Ingen anger for medienes dekning av Jenin i 2002


For two full weeks in April of 2002, the Guar­dian ran wild with lurid tales of an Israeli mas­sacre in the Pale­sti­nian city of Jenin on the West Bank — a mas­sacre that never happened.  The mis­re­pre­sen­ta­tions and out­right fab­ri­ca­tions have never been properly addressed in the ten ensu­ing years, as though the Guar­dian’s edi­tors believe not­hing more than some hasty repor­ting and bad sourcing happened.  But the report­orial fai­lings were far too sys­te­ma­tic to be so dis­mis­sed, and until the Guar­dian con­ducts a tho­rough investi­ga­tion of its own errors and pub­lis­hes a detai­led account to its rea­ders, its integrity on Israel-Palestine will con­ti­nue to be cal­led into question.

First the facts: On the heels of a thirty-day Pale­sti­nian suicide bom­bing cam­paign in Israeli cities which inclu­ded thirteen deadly attacks (ima­gine thirteen 7/7’s in one month), Israel embar­ked on a mili­tary offen­sive in the West Bank.  The fier­cest figh­ting in this offen­sive occur­red in the refugee camp just out­side the West Bank town of Jenin, the laun­ching point for 30 Pale­sti­nian suicide bom­bers in the year and half pre­vious (seven were caught before they could blow them­sel­ves up; the other 23 succe­e­ded in car­ry­ing out their attacks).  In this battle, which las­ted less than a week, 23 Israeli sol­di­ers were kil­led as well as 52 Pale­sti­ni­ans, of whom at most 14 were civi­li­ans (there is some mar­gi­nal dis­pute about that last figure).

There was not­hing extra­or­di­nary in this battle or in these numbers.  Looking back, what is extra­or­di­nary is that Ariel Sharon’s Israel sat through 18 mon­ths of Pale­sti­nian suicide ter­ror before embar­king on even this mili­tary offensive.  Seamus Milne assu­red rea­ders on April 10 of the ‘futi­lity’ of this mili­tary response, though with the bene­fit of hind­sight we can cle­arly see this battle as the tur­ning point in the struggle to end suicide ter­ror on Israel’s streets.  Milne referred to ‘hund­reds’ kil­led, ‘evi­dence of atrocities,’ and ‘state terror.’  Not to be out­done, Suzanne Gol­den­berg reported from Jenin’s ‘lunar lands­cape’ of ‘a silent waste­land, per­meated with the stench of rot­ting corp­ses and cordite.’  She found ‘con­vin­cing accounts’ of sum­mary exe­cutions, though let’s be honest and con­cede that it’s not gene­rally dif­fi­cult to con­vinceGol­den­berg of Israeli villainy.  In the next day’s report from Jenin, a frust­rated Gol­den­berg reported that the mor­gue in Jenin had ‘just 16 bodies’ after ‘only two bodies [were] plu­cked from the wreckage.’  This didn’t cause her to doubt for a moment that there were hund­reds more buried beneath or to hesi­tate in repor­ting from a Pale­sti­nian source that bodies may have been trans­ported ‘to a spec­ial zone in Israel.’  Brian Whi­ta­ker and Chris McGreal weig­hed in with their own equally tenden­tious and equally fla­wed repor­ting the following week.

Only on the tenth con­se­cutive day of breath­less Jenin Mas­sacre repor­ting did Peter Beaumont report on detai­led Israeli accounts refu­ting the mas­sacre accu­sa­tions, though pre­dictably this was pre­sented as part of an Israeli PR cam­paign rat­her than as con­clu­sive proof.  Two days later, Beaumont con­ce­ded that there hadn’t after all tech­ni­cally really actually been a mas­sacre but then proce­e­ded to repeat a hand­ful of fal­sities as fact all over again.  Without a doubt, though, the most memo­rable article the Guar­dianpub­lis­hed on Jenin was its April 17 lea­der ‘The Battle for the Truth.’  The high dudgeon prose inclu­ded the following sent­en­ces: ‘Jenin camp looks like the scene of a crime’; ‘Jenin smells like a crime’; ‘Jenin feels like a crime’; ‘Jenin alre­ady has that aura of infamy that atta­ches to a crime of espec­ial noto­riety’; and, unfor­gettably, the assertion that Israel’s actions in Jenin were ‘every bit as repel­lent’ as the 9/11 attacks in New York only seven mon­ths earlier.

No cor­rec­tion or retrac­tion has ever been printed for this infa­mous editorial.  On the con­trary, though moun­ting evi­dence emer­ged that the whole mas­sacre calumny was a fab­ri­ca­tion (never adequa­tely reported by the Guar­dian), twice over the following year this lea­der article was obli­quely cited — once incondem­ning anot­her Israeli action by compa­ring it to the ‘repel­lent demo­lition of lives and homes in Jenin’ and most out­rage­ously under the head­line ‘Israel still wan­ted for questioning.’  The lat­ter head­line ran on top of the only lea­der that men­tio­ned the UN report clea­ring Israel of the mas­sacre charge.  Rather than hum­bly ack­now­led­ging their own role in the libel­ous cres­cendo of that spring, the edi­tors remin­ded rea­ders, ‘As we said last April, the destruc­tion wrought in Jenin looked and smel­led like a crime’ and assu­red them that this was still the case.  Someone who gets all their infor­ma­tion about the world from the Guar­dian, a siza­ble phylum in the com­mon rooms of my pre­sent uni­ver­sity, would have no idea just how much of a lie the Jenin mas­sacre was.

In fact, as aerial shots later showed, the pic­tu­res of osten­sibly wide­spread destruc­tion in Jenin and its adjacent refugee camp were all of the same tiny area wit­hin the camp which had been the scene of a tac­ti­cally bril­li­ant ambush — on the part of the Palestinians.  Thirteen Israeli sol­di­ers were kil­led when a series of booby-trapped buil­dings col­lap­sed on them.  It was the IDF’s dead­li­est engage­ment of the month-long offen­sive, and the impe­tus for Suzanne Goldenberg’s apprai­sal (in a news article, not an opi­nion piece) that the battle of Jenin was ‘a fiasco for Israel, an immensely costly vic­tory for the Pale­sti­ni­ans’ on April 10, before the cir­cu­lar fee­ding frenzy about the pho­ney mas­sacre began.

It was this inci­dent that made many Israe­lis ques­tion the wis­dom of endan­ge­ring so many ground for­ces rat­her than just rely­ing on air power.  This would hardly be unprecedented.  And we don’t need to look to the beha­viour of countries that Israel would never want to be com­pared to.  NATO fought two wars from the air — over Ser­bia in 1999 and Libya last year —with lopsi­ded results.  Very lopsided.  Zero com­bat los­ses for NATO, roughly one thou­sand enemy com­ba­tants kil­led and slightly more than a thou­sand civi­li­ans as well.  Both wars were hotly debated in this paper, but neit­her of them ‘smel­led like a crime.’

But let’s not be unfair to the Guar­dian and com­pare its cover­age of Jenin to those popu­lar NATO wars against vio­lent dictators.  Let’s not even com­pare it to much bloo­dier con­flicts in the past decade that gat­he­red a lot less attention.  And natu­rally, let’s not com­pare the way the Guar­dian covered the non-massacre in Jenin to the suicide attacks on Israeli civi­li­ans which promp­ted the mili­tary operation.  No, I sug­gest making things as easy for the Guar­dian as pos­sible, by compa­ring its cover­age of Jenin to a remar­kably simi­lar pair of batt­les in the Iraqi city of Fal­lu­jah two years later in 2004.  These batt­les were led by occupy­ing western armies (US and UK) in a war that for the Guar­dian at least had none of the ambi­guity of Kosovo or Libya.  On the con­trary, oppos­ing the Iraq War was, second only to hating Israel, the great moral stand of the paper and its rea­dership in the first decade of the 21st century.

In the two Fal­lu­jah batt­les, US-UK for­ces lost 126 men and kil­led nearly 1400 armed mili­tants and about 900 civi­li­ans; in Jenin, recall, the respec­tive num­bers were 23 IDF kil­led, 38 Pale­sti­nian mili­tants, and 14 civilians.  Though both Fal­lu­jah batt­les were covered exten­sively and cri­ti­cally, and though the second one involved tro­ops from the UK, and though it was in a war that this paper viewed dimly, the num­ber of times the words ‘mas­sacre’ or ‘war crime’ appea­red in its cover­age was exactly zero (of if you pre­fer num­bers: 0).  The only com­mo­na­lity in the Guar­dian’s cover­age of the battle of Fal­lu­jah is that, as with Jenin two years ear­lier, no men­tion was made of Fallujah’s mili­tants’ involve­ment in mur­derous attacks against Bri­tish and Ame­ri­can civi­li­ans at home.  This is less an edi­to­rial deci­sion though, and more likely because there were no such attacks.

Maybe Fal­lu­jah isn’t where we should be look­ing for a comparison.  We could just go a few miles west of Jenin to Netanya, site of the Pass­o­ver eve suicide bom­bing that spar­ked the Israeli mili­tary operation.  How did the Guar­dian cover that massacre?  Naturally, with detai­led cover­age of the vic­tims and their fami­lies, and some under­stan­dably high-strung lan­guage on the frigh­te­ning, almost ritua­li­s­tic aspect of a mass mur­der of Jews as they sit to mark a fes­ti­val of deli­verance from bon­dage.  Guar­dian repor­ters hit the pave­ment pro­bing the feelings of Israe­lis and Jews world­wide in the face of this enor­mity and com­men­ta­tors made much of pol­ling data showing that suicide attacks on Israeli civi­li­ans com­man­ded large majori­ties of sup­port in Arab and Mus­lim countries.

Of course I’m just kidding.  None of that actually hap­pe­ned. There was not a single opi­nion piece about the Pass­o­ver Mas­sacre, no lea­der condem­ning it, and in fact, not even one news article by a Guar­dian wri­ter dedi­cated to the story.  The mor­ning after the attack, the Guar­dian did lead with a story by cor­re­spon­dents Suzanne Gol­den­berg and Gra­ham Usher about the bom­bing which under­stated its death toll by nearly half (16 as oppo­sed to 30) and named and pro­fi­led none of the vic­tims; most of the story dealt not with Netanya but with the Arab sum­mit under­way in Beirut.  Nearly a third of the dead in Netanya were Holo­caust sur­vi­vors, but it would cle­arly be beneath the level of a serious news article to men­tion such an emo­tive an irre­le­vant topic.  Well, until the very end of the article at least, which clo­ses with an unre­mar­ked upon quote by Syrian Pre­si­dent Bashar Assad that ‘It’s time to save the Pale­sti­nian people from the new holo­caust they are living in.’  I am not making this up. Duly reported as well was that ‘Pale­sti­nian security sources said Yas­ser Ara­fat had orde­red the arrest of four key mili­tants in the West Bank.’  I hope it wasn’t too much work following those sources down!

The following day, Gol­den­berg (still in Bei­rut, but cle­arly clued in to all the right sources) dut­i­fully passed on the infor­ma­tion that the attack was just a ‘perfect pre­text’ for Israel’s mili­tary offen­sive and descri­bed the Israeli prime minis­ter as ‘prac­ti­cally gloa­ting’ at the tole­rance he could now expect to any Israeli mili­tary action.  Meanwhile Usher wrote that Israel would bury its dead, ’22 civi­li­ans and 6 sett­lers,’ though there is no pre­ce­dent or legal basis for los­ing one’s non-combatant sta­tus because one is a settler.  Two of Usher’s ‘sett­lers,’ inci­den­tally, did not live in sett­le­ments at all.  They were both 80-year-old men visi­ting rela­tions in a sett­le­ment over the holi­day who were stab­bed to death on their walk to synagogue.  A third ‘sett­ler’ was a child not old enough to have sett­led any­where, who was mur­de­red along with his parents when a Pale­sti­nian gun­per­son ente­red their home and shot everyone.  For Gra­ham Usher, appa­rently, to be a Jew where Jews are unwan­ted is to for­feit the pro­tec­tions of civilians.

This was jour­na­li­s­tic mal­prac­tice, and it’s time to come clean.

It’s not as though the Guar­dian’s edi­tors don’t think the Jenin battle is a fit­ting hook to hang a media cri­ti­que on.  In one of the more comical moments of its his­trio­nic cover­age in April 2002, the Guar­dian ran a piece by no less than Julian Bor­ger (cur­rently the diplo­ma­tic edi­tor) under the head­line ‘Muted cri­ti­cism in Ame­ri­can news­pa­pers: Scep­ti­cism at reports of Jenin bloodbath.’  It was cle­arly not meant as a gentle expres­sion of doubt about the lat­her whip­ped up by the Euro­pean media.  It was, rat­her, for the cle­ver rea­ders to tsk-tsk into their tea and fill in for them­sel­ves that we all know why the Ame­ri­can press is too scared to report an Israeli massacre.  (The less cle­ver ones don’t need to scroll down very far into any CiF forum to have it spelled out for them explicitly.)

Once the record is cle­ared, the Guar­dian owes itself a tho­rough reckoning of how it got the story so wrong.  Something bet­ter than the weasely cor­rec­tion it buried days after run­ning an article under the head­line ‘Israel admits harve­s­ting Pale­sti­nian organs’ back in 2009.  (Yes, two thou­sand and nine.  This was pub­lis­hed in a respectable Euro­pean paper in 2009.)

A pos­sible model is New York Times’ tho­rough accoun­ting in 2004 of its repor­ting fai­lu­res in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, spec­i­fi­cally in repro­du­cing unsub­stanti­a­ted claims of WMDs in Iraq.  That hap­pe­ned only one year after the war; ten years on from Jenin the Guar­dian has done not­hing, though its jour­na­li­s­tic fai­lings were — and you’ll have to par­don me here — every bit as repellent.


[I sub­mit­ted this to the Guar­dian as a com­men­tary piece on April 4.  On April 12 they con­fir­med that they will not be run­ning it.  Both Brian Whi­ta­ker, for­mer Middle East Edi­tor cur­rent CiF edi­tor, and Har­riet Sher­wood, cur­rently the Jeru­sa­lem cor­re­spon­dent, have infor­med me that there are no plans to revi­sit the Jenin issue or the Guardian’s cover­age of it ten years ago.  The rea­ders edi­tor also wrote me that he has no plan on revi­si­ting the issue.]


Ten Years Since Somet­hing That Never Hap­pe­ned: A Lear­ning Moment for the Guardian


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