Road Rights (And Wrongs)

On Dec. 24, 2002, then Los Angeles Times Jerusalem bureau chief Tracy Wilkinson repeated a common error among journalists reporting from Israel and the Palestinian areas. The inaccuracy dragged CAMERA and Times editors down a long road of correspondences, which did not, unfortunately, lead to a published correction. The saga says something about the Times’ unwillingness in the face of evidence to set the record straight.

The catalyst for the exchange was Wilkinson’s statement:

Daoud and Maria Khoury watch it from their kitchen window.

Each year, each month, another little bit of the Jewish settlement of Ofra comes a little bit closer.

Taibe is a predominantly Christian Palestinian village that sits just east of Ofra [a Jewish community in the West Bank], across a stony valley. Ofra’s easternmost trailers have sprouted on the ridge and begun marching down the slope. With the housing, a new settlers-only road has appeared as well as light posts that illuminate the night. (“Settlement Sprawl Cuts Off Palestinians: Some see an Israeli campaign to harass them out of home,” emphasis added)

CAMERA contacted the paper, pointing out that “settlers-only roads,” though a common media misconception, do not exist. There are no roads in the West Bank or Gaza which are open only to settler traffic. Many Israelis who are not settlers, as well as foreigners, use the roads. However, since the violent Palestinian uprising against Israel, in which scores of Israelis have been shot on West Bank roads, use of certain roads is prohibited to private Palestinian vehicles (which can be identified by their license plates).

In response to CAMERA’s request for a correction, the Times replied: “They [editors] say that their reference was meant that, as a practical matter (not a legal one), only settlers use the road. However, the bureau chief says that the purpose seems to be to exclude Palestinians, so the phrase seems appropriate.”

By that logic, one might say that if the Times employees are primarily white people it would be acceptable to say the paper is a whites-only business. It would be unfair and inaccurate but technically correct (according to the criteria the editors used in the “settlers-only road” case.) A representative for the paper rejected the analogy, and persisted: “the purpose of the license law is to block Palestinians in the area from using the road. For all intents and purposes, according to their reporting, then, the road is for the use of settlers only.” The representative then went on to ask: “are there actually many Arabs (with yellow plates) who use the road? I’m not sure that I see the analogy between your example and this case that would make this unfair and inaccurate, unless you’re saying in fact that this is a road used by Arabs.”

This latest correspondence suggested that the editors were missing a major point. It seemed that, in their view, the only two categories of people who could conceivably use the road are settlers and the Palestinians. In fact, as CAMERA had first noted, plenty of Israelis who are not settlers (in addition to foreigners) use the roads. Therefore, it is inaccurate to call the roads “settlers-only” if Israelis (Jews and Arabs alike) from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Beersheva, and countless other locations from within the Green Line use them.

Second, the Times official’s question concerning how many Arabs use the road raises an interesting point. How many would need to use them in order for the roads not to be considered “settlers-only”? Fifteen a day? One hundred? Five hundred? In fact, Israeli Arabs have plenty of reasons to use the bypass roads, as they have numerous business connections in the territories, as well as relatives. Moreover, at least one Israeli Arab was even shot and killed using a so-called “settlers-only road.” As the Los Angeles Times reported on Aug. 8, 2001:

Wael Ghanem, an Israeli Arab, was shot and killed as he drove toward the Jewish settlement of Tzofim in the West Bank, not far from where an Israeli woman was killed on Sunday. . . . However, he was driving a car with yellow license plates on a West Bank road where a similar shooting attack had taken place, raising the possibility that Palestinian gunmen thought they were targeting an Israeli settler.

Georgios Tsibouktzakis, a Greek Orthodox monk, shot on June 12, 2001, was another non-settler killed while on these roads.

To this definitive evidence that the roads could not possibly be “settlers-only,” the Los Angeles Times had no credible response. Instead, the paper changed the grounds of the argument, dropping altogether the questions concerning license plates and how many Israeli Arabs (and other non-settlers) might use the road. The representative now produced new information, focusing on the exact location of the road as the pivotal factor in determining who uses it: “According to the reporter, the road referred to that the couple looks out onto (‘Daoud and Maria Khoury watch it from their kitchen window. . . ‘) is part of the Ofra settlement, therefore it is definitely a settlers-only road.”

The article did not provide enough information to verify whether the road in question was actually inside or outside of Ofra. Nevertheless, even if it is inside the settlement, it is still open to non-settler Israelis as well as foreigners. In other words, an Israeli from Haifa can drive on the roads inside Ofra. Thus, even roads inside Ofra cannot be “settlers-only” unless the Times considers all Israelis settlers.

In addition, the only roads in the territories which are definitely always off-limits to a particular population are in the Arab areas, with roads that are off-limits to Jews. The Times has not, however, referred to “Arab-only roads,” so it unfair and inaccurate to refer to “settlers-only roads” which are not, in fact, settlers only.

Despite the strong evidence (the murder of two non-settlers) against their illogical position, Times editors did not back down. The final word was: “editors contend that the intended purpose of the road is for the use of settlers. In the context of the piece, especially, the phrase was not misleading – the article at that point was citing someone looking at the road from her house near the settlement in the ‘predominantly Christian Palestinian village.'”

But the context that the Times representative so helpfully cites only strengthens CAMERA’s case. If the village was accurately described as “predominantly Christian Palestinian,” then why couldn’t the road be described as “predominantly settler”?

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