Ten Years Since Something That Never Happened: A Learning Moment for the Guardian

This is a guest post by Myrrh

[I submitted this to the Guardian as a commentary piece on April 4.  On April 12 they confirmed that they will not be running it.  Both Brian Whitaker, former Middle East Editor current CiF editor, and Harriet Sherwood, currently the Jerusalem correspondent, have informed me that there are no plans to revisit the Jenin issue or the Guardian’s coverage of it ten years ago.  The readers editor also wrote me that he has no plan on revisiting the issue.]

For two full weeks in April of 2002, the Guardian ran wild with lurid tales of an Israeli massacre in the Palestinian city of Jenin on the West Bank — a massacre that never happened.  The misrepresentations and outright fabrications have never been properly addressed in the ten ensuing years, as though the Guardian’s editors believe nothing more than some hasty reporting and bad sourcing happened.  But the reportorial failings were far too systematic to be so dismissed, and until the Guardian conducts a thorough investigation of its own errors and publishes a detailed account to its readers, its integrity on Israel-Palestine will continue to be called into question.

First the facts: On the heels of a thirty-day Palestinian suicide bombing campaign in Israeli cities which included thirteen deadly attacks (imagine thirteen 7/7’s in one month), Israel embarked on a military offensive in the West Bank.  The fiercest fighting in this offensive occurred in the refugee camp just outside the West Bank town of Jenin, the launching point for 30 Palestinian suicide bombers in the year and half previous (seven were caught before they could blow themselves up; the other 23 succeeded in carrying out their attacks).  In this battle, which lasted less than a week, 23 Israeli soldiers were killed as well as 52 Palestinians, of whom at most 14 were civilians (there is some marginal dispute about that last figure).

There was nothing extraordinary in this battle or in these numbers.  Looking back, what is extraordinary is that Ariel Sharon’s Israel sat through 18 months of Palestinian suicide terror before embarking on even this military offensive.  Seamus Milne assured readers on April 10 of the ‘futility’ of this military response, though with the benefit of hindsight we can clearly see this battle as the turning point in the struggle to end suicide terror on Israel’s streets.  Milne referred to ‘hundreds’ killed, ‘evidence of atrocities,’ and ‘state terror.’  Not to be outdone, Suzanne Goldenberg reported from Jenin’s ‘lunar landscape’ of ‘a silent wasteland, permeated with the stench of rotting corpses and cordite.’  She found ‘convincing accounts’ of summary executions, though let’s be honest and concede that it’s not generally difficult to convinceGoldenberg of Israeli villainy.  In the next day’s report from Jenin, a frustrated Goldenberg reported that the morgue in Jenin had ‘just 16 bodies’ after ‘only two bodies [were] plucked from the wreckage.’  This didn’t cause her to doubt for a moment that there were hundreds more buried beneath or to hesitate in reporting from a Palestinian source that bodies may have been transported ‘to a special zone in Israel.’  Brian Whitaker and Chris McGreal weighed in with their own equally tendentious and equally flawed reporting the following week.

Only on the tenth consecutive day of breathless Jenin Massacre reporting did Peter Beaumont report on detailed Israeli accounts refuting the massacre accusations, though predictably this was presented as part of an Israeli PR campaign rather than as conclusive proof.  Two days later, Beaumont conceded that there hadn’t after all technically really actually been a massacre but then proceeded to repeat a handful of falsities as fact all over again.  Without a doubt, though, the most memorable article the Guardianpublished on Jenin was its April 17 leader ‘The Battle for the Truth.’  The high dudgeon prose included the following sentences: ‘Jenin camp looks like the scene of a crime’; ‘Jenin smells like a crime’; ‘Jenin feels like a crime’; ‘Jenin already has that aura of infamy that attaches to a crime of especial notoriety’; and, unforgettably, the assertion that Israel’s actions in Jenin were ‘every bit as repellent’ as the 9/11 attacks in New York only seven months earlier.

No correction or retraction has ever been printed for this infamous editorial.  On the contrary, though mounting evidence emerged that the whole massacre calumny was a fabrication (never adequately reported by the Guardian), twice over the following year this leader article was obliquely cited — once incondemning another Israeli action by comparing it to the ‘repellent demolition of lives and homes in Jenin’ and most outrageously under the headline ‘Israel still wanted for questioning.’  The latter headline ran on top of the only leader that mentioned the UN report clearing Israel of the massacre charge.  Rather than humbly acknowledging their own role in the libelous crescendo of that spring, the editors reminded readers, ‘As we said last April, the destruction wrought in Jenin looked and smelled like a crime’ and assured them that this was still the case.  Someone who gets all their information about the world from the Guardian, a sizable phylum in the common rooms of my present university, would have no idea just how much of a lie the Jenin massacre was.

In fact, as aerial shots later showed, the pictures of ostensibly widespread destruction in Jenin and its adjacent refugee camp were all of the same tiny area within the camp which had been the scene of a tactically brilliant ambush — on the part of the Palestinians.  Thirteen Israeli soldiers were killed when a series of booby-trapped buildings collapsed on them.  It was the IDF’s deadliest engagement of the month-long offensive, and the impetus for Suzanne Goldenberg’s appraisal (in a news article, not an opinion piece) that the battle of Jenin was ‘a fiasco for Israel, an immensely costly victory for the Palestinians’ on April 10, before the circular feeding frenzy about the phoney massacre began.

It was this incident that made many Israelis question the wisdom of endangering so many ground forces rather than just relying on air power.  This would hardly be unprecedented.  And we don’t need to look to the behaviour of countries that Israel would never want to be compared to.  NATO fought two wars from the air — over Serbia in 1999 and Libya last year —with lopsided results.  Very lopsided.  Zero combat losses for NATO, roughly one thousand enemy combatants killed and slightly more than a thousand civilians as well.  Both wars were hotly debated in this paper, but neither of them ‘smelled like a crime.’

But let’s not be unfair to the Guardian and compare its coverage of Jenin to those popular NATO wars against violent dictators.  Let’s not even compare it to much bloodier conflicts in the past decade that gathered a lot less attention.  And naturally, let’s not compare the way the Guardian covered the non-massacre in Jenin to the suicide attacks on Israeli civilians which prompted the military operation.  No, I suggest making things as easy for the Guardian as possible, by comparing its coverage of Jenin to a remarkably similar pair of battles in the Iraqi city of Fallujah two years later in 2004.  These battles were led by occupying western armies (US and UK) in a war that for the Guardian at least had none of the ambiguity of Kosovo or Libya.  On the contrary, opposing the Iraq War was, second only to hating Israel, the great moral stand of the paper and its readership in the first decade of the 21st century.

In the two Fallujah battles, US-UK forces lost 126 men and killed nearly 1400 armed militants and about 900 civilians; in Jenin, recall, the respective numbers were 23 IDF killed, 38 Palestinian militants, and 14 civilians.  Though both Fallujah battles were covered extensively and critically, and though the second one involved troops from the UK, and though it was in a war that this paper viewed dimly, the number of times the words ‘massacre’ or ‘war crime’ appeared in its coverage was exactly zero (of if you prefer numbers: 0).  The only commonality in the Guardian’s coverage of the battle of Fallujah is that, as with Jenin two years earlier, no mention was made of Fallujah’s militants’ involvement in murderous attacks against British and American civilians at home.  This is less an editorial decision though, and more likely because there were no such attacks.

Maybe Fallujah isn’t where we should be looking for a comparison.  We could just go a few miles west of Jenin to Netanya, site of the Passover eve suicide bombing that sparked the Israeli military operation.  How did the Guardian cover that massacre?  Naturally, with detailed coverage of the victims and their families, and some understandably high-strung language on the frightening, almost ritualistic aspect of a mass murder of Jews as they sit to mark a festival of deliverance from bondage.  Guardian reporters hit the pavement probing the feelings of Israelis and Jews worldwide in the face of this enormity and commentators made much of polling data showing that suicide attacks on Israeli civilians commanded large majorities of support in Arab and Muslim countries.

Of course I’m just kidding.  None of that actually happened. There was not a single opinion piece about the Passover Massacre, no leader condemning it, and in fact, not even one news article by a Guardian writer dedicated to the story.  The morning after the attack, the Guardian did lead with a story by correspondents Suzanne Goldenberg and Graham Usher about the bombing which understated its death toll by nearly half (16 as opposed to 30) and named and profiled none of the victims; most of the story dealt not with Netanya but with the Arab summit underway in Beirut.  Nearly a third of the dead in Netanya were Holocaust survivors, but it would clearly be beneath the level of a serious news article to mention such an emotive an irrelevant topic.  Well, until the very end of the article at least, which closes with an unremarked upon quote by Syrian President Bashar Assad that ‘It’s time to save the Palestinian people from the new holocaust they are living in.’  I am not making this up. Duly reported as well was that ‘Palestinian security sources said Yasser Arafat had ordered the arrest of four key militants in the West Bank.’  I hope it wasn’t too much work following those sources down!

The following day, Goldenberg (still in Beirut, but clearly clued in to all the right sources) dutifully passed on the information that the attack was just a ‘perfect pretext’ for Israel’s military offensive and described the Israeli prime minister as ‘practically gloating’ at the tolerance he could now expect to any Israeli military action.  Meanwhile Usher wrote that Israel would bury its dead, ’22 civilians and 6 settlers,’ though there is no precedent or legal basis for losing one’s non-combatant status because one is a settler.  Two of Usher’s ‘settlers,’ incidentally, did not live in settlements at all.  They were both 80-year-old men visiting relations in a settlement over the holiday who were stabbed to death on their walk to synagogue.  A third ‘settler’ was a child not old enough to have settled anywhere, who was murdered along with his parents when a Palestinian gunperson entered their home and shot everyone.  For Graham Usher, apparently, to be a Jew where Jews are unwanted is to forfeit the protections of civilians.

This was journalistic malpractice, and it’s time to come clean.

It’s not as though the Guardian’s editors don’t think the Jenin battle is a fitting hook to hang a media critique on.  In one of the more comical moments of its histrionic coverage in April 2002, the Guardian ran a piece by no less than Julian Borger (currently the diplomatic editor) under the headline ‘Muted criticism in American newspapers: Scepticism at reports of Jenin bloodbath.’  It was clearly not meant as a gentle expression of doubt about the lather whipped up by the European media.  It was, rather, for the clever readers to tsk-tsk into their tea and fill in for themselves that we all know why the American press is too scared to report an Israeli massacre.  (The less clever ones don’t need to scroll down very far into any CiF forum to have it spelled out for them explicitly.)

Once the record is cleared, the Guardian owes itself a thorough reckoning of how it got the story so wrong.  Something better than the weasely correction it buried days after running an article under the headline ‘Israel admits harvesting Palestinian organs’ back in 2009.  (Yes, two thousand and nine.  This was published in a respectable European paper in 2009.)

A possible model is New York Times’ thorough accounting in 2004 of its reporting failures in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, specifically in reproducing unsubstantiated claims of WMDs in Iraq.  That happened only one year after the war; ten years on from Jenin the Guardian has done nothing, though its journalistic failings were — and you’ll have to pardon me here — every bit as repellent.


From Peter Beaumont : “at the time of writing i was employed exclusively by the observer which was then a separate entity, not by the guardian. beat me up for what i wrote – but i didn’t write it for the guardian, as i only formally joined the guardian staff three years ago. myrrh may be confused by the fact that the archive now lists everything as ‘guardian’ output. but that is not where it appeared”

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