Call it A Tale of Four Stories – two from the January 16 edition of The Washington Post, two from the same day’s New York Times, all related to Israel’s battle against Hamas (the Palestinian Islamic Resistance Movement) in the Gaza Strip. Each newspaper covered the previous day’s events with a news article and a separate news feature. For Post readers, the devil wasn’t in the details but rather the omissions. For Times readers, the paper provided substantially more background and context.
*The Post news report was headlined “On Day of Heavy Fighting, Moves Toward Gaza Peace,” written by the paper’s Jerusalem bureau chief, Griff Witte, with contributions from special correspondents Samuel Sokol in Israel’s capital and Islam Abdel Kareem in Gaza City.
The feature, “Gaza Clan Finds One Haven After Another Ravaged in Attacks,” was reported by Craig Whitlock and Reyam Abdel Kareem, both Post foreign service correspondents, the former filing from Jerusalem, the latter from Gaza City.
The Times’ news article, “Israel Shells U.N. Site in Gaza, Drawing Fresh Condemnation,” came from the paper’s Isabel Kershner in Jerusalem.” Its news feature, “Israel Lets Reporters See Devastated Gaza Site and Image of a Confident Military,” was written by Jerusalem bureau chief Ethan Bronner from the Gaza Strip. Israel had allowed 10 foreign reporters into the Strip, accompanying Israeli forces guarding the agricultural area of Atatra, from which Palestinian terrorists previously fired rockets into Israel.
Both papers’ dispatches included diplomatic efforts for a cease-fire, Israeli shelling of United Nations Relief and Works Agency headquarters in Gaza, U.N. recriminations, and Israel’s killing of Hamas “interior minister,” Said Siam. Both papers quoted the same Israeli soldier, Sgt. Almog (the military prohibited use of last names). But The Times’ articles, taken together, included much relevant information missing from The Post.
* The Times, On traps Hamas had prepared for Israeli forces: “The elaborate nature of the [Hamas-laid] snares impressed Colonel Herzi, but he and his men said they had grown increasingly less impressed with the Hamas fighters themselves. ‘They are villagers with guns,’ said Sergeant Almog, a gunner on an armored personnel carrier. ‘They don’t even aim when they shoot.’
“Seven members of his unit were wounded by a rocket propelled grenade attack on Wednesday, he said. But he added, ‘We kept saying Hamas was a strong terror organization, but it was more easy that we thought it would be.'”
The Washington Post reported only the soldier’s remarks about Hamas: “In an interview, an Israeli sergeant, 20-year-old Alog, told the reporters that Hamas’s resistance had been less than expected. ‘They are villagers with guns. They don’t even aim when they shoot,’ said Almog, a gunner on an armored personnel carrier who was not allowed to give his last name. ‘We kept saying Hamas was a strong terror organization, but it was more easy than we thought it would be.'”
* The Times news feature led with Israeli paratroopers guarding “their ground, a mix of ruins that once were handsome two-story houses and farm fields that had been turned into rocket-launching pads against Israel by Hamas.” In addition to context regarding Israeli counter-terrorism in the Strip in previous decades, the article noted, unlike Post coverage, that despite “harsh censure abroad for their tactics,” the Israeli army “feels serenely confident that it is doing the right thing ….
“‘It is a very righteous war and has the full support of public opinion,’ said Brig. Gen. Avi Ronzki, the military’s chief rabbi, a West Bank settler who spends most of his time these days on the battlefield encouraging the troops …. ‘Our army is showing the way to stop terrorists. And in order to win against terror we need to use a lot of force like the Americans are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.'”
* The Post’s news feature told of “the Abu Nihil clan, all 16 members, huddled on the living room floor of a friend’s Gaza City apartment. All the windows were gone, shattered by explosions. Israeli helicopters churned overhead. But the family has decided this is as good a place as any to make its final stand.”
Readers learned that family members “have seen three houses ravaged since Dec. 27, when Israel launched airstrikes on the Gaza Strip and began a war that has left civilians with no safe place to go.” The “congested strip of coastal scrub land … has absorbed a carpeting of bombs and shells for almost three weeks.” The unfortunate family’s plight is movingly described; U.N. officials blame Israel “for targeting civilians; the Israeli military has blamed Hamas for effectively using those same civilians as human shields.”Insinuated is the false implication of “carpet bombing” – “a carpeting of bombs and shells for almost three weeks.”
* The Times news story, “Israel Shells U.N. Site in Gaza, Drawing Fresh Condemnation” leads with the new strains on Israeli-U.N. relations. It notes that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “justified the attack on the refugee agency [UNRWA] headquarters, saying that Hamas militants had fired at Israeli forces from within the compound. ‘Surely,’ said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Mr. Olmert, the refugee agency ‘understands that Israel cannot give immunity to terrorists because they are working form within, or adjacent to, a United Nations compound.’
“United Nations officials vehemently denied the allegations …. Over many decades, Israel has questioned the neutrality of many of the organization’s branches and complained of institutional bias. While both sides have been making efforts in recent years to work more constructively together, Thursday’s incident served to pry open the divide …. Describing some of the abiding challenges, Israeli officials note that the same 21 anti-Israel resolutions are passed by an automatic majority in the General Assembly every year.”
The Post doesn’t include Regev’s expansion of Olmert’s statement nor Israel complaints about U.N. neutrality.
* As for UNRWA itself, The Times reports that “the agency is often accused by critics in Israel and beyond of perpetuating the Palestinian refugee problem, being the only United Nations branch dedicated to a specific refugee population whose numbers, according to the agency’s criteria, constantly grow.”
On U.N. and international “outrage” at Israel, The Times also noted that “In Israel, there is parallel outrage that the world is not vociferously protesting how Hamas uses civilians and civilian institutions in Gaza as a shield. Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, went further, saying that most of the United Nations agency’s staff in Gaza were local Palestinians and alleging that a ‘large part are affiliated one way or another with Hamas.'”
Nothing in The Post of criticism of UNRWA for being part of the problem, not necessarily the solution or about Palmor’s charge regarding UNRWA, its Palestinian staff and Hamas. But The Post did report UNRWA spokesman Christopher Gunness claim that Israel’s “credibility is hanging in rags.”
What Post correspondents covered was newsworthy. So was the material reported by The Times. And so was what The Times included but The Post excluded, the absence of which contributes to a chronic problem on the paper’s foreign desk: bias by omission.