories that certainly have the potential to inflame attitudes and spur violence.
Erlanger, who wrongly suggested that the poll shows that Palestinian violence is caused by anger over the failed peace process, makes no mention of this finding. But it is undoubtedly important. The Palestinian conspiracy theory that Israel plans to destroy the al Aqsa mosque is surely linked to false claims spread by Palestinian leaders. To the extent that Palestinian desires to "protect" the mosque is linked to the wave of stabbing attacks, then, there is an especially clear line between Palestinian incitement and Palestinian violence.
Abbas Shuts Up and Does Nothing?
Erlanger quotes an unnamed former Palestinian negotiator who laments that Abbas has been typically paralyzed (Erlanger's words) in the wave of Palestinian violence.
He can neither support it nor oppose it, he explained, so he shuts up and does nothing, which further enhances the perception that drives all this, that he and Fatah have produced nothing and will produce nothing, and that they are useless.
But Abbas did take some steps with respect to the Palestinian violence. He did promise compensation and meet with the families of terrorists, among them those who carried out a shooting attack on a Jerusalem bus, murdering three, and another who stabbed a 72-year-old woman. (Imagine The Times coverage were Benjamin Netanyahu to meet with the family of Israeli terrorists, such as those responsible for the Duma attacks.) And as indicated above, he did engage in incitement, charging that Jews have no right to defile [al-Aqsa] with their filthy feet, and calling the uprising peaceful.
The article doesn't only downplay inciting comments by Abbas. Erlanger also minimizes the link between contenders for Abbas's crown and anti-Israel terrorism.
In a passage about Muhammad Dahlan's financial support for "Fatah's militant wing, the Tanzim," Erlanger writes that the group "has sometimes clashed with the security forces." This may be true. But it is equally true that the Tanzim has targeted and murdered Israeli civilians.
This is true according to The New York Times itself, which in 2002 reported, "Rather than attacking just soldiers and settlers the stated policy of their political leaders Fatah fighters, known as Tanzim, are blowing themselves up among civilians within the boundaries of pre-1967 Israel, just like fighters from Hamas."
Among the Tanzim's victims is Ofir Rahum, a 16-year-old Israeli boy lured to his death in 2001 by a Palestinian posing online as a potential romantic partner.
And as a 2002 report in The New York Times noted, "nine ultra-Orthodox Jews, including six children, from a few months old to 15, were killed by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem" by an attacker Israel determined was affiliated with the Tanzim.
Erlanger again mitigates terror links when he introduces Marwan Barghouti, a man "sometimes called the Palestinian Mandela for his long period in an Israeli prison and his efforts to bring Hamas and Fatah together."
Who exactly it is that calls Barghouti "the Palestinian Mandela" is not specified in the article. Surely, though, it not Israeli leaders. Nor is it the families of those murdered at Barghouti's behest.
Although the reporter does later note that Barghouti is "serving five consecutive life terms for murder," readers are likely to view the conviction with skepticism after Erlanger went out of his way to compare Barghouti to the hero of the anti-Apartheid struggle.
Fayyad and Hamas
There is discussion of a more collective leadership, writes Erlanger, noting that Faraj is highly considered by both the United States and Israel as a discreet and trustworthy partner, and that Fayyad is also respected by Israel and the West.
A nice bit of international public relations for the surprising trio of al-Kidwa, Faraj and Fayyad, but a substantiated news story it is not. Where, exactly, is this discussion of collective leadership led by al-Kidwa alongside Fayyad taking place? Among certain unnamed Palestinian power brokers? In the U.S. State Department? Erlanger doesn't say, and searches online and Lexis-Nexis also don't turn up any clues about this mysterious discussion.
Meanwhile, Erlanger ignores another, much louder discussion underway: Fayyad reaching out to Hamas. As the Associated Press reported last month (Palestinians ponder succession after 11 years of Abbas):
Fayyad, who resigned two years ago amid growing disagreements with Abbas and Fatah, made overtures in recent weeks to former nemesis Hamas, an odd alliance that could help him in a leadership bid. In a recent lecture at a Hamas-affiliated think tank in Gaza, Fayyad called for ending the political split quickly, creating a new leadership body that includes Hamas and rebuilding Gaza.
(The AP story surveying six potential successors do not name al-Kidwa and Faraj, two of the figures that Erlanger cited as the subjects of discussion.)
Erlanger, a former Times Jerusalem bureau chief who has returned for a transitional period following the departure of Jodi Rudoren and before the arrival of Peter Baker, unfortunately continues the newspaper's trend of downplaying Palestinian violence. One can only hope, then, that the next bureau chief heeds the advice from Times public editor Margaret Sullivan, who felt the need to remind reporters that the Palestinians are "more than just victims."