A decade since the battle of Jenin, ‘the myth of Jeningrad'

Headlines: The IDF did not exactly cover itself in glory on the information front.

IDF soldier in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield 390 R (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF soldier in Jenin during Operation Defensive Shield 390 R
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.
On 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 camp.
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.
BUT FROM 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 ‘genocide.’”
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 September 11.”
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 bodies.
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 Anis.
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 could find.”
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.
Into the communications vacuum fell malreporting, based on stories of butchery from the Palestinian Authority.
The IDF Spokesperson’s Office is a different organization today – professional, responsive and far better trained to respond quickly.
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.