WASHINGTON POST-WATCH: Old Habits Die Hard, If at All

The Washington Post’s coverage of Arab-Israeli news continued to fall short in September. The Post’s chronic pattern of prettifying Palestinians while, if not showing Israel as if through a glass darkly, then giving it short shrift, continued. So did the paper’s newer pattern of informative, balanced Arab-Israeli editorials, making a useful contrast.

For example:

• The article “Rice Visit Yields No Commitments On Mideast Talks; Differences Over Agenda Remain Wide” (September 21) by Post Jerusalem Bureau Chief Scott Wilson, tells readers that “the European Union and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon have called on the Israeli government to rescind [emphasis added] the order [designating the Gaza Strip a ‘hostile entity’].” But the E.U. and the Secretary General did not ask Israel to rescind the designation; they asked the government to reconsider it. There’s a world of difference between the two words and the policies they represent, and The Post’s mistaken word choice casts a much harsher light on Israel than warranted by the news itself.

• The same article reports that Hamas leader and Gaza Strip Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh “met Thursday with several armed groups in Gaza to persuade them to cease firing the crude rockets known as Qassams into Israel. Although no rockets [emphasis added] hit Israel on Thursday, Haniyeh failed to win a promise to stop from Islamic Jihad ….” Yet The Jerusalem Post reported that two terrorist rockets hit Israel that day.

• “Israeli Panel Declares Gaza a ‘Hostile Entity’: Strip’s Supply of Fuel, Electricity to Be Cut” (September 20), by Wilson, does note “near-daily rocket fire into Israel” from “the Hamas-run territory”. But it states, without attribution, that “if implemented fully, the decision holds potentially grave humanitarian consequences [emphases added] for the strip’s roughly1.5 million residents, who rely on imported food, medicine and energy.” “If fully implemented” and “potentially grave humanitarian consequences” – unsourced speculation without reference to Israel’s existing policy of regularly permitting the delivery of hundreds of tons of food, medicine and other humanitarian assistance in spite of the Strip’s function as an anti-Israeli terrorist base. That omission undercuts a later quote of Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni that “when it comes to humanitarian needs we have our responsibilities ….”

On the other hand, The Post editorial “Shock Waves From Syria: Did Israel bomb a secret nuclear facility equipped by North Korea?” (September 20) was as factual, precise, and well-reasoned as possible, given the secrecy still surrounding the September 6 event. It raised important questions, including “Will [Syrian leader Bashar al-] Assad be frightened out of the cocky aggressiveness that has caused him to sponsor or facilitate terrorism in Israel, Iraq and Lebanon? Or will he choose to escalate?”

• “Hamas’s New Order Exacts Toll On Gazans; Party Cements Grip With Harsh Tactics” (September 17) by Wilson lagged behind a London Sunday Telegraph dispatch, reprinted as “Hamas wields brutal control; Dissenters are beaten and detained in a crackdown by Gaza’s new rulers” in the August 26 edition of The Washington Times. Bad, if important. news about the Palestinian Arabs is not a Post priority.

The paper’s page one article also includes a wonderful typo in the second paragraph: “Bushy beards and black head-to-toe cloaks for women have become common at the [beach] club ….” Bad enough that cloaks have replaced bikinis – but beards too? Though The Post catches up somewhat to Hamas’ “repressive tactics” in Gaza, it misrepresents international aid to the Strip and its effect on the local economy. Readers do not learn that such aid increased after Hamas’ January, 2006 legislative election victory, providers redirecting it from the Hamas-led government to private agencies and the office of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Fatah movement. That such aid helps prop up a bloated public sector (including tens of thousands of “security” personnel) and, according to some analysts, retards private investment and growth, goes unmentioned. 

• “U.S. Faces a Middle East Hungry for Peace Specifics; Officials Afraid Diplomatic Efforts Will Fall Short” (September 18) by Robin Wright and Glenn Kessler, Post diplomatic reporters, reads as a straight-forward preview of difficulties facing the Bush administration’s attempt to stage an Arab-Israeli diplomatic conference in November. Except for one thing: amid the Arab sources, named and unnamed, current and former senior U.S. officials quoted, there are no Israelis. No current officials, no former diplomats, no non-governmental experts. According to an e-mail from Wright to CAMERA member Leo Rennert, that was because the Israeli embassy in Washington chose to make no one available. As if more than one well-informed, talkative Israeli was not just a telephone call away.

• “Routed Fatah Begins to Reorganize in Gaza; Party Launches Protests, Rebuilds Its Armed Wing” (September 9) by Wilson, contains much useful information. But its reference to the Gaza Strip as a place “where Hamas made inroads for years through its network of social service agencies, charities and sports clubs” ignores the key point that this network was a central part of Hamas’ incitement, recruitment and funding of both its anti-Israel terrorism and Islamic radicalization of the local population. The article misleadingly refers to “Hamas’s military wing” and “Fatah’s armed wing,” when both are recognized terrorist organizations. Even more, given its headline and main focus, the report ignores other reports and commentary asserting that Fatah’s popularity in the West Bank is not assured and that Hamas’ strength there grows.   

Post coverage of the effect of continuing rocket attacks on southwest Israel close to the Gaza Strip has been rare. By contrast, The Washington Times’ dispatch, “Schools close in Israeli border town; Water cutoff to Gaza weighted” (September 5), though not long, covered both the political/military and human interest aspects. These include the assessment by a psychologist, paraphrased by The Times, that “more than three of every four children in Sderot [a town of 24,000 less than two miles from Gaza and a frequent terrorist target] exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder ….” There’s been nothing in The Washington Post like “Close to the edge; Feeling abandoned by their countrymen, the residents of one Israeli town have endured over 2,000 rocket attacks. Philip Jacobson reports on the psychological price paid by the people of Sderot” (September 2), a magazine-length feature in The Sunday Times (U.K.). 

• “Israeli Court Orders Rerouting of Barrier; Decision Backs Palestinian Villagers” (September 5) by Wilson erroneously states, without attribution, that Israel’s security barrier “sweeps 10 percent of the West Bank onto the Israeli side ….” The barrier’s route actually takes in between seven and eight percent of the disputed territory. The article does not tell readers than in the area at issue, near the village of Bilin, gates permit villagers’ access to land on the Israeli side. Wilson refers to protests at Bilin that have drawn “Israelis, Palestinians a nd international opponents of the barrier ….” Many of those “international opponents,” often recruited by the International Solidarity Movement, an apologist for Palestinian “resistance” (terrorism), oppose not just the barrier, but Israel’s very existence. Wilson refers to the “2004 advisory ruling by the International Court of Justice at The Hague [which] declared the barrier illegal because it did not follow that prewar boundary,” but does not say that the ICJ’s opinion was not only “advisory” but also irrelevant, since, as the United States and a number of European countries pointed out, the court lacked jurisdiction. But given The Post‘s wording, the “barrier illegal” insinuation stands unchallenged

The dispatch also reports on Israeli debate over “increasingly harsh measures … to stop steady rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.” It concludes by letting a senior Hamas official invert reality: “‘We are just reacting to Israeli violence,'” said Ahmed Yousef, a senior adviser to deposed prime minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas. ‘This is just self-defense.'” 

Thanks again to member Leo Rennert, former McClatchy Newspapers Washington bureau chief, for pointing out some of the above problems. 

Action Item:

Write Post ombudsman Deborah Howell at [email protected]. Note that despite more frequent use of accurate descriptions of Hamas as a terrorist organization according to the United States and Israel, and of references to almost daily rocket attacks from Gaza, many of the above reports favor the Palestinian Arabs while short-changing Israeli views and concerns, minimize or omit important news, use questionable or tendentious word choice, and so manage to illustrate an oxymoron: they’re deeply superficial. The Post ought to do better. Much better.

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