Saturday, January 31, 2015

Two Cheers and One Boo to Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner

Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner are being acclaimed by some liberal American critics of Israeli policies for their two stories last week on Israeli war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law during its attack on Gaza last summer.

True, given the record of the New York Times and its correspondents of repeated obfuscation about the realities of the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict”--which would be better described as “the Israeli repression of the Palestinians”—the stories do represent a willingness of the Times to face up to at least some of the grim realities of Israeli policies and actions.

Even so, both stories are in some respects seriously misleading.

Jodi Rudoren

On January 26, in a story entitled “Disillusioned by War, Israeli Soldiers Muted in 1967 Are Given Fuller Voice,” Rudoren wrote about a new Israeli documentary,“Censored Voices,” that reveals deliberate Israeli attacks on Egyptian civilians in the 1967 war, as well as other atrocities.

But then Rudoren adds, dismissively—maybe even contemptuously--that “the film raises concerns that, viewed without consideration for the existential threat Israel faced at the time, it could become catnip for contemporary critics.”

There is no need for me to analyze whether it is true that Israel faced a threat to its survival in 1967, for in his excellent dismantling of Rudoren on that issue ((“NYT perpetuates myth was ‘fighting for its very survival during 1967 war,’ Mondoweiss, Jan. 29, 2015, ), Stephen Shalom discusses the decisive evidence that a number of leading Israeli generals at the time—and none other than Menachem Begin later—believed not only that Israel faced no such “existential threat” but that it would easily defeat the Egyptian forces. This assessment was shared by the U.S. Defense Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the CIA. As Steve concludes his essay, “to offer up the pro-Israel myth as if it were undisputed fact is simply propaganda.”

However, I do wish to add one point: For Rudoren to dismiss a painfully honest Israeli documentary—none of whose factual claims she challenges—as “catnip for critics,” is unforgivable, because of its obvious implications. As the Wikipedia discussion of “catnip” puts it, catnip “is used as a recreational substance for pet cats' enjoyment…commonly leading them to roll on the ground, paw at it, lick it, and chew it.”

Isabel Kershner 

In her January 28 NYT story, “Israeli Group Says Military Attacks on Palestinian Homes Appeared to Violate International Law,” Kershner writes about a new B’Tselem report that described the Israeli attacks on Gaza, especially on residential buildings, as grave violations of international law

It is a serious and mostly commendable article, particularly because Kershner noted that previously released reports by Amnesty International and the Israeli chapter of Physicians for Human Rights had reached similar—actually, even more devastating—conclusions. There is one serious problem, however, with Kershner’s story. Almost all of it is drawn from the written report of B’Tselem--until Kershner writes that “B’Tselem concluded, however, that Israel was not deliberately trying to harm civilians.”

Presented as a stand-alone, one-sentence paragraph, Kershner clearly intends to draw particular attention it, as it would appear to absolve Israel of even worse war crimes than those discussed in the report. The problem is that the written report of B’Tselem makes no such statement. I emailed Kershner to point this out, and she responded that in a briefing by the B’Tselem staff, it was stated that “they did not believe that [deliberate killings of civilians] was the case.” Kershner’s response to my query clearly suggested that I was just quibbling, that it didn’t matter whether or not the cited statement came from a formal and public written report, but in fact it matters a great deal. An unverifiable account of an apparently off-the-record “briefing” is quite different: if B’Tselem wanted to go on official record as absolving Israel of deliberately targeting civilians, it would have said so in the report.

Moreover, the January 28 Haaretz story about the B’Tselem report, (Gili Cohen, “IDF broke international law in dozens of Gaza war strikes, Israeli rights group says,”) makes no claim that B’Tselem said that Israel hadn’t attacked civilians—even though it seems fair to assume that Cohen attended the same oral briefing. In any event, there is no question that Israel has repeatedly deliberately targeted civilians throughout its history--the evidence that this has been the case is decisive, including what many Israeli generals have openly stated.  While that doesn't prove that it did so last summer, when you bomb apartment houses, the distinction between "massively indiscriminate" and "deliberately targeting civilians" all but disappears. 

In any case, an earlier report by the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights, in conjunction with a number of other human rights and physician groups-a 250 page report actually mentioned in Kershner’s story, but not described—lays all doubt to rest about the issue, for in Ben Norton’s excellent summary (“Independent investigation details Israel’s deliberate targeting of civilians in Gaza, “Mondoweiss, Jan. 29), the report states that Israel

  • used civilians as human shields;
  • shot civilians dead at close range;
  • left mortally wounded children on the ground to die, even after soldiers made eye contact with them;
  • conducted multiple consecutive strikes on a single location (“double taps”), killing injured survivors and those attempting to rescue them;
  • bombed medical clinics that were acting as shelters for civilians and the wounded;
  • “deliberately” attacked hospitals;
  • prevented emergency medical evacuation, even by international organizations such as Red Cross;
  • killed and injured “many” medical teams that were evacuating the injured;
  • refused to allow civilians to exit areas being attacked;
  • targeted civilian escape routes;
  • shelled ambulances;
  • attacked civilians attempting to flee areas under fire;
  • physically beat civilians;
  • denied civilians food and water;
  • and more

In sum, Rudoren and Kershner deserve both praise and criticism for their recent important stories.


Anthony Greco said...

As I recall, it was the Goldstone Report that used the apparently oxymoronic but very apt phrase "systematically indiscriminate" to characterize Israeli violence against civilians during the 2009 assault on Gaza.

Jerome Slater said...

Right. I think other human rights organizations have called the attacks as "deliberately indiscriminate." Question: is there any difference at all between "deliberately indiscriminate"attacks on civilians and "deliberate" attacks on civilians?