AP Reports Like, Instead of About, Breaking the Silence

July 19 update follows.
It is one thing for a serious news organization to write about a project affiliated with Breaking the Silence, a much-criticized Israeli non-governmental organization. It’s another for it to adopt that controversial group’s narrative in what is meant to be an objective news story.

The Associated Press leaned toward the latter in a recent story about Israel and the West Bank, eschewing journalistic principles, including AP’s own guidelines on accuracy and impartiality, for something that looked more like partisan advocacy.

As might be expected from someone advocating for a cause, though not from a news reporter, AP’s Karin Laub editorialized throughout the piece, including by quickly drawing a sweeping distinction between the good guys and the bad guys (“Through the author’s eyes: 50 years of Israeli occupation,” July 18). 

Breaking the Silence

While every settler in Hebron was cast as a militant — “In the heart of the West Bank’s largest Palestinian city, several hundred combat troops guard an equal number of militant Jewish settlers,” Laub wrote — a founder of Breaking the Silence was introduced as a “peace activist,” and his organization was described simply as “a veterans’ group that collects soldiers’ testimony about abusive practices in the West Bank.”

Meanwhile, the controversial narrative pushed by Breaking the Silence, and embraced by an group of international writers who have recently attended Breaking the Silence-organized tours and on whom Laub’s article focus, was cast as the “reality” on the ground, neatly echoing the group’s own claim that it supposedly documents the “reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories.”

Breaking the Silence, though, is much more controversial than they appear in AP’s story. Less than a week before Laub’s piece was published, for example, Israel’s flagship news magazine program looked into some of the organization’s claims and determined that many are either false or exaggerated. AP made no mention of the damning report.
And the group has been harshly criticized not only by right-wing Israelis, but also from the left and the center of the country’s political spectrum. That criticism, too, went unmentioned, and in fact the author didn’t even bother to gently note the group is “controversial” (a term AP frequently relies on, including several times over the past month to describe Israeli laws, speeches, and policies).

Laub’s characterization of Breaking the Silence founder Yehuda Shaul as a “peace activist” is also arguable at best. Shaul, for example, recently made waves by charging Israeli Jews with “poisoning wells,” a claim that was echoed in a speech before the European Parliament by Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, before he — the Palestinian president, not the Breaking the Silence founder — eventually retracted the charge and admitted it was “baseless.”

Meanwhile, the AP report failed even to mention that the tour of Hebron described in the article, the tour that led a collection of international writers to harsh conclusions about Israel, was organized by Breaking the Silence, though readers should certainly have been made aware of the involvement by a partisan activist group with a keen interest in cultivating a particular view. 
Contrast this with how the Associated Press made sure in the past to note that the archeological site at the City of David in Jerusalem “has come under criticism because of the Elad Foundation’s nationalistic agenda.” Breaking the Silence has no less of an agenda. And it is no less worthy of mention.
And while there are certainly extremists among Hebron’s Jewish settlers, it is simplistic and un-journalistic to broad brush each and every one as a “militant,” as Laub did, especially in a piece that uses the same word to describe Hamas, an openly antisemitic group designated by the United States, Israel and the European Union as a terrorist organization, and responsible for countless rocket attacks and suicide bombings that have targeted, maimed and killed Israeli civilians.

More Editorializing

The editorializing continued with Laub’s claim that “Israel has … fragmented the territory of what is meant to be Palestine.” Who says Israel has “fragmented” — a loaded and vague word — the territory? And who says which territory, exactly is “meant to be Palestine”? To be sure, there are activists who would use such language. But in this case, it is Karin Laub and the Associated Press leveling the inflammatory and questionable allegation in their own words.

Contrast that certainty with Laub’s assertion that “Israel says” it’s been willing to negotiate an end to occupation, but that Palestinians rejected offers. Why wasn’t this, like Laub’s claim that Israel fragments what is meant to be Palestine, stated as fact? Why isn’t it described as a “reality,” the term Laub used to concur with arguable allegations that Israel maintains an “elaborate system of control over Palestinians” in which “one side is locked in and the other side is free to move”? (This, and Laub’s own reference to how “Israelis move freely at the expense of Palestinians,” is belied by the fact that Israeli Jews are barred from entering most of the city of Hebron, a “reality” the article ignores.)

According to the piece, too, “Israel says” future borders should be negotiated, casting this as being in opposition to the UN General Assembly, even though the US, the UN Secretary General, and even the Palestinians by accepting the Oslo Accords, have agreed that future borders should be negotiated.

False Claim: Government Transferred Settlers to West Bank

Engaging in an outright falsehood about the alleged 600,000 settlers, Laud wrote: “Successive governments have moved nearly 600,000 Israelis, or 10 percent of the country’s Jewish population, to settlements on occupied land, a multi-billion dollar enterprise the international community overwhelmingly considers illegitimate.”
First, since 1967, countless second or even third generation Israelis living in the West Bank were were born there, and never moved there. As for Israelis who 
moved there, they did so of their own free will, out of ideology, community, quality of life (view and space), or financial incentive (offered by the government via tax breaks.) The government did not “move” them there. 

Taking Sides on Jews in East Jerusalem

AP again took sides with its claim that 600,000 live in “settlements” in “occupied territory.” According to 2015 statistics from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, there are 356,500 Israelis living in Judea and Samaria, or the West Bank. The only way to reach the figure of 600,000 Israelis residing in settlements is to include Jews living in Jerusalem neighborhoods over the Green Line, or the pre-1967 armistice line, in this figure.

According to the Israeli understanding of things, Jews in east Jerusalem don’t live in “settlements” — a term the country uses to describe Jewish communities in West Bank territory, which Israel does not consider to include east Jerusalem. Further, does AP believe that Jews living, for example, in the ancient Jewish Quarter in the Old City are living in “occupied territory?” Its language certainly implies that it does.

Tendentious Language on Jewish History

In another example of partisan language, Laub refers to a tour guide’s description of Jewish history in the Susiya area as “a Jewish version of local history.” By referring to a “Jewish version” of local history, Laub casts doubt on the veracity of the area’s Jewish history. Tellingly, nowhere in the article does she refer to the Palestinian historical or current narrative as the “Palestinian version of local history” or events.
Part of the Palestinian version of local history is the claim that “Palestinians lived in the [Susiya] area of the ruins until it was declared an archeological site and they were forced to leave in the mid-1980s.” In a striking double standard, far from casting doubt on this account by referring to it as a “Palestinian version of local history,” as she did with respect to Jewish history, Laub reports the assertion as fact. She fails to note that Israel disputes the Palestinian claims about longstanding Arab residence in the area. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for examples, reports:

Contrary to Palestinian claims that these structures have been permanently inhabited for decades, in fact, only a handful of families resided there in the 1980s and they only used the structures on a seasonal basis.

During the years while the legal proceedings were ongoing, the petitioners continued to expand their illegal construction, raising the number of structures to a few dozen. They exploited a cease and desist order that temporarily prevented Israel from demolishing the illegal structures.
While AP applies no skepticism to the Palestinian claims about Susiya, it has issued a series of July 12 photo captions referring to Susiya’s fourth-century synagogue as “the location of what is believed to be a synagogue,” as if it is an open archeological question as to whether or not the remains really were a synagogue. A sampling of those captions follows:

The caption states:
In this July 12, 2016 photo, Yehuda Shaul, co-founder of Breaking The Silence, right and Irish author Colm Toibin, inspect the location of what is believed to be a synagogue, during a tour of the Susiya archaeological park, adjacent to the West Bank village of Susiya, south of Hebron. Toibin toured the West Bank to observe Israeli military rule over the Palestinians, collecting material for an essay that will be part of an anthology on 50 years of occupation. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser) (Emphasis added.)
The caption reads:

This Tuesday, July 12, 2016 photo shows a mosaic with Hebrew writing at the location of what is believed to be a synagogue, during a tour by Irish author Colm Toibin, at the Susiya archaeological park, adjacent to the West Bank village of Susiya, south of Hebron. Toibin has toured the West Bank to observe Israeli military rule over the Palestinians, collecting material for an essay that will be part of an anthology on 50 years of occupation. The 2017 book includes contributions from two dozen well-known authors who have written about subjects ranging from Israel’s military courts to a weekend in Gaza. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser) (Emphasis added.)

The AP caption accompanying this photograph of a mosaic depicting, in part, a menorah, states:

In this photo taken Tuesday, July 12, 2016, a mosaic is seen at the location of what is believed to be a synagogue at the Susiya archaeological park, adjacent to the West Bank village of Susiya, south of Hebron. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser) (Emphasis added.)

CAMERA Prompts Some Improvements
In response to correspondence from CAMERA staff, AP editors updated the story and improved some of the above language. In particular, in the amended text, AP dropped the false claim that the government “moved nearly 600,000 . . . to settlements on occupied land.” In its place, the AP has substituted the greatly improved sentence: “Close to 600,000 Israelis, or 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population, now live in settlements on war-won land, often lured by government subsidies.”
But even this improvement is still problematic, as it identifies some 243,500 Jerusalem residents living over the Green Line as living in “settlements.”
In a separate improvement, the updated article no longer states that “Israel says future borders most be negotiated.” (Emphasis added.) Instead, the AP details: “The international community, including Israel’s closest allies, has said a final border should be based on the pre-1967 frontier, with agreed land swaps, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected that as a baseline for negotiations.”
In a final nominal improvement, AP has replaced its characterization of all of Hebron’s Jewish residents as “militant Jewish settlers” with “ultra-nationalist Jewish settlers.”
Additional partisan language detailed above remains throughout Laub’s article. In addition, the updated article still fails to note Breaking the Silence’s role in setting up the tour, as well as the group’s controversial nature among Israelis on all sides of the political spectrum. Stay posted for any update on these issues, as well as on the skewed coverage (including Laub’s article and the photo captions) on Susiya.
July 19 update: Following communication with CAMERA, the Associated Press has corrected two of the captions described above, removing the language “believed to be” about the ancient synagogue at an archeological site. The corrected caption refers straightforwardly to “a mosaic with Hebrew writing at the location of a synagogue….”

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