Post-Watch: Washington Post Discredits Itself on Israel

Superficial, misleading, one-sided — too often, that was Washington Post news coverage of Israel and Arab-Israeli affairs in late November and early December.


A Post weakness, going back to the 1970s, is news coverage (as opposed to editorials) skewed toward the Palestinian Arab “narrative” and away from Israeli concerns. This fall’s output of “agenda journalism” (public relations by another name) has been especially noteworthy.


CAMERA’s October 25 Post-Watch, Washington Post Airbrushes Exchanged Palestinian Prisoners” and November 17’s Post-Watch, “Washington Post Israel Coverage: All Hole, No Bagel”  highlighted earlier problems.


Now come three more examples. Flawed to those familiar with the issues involved, their potential to mislead general audiences is significant.


Unearned empathy


“Eyes In The Sky: “Drones Cast A Pall of Fear,” December 4, by former Post Jerusalem bureau chief, more recently White House reporter, Scott Wilson:


This huge spread, beginning top center of page one in the Sunday paper (largest readership of the week) and occupying most of two pages inside, is an installment in an occasional series about the expanding use of remotely piloted vehicles by the United States and others. But it’s also an example of the paper’s tendency to equate Israeli defense with Palestinian aggression and to parrot Palestinian factoids without journalistic scrutiny.


* An accompanying page-one map erroneously claimed that “Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, but still controls all border crossings ….” CAMERA obtained a correction, noting that the crossing at Rafah has been under Palestinian-Egyptian control since 2005. The Post covered the U.S.-mediated agreement leading to the first instance of control by Gazans of an international crossing in the history of the Strip, so what accounted for this basic error? Perhaps The Post’s continuing desire to believe that Israel — in the view of a Palestinian “human rights advocate” quoted by Wilson — still legally occupies Gaza despite having pulled its soldiers and settlers out.


* The Post cites statistics from the Palestinian Center for Human Rights claiming that “825 people have been killed by drones in Gaza since the capture of [Israeli army Sgt. Gilead] Shalit” in 2006. (Shalit was exchanged for more than 1,000 Palestinian terrorists earlier this year.) “Most of those killed, according to the organization, have been civilians mistakenly targeted or caught in the deadly shrapnel shower of a drone strike.”


The Post would have readers infer that “825 killed by drones,” “most of them” civilians, are authoritative figures. But PCHR is an unreliable source. Or rather, it’s reliably anti-Israel. The center has a habit of counting Palestinian combatant casualties as civilian, of favoring Hamas over Israel, and describing Israeli counter-terrorism operations as “war crimes.” See, for example, CAMERA’s Backgrounders, “PCHR Covers Up Combatant Deaths in Gaza,” Aug. 25, 2011, and “Gaza Casualties: Civilian or Combatant?” Jan. 29, 2009.


* “Drones Cast A Pall Of Fear” repeatedly refers to “Palestinian militants” and “Islamist militants” under Israeli observation in the Gaza Strip. The article mentions Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but never says that both are designated as terrorist organizations by the United States as well as by Israel. For The Post, there are Islamist “foot soldiers” and “armed men” in Gaza but no Palestinian terrorists.


* Militants and Israelis, the article implies, are equally culpable. The paper claims there is “call-and-response conflict between Israelis and P alestinians, the missile fire has repeatedly provoked Israel to invade [the Gaza Strip].” And “as the Palestinian rocket arsenal improves, more Israeli cities, from the border town of Sderot to the southern suburbs of Tel Aviv, are sharing Gazans’ everyday fear of attack from the sky.”


But Arabs in the Strip would have no “everyday fear of attack from the sky,” there would be no invasive Israel “response” to the “call” of Palestinian rocket fire, if Israelis had not been under chronic bombardment from Gaza for much of the past decade. One side is the aggressor and chronically commits terrorism against civilians, and one side responds, including with drones. Post language repeatedly softens Palestinian guilt.


The newspaper notes that “the Israeli military says it works hard to distinguish between militants and civilians, but that the task is made harder because many of those who fire rockets from Gaza operate amid the fields and houses of residential neighborhoods.” But The Post does not remind readers that basing combatants among civilians violates international law.


* Though the article avoids earlier Post practice of describing the Gaza Strip, erroneously, as “one of the world’s most densely populated places,” it does refer to “this crowded strip of land” in which Palestinian Arabs “live in cramped refugee camps, breeze-block houses and high-rise apartments built among olive orchards, palm groves and roiling dunes.” An Israeli military officer says “Gaza is a very dense urban environment with civilians and terrorists mixed together ….”


As CAMERA has pointed out previously, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about Gaza’s population density. At around 10,000 people per square mile, it’s a little more crowded than Washington, D.C., not so crowded as Tel Aviv and many times less cramped that Manhattan’s Upper East Side.


And if Gazans still live in “refugee camps” — actually permanent if dense and drab neighborhoods — three generations after the Arabs’ unsuccessful war against Israel in 1948-’49, it’s because the Palestinian Liberation Organization terrorized those who wanted to move into new neighborhoods built by Israel after 1967, and because the Palestinian Authority has refused to construct any “refugee” housing with the billions of dollars in foreign aid it’s received since 1994.


Censoring dissent from the status quo


“In Israel, concerns grow about stifling of dissent; Threats against anti-settlement activist come amid legal proposals that some say are aimed at government’s leftist critics,” November 27, by Joel Greenberg of The Post’s Jerusalem bureau.


This long news-feature (at 1,122 words nearly magazine length) takes a legitimate news item — death threats to Hagit Ofran, Israel’s Peace Now settlement monitor — and spins a tale of endangered civil liberties in the Jewish state.


* Greenberg reports the basics about threats against Ofran in five of the article’s 24 paragraphs. But he levers them into something allegedly “emblematic of the extremist challenge to Israeli democracy and the unlearned lessons of the [Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin assassination” in 1995. “The threats have come as rightist members of parliament are working to advance legislation that would restrict or heavily tax donations by foreign governments to Israeli nonprofit groups. Critics call the move an attempt to cripple human rights organizations and leftist groups such as Peace Now that challenge the policies of Israel’s right-leaning government, particularly in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”


Greenberg highlights Ofran “addressing a rally in Tel Aviv marking the anniversary of Rabin’s assassination … [claiming] that the latest rightist initiatives in parliament were part of an attempt ‘to silence public debate,’ and had inspired violence and threats against dissenters.”


The Post says “critics call the move [to limit foreign funding of NGO’s] an attempt to cripple human rights organizations.” It doesn’t examine those organizations’ bona fides — some groups, as Israel’s NGO-Monitor ( ) has documen ted, are more anti-government and pro-Palestinian than they are human rights advocates. The paper virtually censors proponents of the legislation, who claim to be leveling the playing field against groups subsidized by foreign government opposed to the outcome of Israeli elections.


* The Post provides little detail or context about the legislative proposals allegedly threatening Israeli democracy. Actually at issue were three proposals:


One would limit by taxation or restriction the influence of foreign governments — generally European Union members and the E.U. itself — that fund a number of Israeli non-profit organizations opposed, like Peace Now, to policies pursued by Israel’s democratically-elected government. In the United States, such groups would be required to register as foreign agents or face criminal prosecution. For example, The Post’s “Va. man pleads guilty in Pakistan lobbying case; Nonprofit chief failed to report Islamabad funds, prosecutors say, (December 8), contained no hint that American democracy had been endangered when Syed Ghulam Nabi Fai, executive director of the Kashmiri American Council, pled guilty to attempting to influence Congress on behalf of a front for Pakistani intelligence.


A second Knesset proposal would require that hearings for Israeli Supreme Court nominees be conducted by panels with representatives from the major political parties. The Post doesn’t mention the obvious: In the United States, hearings of judicial nominees conducted by only Democrats or only Republicans would be out of the question.


And the third bill would increase financial penalties for those found to be knowingly guilty in libel cases. Given the free-wheeling nature of the Israeli press, such a boost might cause second thoughts, but “stifle dissent”? The Washington Post gives Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu two sentences to “dismiss as overblown” opposition charges that the government was trying to stifle dissent. The Jerusalem Post, in a page one article five days earlier, gave him five paragraphs, including “No one will tell anyone what to think, what to write, what to investigate, what to broadcast …. I will protect democracy, guard freedom of expression, ensure the rights of the minority and allow all parts of the nation to express themselves.” 


* After the six-column headline, under a four-column color picture of Ofran, The Washington Post acknowledges, deep in the article, that “following expressions of concern from foreign diplomats, Netanyahu has stalled cabinet endorsement of the bill limiting foreign funding of nonprofit groups.” Close to the end of the story, readers are told that the public security minister said “threats against Ofran and Peace Now were under ‘vigorous investigation’ and a suspect had been arrested.”


The point of The Post’s alarm emerges in the last three paragraphs. These concede that “while Ofran is concerned about the threat of rightist violence, she sees her main foes as public indifference to the settlement enterprise,” based on disillusionment over peace diplomacy with the Palestinian Arabs. “Stifling dissent” turns out to be a news peg for one more anti-settlements dispatch.


Historical fiction


“Preserving a disputed heritage; With membership in UNESCO, Palestinians seek greater control of ancient West Bank landmarks,” November 22, by Greenberg. Journalists who never would fall for Holocaust revisionism parrot Middle East revisionism when it seems to support “the Palestinian narrative.” The Post does just that with this lead “The World” section article. It implies an ancient Palestinian Arab history that never existed.


“At a museum just off the desert road from Jerusalem to Jericho in the West Bank, the artifacts of a contested heritage are on display,” reads Greenberg’s lead. “Colorful mosaic floors from Byzantine-era churches and synagogues, Roman capitals and stone burial boxes — all dug up by Israeli archaeologists in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip — are shown at the site, developed by Israel’s West Bank military administration with the Israeli antiquities authority ….


“But now, after more than 40 years of Israeli occupation, Palestinians are making a bid for greater control of the West Bank’s historical and archaeological landmarks, which they are claiming as their own.”


Never mind the gratuitous lower case denigration of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The Post declines to examine the ahistorical Palestinian claim to archaeological landmarks in Judea and Samaria (renamed the West Bank by Jordanian occupiers in the 1950s). This even though the article’s lead noted that the mosaic floors were Byzantine, from churches and synagogues, that the columns were Roman, that the archaeologists who found them were Israeli.


The Qumran caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered; King Herod’s Judean retreat of Herodium; the old quarter of Hebron, including the Tomb of the Patriarchs; Rachel’s Tomb near Bethlehem and the town’s Church of the Nativity — these and more the Palestinian Authority hopes to hijack through its new membership in the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.


With the exception of the Church of the Nativity these obviously are ancient Jewish sites. The church — given the dramatic shrinkage of Bethlehem’s Christian Arab population under the PA and the shrine’s occupation and trashing by Palestinian gunmen during the second intifada — has little connection to a Palestinian “heritage.” But this The Post does not report.


Palestinian Arab national history, like that of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, is a 20th century political phenomenon. On this central point The Post is mute, but the Arabs of British Mandatory Palestine were not. The First Congress of Muslim-Christian Associations in Jerusalem, meeting in 1919 to choose delegates to the post-World War I Paris Peace Conference, declared:


“We consider Palestine as part of Arab Syria, as it has never been separated from it at any time. We are connected with it by national, religious, linguistic, natural, economic and geographic bonds.”


In 1947, when the United Nations was discussing its partition plan for the Mandate, the Arab Higher Committee asserted that “Palestine was part of the province of Syria” and “politically, the Arabs of Palestine were not independent in the sense of forming a separate national political identity.”


And, of course, there is Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee member Zahir Muhsein’s oft-quoted 1977 interview with the Dutch newspaper Trouw, in which he said “the Palestinian people does not exist. The creation of a Palestinian state is only a means for continuing our struggle against the state of Israel for our Arab unity. In reality today there is no difference between Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Only for political and tactical reasons do we speak today about the existence of a Palestinian people, since Arab national interests demand that we posit the existence of a distinct ‘Palestinian people’ to oppose Zionism.”


There never was a sovereign country called “Palestine.” The term itself was used by Rome after the second Jewish war, 132 – 135 C.E., to erase the memory of the Jews and Judea in favor of a Latin allusion to the long-vanished Philistines. The Philistines were a non-Arab, pre-Islamic people from the Mediterranean islands who settled in what is now the Gaza Strip and its environs around 1,200 B.C.E. and periodically fought the biblical Israelites until being destroyed by Babylonia 600 years later. 


Before the 20th century, in particular before Israel’s re-creation in 1948 and conquest of Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip in 1967, there was no discrete “Palestinian” Arab nationality or culture. So there can be no Palestinian “antiquities” and no Palestinian “heritage” that includes “ancient West Bank landmarks.” There is, however, more than 3,000 years of Jewish history, centering on Judea and Samaria.


Not that a reader could learn this from The Post. News reporting is who, what, when, where, why and how, in context, as comprehensively as possible in the space allowed. The Post claims “the disputed political future of the West Bank has made heritage preservation a point of contention.” In fact Palestinian heritage preservation is less contentious than specious. If the devil’s in the details, understanding is in context, which The Post unjourna listically avoids in this and its December 4 and November 27 efforts.

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