I had this piece on Al-Jazeera America’s website yesterday. Sorry I forgot to put the link here. Here it is.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal gave an important press conference in Doha, Qatar today, in which he spelled out the movement’s terms for concluding a ceasefire with Israel over Gaza. (Not clear to me yet whether his demands include some regarding the West Bank. I think the demand for re-release of the Shalit-deal-released Palestinians whom Israel rearrested over the past month would apply to the West Bank?)
Of great significance, too: The fact that PA/PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) today also reportedly endorsed Hamas’s terms in re the ceasefire. This puts Abu Mazen in a good position to be a reliable carrier of messages between Hamas and its US-Israeli opponents. Previously– as recently as about a week ago– Abu Mazen had lined himself up completely with the US-Israel alliance and its friends in Egypt’s military government, as they tried to force their own ceasefire terms down Hamas’s throat without any hint of a negotiation. Now, evidently, something– perhaps the overwhelming force of Palestinian public opinion?– has persuaded Abu Mazen that the most honorable role he can aspire to is as a letter carrier, rather than by continuing to be a Quisling for his people.
While reading this news today, it occurred to me that the fact that there is nothing left of that long-running and deceptive, US-stage-managed pantomime called the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process” probably makes it easier for the parties concerned in the current Gaza-Israel crisis to conclude the robust humanitarian ceasefire that urgently needs to be nailed down. Back during the past two Gaza-Israel crises, in 2008-9 and 2012, Washington and Tel Aviv were still very eager to use the crisis to build up the political prestige of Abu Mazen and somehow to keep the peace process panto on the road; and Abu Mazen, loyal (and nicely rewarded) servant that he was, was very eager to do their bidding. This time, thank God, the business of concluding the ceasefire that urgently needs to be concluded bears none of that extra freight. It can be concluded on its own terms, between the parties directly concerned– that is, on the one side the US-Israeli alliance and on the other, Hamas and its allies.
As noted, Abu Mazen can play a decent role– as a letter-carrier between the US-Israeli side and the Palestinian resistance side. This would actually be very similar to the role that Lebanese PM Fouad Siniora played in the Lebanon-Israel crisis of 2006. A crucial aspect of that negotiation, remember, was that no-one was trying, during those ceasefire negotiations, to force Lebanon to sign a peace agreement with Israel, something that would have made the reaching of a ceasefire agreement impossible, despite the huge amount of damage that Israel inflicted on the Lebanese people during the terrible 33 days of that war. It’s the same in Palestine now.
Much remains to be negotiated between the parties to the current conflict– including, as always in these ceasefire negotiations between warrior Israel and its neighbors, the precise modalities of the ceasefire such as whether there will be a verification mechanism, and if run by whom and how; the sequencing of the many steps involved, including the reopening of Gaza to the rest of the world, implementation of the 2005 Agreement on Movement and Access, release of prisoners and captives, and so on on. But at least now these matters, which are of grave and urgent concern to Gaza Palestinians and their friends all around the world can be addressed without being weighted down by the requirements of that travesty of a diplomatic phenomenon, called the “peace” process.
And yes, given the final failure of the “peace process”, it surely behooves the members of the UN “Security” Council– if they have any respect for the basic survival and security of Palestinians in their homeland– to abolish the Quartet and regain control of this diplomacy for the UNSC itself. For a Biblical 40 years, the United States has held this crucial item on the world diplomatic agenda captive to its own wiles. It is time for the UNSC to wrest it back.
But that will all take time. The people of the pulverized Gaza Strip can’t wait. They need a decent ceasefire now– one that will end the suffocation, humiliation, and continuous assaults they have suffered for the 47 years. Let’s hope the newly appointed letter carrier does an honest, decent job.
You have to ask if any of the WaPo reporters now covering the Gaza-Israel conflict remembers how to do basic, objective reporting of a news story. Anyway, the editors who allow such biased reporting to appear, and who insert the often stupid headlines, also have to take much of the blame.
Our main lesson today comes from this piece in today’s paper, bylined by William Booth from Gaza City. The headline is, “After overnight invasion, ‘we now have Israelis in our houses,’ a Gazan says.”
What I want to note, regarding this piece and another that ran beside it, bylined by Booth and two other, from “Jerusalem”, are some of the ways in which the reporting of speech acts can carry a heavy freight of meaning and implication that is quite inappropriate in a news article. Yes, Journalism 101, but it seems Booth and his colleagues need some reminding of this.
A speech act: Someone speaks. How to report it? “She said” or “he said” is nearly always the most straightforward and honest.
Or, you could alter that verb, depending on the way the person made the utterance: “She yelled”, “she whispered”, “she muttered”, “she screeched”… Be careful with these, though because some of them, depending on the context, carry some freight of judgment/implication.
Then, there are speech-reporting verbs that clearly carry the weight of the reporter’s judgment of the speaker. As here, where Booth writes about Hamas politician Musheer Al Masri that, “Masri boasted that Hamas cadres have fired Kornet anti-tank guided missiles… ” Oh! So because the guy is from Hamas, Booth feels it’s quite okay to portray him as some kind of boastful blowhard? Why didn’t he write that “Masri said…”, or possibly “Masri claimed…”? (But “claimed” carries some implication of the writer’s doubt as to the veracity of the claim. “Said” is nearly always better.)
If we’re into describing politicians as “boasting”, how about we use it for many of the extremely blowhard comments made by Netanyahu? But no. The WaPo/CraPo wouldn’t do that, would it?
And in the very next para, we have an even more brazen attempt to use slanted reporting of a speech act to demean a Hamas person . Booth writes,
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri, standing in front of Shifa Hospital, where members of the Islamist militant movement gather to brief — and spin — the media, said…
Oh my goodness! He feels the need to remind his readers that every so often it is possible that officials who are “briefing” the media are also trying to “spin” them? When will we see this reminder inserted into reporting of a media briefing from a US or Israeli official? In the WaPo/CraPo, probably never.
The other piece— to which Booth contributed, along with lead byliner Sudarsan Raghavan and rookie local hire Ruth Eglash– is much more consistent in its use of “saids”. Actually, there are a lot of “saids” in it, since the piece is nearly wholly a compilation of media briefings issued by various bodies (primarily, “the Israeli military”, which is kind of weird; shouldn’t they write “the IDF Spokesman”?) Because of its reliance on official briefings– spinnings?– this piece could have been “reported” from just about anywhere, including the couch in my basement.
But as you get lower down in this story, there is one intriguing use of a speech-act-reporting word other than “said”, and a little sentence that baldly carries a “potent” judgment that is completely out of place in a piece of news reporting.
The speech-act-reporting word in question is “acknowledged”, as in “Netanyahu also acknowledged that ‘there is no guarantee of 100 percent success’ in the push to destroy the tunnels.” “Acknowledged” is one of the SARW’s that conveys the writer’s judgment not of the author of the speech act in question but of the truth value of the proposition contained in the speech act. (Other SARW’s that do this include “realized that”, “understood that”, and so on.)
In the context there, the WaPo writers’ use of “acknowledged” conveys that they think that what Netanyahu was saying at that point was true and reasonable. As it happens, I agree with that judgment (but not the possible further implication, that Netanyahu is altogether pretty “reasonable”– unlike that boastful braggart over at Hamas!) But my agreeing with the judgment is not the point. That kind of judgment should not be in a news article. Rather than “acknowledged”, the writers should have used “said”– or, in this context, “added”. Keep it neutral, guys!
But there, at the end of the next paragraph, we have an amazing piece of (pro-Israeli) judgment:
An expansion of the ground offensive, military analysts said, could entail a broadening of the mission to seek and destroy rocket launchers, weapons infrastructure and storage facilities, and perhaps even eliminate key Hamas commanders and officials. Even as Israel has relentlessly bombarded Gaza, Hamas militants have succeeded in firing hundreds of rockets into southern and central Israel, rattling Israelis. As long as the militants possess rockets and tunnels, they remain a potent threat to Israel.
That latter judgment is something they (or I) could write in an op-ed– or, if these news reporters heard a military analyst say it, they could report that. But no. It is presented as, quite simply and baldly, their own judgment. I wonder if they’d claim that, because the first of the three sentences there included an attribution of some technical-military judgments to (completely unidentified) “military analysts”, then that attribution should somehow carry over to the third of the sentences? But I don’t think so, since the second sentence seems to include (gasp!) a tiny shadow of their own reporting.
So wow. A “potent threat to Israel”. That is scary, no? No wonder we Americans should all be expected to line up like zombies and support each and any action the Israeli military might take to defuse that threat…
Um, a bit of neutrality, please, WaPo reporters? If you are going to do some actual reporting on the threat perceptions that people involved in this conflict have (though that is not what you’re doing here), then surely we should have some mention of the threat perceptions of the 1.8 million Palestinians of Gaza, the vast majority of whom are civilians.
I shall not hold my breath.
One last question I have is whether William Booth, now described as “The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief”, though just a few days ago he was in London, speaks enough Arabic to do his own on-the-ground reporting. If not, then the “native informant” colleague who actually helped him do the reporting should have been given the byline, or at least a co-byline, on the Gaza-datelined piece. In the Jerusalem-datelined piece, no “local informants” are identified either– except Ruth Eglash, who is given a tagline at the bottom of truly grandiose length. So we’re told there that she previously worked as a “senior editor at The Jerusalem Post.” And that is supposed to burnish her journalistic credentials??
I have just published a “Chirpstory”– that is, a compilation of tweets– about the event I went to today at the New America Foundation, a Washington DC policy research institution (think tank), at which five panelists and a slightly out-of-her-depth moderator were trying to discuss the situation in Gaza. If you’re interested, you can see the archived video of the whole event, and the bios of all the participants, here. It was pretty interesting.
Here, I just want to add one additional comment, in reaction to some things NAF’s own Lisa Goldman said there about the heartfelt and apparently intractable feelings of “fear” that Israeli people have. (In the context, it was very clear she was speaking about Jewish Israelis.) She acknowledged that the Gaza Palestinians were in currently living in a situation of real danger; but she said people should not forget that Israelis live in a constant state of fear. “Any Israeli you talk to, they will tell you about how terrible it was in 2002 and they could not go and enjoy a pizza because of the fear of suicide bombers,” was one of the things she said.
I found this argument interesting, for a number of reasons. Firstly, she seemed to be equating the fear the Israelis feel with the danger the Palestinians are experiencing. In other words, the “feelings” of 6 million Jewish Israelis are just as important (or more important?) than the actual danger of imminent death that currently stalks 1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza. Secondly, she neglected to mention that (gasp!) Palestinians have feelings, too! And one thing all Palestinians in Gaza feel right now– along with many of their close family members and other fellow Palestinians in the West Bank, Israel, and around the world– is very intense fear. Thirdly, she seemed completely stymied by the phenomenon of the Jewish Israelis’ fear. She seemed to be saying– though I need to check the video for the exact quote– something like, “Well, because of those Israeli fears, that means there is nothing we can do.” Finally, making this argument to an audience primarily made up of US Americans, she seemed to consider that her invocation of the “fact” of the apparently intractable fears of the Israelis, on its own, constituted some kind of a reasonable and convincing argument. Very bizarre.
The NYC-based, private, non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch today issued a new statement on the Gaza crisis that goes a good distance toward correcting the serious errors they made in the statement they issued July 9, as I had noted here. Furthermore, today’s report explicitly calls for an end to the supply of all weaponry “to Israel, to Hamas, or to armed groups in the Gaza Strip… that has been documented or credibly alleged to have been used in violation of international humanitarian law, as well as funding or support for such material.” The report notes explicitly that “The US supplies Israel with rotary and fixed wing military aircraft, Hellfire missiles, and other munitions that have been used in illegal airstrikes in Gaza.”
Too bad that HRW, a US-based organization that, as we know, enjoys good ties (and frequently also a revolving door) with the Obama administration, buried that call for the suspension of some US arms supplies to Israel so very, very low. But still, far better to include it in this report, than not. (More details, below.)
The headline/subhead of today’s HRW statement is: “Israel/Palestine: Unlawful Israeli Airstrikes Kill Civilians/ Bombings of Civilian Structures Suggest Illegal Policy.” The headline/subhead of last week’s statement was: “Palestine/Israel: Indiscriminate Palestinian Rocket Attacks/ Israeli Airstrikes on Homes Appear to be Collective Punishment.”
HRW issued the July 9 statement less than 48 hours after Israel launched its current large-scale military assault against Gaza– under the name “Operation Solid Rock”, in Hebrew, or “Protective Edge”, in English. The statement thus constituted, as I had noted, a kneejerk rush to judgment on the rights and wrongs of the way the two sides were fighting, one that did not present any actual evidence to back up the claims it made, but that appeared to emanate much more from the political (i.e., pro-Israeli) predilections or positioning of HRW leaders, and possibly some of its analysts. Even more seriously, the legal analysis in that earlier statement was deeply flawed, since its authors seemed to endorse the arguments made by Israeli leaders that targeting commanders and fighters in Hamas or other Gaza-based resistance groups even while they were hors de combat, for example while eating, resting, or praying with their families at home, was quite okay.
Today’s statement, thankfully, corrects many or most of those dangerous errors that HRW committed last week. It is notable that today’s statement bases its analysis on actual, on-the-ground research in the form of case studies that focused on four of the civilian buildings targeted by the IDF between July 9 and July 11. Of the four, only in one case (the bombing of the Fun Time Cafe on July 11 that killed nine civilians) did the IDF allege that there was “a terrorist” located there. But, as the HRW statement noted, the Israeli military:
presented no evidence that any of those at the café, who had gathered to watch a World Cup match, were participating in military operations, or that the killing of one alleged “terrorist” in a crowded café would justify the expected civilian casualties.
In one of the other cases presented (Bureij refugee camp, July 11, two municipal workers killed), the HRW report said its researchers, “found no evidence of a military objective in the vehicle or in the area at the time.” In another (an unlocated attack on July 9 that killed a pregnant woman and her daughter), the report said that the family lived across the street from an apartment building that apparently was the prime target of the strike, but the surviving family members said they knew of none of the “warnings” that the Israelis said they had issued, or, they did not have time to flee before the attack.
In the fourth case studied, a July 10 strike on a crowded family home in the Khan Younis refugee camp that killed eight people, HRW reports that neighbors told the HRW researcher that one of those killed “was a low-ranking member of the Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas.” However, the HRW report says nothing about whether this young man had been engaged in any way in combat when he was killed. The report thus makes the serious error of seeming to endorse the Israeli government’s claim that it is “okay” to target fighters in Palestinian resistance organizations even when they are hors de combat. Here is what the report said about this incident:
The Israeli military said the attack was being investigated. Even if the son was the intended target, the nature of the attack appears indiscriminate and would in any case be disproportionate.
This is actually a very troubling statement. HRW’s own judgment, expressed here, seems to be that if the son was the intended target, then “targeting” him [even though that was not what the Israeli military said they were doing… ] even when he was hors de combat, e.g., home with his family marking Ramadan, would in itself be quite okay: The only problem was that the attack did not do enough to “discriminate” between this valid target and the “civilian” family members all around him, and caused harm to civilians that was “disproportionate” to the military advantage the attack gave to Israel.
This is wrong, wrong, wrong, and woefully misguided. How many times do we have to spell this out? The essential distinction in international law is not between “fighters” and “civilians”– which are the categories used throughout this HRW report– but between “combatants” and “noncombatants”. A fighter who is not currently engaged in either the conduct, the command, or the planning of military operations is not a combatant. He (or she) is hors de combat and is a noncombatant. It is quite illegal to target such an individual.
Now it is true that the Israeli military and the serried ranks of paid hasbaristas (propagandists) who have been trying to justify and defend its actions have tried to claim that the homes targeted by the Israelis contained secret “operations rooms” or “weapons stores” and thus constituted valid targets. But they have presented zero actual evidence of this. (Bystanders and eyewitnesses have also noted that they saw no sign of the kinds of secondary explosions that would have been seen if these homes had had any significant amount of weapons stored in them.)
The lower portion of the HRW report also usefully cites (and links to; in Hebrew) an Israeli news report that “An Israeli military official stated on July 12 that the military has targeted ‘more than 100 homes of commanders of different ranks’ in Gaza.” The HRW report comments on this, quite correctly, that, “Civilian structures such as residential homes become lawful targets only when they are being used for military purposes.” Of course, this strongly contradicts the judgment expressed earlier the Khan Younis case, that “Even if the son was the intended target,” then the main problems with the attack were merely that it “appeared” indiscriminate and was anyway disproportionate. No, HRW, the attack itself was illegal because there was no evidence provided– or even apparently sought by HRW– that the (putative) target was engaged in military activities at the time of the attack.
Down at the bottom of the statement, the four case studies are presented in much more detail. (Good work, HRW. Thanks for doing this.) Regarding the Khan Younis case, the report states baldly that, “Human Rights Watch found no evidence that any of the victims used the Hajj family home to perpetrate attacks.” Therefore, HRW, targeting it was quite illegal. Period. Getting into your arguments about “discrimination” or “proportionality” regarding that attack was extremely misleading.
The “action items” in this HRW report are strong and useful. They are considerably stronger than the action items in the rush-to-judgment report of last week. Here are the actions that today’s report calls for:
The Palestine Liberation Organization should direct President Mahmoud Abbas to seek the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute serious international crimes committed by all parties on Palestinian territory.
Governments that are providing weapons to Israel, to Hamas, or to armed groups in the Gaza Strip should suspend transfers of any materiel that has been documented or credibly alleged to have been used in violation of international humanitarian law, as well as funding or support for such material, Human Rights Watch said. The US supplies Israel with rotary and fixed wing military aircraft, Hellfire missiles, and other munitions that have been used in illegal airstrikes in Gaza.
But I wonder why HRW did not lead the report with this call? Let’s hope they get a lot more active, very soon, in urging a suspension of the supply to Israel of the kinds of US arms that have been used in these truly horrific, inhumane, and quite illegal acts.