Michael F. Brown Media Watch 15 January 2018
Ahed Tamimi began 2018 behind Israeli bars — as this protest in Gaza City emphasized. Ashraf Amra APA images
When 16-year-old Palestinian Ahed Tamimi stood up to Israeli occupation soldiers, she couldn’t have known just how much of her story mainstream US media would cut away and twist.
Salient facts – like how Ahed has spent her entire life under military occupation and Israel’s near-fatal violence against her cousin – were either ignored outright or downplayed. Others – such as the indisputable reality that Palestinian land is being stolen by Israel – were treated as if they were simply matters of opinion.
Some in the US press even presented Ahed as the aggressor, rather than the Israeli forces she challenged through mild physical contact.
Ahed’s use of slapping, kicking and angry rhetoric received more attention from David M. Halbfinger in The New York Times and especially from Dana Dovey in Newsweek than the much more harmful Israeli resort to violence, theft and seemingly permanent occupation.
The shocking photo of Muhammad Fadel Tamimi – Ahed’s 15-year-old cousin – and his misshapen head published in a 5 January Haaretz article by Gideon Levy and Alex Levac stands in stark contrast to the solitary sentence Halbfinger allotted Muhammad’s shooting in a 22 December article one week after the confrontation.
Halbfinger dispenses with Muhammad’s severe injury by stating in the 13th paragraph: “The latest incident, filmed in the family’s backyard, occurred within hours after a cousin of Ms. Tamimi’s was shot in the face with a rubber bullet, and it was streamed live on Facebook.”
Victim treated as insignificant
That’s it. There’s no mention of the fact Muhammad is a child. There’s no mention of the fact he had been in a coma. There’s not even a mention of his name.
He’s insignificant. Just another nameless Palestinian child seriously injured by Israeli forces, a routine Palestinian injury in Halbfinger’s eyes. The terror of Muhammad’s harrowing trip to hospital through an Israeli checkpoint warrants not a line.
Instead, Halbfinger reduces the day’s encounter to an Israeli debate over the wisdom of trespassing Israeli soldiers not forcefully responding to a child’s mild physical provocations on her family’s property against intrusive occupation forces. For “balance,” internal Palestinian debate is also provided.
After the brief reference to Ahed’s cousin, paragraph 14 in The New York Times makes the reactionary case against Ahed.
“Right-wing activists demanded the teenager’s arrest. Israel’s education minister, Naftali Bennett, said Ms. Tamimi and the other women who scuffled with the soldiers alongside her – her mother and an older cousin – ‘should finish their lives in prison.’”
Reference to the “other women” suggests Halbfinger regards Ahed as an adult rather than a child in the grip of an occupying army. Halbfinger fails to expose Naftali Bennett’s hypocrisy. While Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home Party wants life imprisonment for Ahed Tamimi, he argued in October 2016 that Israeli soldier Elor Azarya, who shot dead a seriously injured and incapacitated Palestinian in Hebron, “shouldn’t sit a single day in prison.”
Space was provided in The New York Times to Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, to turn reality on its head by maintaining that “when you see yourself as under permanent siege, your greatest fear is the loss of deterrence.” Yet Israeli occupation forces control Palestinian movement from both Gaza and the West Bank, not the other way around. It is Palestinians, not Israelis, who have endured a decade-long siege in Gaza.
Finally, Halbfinger reduces Israeli theft of land and water to a Palestinian claim: “The Tamimis of Nabi Saleh and their frequent videos have drawn international attention to their tiny village and its long-running disputes with a nearby Israeli settlement, Halamish, that Nabi Saleh residents say has stolen their land and water.”
Yet this is verifiable theft and not merely a claim.
In fact, Ethan Bronner, then deputy foreign editor of The New York Times, acknowledged a similar concern in an email to me in 2005 when I complained that the illegality of settlements was not simply a Palestinian perspective, but one upheld by international law.
He wrote: “You make a legitimate point here. Calling Israeli settlements illegal is not something limited to Palestinians. Many important international bodies have done so. We will take note of that in future articles. Again, as I say, the paper has no position on the legality of the settlements but the fact that many others do is worth noting when we write about the issue. We have done so on occasion, but perhaps not often or clearly enough.”
This exchange led directly to the newspaper taking greater care to note that most of the international community regards settlements as illegal.
Likewise, The New York Times should take care to note that theft of Palestinian land is not just a Palestinian perspective.
How the newspaper will reference illegal settlements and land theft during the racist tenure of Donald Trump – particularly after his Jerusalem announcement of December – remains to be seen, though Halbfinger’s article offers reasons for concern.
No critique of US media coverage of Ahed Tamimi’s encounter and subsequent arrest would be complete without examining Dana Dovey’s coverage for Newsweek. Newsweek advertised Dovey’s article with this grotesque tweet: “Despite her age, Ahed Tamimi has a long history of assault against police and soldiers.”
Twitter exploded in response.
Many responses rewrote the headline to reflect the reality of belligerent Israeli occupation:
Astonishingly, Dovey’s article did not refer once to the Israeli occupation, theft of land in Ahed’s village, the near deadly violence employed earlier in the day against Ahed’s cousin, or the deadly violence inflicted previously against Ahed’s family.
Poor reporting of this sort has a cumulative impact on the lives and security of Palestinian children. When journalists upend reality and suggest that children are a far bigger threat than heavily armed occupation soldiers it indicates to the Israeli military that there will not be a heavy cost to Israel’s image if soldiers use deadly force against Palestinians, including children.
It was in this environment that Musab Tamimi, a relative of Ahed, was shot dead on 3 January.
Another family member, 19-year-old Muhammad Bilal Tamimi, was abducted from his home and arrested during a night raid on 11 January. He is the fifth member of the extended Tamimi family to be arrested in the last month.
The abusive rhetoric Israeli politicians and pundits have directed at Ahed creates a dangerous environment for a child – whether imprisoned or “free” in occupied territory under oppressive military rule.
The message being sent to soldiers is that greater violence should be employed against her in future. This has had deadly consequences for many Palestinians.
The administration of Donald Trump clearly is not going to intervene (and it is unlikely that Barack Obama would have expressed concern if this had occurred during his presidency). The European Union generally saves its objections for the deaths of Israelis and is disconcertingly silent regarding Palestinian deaths.
Other actors, then, will have to speak up to make sure that the Israeli military is forewarned about the consequences of (further) violent action against Ahed.