A Tale of Two Killings

    Recent efforts by the Israeli government and America’s pro-Israel lobby have focused extensively on media coverage of the current crisis between Palestinians and Israelis. From demanding that CNN replace reporters of Palestinian descent with “pro-Israeli reporters” to hiring three additional PR firms to deal with the U.S. media, Israel’s allies have ratcheted up the media war. Go to any pro-Israel organization’s website and you can find a plethora of action alerts charging that the Western media has it in for Israel.

    But the truth is, in fact, quite the opposite and much more disturbing.

    Nine months have passed since the beginning of the Palestinian Intifada against Israeli occupation. Since that time, the world has witnessed many senseless killings in the Holy Land. More than 100 Israelis have been killed, 26 of them children. So far, Palestinians have lost 166 children (as of June 13, 2001). They make up more than 30 percent of the more than 500 Palestinians killed. In U.S. terms, that translates into almost 55,000 American deaths since September or approximately 327 Oklahoma City bombings.

    While Israeli deaths receive headline and “breaking news” coverage, Palestinian victims are rarely covered. For much of this carnage, we have learned very little or nothing at all about its Palestinian victims. We do not hear from Palestinian families or friends. We do not know what they did for a living nor do we learn about their dreams. Often, the Palestinian victim’s name is not even shared.

    When Israelis are victims of a Palestinian bomb attack, the coverage is intense and intimate and footage of the coverage is repeated. We are shown the Israeli victims and the shaken Israeli survivors. We hear the families stories and we know that they were loved. In short, we can empathize with Israeli suffering because we are made to understand their loss.

    On the other hand, while Palestinian towns and villages have been bombed by F-16s or shelled on an almost daily basis by tanks and helicopters, the footage we watch on the evening news is of depersonalized rubble and blown out buildings. Palestinian victims become nothing more than faceless, anonymous statistics and, as a result, they lose their humanity making it easier for us to turn away.

    There is an additional bias in the attribution of cause and effect to these tragic events. Palestinian attacks are always presented as the initiators of violence that create the necessity of Israeli retaliations. Palestinians are never seen as responding to either specific Israeli attacks or an accumulated pattern of Israeli abuse. The Israeli losses are decried as “senseless victims of terror,” while Palestinian deaths are not only depersonalized, but allowed to appear as the logical consequence of the violence initiated by their compatriots.

    This report is not an attempt to minimize either side’s suffering or devalue their losses. It is an attempt to point out the apparent bias that underlies the reporting of Palestinian suffering through a specific case study. It is hoped that this treatment might help lead to a better representation of the Palestinian reality, and as such, more balanced media reporting of the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.

    But the truth is, of course, quite the opposite.

    In the past 3 months, violence in the Middle East has claimed two of its youngest victims: a 10-month old Israeli girl killed March 26, and a 4-month old Palestinian girl killed May 7. While both of these deaths were senseless and tragic, there has been a great discrepancy in the way they have been portrayed by the media. While the death of the Israeli baby made the front pages of newspapers across the United States, the death of the Palestinian baby was relegated to the International or World section of most U.S. papers, when it was even reported at all.

    The news of the Palestinian baby only comprised a few paragraphs in most papers, overshadowed by the news of the fishing vessel smuggling weapons from Lebanon to the Gaza Strip. News of the Israeli baby comprised whole stories, and came on multiple days, due in part to the fact that the parents refused to bury the baby, stating that they would not do so until the Israeli army had occupied the Palestinian territory of Abu Sneineh (Nasser Shiyoukhi, “Hebron settlers agree to bury baby after pressure from chief rabbi,” AP Worldstream, March 30, 2001). But let’s not count words. Instead, let us examine the choice of words used in each of these cases.

    First, in the Washington Post. In the case of the Palestinian baby, the story begins: “A 4 month-old girl was killed todayé” (Mike O’Connor, “Israeli Strike in Gaza Kills Refugee Infant; Army Answers Attack on Settlement,” The Washington Post May 8, 2001). Compare this with the beginning of a story about the Israeli baby: “The apple-cheeked baby girl shot to death in her strolleré” (Lee Hockstader “Sharon’s Options Limited As Violent Cycle Intensifies; Palestinians Remain Determind; Jewish Baby is Mourned,” The Washington Post, April 2, 2001).The former, describing the Palestinian baby, is passive, the later, describing the Israeli baby, a much more active voice. It goes on to talk about the Israeli baby’s funeral: “éan elegy to her pinchable cheeks, her sweet smile, her kerchiefed cutenessé” This is not objective reporting, but elicits response from the reader. The subjective “cuteness” of the Palestinian child is never discussed. In the story of the Palestinian baby, it is mentioned: “The Israeli attack also wounded the slain girl’s teenage mother and at least 22 others, including 10 childrené”-as if the fact that it is a teenage mother makes any difference. In the case of the Israeli baby, it is stated: “The infant was slain-and her brother and father were woundedé” (Daniel Williams, “Killing of Israeli Baby Sets Off New Violence; Sniper Fired Into Jewish Area of Hebron,” The Washington Post, March 27, 2001). Again, active rather than passive.

    Or consider the reactions of the Israeli government, amply quoted in each story. When confronted with the death of the Palestinian baby, Sharon said, “I’m sure our forces never had the intention to do it.” However, when faced with a similar situation and an Israeli death the media once again relied almost solely on Israeli explanations of the incident. Raanan Gissin, one of Sharon’s advisers characterized the event as: “It is an attempt to provoke Israel. We try to lift the closures, so they decide to commit murder.” Lt. Col. Oliver Rafowicz, and Israeli army spokesman, said: “If the Palestinians want to provoke escalation by bombing little babies there is a price to payéTo kill Israeli babies seems to be becoming a kind of general policy by the Palestinian Authority.” There were no similar attributions of the Israeli army’s fault in the killing of the Palestinian baby-Iman Hijo.

    One can see the same pattern of reporting occurring in the New York Times. Sharon’s spokesman states that the killing of the Israeli girl “éwas a deliberate, cold-blooded escalation of violence.” (Deborah Sontag, “Palestinians Kill Baby Girl in West Bank,” The New York Times, March 27, 2001) Nahum Barnea, a columnist for Maariv newspaper is quoted as saying: “No Israeli government can sit by idly in view of the murder of a baby and the detonation of bombs in densely populated areas,” (Deborah Sontag, “Sharon Orders His First Raid After Bombing,” The New York Times, March 29, 2001).

    It was not suggested that the Palestinian Authority could not be expected to sit by idly either in view of the murder of a baby and the detonation of bombs in densely populated areas. The New York Times also describes the Israeli baby as “cherubic” while the only description of the Palestinian baby was that of lying on a gurney: “Her eyes were shut, her ears still held tiny earrings, and her lips had dried blood on them.” (Deborah Sontag, “Littlest Victim in the Mideast: Israeli Guns Kill 4-Month-Old,” The New York Times, May 8, 2001).

    The Israeli baby’s parents are even described by the Times, attending the funeral: “Her father, Yitzhak Pass, who was wounded by the bullet that passed through his daughter’s head, traveled in a wheelchair. Her mother, Uriya, dressed in a long Indian print skirt and a blue head scarfé” There is no description of the parents of the Palestinian child, their names are not even mentioned. There is again an active and passive description of the deaths, as well. Compare: “Iman, who was 4 months old, was killed inside her home in Gaza when Israeli troops fired on a densely populated refugee campé” to: “Shalhevet Pass, a 10-month-old girl, was killed by a bullet to the head while in her stroller at the entrance to a Jewish enclave on Monday. The enclave playground was swarming with children because new sand had just been delivered to the sandbox.” One provokes an emotional response; the other does not.

    Most interesting, however, is the following from the Associated Press. As to the Israeli baby, it is noted that “Sharon holds the Palestinian Authority ‘responsible for the violence and terror which today caused the murder of a baby and the wounding of her father.'” (Nasser Shiyoukhi, “10-month-old Jewish girl killed in shooting on West Bank,” The Associated Press, March 26, 2001). Discussing the Palestinian baby, it is stated: “Sharon said he was sorry for the deaths of the infant, Iman HijoéHowever, Sharon also blamed Yasser Arafat for the latest escalation, saying the Palestinian leader has done nothing to stop the attacks on Israelis” (Ibrahim Barzak, “Palestinian baby buried, Sharon blames Arafat for attacks,” The Associated Press, May 8, 2001).

    It is also noted: “Prime Minister Ariel Sharon charged Tuesday that the Palestinians were knowingly endangering children in their struggle with Israelé” (Dan Perry, “Sharon blames Palestinians for endangering children as Gaza baby buried,” The Associated Press, May 8, 2001) and “Appearing before the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem, Sharon expressed sorrow for the killing, but accused Palestinians of firing the mortars from near the Hijo family house. ‘They do it quite often,’ he said. ‘They deployed their mortars by schoolséand disappeared immediately. It happened several times (and) this is what happened this time. The soldiers, after one of our communities was hit by mortar fire, (fired at) the place where the mortar was deployed.'” When an Israeli baby is killed, it is “terrorism” and is the Palestinians fault. Apparently, when the Israeli army kills a Palestinian baby, it is also the Palestinians fault. It is a classic case of blaming the victim, and is a despicable practice of the Israeli government, unquestioned by the Western media.

    Another case of disparity in reporting the deaths of Israelis and Palestinians can be seen in the recent deaths of two teen-age Jewish settlers May 9.

    The Associated Press notes, for example, in the first paragraph that the two were “bludgeoned to death with rocks” and Ariel Sharon was noting that they were victims of “Palestinian terror.” (Yoav Appel, “Two Israeli Teens Found Bludgeoned to Death,” Associated Press, May 9, 2001). It is not until later in the story that an Israeli Police spokesman is quoted as saying that the boys may have been killed in a chance encounter, not a planned attack, and that they were not bound when found, as other stories reported. In any case these killings received ample, multi-day coverage. They were on the front page of many U.S. papers with photographs of the young victims, their families and friends.

    Although some of the extensive coverage this case received can be attributed to the dual U.S. citizenship of one of its victims, that does not explain why the press failed to report the killing of a young American teen of Palestinian descent who was shot in the head by the Israeli army following a prayer service on December 8. Sixteen year-old Ammar Samir Al-Mashni, a U.S. citizen, from Belle Glade, Florida was visiting family in Ramallah. Al-Mashni did not receive international or even national headlines. There were no network stories of his killing. Yet the dual citizenship of the Israeli teenager was an issue on the front-page of major newspapers across the world and led to an investigation into the killing and calls to bring the killers to justice. There is no such investigation into the events surrounding the killing of U.S. citizen Al-Mashni.

    Once more, while the gruesome killing of the Israeli teens was a deeply disturbing event, it is not the first time innocent civilians have been attacked by other civilians and the U.S. media failed to point this out. A striking case in point was the murder of Hilmi Shusha, a 10-year-old Palestinian boy who was killed by a Jewish settler while walking home from school in October 1996. Nahum Kurman, the Jewish settler, chased the child and others, kicked the boy to the ground, stomped on him, and struck him in the head with the butt of a pistol. It took four years for Kurman to be brought to justice, and even then he was only convicted of “manslaughter due to irresponsibility” (Jack Katzenell, “Supreme Court convicts Jewish settler of killing Palestinian boy,” Associated Press Worldstream, November 12, 2000). He had no real motive for the killing, which was not considered premeditated, except that, it was said, he intensely disliked the Palestinians. In this instance there was barely any coverage in the U.S. press, no photographs, no biographies, no anguished parents, and no outrage. All of this is not to say that the brutal killings of the two teen-age Israeli boys are not an outrage but this outrage is equaled by the similarly brutal but unreported killing of Hilmi Shusha. Once again, these tragic cases highlight the apparent bias in the U.S. media’s treatment of Israeli and Palestinian stories.