By Lara-Nour Walton / Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Under Israel’s most right-wing government to date, illegal settlements continue to encroach on Palestinian land like “concrete kudzu.” This is no surprise. With Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, himself a settler, acting as the de facto authority over the West Bank since February, news media anticipated a swift crackdown on Palestinian freedom and state-building aspirations in the territory. This came to a head in recent weeks as Israel relaxed settlement rules, and expedited planning for more than 4,000 new colonial houses in the West Bank.
State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller issued a press statement on June 18 decrying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s updated West Bank settlement policy, citing “such unilateral actions” as a hindrance to peace and de-escalation. When the US, which has proclaimed its “unwavering…commitment to Israel’s security” (US State Department, 3/26/22), singles out Israel as an aggressor, there must be a clear violation.
Despite this official US condemnation, the New York Times seems reluctant to hold Israel accountable for the unprecedented settler brazenness that has come to characterize the Netanyahu administration. In her article “Spiraling Violence in the Occupied West Bank Signals a Loss of Control” (6/22/23), Times Jerusalem correspondent Isabel Kershner attempted to explain the deluge of bloodshed—most keenly felt by Palestinians—following heightened Israeli antagonism in the West Bank. Yet the Times muddied this lopsided power dynamic by engaging in distortion and both-sidesism—framing recent events in the Occupied Territories as “an explosive mix” of Palestinian and Israeli aggression alike.
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Avoiding ‘apartheid’ label
Amnesty International notes that the development of colonial settlements “contravenes fundamental rules of international humanitarian law.” While the Times raises the illegality of Israel’s new expansionist policy (once, in passing), it fails to elaborate on the consequences of settlement—namely, the entrenchment of apartheid governance.
The human rights community is in agreement about the state of Palestinian civil rights under Israeli occupation. A Human Rights Watch Report (4/27/21) deplored the “systematic oppression” of Palestinians in the West Bank, asserting that the separate and unequal treatment of Palestinians compared to Israeli settlers constitutes apartheid. Amnesty International and B’Tselem both substantiate HRW’s claim.
US elite media’s antipathy for labeling Israel an apartheid state, despite consensus among prominent human rights groups, is a trend that has been observed by FAIR (5/23/23):
Since apartheid is the overriding condition that leads to Israel’s violent outbursts, and since the US has vigorously supported Israel for the last 60 years, US media should be putting it front and center in their coverage. Omitting it allows Israel to continue to portray any violence from Palestinians as a result of senseless hostility, rather than emerging from the conditions imposed by Israel.
The Times’ exclusion of key apartheid terminology obfuscates the power dynamics underpinning recent acrimony in the West Bank. Kershner instead opts for murky descriptors of the occupation like “conflict,” “tension,” “clash” and “melee,” which conceal the power asymmetry between the Israeli military apparatus and the Palestinian people in the Occupied Territories.
While the Times’ employment of nebulous words misrepresents the Israeli occupation as a symmetrical “conflict,” Kershner took the distortion one step further when she seemingly situated Palestinians as the primary aggressor.
“The killing of the four Israelis at Eli set off waves of reprisals on Tuesday and Wednesday by Israeli extremists who rampaged through Palestinian towns and villages,” reported the Times. The expression “reprisal” implies that settler terrorism is justified, or at least understandable, as a retaliation against Palestinian-led assaults. Kershner mobilized the word “reprisal” four times in the article—in every instance referencing Israeli attacks.
Palestinians were not offered the dignity of self-defense language. The Times detailed the events leading up to the June 20 shooting near the settlement town of Eli (a colonial community that is illegal under Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention): “The violence this week began with a deadly Israeli raid on Monday into the northern West Bank city of Jenin.” Several sentences later, the article continued: “A day later, Palestinian gunmen killed four Israeli civilians, including a 17-year-old boy, near the Jewish settlement of Eli.”
Nowhere did the Times suggest that the shooting came as a “reprisal” against the initial Israeli raid in Jenin, which left six Palestinians dead. Yet CNN (6/21/23) revealed that Hamas, which claimed responsibility for the Eli attack, defended it as a “natural response” to the raid.
When the media depict Israeli assaults as counter-attacks, retaliations or “reprisals,” while refusing to extend the same vocabulary to armed Palestinian actions, it weaves an insidious narrative that Israel is a perpetual innocent defending itself against ceaseless Palestinian aggression, even when the numbers paint a different picture.
Twenty-seven Israelis were killed in 2022, while the figure was seven times higher for Palestinians. Out of the 204 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces last year, 146 hailed from the West Bank. This led the Washington Post (12/29/22) to declare 2022 the “deadliest year for West Bank Palestinians in nearly two decades.” Among the factors cited for the spike in fatalities was increased settler assaults in the Occupied Territories.
The Times article mentioned the jump in the Palestinian death toll—which continues in 2023, with at least 137 West Bank and East Jerusalem Palestinians killed by Israeli fire so far (PBS, 6/24/23)—but failed to acknowledge the stark numerical disparity between Israeli and Palestinian victims. This context is vital to debunking the pervasive notion that Israel is constantly on the defensive.
Anti-Palestine media bias is even more blatant when compared to coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A Toronto Star article by Joseph Krauss (3/29/22) argued that many in the Middle East “see hypocrisy in the Western embrace of Ukraine.” News media have lauded Ukrainian fighters as “brave” (Forbes, 3/2/22), anti-imperial (Washington Post, 2/24/22) and “heroic” (Bloomberg, 3/19/22). But, as a Washington Post opinion piece (4/28/22) noted:
When it comes to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, these same outlets often fail to name the aggressor at all. Ukrainian civilians throwing Molotov cocktails at Russian tanks are called “brave,” but 14-year-old Qusai Hamamrah was depicted as posing an immediate threat after armed Israeli soldiers claimed he threw a Molotov cocktail at them.… Newsrooms cannot pick and choose which state-sanctioned violence is legitimate.
This double standard creates a media landscape where certain groups are entitled to self-defense, and others are doomed to be the victims of “reprisal” attacks. It tells the world that West Bank Palestinians living under apartheid have no right to react to the almost daily raids, growing illegal settlements and ballooning settler hostility.
‘Helpless’ Israeli military
After illegal settlers rampaged through Palestinian communities—torching 15 homes, 60 vehicles and countless crops—Israel’s military chief, police chief and head of the Shin Bet internal security agency denounced the onslaught as “nationalist terrorism” that must be staved off. Yet the Times article seemed convinced that Israeli forces are incapable of quelling settler belligerence: “The Israeli forces, despite their overall control of the territory and a spate of similarly destructive settler reprisals in February, appear helpless in preventing it.”
Helpless? Or uninterested? Amid Israel’s rightward shift, a permissive environment toward illegal settlement has cultivated Israeli military apathy in the face of settler violence. As the Times of Israel (6/26/23) divulged:
In recent years, there have been numerous documented cases of IDF soldiers standing by as settlers attacked Palestinians. In other cases, such as in recent days, IDF soldiers have not been present at all, only arriving after the fact and then clashing with the local Palestinian population. Soldiers are legally permitted—even required in some cases—to intervene to prevent violent attacks, regardless of nationality.
The Times’ use of the word “helpless” to describe Israeli forces, even though the military possesses the legal permission, tactical know-how and manpower to halt settler attacks, minimizes official Israeli responsibility as West Bank Palestinians continue to suffer under occupation. In a troubling statement, Miloon Kothari, member of the UN Human Rights Council–mandated Commission of Inquiry (Reuters, 6/20/23), contended that rising settler hostility has become “the means through which [Israeli] annexation is ensured.”
Shortly after the Palestinian attack near Eli, Netanyahu announced that in “response to terror” (Haaretz, 6/21/23), an additional 1,000 illegal housing units in the West Bank would be fast-tracked. When uncritical stories like Kershner’s are the norm, it’s unlikely anyone will hold Israel accountable for the chaos that will predictably follow.