Ten years ago this month, British and other European media outlets launched an
assault on Israel’s character that was noteworthy for both its viciousness and
staggeringly low journalistic standards.
By March 2002, the second
intifada had been raging for 19 months. But Israelis remember that month in
particular for the carnage on their streets – a 30-day bombing campaign by
Hamas, Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades and Islamic Jihad in 13 separate attacks,
including the bombing of Netanya’s Park Hotel during a Seder, which left 30
people dead and 140 wounded, and the murder of 16 people four days later at the
Matza restaurant in Haifa.
Israelis were horrified by the attacks and
their own loss of any sense of personal security. On March 29, the Israel
Defense Forces took the fight to the West Bank in an operation dubbed Defensive
Shield, designed to stop the terrorists before they got into Israel.
April 2, the IDF reached Jenin, from which 23 of the 60 terror attacks in 2002
had emanated. There, the army waged a pitched battle, involving house-to-house
fighting with Palestinian gunmen in the city’s refugee
Booby-trapped houses were primed to collapse on the Israeli forces.
By the time the fighting ended, 23 IDF soldiers and 52 Palestinians (of whom 14
were civilians) were dead. Ultimately the Palestinian Authority, Human
Rights Watch and the United Nations corroborated these figures.
the smoke and smell of battle, sections of the press created a different
narrative, one in which Israeli soldiers had committed a heinous massacre of
Palestinians, in what came to be known as the “myth of Jeningrad” – a phrase
coined by Tom Gross, a leading Middle East commentator and former Jerusalem
correspondent for The Sunday Telegraph.
As Gross writes, for two weeks,
they “devoted page upon page, day after day, to tales of mass murders, common
graves, summary executions, and war crimes. Israel was invariably compared to
the Nazis, to al-Qaeda, and to the Taliban. One report even compared the
thousands of supposedly missing Palestinians to the ‘disappeared’ of Argentina.
(No Palestinians were in fact missing.) A leading columnist for the Evening
Standard, London’s main evening newspaper, compared Israel’s actions to
Gross spent hundreds of hours poring over the material. He
writes that “American reporters in Jenin reported accurately. Molly Moore of The
Washington Post wrote there was ‘no evidence to support allegations by aid
organizations of large-scale massacres or executions.’... By contrast the
Jerusalem correspondent for the (London) Independent, Phil Reeves, began his
report from Jenin: ‘A monstrous war crime that Israel has tried to cover up for
a fortnight has finally been exposed.’
“He continued: ‘The sweet and ghastly
reek of rotting human bodies is everywhere, evidence that it is a human tomb.’”
Gross adds that “even the right-wing Daily Telegraph ran headlines such as
‘Hundreds of victims “were buried by bulldozer in mass grave,”’” and cites
Britain’s Guardian as saying in a lead editorial that “Israel’s actions in Jenin
were ‘every bit as repellent’ as Osama bin Laden’s attack on New York on
Arafat’s Palestinian Authority PR operation had sold a
massacre that wasn’t. Segments of the press eagerly bought it.
I GAINED a
brief insight into some of this reporting one evening a couple of years later
over a drink with the photographer who was in Jenin for British paper The Times.
He told me of having been holed up in a house in Jenin with some colleagues. A
dead donkey was nearby, slowly decomposing. Hard to believe, but in a
classic case of mistaken groupthink, they chose to mistake it for the smell of
But that barely explains the vitriol that sections of the UK
press poured on Israel at that time, and the alacrity with which they were
prepared to believe and then report so colorfully on massacres and mass graves
that simply did not exist, based on the testimony of one single witness – Kamal
The reserve paratrooper unit’s doctor articulated on Army Radio
what many Israelis knew. He said, “Do you believe something as horrible as this
could happen in front of a reserve Israeli army unit? Reserve soldiers would be
on their cellphones in a second to every Israeli reporter and politician they
The IDF did not exactly cover itself in glory on the
information front. Drafted into reserve duty during the operation as an officer
in the IDF Spokesperson’s Office, I recall well the mistakes that were made. In
particular, information was not coming in from the field.
communications vacuum fell malreporting, based on stories of butchery from the
The IDF Spokesperson’s Office is a different
organization today – professional, responsive and far better trained to respond
There are other changes as well: My own organization was founded
during this period to ensure that the facts reached the press. One can only hope
that 10 years on from the battle of Jenin, the media, too, is different; that
journalists have learned the lessons of Jenin.
The writer is executive
director of The Israel Project’s Israel office.