WASHINGTON POST-WATCH: Washington Post Stumbles in Gaza

To qualify as journalism, news reports must include Rudyard Kipling’s “six honest serving men”: who, what, when, where, why and how. By that “News Reporting 101” standard, Washington Post Arab-Israeli coverage stumbled again, this time on Jan. 4, 2008.

Lead article in that day’s “World News” section, by Post Foreign Service correspondent Jonathan Finer and datelined “NABLUS, West Bank, Jan. 3,” carried the headline “Israeli Operations Kill 9 in Gaza: Palestinians’ Deep Strike With Katyusha Rocket Called an ‘Escalation’“. Here are the first three paragraphs:

Israeli forces launched military operations in the Gaza Strip hours before a Katyusha rocket fired from Gaza crashed down harmlessly near the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

At least nine Palestinians were killed during Israeli tank and helicopter attacks in Gaza, including five members of a family killed near the central city of Khan Younis, Palestinian officials said.

Israeli officials said the Katyusha attack was the deepest strike ever into Israel from Gaza. Katyushas are Soviet-designed rockets with a range of about a dozen miles, roughly twice the maximum distance flown by make-shift Palestinian rockets known as Qassams.

Much later the article reports that “the attack in Bani Suhailah, east of Khan Younis, killed Karima Fayad, her daughter Asam, 20 and sons Sami, 28, and Ahmed, 31, when tank shells struck their home. Israeli officials said “the men had been shooting at Israeli forces before taking refuge in the house.”

None of the other Palestinian Arab fatalities from January 3’s fighting were identified. Post readers were not informed whether they were combatants, noncombatants, male or female, young or old. Most of the all-important “who” was missing from this dispatch.

But not from coverage by other newspapers. According to the New York Times’ same-day article, “Israeli Forces Kill 9 in Gaza”:

Sami Fayyad, 30, was a fighter with Islamic Jihad’s military wing. Ahmad Fayyad, 32, was a former member of the Palestinian Authority security forces. Israeli Army spokesmen said the brothers were firing on Israeli forces from alongside and inside the house. The house was hit by at least one tank shell, and Palestinian witnesses said Israeli forces, using armored bulldozers, then collapsed the rest of the house.

In a statement, Israel said blame for the deaths of the women “lies with the gunmen, who operated intentionally from a civilian environment.”

At the Khan Younis hospital were the bodies of two other Palestinian fighters killed in an exchange of fire with Israeli troops. Munir Burhom, 22, and Burhom Abu Lehyia, age unknown, were members of Hamas’s military wing.

Two more Hamas fighters were also killed Thursday, while more than 30 people were wounded, including five children on the way to school, hit by shrapnel. Three bodies, so far unidentified, were taken from a house destroyed by Israel.

According to the New York Times, six of the nine Palestinian Arabs killed by Israel in the Gaza Strip on January 3 were combatants, at least five members of groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United States, as well as by Israel. Los Angeles Times reporting suggested that perhaps seven of the nine fatalities were combatants, since “Palestinian medical workers” appear to count Ahmad Fayyad, one of the gunmen, as a non-combatant.

Not only did the Washington Post fail to tell readers exactly “who” the casualties were, it also confused them about when and why. The Post wrote that

Israeli forces launched military operations in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank early Thursday, hours before a Katyusha rocket fired from Gaza crashed down harmlessly near the Israeli city of Ashkelon.

By contrast, the Los Angeles Times, stated that

the [Katyusha] rocket landed harmlessly north of the coastal city of Ashkelon. An Israeli tank and helicopter offensive that was already under way in Gaza quickly intensified [emphases added], targeting suspected arms depots and the homes and hide-outs of militants, who fired back with grenade launchers and automatic rifles.

Former Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief Scott Wilson had returned recently to Washington to assume the foreign editor’s position. His replacement had not yet arrived, so Finer filled in, assisted by Post special correspondent Reyham Abdelkareem in Khan Younis and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington. Nevertheless, falling short on basics like “who,” “when” and “why” is unacceptable. And the Post‘s omissions gave the story an unwarranted spin — once again implying Palestinian victimization by Israelis.

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