Truth and Consequences on the Palestinian Beat
First, the good news: Abu Ali’s nine children are alive and well--as well as children can be among the ruins of the Jenin refugee camp. Please deliver this news to all of your friends who may have read, a few weeks ago, Abu Ali’s mournful declaration: “All my nine children are buried beneath the ruins.” Abu Ali’s photograph was spread across a double page in a distinguished and influential European magazine under the title: “The survivors tell their story.”
Israeli tanks and bulldozers had entered the camp, Abu Ali recalled. He went out to fill his car, telling his nine children to meet him at a nearby intersection. But the Israeli forces blocked his way back, and it was a week, he told the reporter, before he could return to the ruins of what had been his home. “It smells of death here,” he is quoted as saying. “I am sure all my children are buried beneath the rubble. Come back in a week and you will see their corpses.”
The reporter and his editors did not wait a week to publish the tentative story. They were not satisfied with the extent of the tragedy that they could see with their eyes and legitimately depict in their copy. The desire to hype the story blunted their healthy journalistic instincts to doubt and double-check any story before publishing it.
I recently made some inquiries about Abu Ali’s case. First, final numbers indicate that three children and four women were killed during the fighting in the Jenin refugee camp. Second, Abu Ali’s children were not among them. And third, the magazine did not bother to tell its readers of this relatively happy end to its story.
The last 20 months of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have created a crisis of values for journalism. The coverage and comment have exhibited four fundamental sins: obsessiveness, prejudice, condescension and ignorance. The story of Abu Ali conveniently exemplifies all four.
The intensive media coverage of the conflict is often so self-absorbed and so harmful to the region that it is a disgrace to our profession. I wonder whether the disseminators of the Abu Ali story were conscious of the impact they may have had on readers, from the back streets of Jakarta to the universities of Boston, from the Muslim neighborhoods in Marseilles to the Jewish community in Toronto. Were they conscious, one wonders, of the effect of their story on the parties themselves?
The worldwide resonance of the conflict has meant that there is a greatly intensified response to the work of Ha’aretz, the newspaper where I am editor in chief. All of us at the paper, reporters and editors alike, find ourselves dealing with consequences of our work in ways we never experienced in the past--and frankly never expected to experience.
The months of violence have forced our venerable 84-year-old newspaper to play its part in the collective national ethos, though our critics claim we do not show sufficient enthusiasm for this role. Daily, we feel the impact of our work in our contacts with Israeli public opinion, and we can trace our impact, though less measurable, on world public opinion.
That does not mean, though, that we are free of those four cardinal sins I referred to. Oh, yes, we are often obsessed. Sometimes we do prejudge. I hope we are not ignorant. As to the fourth sin, condescension, many of our readers think we are condescending toward them.
Recently, a best-selling Israeli author, politically middle-of-the-road, canceled her subscription to Ha’aretz. She wrote (and I quote): " ... I have reached the conclusion that you and I don’t live in the same place. A large and growing proportion of the reports and articles in your newspaper stink of the foreign press, which regards the State of Israel as a different, distant and repulsive territory.”
The difference between the situation of Ha’aretz and that of the international press covering the region is, I hope, now clearly emerging. Unlike those who report the conflict as a grand adventure, we live the consequences of our reporting with every inch of our being.
Ha’aretz is a small paper in a small country. Our paid daily circulation, Hebrew and English, reaches 100,000 copies--less than 10% of the Israeli newspaper market. Nonetheless, in the last 15 months since we launched our online edition, our Hebrew-language Web site is now logging half a million page-views a day, and our English-language site, another 700,000, mainly from outside Israel.
Very quickly, we were forced to recognize that despite our modest pretensions, we had been chosen by many on the Net as producers, suppliers and packagers of information from the Middle East. We are servicing individuals, media groups, communities and organizations all around the world.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deceptive. Practically, acquiring information from the region is easy, but it is no simple task to assess to what extent that information reflects reality. On the day-to-day level, it is hard to argue with what the eyes see, though it is preferable to put the visual images into context. What the ears hear, particularly in the Middle East, can be seriously misleading, if it isn’t backed up with additional information--or carefully attributed to its source. It can be difficult to distinguish between a solid source providing an accurate account and someone lying through his teeth in the service of his nation, or pushing an elaborate but baseless conspiracy theory. Exaggeration, disinformation and provocation are the region’s stock-in-trade.
At the most basic level of sight and sound, the conflict is easy to cover. But that is also the greatest stumbling block. Nothing is what it appears to be. Even simple, neutral coverage is often loaded; in many cases, there is no real distinction between peaceful civilian and underground militant, between a decent politician and an active terrorist. So is the use of contradictory terminology that often reflects the two sides’ conflicting narratives. “Shaheed” (martyr) or “suicide bomber”? “Resistance fighter” or “terrorist?” These are all different expressions for the same person. By choosing to use one of them, you expose your own take on the conflict. In the Middle East, naivete is an intolerable professional failing, especially when it comes to terminology.
The story as depicted in the media is sometimes painfully present tense, lacking in context and lacking in consequence. The image of Palestinian terrorism suspects, stripped to their underpants, with an Israeli soldier aiming his rifle at them, is inevitably shocking to anyone who does not know how much blood has been spilled by people wearing explosive belts under their clothes, who managed to slip through the checkpoints in the age of innocence.
As the Palestinian intifada goes on, Ha’aretz finds itself in a crisis of confidence with some of its readers who want to regard the newspaper as a source of solidarity and consolation, and not only as a mirror, reflecting and exposing reality.
As Israel has gradually disengaged from the Palestinian territories over recent years, our coverage of those territories has become more like foreign correspondency in some respects than like domestic reporting. Yet, at the same time, we remain intimately familiar with the territories and with the Palestinian community--as though they were parts of our domestic beat. Over the years, our coverage has spanned most areas of Palestinian society. Our reporters have acquired a deep knowledge of its mores and culture and deep relationships with their sources.
Ha’aretz today has nine reporters covering various aspects of the Palestinian side of the story. And we enjoy a special advantage because a senior member of our editorial staff, Amira Hass, has lived in the territories since 1993, first in Gaza and later, after the Palestinian Authority was established, in Ramallah, reporting full time from inside the Palestinian areas. This is unique for an Israeli.
One of the skills required by a Ha’aretz reporter covering these beats is the ability to critically examine manipulative information of all kinds and to filter it. Only someone deeply informed and intimately connected can, sometimes within a few hours, scotch a rumor or reduce an exaggerated report to its actual proportions.
Thus, thanks to Hass’ presence in Jenin as soon as the camp was opened, and thanks to the credibility of her reports from the chaotic scene, Ha’aretz was able to quickly and reliably report that there was no massacre in Jenin during or after the fighting.
Because of Ha’aretz’s years of readiness to listen to the Palestinian side, and because of the natural inclination of the newspaper to regard our mission to be the exposure of wrongdoing, there are Ha’aretz reporters who have specialized in documenting humanitarian cases on the Palestinian side. This is not new for us. But as the relationship between the sides has deteriorated, and Palestinian violence has intensified against Israelis, some of our readers have found it difficult to accept an Israeli reporter who shows sympathy or even compassion for Palestinian casualties.
Trying to be conclusive about the basic question “What actually happened there?” is not always fruitful, especially as we try to sift through and match Israeli and Palestinian sources. We make a huge effort to give our reader a clear picture, but nevertheless some of the stories seem equivocal. They cite two or more conflicting versions, but sometimes make no final judgment. And that, of course, can leave your reader frustrated and angry.
If the paper exposes cases of vandalism by Israeli soldiers during the recent massive military operation on the West Bank, we do so in good faith, trusting that our work helps to clean the system. Now, though, as a result of our Internet presence, Ha’aretz is quoted in unprecedented numbers of articles and reports.
When a story is quoted widely, under our name, as proof of Israel’s profound and pervasive evil, I find myself thinking that perhaps there is a fifth major sin in running a paper in this region: The sin of naivete.