Many media outlets are continuing to repeat important mistakes when it comes to covering the killing of Palestinians by Israeli forces, errors that result in a whitewashing of the routine violence of Israel’s occupation, and ultimately, biased coverage.
When I wrote about this issue last year (see here, here, and here), I focused on the output of news agencies like Reuters and The Associated Press (AP), on the basis that their reports go global, and that their coverage – perhaps more than other outlets – is perceived as objective (or striving to be).
Unfortunately, the flaws that have characterised the reporting of events since autumn 2015 have persisted into 2017 – as the following examples demonstrate.
On 10 January, Israeli forces shot and killed Mohammad Salhi, during a night raid of the al-Far’a refugee camp near Tubas. Salhi was killed in his own home, in front of his mother. The Israeli army claimed Salhi was attempting to stab the soldiers when he was shot; his family denies it.
So how did Reuters report the incident? The headline itself is a bad start, though sadly routine: ‘Israeli troops kill knife-wielding Palestinian in West Bank raid: military’. This sets the tone for the whole piece, which begins with the army’s version of events.
“Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian who the military said tried to attack them with a knife during a raid on Tuesday to detain suspected militants in a refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.” Later, a military statement is quoted, which claimed that “forces called on the attacker to halt and upon his continued advance fired towards him, resulting in his death.”
Sandwiched in between those paragraphs is reference to a statement by the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, who said that Salhi “was ‘executed in cold blood’ by soldiers in the courtyard of his home, in front of his mother.”
The killing of a Palestinian civilian in his own home merited 141 words of copy – of which, 91 words were used to repeat the Israeli army’s version of events. But it gets worse. Reuters contextualises the killing of Salhi by stating that “Israeli forces regularly carry out raids in the West Bank against suspected militants and arms caches.”
In fact, the arrest raids conducted by Israeli forces typically target political activists, human rights campaigners, and journalists. Some raids are purely for the purpose of harassment. And, note how this sanitising of one of the most egregious aspects of Israel’s military occupation is stated as fact.
The Reuters report then finishes by summarising fatalities since October 2015. Again, look carefully: Israelis (and two Americans) were “killed in a wave of Palestinian street attacks.” Palestinians, however, were “killed in violence.”
So, Israelis are killed by Palestinian attacks – but Palestinians die at the hands of agency-less ‘violence’. Reuters also uncritically notes how “Israel says that at least 158 of them [Palestinian fatalities] were assailants while others died during clashes and protests.”
The Associated Press story was arguably worse. The headline simply stated: ‘Israel troops shoot dead knife-wielding Palestinian attacker’ – without even acknowledging this was the army’s story. The tiny report (130 words, including context), only provides the military’s version of events, simply observing that “Palestinians said…[Salhi] was shot dead in his home” (which does not help much).
The context paragraph, meanwhile, states: “Since September 2015, Palestinian attackers have killed 40 Israelis and two visiting Americans in mainly stabbing attacks. During that time, 231 Palestinians, mostly attackers, have been killed by Israeli fire.” Palestinian ‘attackers’ killed Israelis, and Palestinian ‘attackers’ were killed.
Now, contrast the copy filed by Reuters and AP, seen around the world of course, with other accounts of the same event. One camp resident, for example, was cited by two different outlets (one Israeli, one Palestinian) as testifying that Israeli soldiers shot Salhi “for no justified reason”, describing the killing “as an execution.”
Another resident cited by Al Jazeera said that “Salhi was awakened by surprise and he found himself face-to-face with the soldiers.” He added: “Apparently Salhi did not know what was going on, so he confronted the soldiers to protect his ailing mother and family when he was shot.”
What is important to note here is that these news agencies, and other media outlets, so often omit any such details and accounts that contradict the Israeli authorities’ version of events. And this kind of flawed reporting has become the norm, rather than an exception.
Consider the killing of 17-year-old Qusay Hassan al-Umour, shot dead on 16 January by Israeli soldiers suppressing an unarmed protest in Tuqu’ village near Bethlehem. On the day in question, Reuters filed a brief report, which stated:
“Israeli border police shot dead a 17-year-old Palestinian youth during a clash with protesters in the occupied West Bank on Monday, Israeli and Palestinian officials said. The violence erupted near the town of Bethlehem between a crowd of stone-throwing Palestinians and Israeli troops.”
Reuters then quoted an Israeli spokesperson: “Hundreds of rioters hurled rocks at the security forces in the area. Due to the extent of the violence, border police fired 0.22 calibre rounds toward a main violent instigator, resulting in his death.”
Once again, a brief, even cursory, report of the killing of a Palestinian – the killing of a child at that – and one that only references a statement by the Israeli authorities. Qusay is not even named.
Video footage, meanwhile, shows how Israeli forces opened fire on the unarmed teen from some distance, confirming that he could not possibly have been posing any sort of threat when he was shot. Soldiers then dragged his body to their jeeps – it is not clear whether he was already dead.
A final example, again, just from the first few weeks of 2017. On 17 January, Israeli occupation forces killed 44-year-old husband and father Nidal Daoud Mahdawi, in what authorities claimed was a thwarted stabbing attack at a checkpoint outside Tulkarem.
This is how Reuters reported the incident, in a story topped by the headline ‘Israeli soldiers shoot dead a Palestinian assailant – military’:
“Israeli troops on Tuesday shot dead a Palestinian who had tried to stab a soldier at a checkpoint in the occupied West Bank, a military spokeswoman said. ‘Responding to the imminent threat, forces fired towards the attacker, resulting in his death,’ she said in a statement.”
And that was it: a 46-word paraphrase of the Israeli army’s press release.
A video of the killing, however, undermines the Israeli authorities’ story. The camera shows Nidal standing quietly, alone, when a soldier shoots near him. Only then does he move, beginning to walk, as more shots are fired. He breaks out into a run, and is brought down by the fatal shots.
In a recent, passionate op-ed, Israeli journalist Gideon Levy wrote: “When the people killed are Arabs, nobody cares. When a soldier is killed in an accident, it’s front-page news. But when a Palestinian is killed while just waking up at home, nobody cares.”
Regrettably, this kind of attitude has, by neglect or design, come to shape influential news agencies’ coverage, helping to whitewash the violence of Israel’s fifty-year-old military occupation.