Ha’aretz, Washington Post Do Damage Control for Abu Mazen

Reacting to Friday’s Tel Aviv suicide bombing which killed five Israelis, Palestinian Chairman Mahmoud Abbas gave a press conference in Arabic in Ramallah on Saturday denouncing the attack as damaging to Palestinian national goals. How this press conference played out in two influential media outlets raises interesting questions about the accuracy of Arabic translations and what a difference a word can make.

Arnon Regular of Ha’aretz, the Israeli English-language daily heavily relied upon by Western journalists, dropped the following bomb-shell in the second paragraph of his article Sunday:

Calling the perpetrators of the attack “terrorists,” Abbas hinted at Hezbollah’s and Iran’s involvement in the attack. (“Abbas reportedly tells security heads: Deliver results or you will have to quit”)

Likewise, John Ward Anderson reported on this alleged development, a Palestinian leader denouncing Palestinian attackers of Israeli civilians as “terrorists”:

Abbas, speaking to reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said “there is a third party that wants to sabotage this process.” He referred to the perpetrators of the Tel Aviv attack as “terrorists,” a term Palestinians rarely use to describe other Palestinians. (“7 Arrested in Tel Aviv Bombing,” Feb. 27)

Indeed, had Abbas referred in Arabic to the perpetrators of the Tel Aviv bombing as “terrorists,” this certainly would have been a newsworthy item. It is puzzling then at a time when the international media is very attuned to every Palestinian step–real and imagined–towards moderation, that Abbas’ denouncement of “terrorists” did not get broader exposure.

Though the Palestinian Authority released an official transcript of the chairman’s press conference, they did not release an English translation. In the Arabic, the word “terrorists” did not appear. According to Khaled Abu Toameh, an Arab journalist who attended and tape-recorded the briefing, “Abbas described the perpetrators of the attack as ‘saboteurs'” (Jerusalem Post, “Abbas Vows to Bring ‘Saboteurs’ to Trial,” Feb. 27).

A close reading of Abbas’ statement shows that, in his view, the “saboteurs” have sabotaged the Palestinian national agenda. Abbas had nothing to say, however, about the sabotaged lives of innocent Israelis killed and maimed while gathering for a surprise birthday party. (Use of the word “terrorists” would cast attention on the victims.) Abbas stated:

We strongly condemn this attack and we believe that a third party is trying to sabotage the period of calm and goals of our people.

We won’t allow anyone to destroy the goals and aspirations of our people.

Since this attack has nothing to do with the PA and Palestinian factions [Abbas blamed Hezbollah], we consider it to be an act of sabotage and we must cooperate against it.

WAFA, the Palestinian news service, and the three major Palestinian newspapers that day “reported on Abu Mazen’s speech word by word, and there was not a word about terrorists,” said Abu Toameh.

It is striking, then, that according to Israeli journalist Arnon Regular and American reporter John Ward Anderson–neither fluent Arabic-speakers–”terrorists” was Mahmoud Abbas’ word of the day.