Manufacturing a massacre

Initial reports said Palestinian gunmen brazenly fired on Jewish worshipers in Hebron. The reports were wrong -- but the U.S. media has yet to correct them.

Topics: Middle East,

Manufacturing a massacre

The headlines over the weekend were startling, even for the Middle East, where the Israeli-Palestinian war seems trapped in escalating cycles of violence. On Friday evening in the predominantly Palestinian city of Hebron, gunmen hiding in houses and olive groves ambushed Jewish worshipers as they walked home from Sabbath prayers, spraying them with gunfire and even tossing grenades into the unarmed crowd. Israeli soldiers, who escort the worshipers every Friday night, rushed into a dark dead-end alley to try to help. After a four-hour gun battle, 12 Israelis were dead. Government officials, led by the hard-line foreign minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, quickly dubbed it the “Sabbath Massacre.”

The gun battle was alarming — and made headlines worldwide — not only because Israel’s military suffered its heaviest one-day loss in years but also because of the demented idea that gunmen would open fire on unarmed worshipers as they walked home from prayer.

No doubt that’s what provoked outrage from Pope John Paul II, who expressed anger over the “vile attack, just as people had finished praying.” Also, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan leveled one of his strongest attacks against Palestinians and the “despicable terrorist attack that killed Jewish worshipers on their way to the Sabbath Eve prayers.”

The American press rushed to report the gruesome details. “Ambush; 12 Israelis Murdered at Prayer,” read the New York Post’s Saturday banner headline. According to the Post news account, “The attack began when Palestinian snipers hiding in houses fired automatic weapons and tossed grenades at dozens of Jews on their way to one of Judaism’s holiest sites.”

The New York Times, citing Israeli army officials, reported that “Palestinian snipers ambushed Jewish settlers walking home from Sabbath prayers.” So, among others, did the Boston Globe: “Militants ambushed a group of settlers.” So did Newsday: “Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank city of Hebron ambushed Jewish settlers.”

It’s now clear that none of those initial press reports from Hebron were accurate. In truth, Jewish worshipers returning home were not fired upon by Palestinian gunmen, who instead waited until the civilians were behind settlement gates before they started shooting at Israeli soldiers. None of the worshipers died. The 12 Israelis killed were security guards or soldiers. Three Palestinian gunmen were also killed.



It’s one thing if the early, erroneous press accounts simply reflected confusion surrounding a chaotic event like an ambush. But over a three-day period, American news outlets had a chance to correct or at least clarify what happened in Hebron, but few of them did.

With a dozen Israelis dead, the distinction between who the Palestinian gunmen shot at may seem trivial. But there is an important difference, particularly in how the world sees the conflict, between opening fire on unarmed worshipers and targeting trained soldiers, who many Palestinians see as part of an illegal occupying force. It’s crucial that the press be able to make clear distinctions between armed combat and acts of terrorism against civilians, especially as the United States leads a global war on terrorism.

What became clear by Saturday in Israel was that the ambush did not occur as originally described by government officials. Or as described by one self-professed witness who phoned Israel’s Army Radio and, in a live interview, insisted “the group of Jews were slaughtered.” His early, vivid accounts lent credence to the idea of a civilian massacre. On Monday, however, the man admitted that he’d been in Tel Aviv during the Hebron attack and had misled the media with his phony accounts.

Even before the man’s arrest, Amos Harel, writing Sunday in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, declared: “What happened in Hebron on Friday night was not a ‘massacre,’ nor was it an attack on ‘peaceful Jewish worshippers’ returning from prayers. The attack actually began several minutes after all of the worshippers had already returned safely. Those killed Friday were killed in combat. All of the victims were armed fighters, who were more or less trained.”

The Jerusalem Post reported that the first ambush shots did not ring out until after the “all clear” had sounded on the soldiers’ radios, “meaning worshipers had been safely escorted to their homes after Shabbat prayers.” Speaking with the Israeli press, Matan Vilnai, a former Israeli general, told reporters over the weekend: “It wasn’t a massacre, it was a battle.”

And in Sunday’s Washington Post, which was virtually alone in putting the Hebron events in perspective for U.S. news consumers, the paper quoted the leader of the Israeli settlement in Hebron, who explained civilians were not targeted in the alley gun battle: “It was a pure military event. The worshipers had passed a quarter of an hour before.”

Yet many news organizations failed to clarify that point. On Saturday, the Los Angles Times reported that “Palestinian gunmen ambushed Jewish settlers.” In its follow-up story on Sunday, when it was clear the paper’s original dispatch was not accurate, the Times ignored any mention of settlers being attacked — or not being attacked — in the Hebron battle.

Again and again that pattern was repeated over the weekend, as newspapers ignored or obfuscated the facts. After telling readers in its Saturday headline that 12 Israelis had been “murdered in prayer,” the New York Post blurred the facts on Sunday, referring vaguely to Israelis (meaning soldiers) being ambushed.

In Saturday’s edition, the Boston Globe reported in the first sentence of its article that “Palestinian gunmen killed 12 Israelis and wounded 15 in an attack yesterday on worshipers.” In Sunday’s editions, the Globe mentioned obliquely that “no civilian worshipers were among the casualties,” without spelling out that the settlers mentioned in Saturday’s editions were never attacked.

Even the New York Times, which probably allocates more resources to covering the Middle East than any other newspaper, seemed confused about the events in Hebron — either that, or it was unwilling to correct its initial mistake. Like every other outlet, the paper first followed the lead of Israeli government officials and reported that worshipers had been ambushed. On Sunday the Times, still citing the Israeli army’s version of events, wrote the attack was “a carefully planned assault on Jewish settlers” and went into detail about how the ambush was triggered by passing worshipers.

It was not until Monday that the Times, in the 11th paragraph of its third Hebron ambush story, finally explained to readers: “The Israeli Army initially said the attack was on Jewish worshipers, but it appears to have been directed at security forces who guard settlers.”

Even then, the newspaper did not pursue the question of whether members of the Israeli government purposely misled reporters about the ambush for political gain.

It’s worth noting that the first reports of a so-called civilian massacre originated from the office of Netanyahu, Israel’s newly appointed foreign minister. On Friday night, his spokesman told reporters that Jewish worshipers on their way to prayers were brutally attacked and murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

The former leader of the right-wing Likud Party, Netanyahu recently joined Ariel Sharon’s coalition government, but he will challenge Sharon for the prime minister’s post in the January elections. It’s possible that, by initially hyping the attack as the “Sabbath Massacre,” Netanyahu was trying to pressure Sharon to drive Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat into exile, a provocative move Netanyahu has been advocating for months. Sharon didn’t do that — but in what some observers see as a concession to Netanyahu’s far-right conservative challenge, he did approve the creation of additional, and controversial, Jewish settlements in Hebron following the ambush.

No doubt the initial, false claims that Palestinians massacred worshipers helped ease the way for that move. All the more reason the press should be asking pointed questions about Hebron.

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>