Tanks for Nothing

The front page story by the Boston Globe’s Charles Sennott was heartrending. The reporter had traveled to a Gaza refugee camp to interview Hakma Abu Gharoud, who explained that on the very day of Israel’s declaration of independence, May 15, 1948, she and her family had been driven from their peaceful town in the Negev by Israeli tanks.

One of a series of articles in the Globe marking Israel’s 50th anniversary, “For Palestinians, home only a dream,” (June 11, 1998) recounted Gharoud’s story in apparently convincing detail:

then nine months pregnant, [Gharoud] fled her Arab village in panic as Israeli tanks closed in. On the road outside her village, she went into labor. As her screams were drowned out by the thunder of shelling, she delivered a baby boy in an open field. She named him Mohajir, which in Arabic means “refugee.” … Today, Mohajir and his mother still live in the squalor of the United Nations refugee camp where the family ended up after the 1948 war that gave birth to the nation of Israel but displaced some 700,000 Arabs.

Just in case readers failed to grasp the import of the Gharoud story— Israel’s allegedly brutal uprooting and dispossession of native Arabs— Sennott spelled it out: “The stories of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian families like the Gharouds are an indelible part of Israeli history.”

If this and similar stories are an indelible part of Israeli history, it is largely thanks to journalists who shun such mundane tasks as fact-checking. Indeed, had Sennott or his editors fact-checked Gharoud’s story, they might have found a key contradiction which calls into question her entire account. On the date of the alleged attack against the Gharoud’s village of Ashweih, Israel had only two tanks, neither of which was operational. (Arab-Israeli Wars, A. J. Barker, p. 19) According to Chaim Herzog’s The Arab-Israeli Wars, Israel’s armored forces on that date consisted of “some scout cars and a number of crudely home-made armoured vehicles.” (p. 48) None of these vehicles were anywhere near the Gharoud’s village. Whatever caused the family to leave, it could not have been Israeli tanks or armored vehicles. Of course, Sennott never mentions that invading Arab armies possessed such weapons in abundance, which they used to overrun many Jewish communities including, for example, Yad Mordechai and Kfar Etzion.

In a letter defending his article, Sennott admitted it might be true Israel had no operational tanks on May 15, 1948, but he suggested it could have been “Israeli mortar fire or armored vehicles that Mrs. Gharoud mistook for tanks in her recollection . . . .” Thus, rather than considering that perhaps Gharoud’s claims might be baseless, Sennott takes for granted her essential veracity, and invokes a “higher truth” argument. Since Israelis allegedly expelled hundreds of thousands of Palestinians like Gharoud, the details don’t matter. If she was not driven out by Israeli tanks, she was driven out by other weapons, and thus the reader was not deceived.

In fact, the only truth in this case, higher or otherwise, is one that Sennott vigorously ignores. In the area of Gharoud’s village on the date in question, invading Egyptian forces were the ones on the offensive. The Israeli forces opposing them were heavily outnumbered and outgunned, totaling no more than 800 soldiers, “equipped with light arms, some light mortars, two 20-mm guns . . . and two davidkas (a type of home-made mortar) with ten bombs.” (Edge of the Sword, Netanel Lorch, p. 201) The hard pressed Israelis struggled, sometimes in vain, to defend their Negev communities, and were in no position to go on the offensive. Sennott’s article was therefore actually an inversion of history.

Unfortunately, Sennott routinely engages in such inversions, whether covering historical events or contemporary ones. Thus, he usually pays only scant attention to the assertions and views of the Israeli government. Challenged on this point, Sennott explicitly denied an antigovernment bias, pointing to the “amount of attention [the Globe pays] to the Israeli government and to the statements of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, or frequently his senior adviser David Bar-Illan . . . .”

Examination of the Globe’s coverage for the first seven months of 1998, however, offers no support for Sennott’s claims. Perhaps the major concern of the Israeli government under Netanyahu has been the need for reciprocity in relations with the Palestinians. Netanyahu and his aides have repeatedly denounced violations of the Oslo Accords by the Palestinian side, specifically asserting that the PA does not fight against Hamas and Islamic Jihad, has not dismantled the “military” infrastructure of these groups, has not reduced the size of Palestinian security forces to previously agreed upon levels, and has refused to extradite suspects to Israel. All of these are Palestinian obligations under the Accords.

A Nexis search on the keywords “Israel and (reciprocity or violation)” in the Globe file revealed that during the first seven months of 1998 the Globe had published only one story, on January 15, using the word “reciprocity.” That story, by Sennott:

  • referred to Israeli policy as “hard-knuckled”
  • termed Israeli calls for reciprocity “a stringent—some analysts say impossible—set of conditions for the Palestinians”
  • referred to “Netanyahu’s intransigence” and his “hard line moves”
  • described the “stringent conditions” as including “extradition of terrorist prisoners,” and “cessation” of hostile propaganda
  • labelled “preconditions” these Oslo Accord requirements, which the Palestinians had agreed to in return for Israeli concessions that were implemented long ago.

While one short paragraph in the January 15 story did quote David Bar-Illan saying that the Palestinians had “reneged on key pledges in the Oslo agreements,” as is usual, far more space was given to Israeli and Arab critics of the Israeli government. In this case, those critics included Israeli columnist Hemi Shalev, who has spoken at anti-Netanyahu rallies, and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat, both of whom accused Netanyahu of destroying the peace accords.

In addition, immediately following the paragraph that quotes Bar-Illan, unnamed “analysts” were cited to undercut what he said:

But most Israeli analysts say Netanyahu’s moves are motivated by his own political survival. His actions, they maintain, are clear evidence that Netanyahu is now held captive more than ever by members of the far-right faction of his fragile coalition . . . .

Only three stories during this period use the term “violation” in the context of the Oslo Accords. A May 4th story says “Palestinians see the [Israeli Har Homa] construction as a violation of the spirit of the historic 1993 peace accords . . . .” A July 8 story by Colum Lynch quotes Netanyahu as saying that Palestinian efforts at the UN were a “clear violation” of the Accords. This story once again refers to Netanyahu as “Israel’s hardline leader,” and asserts he is the cause of “growing international anger” and “frustration.” And a July 9 story, also concerning Palestinian actions at the UN, reports that Netanyahu “blaste
d Arafat’s statements as a violation of the accords, which deny either party the right unilaterally to alter issues to be negotiated in the final-status talks.”

In the very next sentence, acting as a virtual spokesman for the Palestinian side, Sennott turns the “unilateral” accusation against Netanyahu, writing that he “has been criticized for doing precisely that by announcing plans recently to expand Jerusalem’s boundaries.” In point of fact, while Netanyahu may well have been so criticized, that does not make the criticism valid. The Accords refer only to altering the territorial status of the West Bank and Gaza. The proposed expansion of Jerusalem’s municipal borders is to the west; that is, into what everyone supposedly agrees is Israel proper. Such an expansion clearly would not violate the Oslo Accords.

It is obvious that contrary to Sennott’s claims, the concerns of the Israeli government have not been accurately represented in the Globe.

Under Charles Sennott, the Boston Globe is in danger of reviving its former tradition of blaming Israel first, no matter what the facts. For some years that unhappy custom was broken by former Globe bureau chief Ethan Bronner, who was one of the most fair and informed foreign reporters ever to cover Israel. It is regrettable that the Globe has so far failed to demand that Sennott live up to the standards of his predecessor.

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