by Mitchell Plitnick
The Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, is widely seen as Israel’s lone mainstream left-of-center daily. It has a low circulation inside Israel, but its English edition is read much more widely by Israel observers outside of the Middle East. It has even been called “The New York Times of Israel.”
That’s why it’s important to draw attention when it stumbles.
In a story published on Tuesday, Haaretz reported on the Israeli military’s claim that 15-year-old Mohammed Tamimi, a Palestinian youth whose cousin, Ahed has recently become a cause celebre for opponents of Israel’s occupation around the world, got his devastating skull injuries not from Israeli fire but from falling off his bike.
Haaretz’s reporting on the claim was solid. They faithfully relayed the claim made by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, and reported on all the evidence that demonstrated that Mordechai was, to put it plainly, lying. Haaretz reported that eyewitness testimony corroborated the shooting of young Mohammed and, “Haaretz has also seen Tamimi’s CAT scan and images of the bullet fractures removed from his skull.”
But the headline, which remained up even after Haaretz published a piece by Amira Hass attacking the COGAT for the fabrication, read simply, “Israeli Army: Tamimi’s Teen Cousin Admits Head Wounds Not Caused by Bullet, but by Bike Crash.”
This is not the fault of the Haaretz reporter, Yotam Berger, who wrote a solid piece that clearly met journalistic standards, but of the editors, who wrote the headline and allowed it to stand. The editors might argue that the sub-headline—“Israeli army claims Mohammed Tamimi’s injury is ‘fake news,’ but medical documents, eyewitness accounts and images of bullet removed from his head obtained by Haaretz challenge account”—mitigates the main one. But this is just not good enough. Many people only see headlines, whether because they’re just skimming the news or because it flies by them on social media. Anyone who’s worked in print news knows the headline tells the story for the masses.
Surely the editors of Haaretz are aware of this, just as they are aware that, ever since the video of Ahed Tamimi slapping an Israeli soldier went viral, the Israeli government has done all it can to persecute and punish the entire Tamimi family and to paint a false image of itself as the victim of a clever, far-fetched, and elaborate plot to “discredit” the occupying army. In that context, the irresponsibility of this headline is even more acute.
A Forced Confession
Ahed Tamimi’s lawyer, Gaby Lasky, posted a statement on Facebook explaining how it was that Mohammed, more than two months after he was shot, suddenly “confessed” to his cover-up (my thanks to Sol Salbe of the Middle East News Service for his translation).
15-year-old Mohammed Tamimi was plucked from bed in the middle of the night and arrested despite the serious head injury he sustained as a result of IDF gunfire shortly before the incident in which his cousin was placed in custody. Although the police were aware of his medical condition, including the fact that he’s due to undergo a major operation to reconstruct his skull next week, he was interrogated without the presence of a parent or an adult sitting in on his behalf.
Now, an IDF Major-General, the Coordinator of Operations in the Territories, Yoav (Poli) Mordechai, cynically exploits this weird investigation that should not have taken place, and declares that the boy admitted that he was injured while riding a bicycle. The question needs to be asked: what kind of miserable, incompetent set-up of an interrogation causes a frightened kid to say he fell off a bicycle.
This use by a general in the IDF illustrates how far the authorities are prepared to go in order to hit out at Mohammad and Ahed Tamimi. And if it was not clear until now, it is now clear that the military system cannot provide Ahed a fair trial and she therefore must be released immediately.
The story gains even more significance given that the shooting of Mohammed Tamimi occurred during the same protest that his cousin Ahed slapped the Israeli soldier. Ahed’s daily anger and frustration at living under the harsh conditions of military occupation, as she has all her life, was no doubt compounded by the protest, the army’s violent reaction, and, much more than that, the shooting of her cousin. All of this explains why Israel is so defensive and frightened of the image the young woman projects that a general would be tempted to lie in such a big, and, as B’Tselem spokesperson Sarit Michaeli put it, “easily debunked” way.
Mohammed is facing surgery in a week, and one look at him shows that he is dealing with some awful burdens for anyone, let alone one so young. In the middle of the night, soldiers shot tear gas into his home and sprayed foul-smelling liquid all around it, and dragged him, along with nine others, out to be arrested and interrogated. Surrounded by soldiers with rifles, under those conditions, not knowing how long the Israelis would hold him—would he even be released in time for his upcoming surgical appointment or would he be held indefinitely, like his cousin, despite his serious medical condition?—Mohammed told them what they wanted to hear.
The COGAT leapt at the chance to undermine the defense of Mohammed’s cousin. He was, though, a little too eager, not realizing that the forced confession wasn’t going to stand up credibly against the existing objective evidence.
Can the Media Do Better?
Anyone who has followed the day-to-day operation of the Israeli occupation in the West Bank cannot be shocked by the COGAT’s behavior. As appalling as this story is, nothing about it is all that unusual, though it’s important not to become de-sensitized to the crimes and horrors that are the inevitable result of holding millions of people without rights for decades.
But so-called “liberal” media outlets like Haaretz can and must do better. It is to the newspaper’s credit that it printed Amira Hass’ piece not long after the piece by Berger that they headlined so badly. It is to its credit that the offending headline topped an article that was an otherwise fine piece of journalism that simply and dispassionately relayed the facts.
Haaretz’s editor-in-chief Aluf Benn and the rest of the editorial staff know the importance of headlines, and they had to know that this headline was misleading. I will not speculate as to why the article was headlined as it was, nor why the headline remains there as of this writing.
But the occupation’s story is as contested as any on the planet. The cases of Ahed and Mohammed Tamimi have been fought with propaganda as much as with slaps, military invasions ,and legal chicanery. The media in Israel has been under siege for years, especially under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who may finally be paying a price for his attempts to stifle the semi-free press that Israel has traditionally allowed under military censorship.
No outlet is as important in this regard as Haaretz. When people who aren’t necessarily immersed in the issues of Israel, Palestine, and the occupation see a headline like that one in the liberal Haaretz, it has a strong impact. It informs their view when they hear an argument about whether the Tamimis are trying to defame the Israeli military or if the military is simply clamping down on some uppity Palestinian teens.
The newspaper that provides, for better or for worse, a view of the events of the occupation that puts truth above any defense of the government has got to do better than this.
Photo: Mohammed Tamimi (screenshot from Haaretz video).