Misnaming the Aggressor: U.S. Media Coverage in Two Months
June 24, 2022

Editor's Note: This article is part of the Press on Palestine series, an initiative by Palestine Square. It includes selections from April and May 2022. Press on Palestine highlights bias in mainstream American reporting on Palestinian and Arab-Israeli affairs.

Footage of Israel’s attacks on Palestinian worshippers in Jerusalem has been horrifying, yet unsurprising, to watch in the month of April. U.S. media outlets’ framing of Israel’s assaults as “clashes” and painting Palestinians as aggressors make these outlets complicit in the apartheid state’s violence. In May, U.S. media coverage shied away from naming Shireen Abu Akleh's killer, appealing to the Israeli narrative of colonization, and dancing around the facts provided by eyewitness testimonies and debunked myths. 

“Both sides” Propaganda

1.The New York Times – April 21, 2022
Israel and Gaza Militants Exchange Fire in Worst Fighting in Months by Patrick Kingsley

2. The Washington Post – April 21, 2022
Israel strikes sites in Gaza after rocket attacks, as tensions rise by Steve Hendrix

3. The Wall Street Journal – April 25, 2022
Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What to Know as Clashes Continue in Jerusalem by Dov Lieber and Shalom Goodman 

4. The Wall Street Journal – April 21, 2022
Israel Airstrikes Target Gaza After Rocket Fire Amid Jerusalem Tensions by Dov Lieber, Anas Baba, and Fatima AbdulKarim

Violence by Israeli Occupation Forces against worshippers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque has generally been referred to as “clashes” by major Western mainstream media outlets. MintPress News compiled headlines from NYT, MSNBC, Reuters, the Guardian, Associated Press, ABC, and Sky News, all of which referred to “clashes” at Al-Aqsa. This disingenuous framing misinforms readers and viewers by equating the perpetrators of settler colonial violence with its victims.    

Israeli forces shot and beat worshippers and journalists, fired tear gas from guns and drones, carried out mass arrests, burned trees, and vandalized the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in addition to closing the site completely to Palestinian worshippers on several occasions during the holy month of Ramadan. The official Israeli narrative, of “responding to stone-throwing and fireworks” by “Palestinian rioters” was readily regurgitated by mainstream Western media outlets despite a complete lack of evidence to support the claims. On the other hand, dozens of videos taken by worshippers and journalists clearly depicted Israeli forces raiding the mosque. In addition, while there were no reported injuries on the Israeli side, dozens of Palestinians were injured during each raid, including 150 injuries on the worst day of violence. On Holy Saturday, Israeli forces were explicit in preventing Palestinian Christians from reaching the Church of Holy Sepulchre, while allowing foreign Christians through.

The description of these events as “clashes” is simply a lie. A more accurate description would be one of relentless colonial violence against Palestinians, including desecrating their holy sites.

Misnaming the Aggressors

Beyond masking colonial violence with a “two sides” narrative, media outlets also presented Palestinians as aggressors. Patrick Kingsley, a notorious defender of the apartheid state, writing for the NYT, opens his article with “Militants in Gaza fired several rockets toward Israel overnight and early Thursday and the Israeli Air Force said it retaliated.” The Washington Post’s headline, “Israel strikes sites in Gaza after rocket attacks, as tensions rise,” also frames Israel as merely retaliating. A Wall Street Journal article opens with “Israel carried out a wave of airstrikes in Gaza in response to a rocket fired from the Palestinian territory.”

Incidentally, both Hamas and the Israeli Occupation Forces clarified that the ‘early Thursday’ rockets were gunshots targeting Israeli planes flying over Gaza. However, there is such a habit of major U.S. news outlets uncritically using the Zionist framing of Palestinians as aggressors that even this factual inaccuracy was never corrected.   

More importantly, for the last 15 years, Israel has turned the Gaza Strip into an open-air prison, with severe restrictions imposed on the movement of people and goods, including essentials like food, medical supplies, and building materials. Many Gazans die while waiting for permits to access medical treatment beyond the Strip. Most of Gaza’s water is undrinkable and electricity is only available for 12 hours a day if not less. Mainstream media outlets failing to outline this context while painting Palestinians as aggressors constitutes tacit approval of the conditions imposed by Israel, along with further dehumanization of Palestinians.

Complicity in Israeli Violence

The aforementioned incidents of destructive bias against Palestinians are not isolated. There is a systematic strategy at play to blame Palestinians for the violence inflicted on them, while simultaneously absolving Israel of any responsibility. This results in a reduction of sympathy for the Palestinian cause, and a false image of the apartheid state.

What is most worrying about this approach is that it represents the usurpation of journalism by colonial objectives. For instance, Kingsley, writing for the NYT, regurgitates Israeli claims of undertaking “law enforcement on Israeli sovereign territory.” Rather than challenging this claim with the international consensus - which rejects Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem - he merely states that “the United Nations Security Council has frequently deemed it occupied territory.” This alliance of mainstream media outlets with the Israeli state represents complicity in the systemic violence inflicted against Palestinians by a settler colonial regime. If some of the biggest newspapers in the world cannot separate themselves from such a blatantly criminal state, it makes it very difficult to see them as having any kind of legitimacy.

The Assasination of Shireen Abu Akleh by Bullet and Ink

1. The New York Times – May 11, 2022
Al Jazeera Journalist Is Killed in West Bank by Raja Abdulrahim and Patrick Kingsley

2. The New York Times – May 12, 2022
Bullet Is Focus of Dueling Investigations in Journalist’s Killing by Patrick Kingsley, Raja Abdulrahim, and Isabel Kershner 

3. CNN – May 11, 2022
Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh shot dead while covering Israeli military operation in West Bank by Hadas Gold, Abeer Salman, and Amir Tal

Shireen Abu Akleh was a renowned Palestinian journalist who also held U.S. citizenship. She was a colleague and a compatriot of American journalists. None of this prevented major U.S. media outlets from covering up her assassination by Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF). They have continued to abdicate their journalistic responsibility and integrity.

From May 11 onward, media outlets complied with the Israeli regime’s aim to cast doubts on the clear-cut events of Shireen’s assassination. While the Associated Press and others attributed the claim about “unclear circumstances” to the Israeli army, the NYT and CNN fully adopted the Israeli talking point as their own, presenting the claim about unclear circumstances as fact, free of quotation marks. This is despite several eyewitnesses - including many journalists - immediately relaying what they saw at the scene of the murder through Al Jazeera, other channels, and social media. The eyewitnesses made it clear that the IOF was the only source of gunfire in the area, and that Israelis fired every time someone tried to get close to Shireen’s body.

Despite these accounts, the NYT and CNN were quick to parrot the Israeli military’s claim about journalists being injured “possibly by Palestinian armed gunfire.” A now-deleted NYT tweet and the first version of their article reporting Shireen’s assassination quoted Al Jazeera as saying Shireen had been killed “during clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen,” attributing this claim to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. In fact, the Ministry reported that Shireen had been killed during “the occupation’s criminal aggression in Jenin,” and Al Jazeera placed the blame on the IOF from its very first report. Even after the NYT deleted the tweet and edited the article to correct the record on the Ministry’s reports, the article still maintained the misleading claim that “[Shireen] was shot as clashes between the Israeli military and Palestinian gunmen took place in the city.” Although Palestinians resisted the Israeli raid in Jenin, there was no connection between this resistance and Shireen’s murder, as verified by eyewitnesses and a field investigation by B’Tselem.

This was part of a wider pattern of U.S. media outlets refusing to place the blame for Shireen’s murder on the IOF, aiding Israel’s attempts to absolve itself. This deference to the colonizers’ narrative is disturbing. Despite Israel never having been held accountable for killing at least 45 journalists since 2000, constantly brutalizing journalists covering Israeli violence, and bombing buildings hosting media institutions, most major media outlets continue to place more faith in the Israeli regime than in Palestinians and journalists. Another way in which they dehumanize Palestinians is by diverting focus: for instance, the NYT dedicated a whole article to dissecting the ballistics surrounding Shireen’s murder, as if nobody had seen her be shot.

 1. The New York Times – May 13, 2022
Israeli Police Attack Mourners Before Funeral for Palestinian American Journalist by Patrick Kingsley and Raja Abdulrahim 

2. The Wall Street Journal – May 14, 2022
Israeli Police Launch Probe Into Melee at Shireen Abu Akleh’s Funeral by David S. Cloud and Fatima AbdulKarim

The same propaganda was at play in the coverage of Shireen’s funeral. Footage showed the IOF beating pallbearers - Shireen’s casket came very close to falling to the ground. The WSJ used terms such as “melee,” “chaotic brawl,” and “skirmish” to describe Israeli police in riot gear beating Palestinians whose hands were clinging to Shireen’s casket. Major Western outlets also ignored security camera footage showing Israeli forces storming the hospital building, as well as the grounds during the funeral.

The false “both sides” narrative was alive and well, even at the burial of a victim of Israeli war crimes.

Fascism Excused 

1. The Wall Street Journal – May 29, 2022
Israel’s Jerusalem Day Sparks Tension as Thousands March Through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter by Dov Lieber

Dov Lieber’s report on the fascist Jerusalem Day march erases the violence of this event toward Palestinians. Although Lieber mentions that “some” participants were “using anti-Arab slogans,” he frames the main event as flag-waving. When he elaborates on the “anti-Arab slogans,” he only mentions “death to the Arabs” and “may your village burn down,” ignoring “Shufat is on fire” (referring to Israeli settlers kidnapping 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khdeir and burning him alive), “Shireen [Abu Akleh] is a wh—,” and “[the prophet] Mohammed is dead.”

Lieber avoided mentioning the physical violence enacted by settlers during the march. The IOF violently cleared the streets for the rioters, who attacked and harassed Palestinians and journalists in the Old City. Settlers launched pogroms in several neighborhoods in Jerusalem under the protection of the Israeli regime. Settlers lynched and attacked Palestinians in their homes and on the streets and vandalized property, including homes and cars, while Israeli forces either stood by or attacked the victims.

It goes without saying that the pro-Israel WSJ is actively complicit in justifying Israeli crimes to conservative Western audiences. The paper’s coverage made no mention of Israel’s ongoing attempt to purge Palestinians from Jerusalem. Background was limited to stating that the UN considers Jerusalem occupied.

In short, a violent fascist rally was held in the illegally-occupied Holy City of Jerusalem, where Palestinians are facing ethnic cleansing in several neighborhoods and, somehow, Dov Lieber and the WSJ managed to report on it without saying a word about violence. As with the vast majority of mainstream outlets, it offered free publicity for the Israeli regime.

About The Author: 

Layth Hanbali is a freelance consultant focusing on health policy. He has also worked as a researcher, public health practitioner, and doctor, volunteered as a civil society organiser, and taught on several Global Health programmes. He earned a Master's degree in Health Policy, Planning and Financing from the London School of Economics and Political Science and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and a medical degree and a bachelor's degree in Global Health from University College London.


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