CNN’s Huwara Investigation: Heavy on Narrative, Light on Evidence

On June 15, CNN published a 3,000-word article about its “investigation” into the “actions of Israeli forces” in the Palestinian village of Huwara during a February 26 rampage by Israeli settlers.

Readers are told in the headline that “soldiers did little to stop it.” However, in 3,000 words, very little evidence is actually provided for the proposition, and much of the evidence leaves more questions than answers. Little effort appears to have been made during the “monthslong” investigation into getting testimony from the Israelis involved.

Instead, much of the article is spent misleading the audience as to the nature of violence emanating from the West Bank and portraying a narrative that Israel’s “right-wing” government has enabled violent settlers to victimize Palestinians, erasing the context of the wave of Palestinian terrorism since March 2022 – long before the current “right-wing” government took power.

The Quality of the “Investigation”

Despite resulting from a “monthslong” investigation, the evidence for the article’s central proposition is curiously thin. The network says its investigation is “based on analysis of videos from the scene, exclusive testimony from an Israeli soldier, as well as interviews with seven eyewitnesses and two Palestinian journalists…”

Some of the video footage CNN relies on has nothing to do with the actions of Israeli soldiers (e.g., “Videos geolocated and verified by CNN showed hundreds of people flocking to Huwara’s main street…”). Other claims based on videos are of events that happened after the incident that have no bearing on the behavior of soldiers during the incident (e.g., “a video circulating on social media and geolocated by CNN showed Israeli soldiers and settlers dancing together in celebration of Purim”).

Other claims are based on the supposed absence of footage. The article claims that “none of the videos” CNN reviewed “showed [IDF soldiers] firing on the settlers.” But left unexplained is how CNN acquired the videos and whether it took steps to ensure it was reviewing all relevant footage from the scene and not just a selective sample.

A screenshot from the video footage provided by CNN.

Where the alleged actions of Israeli forces are supposedly caught in footage, the network’s description of the footage leaves more questions than answers. This is particularly concerning since, as of this writing, of the three videos included in the article, two appear to have been removed immediately or are not working, leaving the public unable to scrutinize the video evidence for themselves. The third shows only nine seconds of video from “Palestine TV” depicting a group of soldiers on a road with one firing into the air. Further down the road, a fire appears on one side of the road, while a group of unidentified individuals stands on the other side. One of those individuals appears to run and throw an object in the direction of the fire. The brief clip, with a limited field of view, provides little context. Yet the article uses this limited footage as evidence for its sweeping allegation that instead of stopping the settlers, the soldiers only “fired at the Palestinians with tear gas and stun grenades.”

Perhaps CNN has more footage. Perhaps CNN can show it did a comprehensive review of all footage from the scene. But based on what the network has actually provided, the video evidence for its conclusions is shockingly thin.

Most of the rest of the evidence referenced in the article is statements by Palestinian witnesses.  If it is assumed the witnesses are honestly reflecting their perspective, the lack of corroborating evidence for many of the claims is concerning. For example, while Palestinian witnesses may honestly be recounting their perspective that the soldiers on the scene did not respond to certain behavior of violent settlers that they saw, those witnesses may not have been aware of a separate situation the soldiers may have been focused on during the chaotic scene.

This is why any serious, objective investigation would get the perspective of all of those on the scene. Given the investigation was into the actions or omissions of Israeli soldiers, the perspectives of those soldiers would be both highly relevant and probative, and would almost certainly shed new light on what did or did not happen that night. Yet, shockingly, the article contains the testimony of only a single soldier allegedly at the scene, which was provided through an activist organization notorious for making demonstrably false or questionable allegations against Israeli forces.

Investigations of claims by that organization, Breaking the Silence (BtS), have repeatedly found them to lack credibility or involve demonstrably false allegations. Oftentimes, the testimony of BTS activists is directly contradicted not only by other witnesses at the scene, but by documentary evidence. BtS’s founder has claimed, for example, that Israelis poison Palestinian wells, relying on the testimony of a single Palestinian who said he saw settlers near a well before a dead chicken was found inside it. Notwithstanding BtS’s reputation, there is no indication CNN made any effort to verify the soldier’s story, only that the account was “provided by Breaking the Silence.” Indeed, it’s not even clear whether CNN actually knows the identity of the soldier and can independently verify whether he was in a position to reliably make the claims provided.

CNN doesn’t explain whether it attempted to speak with any of the other soldiers at the scene. Even if CNN did make serious, but unsuccessful, efforts to speak with other soldiers who were there, the absence of testimony from their perspective is a glaring deficiency that the authors should have acknowledged.

Politicized Language Papering Over Weak Evidence

Throughout the article, the authors try to paper over the flimsiness of the evidence for their central claim by making irrelevant points that seem only to try to paint Israel in as negative a light as possible, without shedding any light on the behavior of Israeli forces in Huwara on February 26.

Video of Israeli soldiers dancing during the Jewish holiday of Purim with “settlers” a week after the incident is mentioned to suggest it proves the soldiers were not doing their job as “peacekeepers” in Huwara or are somehow complicit in the behavior of the settlers who attacked Huwara the previous week. But there is an abundance of video of Israeli soldiers interacting in similarly friendly ways with Palestinians, from playing soccer with children to assisting the elderly. CNN doesn’t explain how keeping the peace and engaging in friendly activities with civilians in the area are mutually exclusive.

CNN also makes constant reference to a few “right-wing” Israeli politicians and controversial statements they have made. But the relevance of these politicians and their statements, no matter how abhorrent, to the actions of the IDF – which the CNN investigation is supposedly about – is never clear. In one case, CNN references a statement by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich after the incident, in which he said, “Huwara needs to be erased.” The remark was widely condemned and Smotrich ended up expressing “sincere regret” for his remarks. But how this remark is relevant to determining what the Israeli soldiers did or did not do in Huwara is a mystery.

The inordinate amount of space devoted to these episodes, which do not have any bearing on what Israeli forces did or did not do on February 26, comes across as an effort to distract the reader from the dearth of evidence. It’s more an exercise in narrative crafting than fact finding.

Distorting the Background

Seemingly in service of that narrative, the article spends a similarly inordinate amount of time misleading the audience regarding the situation in Israel to depict all the violence as the fault of “right-wing” Israelis.

The article includes a highly misleading timeline of the violence in and originating from the West Bank. CNN claims that “violence between settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank has flared” since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “was sworn in late last December.” The purpose of the misleading chronology portrays the situation as a result of violent “settlers” being unleashed by “the most right-wing and religiously conservative” government in Israel’s history.

In fact, there was a sharp escalation in terror attacks against Israelis that began long before December 2022. The current escalation of Palestinian violence began in March 2022 with a series of deadly Palestinian terrorist attacks carried out inside Israel, starting a wave of Palestinian terrorism and violence, and Israeli counterterror operations, that has yet to fully abate. According to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, 2022 saw “a substantial rise in the number of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel,” with “86 significant attacks,” compared to “54 in 2021, 40 in 2020, 34 in 2019, and 55 in 2018.”

CNN downplays the wave of Palestinian violence in other ways too. The article claims: “Attacks by Palestinians have left 14 Israeli settlers dead in the occupied West Bank this year, according to the United Nations.” The figure of “14” understates the victims of Palestinian terrorism this year while also overstating how many were “settlers.”

In fact, 19 Israelis and 2 foreign nationals have been killed by Palestinians this year. Whether by relying on faulty figures without independent verification, or by making the disturbing decision to mention only “settlers” to downplay Palestinian terrorism, the provided figure of 14 is misleading.

Moreover, the figure of 14 “settlers” is false, anyway. Of the 19 Israelis, at least six of them were not settlers by any definition, including Natali and Eli Mizrahi of Beit Shemesh, Or Eshkar of Tel Aviv, Inga Avramyan of Rehovot, Asil Suaed of the Bedouin village of Hussniyya, and Elan Ganeles, a dual citizen of the U.S. and Israel who resided in the U.S. Even assuming the rest of the 13 Israelis were “settlers,” however CNN or the UN defines the term, the figure provided by the article is inaccurate.

Further betraying the partisan narrative is CNN’s description of those killed in the violence. CNN blithely dismisses the IDF’s claim that most of the Palestinians killed in 2023 “are terror suspects or people engaging violently with its troops during the raids” because the IDF “does not offer evidence.” It begs the question: isn’t journalism supposed to be about seeking out evidence?

A screenshot from video provided by the IDF of Palestinian gunmen in Jenin during a counterterror operation.

In this case, there is plenty of open-source evidence supporting the IDF’s claim that CNN could have looked into during its “monthslong” investigation. CAMERA UK has done exactly that, maintaining a list of Palestinian casualties in 2023, their affiliations, and the circumstances of their death. Through May 2023, of the 124 casualties, 38 were killed after carrying out terrorist attacks and 42 while engaging in rioting or shooting. At least 69 were affiliated with terrorist organizations. For example, the article specifically references a raid by the IDF in Nablus in search of wanted terrorists that resulted in a battle, leaving 11 Palestinians dead. CNN doesn’t mention that of those 11, more than half were affiliated with terrorist organizations.

On the other hand, CNN bizarrely goes out of its way to mention that of two Israeli victims of a terrorist shooting in Huwara, one had “recently completed his mandatory army service” and the other “was set to start the recruitment process.” These details have no relevance to CNN’s story. Instead, they attempt either to suggest the two civilians were legitimate targets or to create a false equivalence between former and future servicemen, who were civilians by any legitimate definition and who were not engaged in violence, and operatives of designated terrorist organizations or those engaged in attacking Israelis.

Moreover, the very premise of the article itself raises questions. The investigation seeks to develop a connection between  Israel’s “right-wing” government, Israeli soldiers, and violent settler extremists. Yet, in presenting a background on the violence in the West Bank, no space is devoted to mentioning the Palestinian Authority’s enormous budget devoted toward its “pay-to-slay” program, which provides financial rewards for those who carry out terror attacks against Israeli civilians. Indeed, a search of CNN’s website for the term “pay-to-slay,” “pay-for-slay,” and  “martyr’s fund” turns up only a few articles that provide only cursory references to the program. It would seem CNN is only interested in pursuing stories of alleged official responsibility for violence when it can be attributed to Israel, while evidence of the Palestinian responsibility for violence is omitted. 

For a 3,000-word essay following an explosive claim in the headline, very little space is devoted to actual evidence of the central claim: that soldiers “did little” to stop violence in Huwara. Instead, CNN spends most of it attempting to discredit the IDF by referencing the actions and words of those who are not a part of the IDF.

That’s not investigative journalism. That’s yellow journalism.

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