Jenin: The rush to judgment

August 27, 2002


[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach an article below, written earlier this month in response to the UN’s August 1 findings that there was no massacre in Jenin this past April. The piece was commissioned by a British newspaper but then unused for political reasons. [TG adds: It was later published on several websites, and incorporated into two books of essays, including one by Random House in New York, though it never appeared in the UK.]

The first part of the article covers some of the same ground as a previous article I wrote in late April titled “Jeningrad,” but adds some parts about the BBC. The latter part deals with the British media’s continuing failure to publish adequate corrections to their original reports – even though the UN report was compiled with input from UN officials, the mayor of Jenin, five UN member states, private relief organizations and international groups such as Amnesty international and Human Rights Watch.

The Guardian’s new editorial (August 2) was subtitled “Israel is still wanted for questioning”. The Independent’s reporter Phil Reeves wrote a comment piece (August 3) about his own misreporting, but instead of just apologizing, offered up such excuses as: “My report that day – written by candle-light in the damaged refugee home in the camp, where we spent the night – was highly personalised.” (As if writing by candlelight is an excuse to lie…)

Reeves, whose (unedited) news reports in the Independent are regularly reproduced alongside articles by David Irving-style American Holocaust deniers in Arab newspapers such as Asharq Al-Awsat, is soon to leave Israel and be posted by the Independent to Delhi.

-- Tom Gross



Jenin: The rush to judgment
By Tom Gross
August 5, 2002

The story of the British media and Jenin falls into three parts. First, there was the rush to judgment – judgment against Israel. Then there was the refusal to retract once the true facts became known. Finally, there is the continuing failure to publish adequate corrections of the original reports, even though the United Nations – which even Israel’s fiercest critics don’t accuse of being unduly sympathetic to the Jewish state – has officially confirmed that no massacre took place in Jenin in April, and that the majority of the 52 Palestinians killed there (along with 23 Israelis) were armed combatants.

Of course, journalists often get things wrong in the heat of the moment, and there isn’t the space – or the need – to correct every mistake. But the extraordinary nature of the falsehoods disseminated during the battle of Jenin surely warrant a little introspection on the part of the journalists responsible. You would have thought they would have been moved to ask themselves how they came to harbour such unfair and unfounded views of Israel.

The language initially used by many reporters and commentators in the British media was sweeping and extreme. Israel’s actions in Jenin were “every bit as repellent” as Osama bin Laden’s attack on New York on September 11, wrote The Guardian in its editorial of April 17. “We are talking here of massacre, and a cover-up, of genocide,” wrote AN Wilson in the Evening Standard, on April 15. “Rarely in more than a decade of war reporting from Bosnia, Chechnya, Sierra Leone, Kosovo, have I seen such deliberate destruction, such disrespect for human life,” reported Janine di Giovanni, in the Times, on April 16.

The “quality” press spoke with almost wall-to-wall unanimity, backing up their views with horror stories which have turned out to be complete fabrications. The Daily Telegraph, for example, ran headlines such as “Hundreds of victims ‘were buried by bulldozer in mass grave’”, and gave graphic and entirely false accounts of Palestinians being “stripped to their underwear, searched, bound hand and foot, placed against a wall and killed with single shots to the head.”

Newspapers devoted page upon page, day after day, to tales of mass murders, common graves, summary executions, and war crimes. Israel was compared to the Nazis, to al Qaeda, and to the Taliban. One report even compared the thousands of supposedly missing Palestinians to the “disappeared” of Argentina.

The television coverage was, if anything, worse. The BBC’s Orla Guerin cited Palestinians saying that Israelis troops “were scooping dead bodies with bulldozers” and that they had shot dead Palestinians “as they tended sheep.”

But Guerin’s language (“Israel is prepared to go all the way”, Israel is committing “terror from above”, “nothing is sacred” for Israel, and so on) reveals only one element of her misreporting. The choice of camera angles, her tone of voice, her facial expressions, the leading questions she asked of Palestinians (“are you afraid he is going to die?” etc) – all these gave viewers a very inaccurate picture of what was actually going on.

In comparison, little air time was given to the Israeli version of events, which was available, in meticulous detail, throughout the operation, and scant attention was paid to the 23 Israeli deaths in Jenin – still less to the fact that they were evidence of the dangers which the Israeli forces incurred in order to avoid collateral damage to Palestinian civilians. At the same time, Yasser Arafat’s representatives were given ample opportunity to air their incredible tales of Israeli atrocities, while both TV and print journalist forgot to remind their viewers that Arafat’s spokespeople, like those of the other totalitarian regimes that surround Israel, have a habit of lying a lot.

It is not as if the evidence wasn’t there at the time. Some foreign journalists, especially Americans, presented an accurate picture. On April 16, for example, Phil Reeves in the Independent was reporting that “A monstrous war crime that Israel has tried to cover up for a fortnight has finally been exposed”. On the same day, Newsday’s reporter in Jenin, Edward Gargan, wrote: “There is little evidence to suggest that Israeli troops conducted a massacre of the dimensions alleged by Palestinian officials.” Molly Moore of the Washington Post reported: “No evidence has yet surfaced to support allegations by Palestinian groups and aid organizations of large-scale massacres or executions.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that Palestinians in Jenin “painted a picture of a vicious house-to-house battle in which Israeli soldiers faced Palestinian gunmen intermixed with the camp’s civilian population.” Even Egyptian newspapers like Al-Ahram provided similar accounts. But not the British media – or, for that matter, the media elsewhere in Western Europe, who with very few exceptions were equally biased.

Few of us find it easy to admit that we have been wrong, so perhaps it is not surprising that apologies weren’t forthcoming in April. But with the passage of time one might have hoped for some soul-searching, above all now that the UN report has officially concluded that no massacre took place and charged Palestinian militants with deliberately putting their fighters and equipment in civilian areas in violation of international law. Instead, the perpetrators have just dug themselves in deeper.

In an editorial last Friday (subtitled “Israel is still wanted for questioning”), The Guardian wrote: “Israel resorted to random, vengeful acts of terror involving civilians” and added “As we said last April, the destruction wrought in Jenin looked and smelled like a crime. On the basis of the UN’s findings, it still does.”

The editorial didn’t make mention that the UN report – compiled with input from UN officials, the mayor of Jenin, five UN member states, private relief organizations and international groups such as Amnesty international and Human Rights Watch – stated that the number of Palestinian civilians who died in Jenin was somewhere between 14 and 22 i.e. less than the 29 Israeli civilians killed in the Passover massacre, and the hundreds of others murdered by the 27 other suicide bombers dispatched from Jenin in the months that preceded Israel’s incursion.

Likewise the Independent. On Saturday, the paper’s chief Jerusalem correspondent, Phil Reeves, whose news reports from Jenin in April had extended to 3000 words, wrote a comment piece on the subject. Reeves could have just said: “Sorry, Independent readers, for so badly misleading you.”

But he didn’t. Instead he offered up such excuses for his misreporting as: “My report that day – written by candle-light in the damaged refugee home in the camp, where we spent the night – was highly personalised.”

In Israel, Reeves is known for the angry letters he dispatches to those publications which have charged him with bias – not just the rightist Jerusalem Post, but the leftist Ha’aretz, and the left-leaning Jerusalem Report magazine. Instead of being so dismissive of such a wide range of critics, perhaps Reeves should ask himself why his (unedited) news reports from the Independent, as well as those of Robert Fisk and some other British journalists, are regularly reproduced alongside articles by David Irving-style American Holocaust deniers in Arab newspapers such as Asharq Al-Awsat.

For those of us familiar with the working methods and attitudes of the international media in Israel (I reported there for British and American papers between 1995 and 2001) the rush to false judgment over Jenin came as no surprise. It fits into a deeper pattern of false reporting and systematic bias. But whatever the motives, the damage is likely to be long lasting. Myths have a way of living on, even when the true facts become known; and the myth of Jenin – the massacre that never was – may well continue to poison the atmosphere for years to come.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.