Israeli official who justified killing Palestinian journalists speaks at museum memorializing the victims

Ex-IDF spokesperson Avital Leibovich's presentation at the pro-press freedom Newseum was met by numerous protests

Published June 9, 2016 12:00PM (EDT)

CODEPINK protesting at the Newseum event (YouTube)
CODEPINK protesting at the Newseum event (YouTube)

The Newseum, a private museum in Washington, D.C. that is dedicated to journalism and the freedom of the press, hosted an Israeli military official who justified the killings of Palestinian journalists that are memorialized in its own exhibit.

Retired Israeli Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich spoke at the Newseum on Tuesday night. Her presentation, which was ostensibly about the use of social media in war, was interrupted numerous times by protesters.

Leibovich served as a senior spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, during its 2008-2009 and 2012 bombing campaigns in Gaza. She remains an IDF reserve officer, although she now works as the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Israel office.

During Israel's 2012 war, Leibovich justified the IDF's intentional killing of Palestinian journalists Hussam Salama and Mahmoud al-Kumi, among others. Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders condemned these attacks as war crimes.

Both Salama and al-Kumi are memorialized in the Newseum's own Journalists Memorial, a wall commemorating slain reporters. This memorial was rededicated on Monday, the day before the museum had scheduled a talk by the Israeli military official that justified the very killings that resulted in those names being put on the wall.

Numerous social justice groups protested the event. Jewish Voice for Peace pamphleted, and women-led peace group CODEPINK staged a disruption. Three CODEPINK activists carried signs with the names of Palestinian journalists intentionally killed by the IDF in 2012.

"Avital Leibovich is a propagandist for the Israeli war machine," exclaimed CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin, as the three protesters were escorted out by police.

"If you sit in your chair, I'd be happy to explain it to you," Leibovich told the protesters. Yet, when Leibovich was asked about her defense of the assassination of Palestinian journalists later in the Q&A session, she refused to answer.

Rebecca Green, an organizer with CODEPINK who attended the protest, told Salon, "CODEPINK and other protesters disrupted Leibovich to challenge her justification of murder and violence, and to stand for the rights of Palestinians who continue to be brutalized by the IDF and the Israeli occupation."

"Leibovich is a propagandist," she continued, "working to cover up the atrocities that the IDF commits against Palestinians daily, using excessive force against Palestinian demonstrators, abusing Palestinian children as young as 11 in arrests and detention, and enforcing a brutal 50 year military occupation that renders Palestinians second-class citizens."

Green cited a report by Human Rights Watch that slammed the targeted killings as a war crime. The leading rights group stated explicitly, "Four Israeli attacks on journalists and media facilities in Gaza during the November 2012 fighting violated the laws of war by targeting civilians."

Targeting journalists

In its 2012 assault on Gaza, code-named "Operation Pillar of Defense," the Israeli military deliberately bombed a truck of Palestinian journalists that was clearly marked “TV,” killing Hussam Salama and Mahmoud al-Kumi.

Human Rights Watch condemned the attacks, stating unequivocally that "civilian broadcasting facilities are not rendered legitimate military targets simply because they broadcast pro-Hamas or anti-Israel propaganda."

Reporters Without Borders blasted the killings as a “clear violation of international standards.”

The Associated Press reported that the incident "raised questions about whom Israel considers to be militant operatives, and thus legitimate targets."

Al-Aqsa TV, which employed the two slain journalists, "accused Israel of trying to silence those documenting the suffering of Gaza's civilians," AP noted.

AP also reported that an Israeli attack on a Gaza government compound hit near its own office, damaging it with debris.

When Israel killed Salama and al-Kumi, New York Times columnist David Carr wrote, "Rather than suggesting it was a mistake, or denying responsibility, an Israeli Defense Forces spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, told The Associated Press, 'The targets are people who have relevance to terror activity.'"

"So it has come to this: killing members of the news media can be justified by a phrase as amorphous as 'relevance to terror activity,'" Carr added. He also noted that the car in front of the slain journalists was carrying a translator and driver for The New York Times.

In a follow-up op-ed in the Times, Leibovich characterized Palestinian journalists who support Gaza's elected Hamas government as "terrorists." She acknowledged that Israel targeted these journalists intentionally, writing, “Such terrorists, who hold cameras and notebooks in their hands, are no different from their colleagues who fire rockets aimed at Israeli cities and cannot enjoy the rights and protection afforded to legitimate journalists.”

Human Rights Watch later replied to the Israeli military's claims, stating clearly, "These justifications, suggesting that it is permissible to attack media because of their associations or opinions, however repugnant, rather than their direct participation in hostilities, violate the laws of war and place journalists at grave risk."

"Official statements that reflect the military having adopted an unlawful basis for attacks are evidence of war crimes because they show intent," the rights group wrote, in no uncertain terms.


"It raises serious questions when an institution dedicated to free press invites a former government official who justified the killing of journalists to give a slide show consisting of IDF-made propaganda videos and condemnations of 'biased' media coverage from NBC and BBC," Chip Gibbons, a freelance writer, attorney and member of the National Lawyers Guild who attended the event, told Salon.

Leibovich gave "one of the most vapid powerpoint presentations possibly ever," Gibbons said.

She showed "propaganda literally produced by the IDF," he recalled, including a "'South Park'-style" animated video.

Many of the images Leibovich presented in her talk were previously shared on the IDF's official Twitter account.

"At another point people audibly interrupted when she was showing an actual video of a targeted killing, which like killing journalists is a war crime," Gibbons added.

He raised his concerns during the Q&A session after Leibovich's talk. “Why did the Newseum, as an institution dedicated to freedom of the press, think it’s a good idea to invite someone who justifies and murdered two people who you recognize were slain journalists in the line of duty?” Gibbons asked at the event.

Newseum CEO Jeffrey Herbst refused to address the question, instead talking about social media, the purported subject of the event.

"None of the questions he asked were addressed, because when I and others tried to raise them during questions and answers we were given none answers or were rebuffed for being off the topic of social media," Gibbons observed.

Zaid Jilani, a reporter for The Intercept, asked a similar question, stressing that no one had addressed the intentional killings of the two Palestinian journalists. Leibovich refused to speak on the subject, despite her previous pledge to do so.

“The topic I was invited to speak on is social media,” she said. “Any other issues are not relevant to the discussion in my opinion.”

No room for debate

In a May 31 letter to CEO Herbst, the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate formally requested that Leibovich be disinvited. The letter expressed "shock" that the museum would "provide a platform to someone who has justified, on record and to a world audience, Israel’s grave violations of international law and war crimes, and in particular attacks against journalists and press freedoms."

"We are concerned that by enabling Leibovich’s impunity, when serious charges of war crimes are hanging over her, Newseum will directly undermine our ability as journalists to conduct our professional duties without fear from fatal attacks," the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate said.

Herbst replied insisting, "The Newseum has a bedrock commitment to free speech and free expression." He added, “We believe that this is the only approach possible to understanding the complex issues we face. That is also why we hold public discussions on important issues.”

The Newseum CEO said Leibovich's invitation to speak constituted “an example of fostering such debate.” Yet no one was on stage to challenge her.

Journalist Rania Khalek, who also spoke out at the event, said it was the exact opposite of a debate. She argued that, if the Newseum was going to host someone like this, they should at least have made it an open debate with a Palestinian journalist. Instead, she told Salon, the museum chose a side and let a former IDF spokesperson "spew propaganda" without any challenge.

"They provided a platform to a propagandist," Khalek said. She joined journalist Max Blumenthal in raising concerns during the presentation. Both were removed by guards.

"As a general principle, an institution that claims to celebrate a free press and democracy should not be in the business of hosting military officials involved in the killing of journalists," Blumenthal told Salon.

He said he had planned on waiting for the Q&A session to ask Herbst about the museum's hypocrisy, and did not anticipate speaking out during the talk, but admitted he "was not prepared the macabre quality of Avital Leibovich's presentation."

"At one point, she played drone footage of an entire family rushing into their home in the Gaza Strip for shelter, then being massacred by a missile strike," Blumenthal recalled. "Leibovich described the victims as 'a terrorist family,' and justified their slaughter."

War crimes

The Israeli military wiped out nearly 90 families in Gaza in its 51-day military assault in the summer of 2014, Palestinian officials reported.

According to the U.N., Israel killed more than 2,250 Palestinians in the attack, code-named "Operation Protective Edge," roughly two-thirds of whom were civilians, including more than 550 children.

Another more than 11,200 Palestinians were injured, including more than 3,400 children, approximately one-third of whom children were permanently disabled.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accused Israel of war crimes for its bombing of civilian areas.

A U.N.-affiliated group also reported that Israel intentionally killed journalists in this war, as it had in the 2012 assault.

The Press Emblem Campaign is a Geneva-based independent NGO that advocates for the safety of journalists, and has special consultative U.N. status.

In an August 2014 report, the Press Emblem Campaign noted that 15 journalists were killed in Israel's bombing, some of whom were "purposely targeted." Many more Palestinian journalists were arrested by Israeli forces.

The group also reported that 16 Palestinian journalists lost their homes as a result of Israeli bombing and shelling, "often purposely targeted."

Israel destroyed another eight Gazan media outlets, at least five of which "were targeted deliberately."


Like Blumenthal, Khalek said she hadn't planned on protesting. She was there to report on the event, but the extreme nature of Leibovich's propaganda so shocked her that she had to speak up.

Chip Gibbons also recalled that security at the event did very thorough searches of attendees. They made him open not just his bag, but also his laptop sleeve, and confiscated a Palestinian flag he had inside. (They gave the flag back to him later in the night.)

"It was super weird to be searched like that," he told Salon.

Khalek noted that the audience was not a largely pro-Israel crowd. She said it seemed as though at least half of the people there showed up to express concerns about the event.

Throughout the talk, Khalek noted that "people in the audience were outraged" and sporadically shouted expressions of outrage, such as "you're a propagandist for war" and "this is a war crime."

When audience members shouted in disgust at Leibovich's defending the bombing of civilian familes in Gaza, Blumenthal spoke up.

As Blumenthal was being escorted out, Leibovich began to laugh and shake "her head like it was a joke that people were protesting," Khalek recalled.

"It was really disgusting for me to watch," she said. "I couldn't just sit there and watch that dismissive laughter."

"This is a woman who justified the murder of journalists," she added. "It's so disgusting; it's so shameful."

Blumenthal said he couldn't stop thinking of victims he met in Gaza.

"As a journalist who reported from inside Gaza during Israel's 2014 assault, I met numerous survivors who had lost multiple family members, and who were traumatized for life," he recalled.

"The Newseum allowed Leibovich to reduce these people to dots on a screen, and to demonize them — as well as the local journalists who report their plight — as terrorists worthy of elimination," Blumenthal said.

Khalek argued the talk "calls into question the Newseum's own commitment to protecting journalists."

After guards kicked them out of the event, Blumenthal and Khalek saw text on the museum's walls waxing poetic on the importance of a free press.

"The entire episode reflects horribly on the Newseum and renders all the lofty quotes on its walls about the First Amendment and democracy as the window dressing for hypocrisy," Blumenthal added.

"It's the worst image possible," Khalek echoed. "To leave that event and see those words emblazoned on the wall is very telling that the museum could care less."

"They are more invested in making nice with the murderers of journalists, as opposed to protecting them," she said.

"Or, at the very least, there is an exception for Israel," Khalek added. "And that exception is Palestinian journalists; they don't seem to count. Palestinian lives don't matter."

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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