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Despite flimsy evidence British papers jumped the gun to apportion blame when a West Bank refugee camp was attacked, says Sharon Sadeh. As a result, the reputation of the press has been damaged

The Guardian
Monday May 6, 2002

Reporting from a battlefield has always been a risky, uncertain and frustrating business, all the more so when the dominant military forces are hostile and often non-cooperative. And yet, skimming through the pages of the British and US mainstream papers over the past month might leave even the least inquisitive reader baffled: how couldreputable correspondents produce such different accounts of the Israeli assault on the refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin?

The battle of Jenin was indisputably fierce and bloody. But while the British papers, almost unanimously, presented it from the outset as a “massacre” or at least as an intentional “war crime” of the worst kind, the US and Israeli papers – Ha’aretz included – were far more reserved and cautious, saying that there was no evidence to back such claims. The left-liberal press in Britain thought differently. The Independent, the Guardian and the Times, in particular, were quick to denounce Israel and made sensational accusations based on thin evidence, fitting a widely held stereotype of a defiant, brutal and don’t-give-a-damn Israel.

Consider, for instance, the following reports, which appeared on April 16. Under the headline “Amid the ruins, the grisly evidence of a war crime”, the Independent’s Phil Reeves wrote: “A monstrous war crime that Israel has tried to cover up for a fortnight has finally been exposed.” Reeves, like his Times and Telegraph colleagues, all quote the same lone individual, Kamal Anis, who said that he “saw the Israeli soldiers pile 30 bodies beneath a half-wrecked house. When the pile was complete, they bulldozed the building, bringing its ruins down on the corpses. Then they flattened the area with a tank.” The verdict of Times correspondent, Janine di Giovanni, was no less harsh: “Rarely in more than a decade of war reporting… have I seen such deliberate destruction, such disrespect for human life.” This was followed by an emotive leader in the Guardian, on April 17, which compared the effects of the Israeli operation in Jenin to September 11.

Cotrast that to the descriptions in US and Israeli papers of the same events. The New York Times said: “Since the Israeli assault on Jenin began… aid groups have complained that Israeli soldiers have blocked ambulances and prevented aid from reaching the camp… Saed Dabayeh, who said he stayed in the camp through the fighting, led a group of reporters to a pile of rubble where he said he watched from his bedroom window as Israeli soldiers buried 10 bodies… The Palestinian accounts could not be verified.”

The Washington Post was even less equivocal: “Interviews with residents inside the camp and international aid workers who were allowed here for the first time today indicated that no evidence has surfaced to support allegations by Palestinian groups and aid organisations of large-scale massacres or executions by Israeli troops.”

A week later, the picture became clearer. In the absence of credible evidence to substantiate insinuations of cold-blooded “massacre” or “summary executions”, the British press changed its tone slightly. Many of the papers carried highly detailed accounts of events in Jenin, which discounted Palestinian claims that a massacre had taken place. Nonetheless, these same accounts were at pains to argue that lesser Israeli “war crimes” had indeed occurred, ranging from denial of medical care to Palestinian wounded to indiscriminate and wanton destruction of houses and property. This charge was often repeated in leading articles, especially in the Independent and the Guardian.

In fairness, Israel’s own blunders have contributed to the initial damning i mpression of events in Jenin. Statements by the foreign minister, Shimon Peres, that the Palestinians might present the Jenin battle as a massacre, and that of the IDF spokesmen, to the effect that “hundreds” of Palestinians were killed – both statements were later hastily retracted – fuelled confusion and suspicion. These errors were compounded by blocking journalists and aid agencies from entering the camp, which led to another charge, also widely reported, of an alleged cover-up by the Israeli forces.

But does all this justify the overall line and tone of coverage? Pictures of the devastation in Jenin commanded substantial space and were accompanied by emotional descriptions taken from survivors, without a serious attempt to cross-examine their claims, and often without even recording the Israeli version of events (which was meticulously documented throughout the operation).

In line with the prevalent tradition, the liberal British press has made an extensive and creative use of figurative language in its reports, which betrayed both bias and an attempt to elicit emotional response from the readers which could be translated into increased sales circulation.

In British broadsheets, the style of reporting is such that the distinction between commentary and news reporting is blurred. More often than not, this comes at the expense of accuracy, depth and perspective. Israel – which perceives the liberal European press as manifestly hostile and systematically biased – is entitled to be concerned about the effects of this approach, but it should also worry the UK audience. British reporters are entitled to form their own opinion on Israeli policies, but it cannot be based on anything but facts.

Selective use of details or information and occasional reliance on unsubstantiated accounts inflict considerable damage on the reputation of the entire British press, and more importantly, do a disservice to its readers. The US media, especially the press, were wilfully oblivious, prior to the September 11 attacks, to the issues which might have captured more accurately and profoundly the realities regarding the Middle East and the Muslim world, and the appropriate way of approaching and handling them. Are the British media in a similar state of self-denial?

This ran in Ha’aretz on May 11, 2002