Errors, Omissions and Language: Washington Post Israel Coverage Erodes

Washington Post reporting of Arab-Israeli news still matters. The Post, as CAMERA has noted, remains one of the few American media with a significant network of foreign bureaus—it lists 12, including one in Jerusalem, with 19 correspondents. The New York Times maintains 26 overseas offices, but its Israel coverage continues chronically toxic while The Post’s rates better, at wildly uneven.

However, June and early July missteps remind Post readers that, by itself, “better than The New York Times” is not good enough. They suggest the newspaper may be relapsing into the jaundiced approach routinely taken in news coverage of Israel in the early and middle years of the past decade.

Arabs attack Jews, Jews fight back: ‘Violence on both sides’

The July 4, 2015 print edition of The Post featured as its lead article in The World section, “Wave of recent attacks sets Israelis on edge; Violence has broken a period of relative calm, and some wonder whether a new confrontation is about to erupt.” Large color photographs illustrated Jerusalem Bureau Chief William Booth’s dispatch. The cutlines read:

“Family members mourn during the funeral of Malachi Rosenfeld, who was killed when a gunman fired into a car carrying him and three other young Israelis near a settlement in the West Bank” and “A Palestinian woman grieves for her son, Hamad Romaneen, who was fatally shot after he opened fire on Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint in the Jordan Valley.”

According to The Post, there had been “seven major attacks against Israelis in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem over the past two weeks. The pace and mixed style of violence—ambushes, stabbings, drive-by shootings—have broken a months-long period of relative calm and set many on edge.”

The article then adds to a false equivalence implied by the photographs of grieving Jews and Arabs: “There has also been violence from the Israeli side, including the fatal shooting Friday morning of a 17-year-old Palestinian who had thrown rocks at a senior military commander’s vehicle.”

“Violence from the Israeli side” has been, as the article’s tally of Arab attacks indicates, reactive, security forces against those perpetrating attacks or potentially dangerous assaults. Palestinian aggression has been just that. But cause-and-effect in such cases—Palestinian terrorism sparks Israeli reaction—long has been a Post weakness.

Doubling down on false equivalence

Five days after “Wave of recent attacks sets Israelis on edge” Booth elaborated the killing of a rock-throwing Palestinian 17-year-old by an Israeli army officer into another lead “The World” section article (“Dueling views after a Palestinian teen is killed; To Israelis, self-defense; to others, rock thrower was shot in the back,” July 9 print edition). Occupying two-thirds of page A-6, the article was illustrated by a large four-column black-and-white photo and small two-column picture. The first cutline read:

“The body of Mohammed al-Kasbah, 17, who threw rocks at an Israeli military vehicle last week, is carried in the Qalandiya refugee camp in the West Bank. Kasbah’s killing—which Israeli officials described as a ‘decisive’ act of self-defense and which a Palestinian official said was ‘cold-blooded’—symbolized the deep rift in perception in the West Bank.”

The second: Relatives mourn Kasbah during his funeral.”

According The Post, rock throwers “rarely pose a serious threat to soldiers in helmets and protective gear but have come to symbolize Palestinian resistance.” No mention of Israeli soldiers and civilians killed and wounded over the years by Arabs throwing rocks—including occupants of automobiles that crashed after being hit—or dropping concrete blocks off buildings and similar “resistance.”

The Post declaims that “the shooting of Kasbah is the latest reminder of how the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, now in its 48th year, continues to take lives and leave scars.” No mention that Israel first took the Jordanian-occupied West Bank (Judea and Samaria) in a successful war of self-defense in 1967 and continues to hold it due in no small measure to Palestinian leaders’ refusal to accept repeated “two-state solutions.” These would require them to end the conflict and recognize Israel as a Jewish state—in other words, to stop “resisting” Israel’s existence.

The paper gives the final quote to the father of the dead Palestinian teen. He has lost two other sons to Israeli gunfire, one after throwing rocks, another in an incident not clarified by The Post: “…[W]hy did this happen to my family? I will tell you. The reason is that we live in this camp [Qalandiya, a large camp turned poor neighborhood on the northern edge of Jerusalem]. All we have known is jail, jail, jail. If we were still living in my home village, none of this would ever have happened.”

Why isn’t the family still living in its home village? The Washington Post doesn’t say. Is it because the Arabs rejected the U.N.’s 1947 Palestine partition plan, attacked the new country of Israel in 1948, and lost? And then, refusing to make peace, kept three generations and more of “refugees” in “camps,” subsidized by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency while Israel absorbed a larger number of Jewish refugees from Arab lands?

Of “Dueling view after a Palestinian teen is killed,” Leo Rennert, retired Washington bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, said “it’s hugely unbalanced—18 paragraphs for the Palestinian side; 7 paragraphs for the Israeli side.”

You say ‘potato,’ I say ‘howling’

Word choice can reveal mind-set. In the July 4 “Wave of recent attacks sets Israelis on edge,” the newspaper informs readers that “Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition government is howling [emphasis added] for the military and police to take stronger action and reverse decisions to loosen travel restrictions to Jerusalem during Ramadan to all Muslims from the West Bank and Gaza to visit al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City, the third holiest site in Islam.”

Howling? Israel, with about 6.2 million Jews in its total population of 8 million, is about the size of New Jersey. If the Garden State suffered seven stabbings, ambushes and drive-by shootings in two weeks, and the government’s response at first seemed insufficient, would those favoring increased law enforcement be “urging,’ “demanding,” or “howling” for it like jackals?

The Post points out al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem is “the third holiest site in Islam,” and refers to “the occupied West Bank.” The Old City’s Temple Mount, a portion of which al-Aqsa occupies, is, of course, Judaism’s holiest site. However, the paper goes mute on that point. 

The West Bank is legally occupied by Israel. It also is non-sovereign, disputed territory pending a future Arab-Israel agreement according to U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 (1967), 338 (1973) and subsequent pacts including the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement. Sometimes the devil isn’t just in the details, but particularly the details omitted.

News media have little trouble referring to the South China Sea, where China, with dubious legal standing, is building artificial islands, as “disputed waters.” But for The Post the West Bank, in which the Jewish people’s religious, historical and legal claims have been recognized and codified by the League of Nations/U.N. Nations Palestine Mandate and U.N. Charter, among other treaties and agreements, is only “occupied.”

When the newspaper quotes an Israeli cabinet member as asserting “the blood of Israeli citizens, especially residents of Judea and Samaria, cannot be shed with impunity,” it explains he used “place names from the Hebrew Bible to refer to the West Bank.” Actually, “the West Bank” is a Jordanian coinage from 1950, after the kingdom seized the territory during Israel’s 1948-’49 War of Independence. Jerusalem, the Galilee, the Negev, Beersheva and countless other contemporary place names—in common modern Hebrew and English—also come from the Hebrew Bible. But unlike nomenclature that echoes “the Palestinian narrative,” The Post does not feel compelled to clarify that point.

Taken for a ride

The newspaper played “For Palestinian prisoners, a bitter pill to swallow” (June 29) big, the accompanying illustrations bigger. The headline ran across five of six columns at the top of that edition’s lead page of “The World” section. Under the headline was a five column by six-inch color photograph and a one-column by one and a-half inch color head shot with the cutlines “A protester frees a balloon outside a prison to demand the release of Khader Adnan” and “Adnan is on his 54th day of a hunger strike. An Israeli bill would allow force-feeding of Palestinian prisoners who go on hunger strikes. Israeli doctors ‘will do everything we can to fight this proposal,’ the head of a medical association said.”

The 1,115-word article reported that Israeli officials think force-feeding “is needed to save lives and protect Israeli security…. Israelis fear an eruption of violence if a popular Palestinian prisoner, idolized in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, were to die from hunger.” It notes that other countries, including the United States and Australia, have force-fed prisoners.

It also calls force-feeding “an extreme medical procedure that Israeli doctors say they will refuse to perform because it is unethical and inhumane.” Israeli Medical Association chief Leonid Edelman is paraphrased as saying “there have been more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners on hunger strikes in the past two years and that none died. ‘The point is they don’t want to die,’ Edelman said. ‘The prisoners are protesting, not committing suicide.’ ”

Khader Adnan is described as a spokesman for Palestinian Islamic Jihad, “a group they [Israelis] consider a terrorist organization.” So do the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the European Union, although The Post omits that.

The next day The Post ran a four-paragraph news brief from Associated Press, headlined “Israel: Palestinian inmate ending hunger strike” (June 30). Lead paragraph: “A Palestinian held by Israel for the past year is ending a 55-day hunger strike and in exchange will be released in two weeks, his wife and an advocacy group for prisoners said Monday.”

Translation: Remember yesterday’s big story with the huge picture? It probably should have been a brief too.
Expunging Jewish Jonah
Jonah was “the prophet famed in Islam and Christianity for being swallowed by a whale”? So The Post’s correspondent Loveday Morris (“Islamic State’s pillaging of antiquities now systematic; Militants earn millions from looting overseen by ‘resources’ department,” June 9, 2015) informed readers.
Synagogues everywhere read the story of Jonah, one of the Hebrew Bible’s 12 “minor prophets” each Yom Kippur. Jonah—Yonah in the original Hebrew—reappears in later Christianity and Islam. God had called Jonah to urge Assyria, ancient Israel’s enemy, to repent and be saved. Jonah so opposed Assyrian salvation he took to sea to avoid his divine mission—whereupon he encountered the great fish (dag gadol) waiting for him since Creation (not a whale), and came to learn the universality of sincere repentance.

But not for The Post in its role as arbiter of Hebrew scripture. Two CAMERA requests for a correction noted that Jonah is famed in Judaism—and subsequently recognized in Christianity and Islam—for the importance of his lesson in atonement. The newspaper finally responded:

“While the phrase in the story is not wrong, it is true that it would have been more complete to add that the prophet Jonah was also famed in Judaism for being swallowed by a whale—not just in Christianity and Islam. [We] don’t think this rises to the level of a correction, but [we’ve] spoken with our correspondent, and we will be more mindful of this in the future.”

What a relief; the next time the story of Jonah appears in Washington Post foreign news coverage, the paper’ll get it right. Coming soon: a Post article referring to Mary, “famed for being the mother of an Islamic prophet.”

Tunisia ‘tiny’ again; Israel still unmentionably smaller

“Tiny Tunisia” appeared twice in The Post, “small” Kuwait once in June. Tiny or small Israel, not at all.

CAMERA has noted The Post’s proclivity for describing countries bigger than Israel in territory, population or both as tiny, small or with some other diminutive (“‘Tiny Tunisia’ Joined by U.A.E.—Israel Still Big,” CAMERA, Nov. 24, 2014). These have included Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Latvia in addition to Tunisia. Meanwhile, the paper virtually never reminds readers that the Jewish state is bigger than Delaware but smaller than Maryland. Not only that, Israel inside the 1949 Israeli-Jordanian armistice lines is only four miles wide just west of Jerusalem, less than nine miles wide at one point north of Tel Aviv. Almost nowhere is it more than 40 miles across.

When a Muslim terrorist murdered dozens in Tunisia, Post reports included references to “the tiny North African nation” (“Gunman storms Tunisian shore resort; at least 39 killed; Attack in Sousse raises fears that country is a primary extremists target,” June 27) and “this tiny
Mediterranean country” (“Witnesses in Tunisia say gunman washed himself after slaying dozens,” June 28).

Tunisia has six times Israel’s area and three million more people.

The first article referred to Tunisia’s “worst terrorist attack in recent memory.” The second called it “the worst terrorist attack in Tunisia’s history.”

The Post headlined a seven-paragraph news brief from The Los Angeles Times “Israel: Palestinian gunman shoots 2, army says” (June 20). One of the two, from central Israel but hiking in the West Bank, died. No reference to Israel’s size, or to the “Palestinian gunman” as a terrorist.

But wait, there’s (increasingly) more

“Israel defends actions in Gaza war” (June 15) by Booth, said “the United Nations has reported that more than 2,100 Palestinian were killed by Israel in the conflict and that the majority were civilians, including more than 500 children. The Israel Defense Forces … produced a different count of the Palestinian dead: 936 (44 percent) militants; 761 (36 percent civilians); and 428 (20 percent) ‘yet to be categorized,’ all males ages 16 to 50.”

Finally, The Post published the IDF breakdown, which strongly suggests that a majority of Arab fatalities in the 2014 Gaza war were combatants—although even a 2:1 non-combatant to combatant ratio would be markedly lower than U.N. estimates for U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan (3:1) and Iraq (4:1), whose rules of engagement, though restrictive, may not be as tight as those followed by Israel.

But in “U.N. report on Gaza: Possible war crimes on both sides” (June 23), Booth returned to U.N. estimates, this time from the U.N. Human Rights Council, claiming “2,251 Palestinians were killed during the hostilities, including 1,462 Palestinian civilians, of whom 299 were women and 551 children. Six Israeli civilians and 67 Israeli soldiers were killed.” Contradictory Israeli figures did not appear.

And so it went. “Protest ship bound for Gaza is diverted” (June 30) and “Palestinians pressing the ICC to charge Israel; Documents submitted to Hague court allege war crimes in Gaza” (June 26) both conveyed spin thrown off by “the Palestinian narrative.”

Like panning for gold

“Netanyahu won’t apologize for criticism of Obama by former Israeli ambassador” (June 20), another report by Booth, claimed “[Former U.S. Ambassador Martin] Indyk has not exactly attacked [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu personally. In a speech in May 2014, the Brookings Institution scholar singled out Israel’s settlement building in the occupied West Bank as a key reason for the failure of the peace talks.”

“Not exactly”—there’s an interesting phrase. In “White House Escalates Secret Media War Against Israel; Obama administration continues to bash Israel over peace process” (Washington Free Beacon, May 8, 2014) fingered Indyk as the anonymous source for recent Israeli press articles attacking Netanyahu and his government’s policies. It also alleged Indyk held a long-standing antipathy toward the Israeli leader.

That Booth might have been aware of this, and in any case was inclined to cut Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, if not Netanyahu, some slack, was suggested by “WBUR’s ‘On Point’ Misleads About the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict,” (CAMERA, Dec. 4, 2014). The National Public Radio-syndicated program exemplified the network’s anti-Israel “deck-stacking” technique and found The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief on hand to “summarize”—but not counter—points by three panelist. The trio included Indyk but no representative of Netanyahu or his government.

Reading The Washington Post to follow Arab-Israeli news is like panning for gold; once in a while nuggets turn up, but lately more and more gravel must be washed away first. Eventually, should the trend continue, it won’t be worth it.

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