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Middle East Issues





Plans to "Eradicate" Egyptian Town Prompt NY Times Yawn


An Arab town near Israel's southern border is being completely destroyed by the government, which has cited security concerns to justify the extreme measure.

Surely this is a time for hard hitting journalism. Prepare for the pointed, critical, extended pieces of the type The New York Times brings you whenever Israel…

Oh wait—it isn't Israel that's razing Rafah? It's Egypt?

Well then, relax. Return that carefully sharpened pencil to the journalistic toolbox. Pull out the dull crayon.

The New York Times reported today that in Egypt "a senior official acknowledged that the military was eradicating the town in order to complete a security zone" along the Gaza Strip. It is without a doubt a story that would have been reported differently were it Israel "eradicating" a town.

In this piece about Egypt, not a single townsperson was directly quoted, even though, as the newspaper was generous enough to note, "many residents of Rafah complained bitterly about their treatment by the authorities." This impersonal paraphrase, and another equally bland summary explaining that residents felt evacuations came without warning or compensation, was as much as the newspaper saw fit to print from those on the receiving end of the Egyptian measures. Those two sentences focused on Rafah residents, moreover, were buried at the end of the article. So much for the voice of the weak.

The newspaper's choice of words to describe the Egyptian operation contrasted sharply with the way it tends to treat Israel. Thousands of innocent people are being removed from their homes, and it is described merely a "sweeping response to repeated militant attacks"; at worst, these are "drastic counterterrorism measures"; the decision "highlighted the Egyptian government’s increasingly firm view of the Gaza Strip as hostile territory." Sweeping? Drastic? Firm? Not exactly the most cutting descriptions. The words might even be taken to suggest determined resolution on the part of the Egyptian government.

A piece last month on the Egyptian measures was hardly sharper, relying on descriptions that cast the Egyptian government in the role of an anguished victim. The article's title, "Egypt Will Expand Its Security Zone Near Gaza Strip," didn't exactly capture the planned destruction of an entire town. The story as told by The Times was about "growing anxiety in the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi after a series of attacks that have killed dozens of soldiers, police officers and sailors"; of officials who are "worried that the insurgency could grow even more lethal"; of militant videos that had the effect of "unnerving officials"; Egyptian leaders are simply "scrambling for answers" to their clear challenges. Note, these are the reporters' words, presented as fact, and not claims attributed to Egyptians in whose interest it is to justify the operation. (The reporters at least stuck a quote from a Rafah resident at the end of this article.)

Compare those pieces to last month's New York Times article about the destruction by Israel of not a town, but a single home. That piece was longer than the two about Egypt combined. Unlike the Egypt articles, it already in the first sentence described Israel's policy as "controversial." The second sentence described it as "harsh." The fourth paragraph addressed Palestinian concerns that Israel security forces might act in an "overzealous" manner. (Dislocating an Egyptian town is, apparently, not overzealous.) Palestinians were directly quoted criticizing the measure; so were Israelis. The authors cited condemnation by self-described human rights groups. (Such groups also slammed Egypt's measures too, but the two Times reports made no mention of those critiques.) Israel's rationale for its demolition was buried near the end of the article. (Egypt's justifications were clearly laid out at the top of those pieces.)

So it is with The New York Times. The newspaper has a separate standard for Israel, and that means those relying on the publication to understand the Middle East and the wider world aren't getting a clear, coherent, consistent or contextual picture. It is, to most readers, like a car's side-view mirror in which some objects are closer than they appear, other objects are further than they appear, and the driver is unaware of which is which.

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