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Analysis: Why Europeans bought Jenin myth

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst   |   May 21, 2002 at 3:14 PM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, May 21 (UPI) -- After the Israeli Army launched its retaliatory strike into the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank in early April, the international media was filled with reports that the Israelis had possibly or probably killed hundreds, even thousands, of Palestinian civilians. The reports were later disproved and even the Palestinian Authority itself revised its own official figure for Palestinians killed in the fierce fighting down to 56.

Here, United Press International traces the course of this "media myth" and the reasons it became so influential and was so widely believed.


Most of the major press and broadcasting outlets in Western Europe uncritically gobbled up the Jenin Massacre Myth with self-indulgent abandon. Their record contrasted particularly unfavorably -- and even, it might be argued, contemptibly -- with the remarkable balance and restraint the U.S. broadcast and print media showed after Sept. 11.

The mega-terrorist attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center towers and mauled the Pentagon killed around 3,000 Americans in New York City and Washington. Yet U.S. media coverage and reaction was remarkable for its balance and restraint. There was no effort to scapegoat the Muslim population of the United States -- estimates of its size run from 1.7 million to 7 million but it appears to be between 2 million to 3 million.

Careful distinctions were drawn repeatedly between the small number of terrorists who had actually planned and executed the attacks and the vast majority of law-abiding Muslim Americans.

By contrast, the Israeli strikes into the West Bank did not threaten French, British or other Western Europeans directly. Yet much of the coverage was exaggerated, wildly inaccurate and reflected a sweeping rush to judgment against an entire nation and the ethic group that identified with it.

Alon Ben-David, veteran military correspondent of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and currently a media fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard told United Press International: "A large part of the European media regards itself as not just reporters but as ideological crusaders. They are in the business of journalism not just for the business. They want to do good in the world. They have agendas."

And in the case of the initial massacre accusations, many of these Western European reporters "had no way of verifying the allegations they heard yet they reported them as fact, or as factually credible. That bothers me," Ben-David said.

Why were reporters and news editors of so many of the biggest and most prestigious Western European newspapers and broadcasting networks ready to believe that the Israeli Army had committed a massacre in the Palestinian West Bank city of Jenin when no massacre had in fact occurred? The reasons were many.

First, everyone was prepared to believe the worst, because the worst had already happened. It was all too credible to believe that hundreds, if not thousands, of Palestinians had been massacred in Jenin because they had been massacred before. The 20-year-old shadow of Sabra and Shatila lay across the international media's initial perceptions of Jenin.

In 1982, Lebanese Christian Falangist forces allied to the invading Israeli army massacred at least hundreds, possibly thousands, of Palestinian civilians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila outside Beirut. Large numbers of women and children were among the dead. The Israeli forces did not commit the massacre or even encourage it, but a later major national inquiry in Israel issued devastating criticism of Israel's then-minister of defense, Ariel Sharon. It concluded that Sharon had not taken the precautionary action required by the warning signs and circumstances to prevent the massacre. It recommended that he never again be allowed to serve as defense minister of Israel.

The effect of Sabra and Shatila on the journalists covering it was profound. Its impact through them on the Western world, especially in Europe, was even greater. From Israel's war of independence in 1947-48 for more than 30 years through the 1967 Six Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the 1976 Entebbe rescue operation, Israel enjoyed enormous sympathy and support among the Western European media elite. Reporters, editors and their readers alike all saw it as a Jewish David struggling to survive against an Arab Goliath.

But after Sabra and Shatila, all that changed. Then, the first Palestinian uprising, or Intifada, of 1987-92 reinforced the Sabra and Shatila image that the Palestinians had replaced the Jews as an "eternally suffering" people. That image and stereotype remained, though somewhat submerged, during the hopeful years from the start of the Oslo Peace Process in 1993 to its collapse at the Camp David II summit in July 2000.

Because Sabra and Shatila had actually happened, it appeared credible that it could happen again. Because Ariel Sharon had failed to prevent Sabra and Shatila, it was easy to imagine that he had approved a second version of it on a large scale. These preconceptions proved critical in the willingness of media elites to accept the Palestinian allegations that a massacre was taking place.

Second, the Israelis haplessly and inadvertently dug a public relations trap for themselves and then promptly fell into it. They prevented the international media from covering what was certainly extremely fierce fighting in the refugee camp and streets of Jenin.

As a result, international media reporters could not see with their own eyes that a massacre in fact was not taking place. But they were receiving claims from the Palestinians that it was. And since the Israeli military were preventing the international media from going into Jenin and seeing what was happening with their own eyes, it was only too easy and obvious to conclude that they were covering up the truth of the Palestinian allegations.

Third, even when the worst fighting was over and the Israelis finally allowed reporters into Jenin, a "rat pack" psychology, even hysteria, appears to have taken hold. People saw what they wanted to see and they mutually reinforced each other in their perceptions. Thus it was that an astonishing number of reports of alleged massacres and atrocities in the different "quality" newspapers of the British press alike cited the same single Palestinian eyewitness for their allegations.

Fourth, almost none of those present had covered serious urban conflicts in Lebanon and Northern Ireland during their worst phases in the 1970s and early 1980s. Almost none of them were old enough to have experienced full-scale battle reporting first-hand in Vietnam. This led them to vastly exaggerate the scale of destruction and death they were seeing. One British reporter wrote evocatively of the stench of hundreds of dead bodies buried beneath the rubble when the Palestinian Authority, which had earlier claimed thousands had died, had revised its own official figures of those killed to less than 60.

Janine di Giovanni writing in the London Times even claimed the devastation was on a worse scale than anything she had seen in Bosnia, Chechnya or Sierra Leone, where scores, even hundreds, of thousands of people had died. The reactions of veteran reporters of real wars like Ernie Pyle or Marguerite Higgins to that kind of hyperbole would likely have been derisive laughter.

The reaction of the Western European media differed profoundly in its nature from that of U.S. newspapers and broadcasting news outlets. The allegations were equally widely reported in the United States. However, the U.S. broadcast media proved far more resistant to anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic hysteria than that in Western European. This appears to have been the case precisely because no single state-funded or state-approved corporation dominated broadcast news in the United States, as is the case in Britain and France.

In those and other smaller countries, a well-entrenched left-wing media elite has been hostile to Israel and its policies for decades. And they have long enjoyed a cozy, unchallenged bureaucratic dominance in the state broadcasting news organizations that to a large degree set the braking news and analysis for the entire print press.

Therefore, entire echelons of editors and executives in these organizations were willing to accept uncritically the fierce unsubstantiated and hysterical reports coming out of their correspondents in Jenin. And even when individual newspapers like Le Monde in Paris or Il Foglio in Rome expressed caution or skepticism about the initial massacre claims, their warnings were drowned out in the broadcast media din. In the United States, by contrast, there is no single state-owned or subsidized national broadcasting service to set the tone.

There are four main national television networks, each one corporately or privately owned and three of them also run quasi-independent cable news networks. And there is also CNN. The cable Fox News Channel in particular seeks to position itself as relatively conservative in tone and counter-channel to the other, more liberal, "establishment" ones. With this diversity of broadcast voices, it is therefore not possible for a single network to dominate the coverage. Coverage perceived as being slavishly biased in favor of -- or against -- either Israel or the Palestinians tends to provoke strong outcries from public pressure groups and on other parts of the media.

In addition to all this, the raw material being reported from the field tended to be far more partisan and sympathetic to the Palestinian initial claims of massacre in Western Europe than in the United States. For the tradition of the practice of journalism in Europe remains far more partisan and unashamedly subjective than in the United States. The reasons for the European media's "rush to judgment" over Jenin were many, but one conclusion was inescapable: The "rush to judgment" was an "hour of shame."

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Next: Who Won and Who Lost?

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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