What angers me about Ethan Bronner’s ass-backward reporting on the Gaza war is not that he gets things totally wrong. Actually, he puts the evidence right into his articles for him and all the world to see. But when he pontificates upon the evidence he bowdlerizes it and renders it impotent. If he was a truly bad correspondent he would omit evidence that didn’t suit his ideological perspective. But Bronner doesn’t do that. The evidence is there. He just chooses to misconstrue its meaning and significance.
Today’s report on an IDF massacre in a Gaza village is a case in point. He begins with this chilling story:
The phosphorus smoke bomb punched through the roof in exactly the spot where much of the family had taken refuge — the upstairs hall away from the windows.
The bomb, which international weapons experts identified as phosphorus by its fragments, was intended to mask troop movements outside. Instead it breathed its storm of fire and smoke into Sabah Abu Halima’s hallway, releasing flaming chemicals that clung to her husband, baby girl and three other small children, burning them to death.
Later in his story he writes of another such heinous massacre:
Omar Abu Halima and his two teenage cousins tried to take the burned body of his baby sister and two other living but badly burned girls to the hospital…
The boys were taking the girls and six others on a tractor, when, according to several accounts from villagers, Israeli soldiers told them to stop. According to their accounts, they got down, put their hands up, and suddenly rounds were fired, killing two teenage boys: Matar Abu Halima, 18, and Muhamed Hekmet, 17.
An Israeli military spokeswoman said that soldiers had reported that the two were armed and firing. Villagers strongly deny that. The tractor that villagers say was carrying the group is riddled with 36 bullet holes.
The villagers were forced to abandon the bodies of the teenage boys and the baby, and when rescue workers arrived 11 days later, the baby’s body had been eaten by dogs, her legs two white bones, captured in a gruesome image on a relative’s cellphone. The badly burned girls and others on the tractor had fled to safety.
Matar’s mother, Nabila Abu Halima, said she had been shot through the arm when she tried to move toward her son. Her left arm bears a round scar. Her son came back to her in pieces, his body crushed under tank treads.
“Those who came this time were not Israelis,” Mr. Gambour, the car mechanic, said of the attackers. “They were not even human.”
You’ve just read what Bronner wrote. So tell me how can he write such utter trash after penning the above lines himself?
The war in El Atatra tells the story of Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza, with each side giving a very different version. Palestinians here describe Israeli military actions as a massacre, and Israelis attribute civilian casualties to a Hamas policy of hiding behind its people.
In El Atatra, neither version appears entirely true…
How’s that? Bronner has clearly described first hand accounts of two separate massacres in this village and he clearly credits the truth of the each account. Yet how does he write with a straight face that Palestinian accounts of a massacre are “not entirely true?”
In his story, he never questions the veracity of the two accounts nor does he discredit them in any way. So in what way aren’t they “entirely true?”
The following passage is the one I find the most disturbing as it appears to sanction Israeli war crimes as the normal actions of any army fighting in a densely populated area:
The dozen or so civilian deaths [in Atatra] seem like the painful but inevitable outcome of a modern army bringing war to an urban space.
Since when is it “inevitable” that a “modern army” shower white phosphorus on civilians and burn them to a crisp? What is “inevitable” about shooting children from a tank turret for target practice? What is “painful but inevitable” about bombing a UN warehouse which contains all the food supplies for 1.5 milllion people? Where is it written that 1,300 civilians, over half of whom were civilians, had to die for the troika of Barak, Olmert and Livni to be able to hoist the flag of victory and garner a few percentage points in the election polls? Why is such mass death “painful but inevitable?”
The problem with Bronner’s reporting is that there is a deep failure of moral imagination. He can see what’s in front of his own eyes. He can describe it. But he cannot interpret it. He cannot name it with its proper name and thus he discredits and devalues the suffering he sees. He wants Gaza to be an “on the one hand-on the other hand” story. But this is one where such balance proves false to a civilized moral code.
There are other weaknesses in Bronner’s story:
Palestinians almost never question the legitimacy of firing rockets at Israeli civilians as a form of resistance, and seemed shocked that Israel would go to war over it.
If he had said “Gazans during the recent war did not question the legitimacy…” then he’d certainly be correct. But the way he actually wrote the sentence is patently false. Many Palestinians question the efficacy of firing rockets at Israel. Opinion polls which Bronner has full access to confirm this month after month. The percentage of respondents who question this tactic varies depending on the horror of the week that Israel has inflicted. But the truth is that a significant number of Palestinians feel that firing rockets is a counter-productive tactic. It’s is really unpardonable that Bronner botched this.
To be fair, and as I wrote above, Bronner does sometimes get it right as he did in this passage, which quotes an Israeli friend of the Atatra villagers who ridicules the IDF for suspecting the residents of harboring sympathies for Hamas:
A man who identified himself as Danny Batua, a 54-year-old Israeli Jewish businessman whose family has been friends with the Abu Halima family for years, said by telephone that he believed the Abu Halimas were not involved with Hamas, and that their suffering was a result of inaccurate intelligence on the part of the Israeli military.
“What can I tell you?” Mr. Batua said. “The army has no idea.”
Isn’t it interesting that of all the majors, colonels and lieutenants, the Times reporter quotes providing seemingly reams of proof of their truth of their delusions, it takes an ordinary Israeli with no medals or ribbons on his chest, to say it’s all bunk. And why does Batua know what the officers with their high tech weaponry don’t? Because his intelligence comes from knowing the Gazans for decades, eating in their homes, buying their strawberries. That trumps military intelligence every time.
Now we return to Bronner’s failed moral compass:
“We faced fire mostly from snipers,” he [Captain E.] said. “We found tunnels, maps, Kalashnikovs, uniforms from our army and many large explosives throughout the houses we searched,” he added, showing photographs of what his men had collected. “We also found a bucket of grenades inside a mosque.”
Some of what the army contends is clearly real. Rockets were launched from near the town’s elementary school, and from many of its fields, Israeli commanders and several residents said.
This passage implies that militants exploited civilian infrastructure in their battle against the IDF. But only later does it become clear that the school was completely obliterated, yet the IDF itself admitted it could find NO evidence of explosives there.
So the guilt of Hamas which the reporter has allowed us to assume in one passage turns out to be entirely unfounded once we read farther.
In the following passage, Bronner describes an act which is clearly a war crime. But God forbid that he should label it so or even raise the question:
…When the platoon of…Captain Y. took over the neighborhood where a family named Ghanem lived, it blew up their house without going inside, he made clear in a phone interview. A search of it two weeks later by a correspondent for The New York Times joined by a 20-year veteran of the British Army, Chris Cobb-Smith, a weapons consultant for Amnesty International, showed no evidence of explosive material or of a secondary blast.
So why was the house destroyed?
“We had advance intelligence that there were bombs inside the house,” Captain Y. said. “We looked inside from the doorway and saw things that made us suspicious. I didn’t want to risk the lives of my men. We ordered the house destroyed.”
That seemed to be the guiding principle for a number of the operations in El Atatra: avoid Israeli casualties at all cost.
You simply cannot destroy a civilian home merely on the suspicion that it contains weapons without even doing a cursory inspection. That is what an army is supposed to do. Yes, it’s hard and dangerous. But if you want to invade another country, you simply cannot make up the terms of engagement without any reference to the laws of war. Captain Y. has committed a war crime–perhaps not as heinous a once as other Israeli officers who actually murdered civilians in cold blood. But it is a war crime nevertheless.
But will you hear even a whiff of that from the correspondent? No. He would argue that he merely presents the evidence and allows readers to draw their own conclusions. In a more nuanced case, that might be acceptable. But there is no nuance in what the IDF did in Gaza. An F-16 missile lacks any semblance of nuance.
Returning to the “good” Bronner, he allows a villager to utter the closing “money quote” and has the good grace not to step on it or temper it in any way so that it screams out of us with its own truth:
…Here in the ruins of El Atatra, perhaps the biggest damage has been to any memory of a shared past and any thought of a shared future.
“We used to tell fighters not to fire from here,” said Nabila Abu Halima, looking over a field through her open window. “Now I’ll invite them to do it from my house.”
If Israel cared a whit about the future it must live with people like the Abu Halimas, such a statement would be a death blow for peace, reconciliation and tolerance. But the truth is that Israel has long lost any semblance of caring about what Palestinians think or do. As far as Israel is concerned Abu Halima is a gnat biting an elephant. She matters not in the scheme of things. The Israeli view seems to be that we will dominate such Gazans and force them accede to Israel’s will. It is an odious and cruel approach. One that will not work in the long term. But Israel seems not to think about the long term. Their motto seems to be “whatever gets you through the night.” It wants to live just another day and a day after that. There is no thought to next year or next century.
This is a terrible shande for a religion, Judaism, for whom a century or even millennium is but a speck of time. How can the religion of Moses and his prophets whose history goes back thousands of years have turned into this?
Richard Witty says
I think you should have responded to the article differently.
Rather than insult Bronner for candidly collecting and reporting data some of which contradicted itself, you have simply stated, “I derive a different conclusion, a different option.”
One comment that he makes that rings true is of the tragedy of polarization that emerges from militancy.
In an environment in which peace is constructed by the forming of relationships that he described, the great tragedy of all wars and all intifadas is of division.
Tikin Olam does NOT occur by insulting messengers. It comes by taking the messages and healing with the information that is available.
Change doesn’t happen by condemnation. It happens ONLY by engagement.
What change(s) do you really believe will heal things?
Donald Johnson says
Richard Witty, “painful but inevitable” is apologetics language. Bronner isn’t just laying out the facts and letting the reader judge–he is editorializing, telling the reader that bad as things sound, it’s not a war crime, but just one of those tragedies of war, even if the Palestinians understandably think the worst. But this is nonsense. And I doubt very much Bronner would write such apologetics about Hamas atrocities–does he say that Hamas killing of suspected collaborators is an inevitable thing that happens when people are suspected of collaborating with the enemy that is bombing Gaza? Does Bronner rationalize Hamas atrocities against Israeli civilians? I doubt it.
Daniel Millstone says
Thanks for reading Mr. Bronner’s work so carefully.
this seige and slaughter of Gaza is obviously not done in the name of moses or judaism.
Richard W said:
“Tikin Olam does not occur by insulting messengers. It comes by taking the messages and healing with the information that is available.”
I don’t believe the above post was insulting the messenger, it was criticizing the author for not seeing what was in front of his eyes. The author writes about the crimes and yet doesn’t grasp the significance of them.
Tikun Olam happens when people are willing to accept and understand what is happening. You can not hope to change something you don’t understand or are not willing to accept. There is a lot of information out there, but you have to be willing to take your blinders off.
William Burns says
1. How does Bronner know that the white phosphorus bomb was “intended to mask troop movements”? The IDF told him it was?
2. The heritage of Judaism is rich and complex, but it does include precedent for brutality far exceeding that of the IDF in Gaza. Joshua and Judges?
Simcha Shtull says
Thank you, Richard. I had the same appalled reaction when I read the paper this morning. “Painful but inevitable outcome of a modern army bringing war to an urban space”?? This war was not inevitable. There were many paths unexplored and many options not taken. Hopefully Mr. Mitchell will provide some more effective leadership in this fumbling disaster.
Richard Witty says
Ethan Bronner is there hour by hour. He’s been in Gaza for 10 days.
He’s seen more than you, I or Richard. Richard was reporting on tone and selection of material, which I noted was very balanced and more complete than most.
Richard Silverstein says
My oh my–he’s been in Gaza for 10 days. What difference does this make when he’s shown that he can’t process the sights that he has seen? He reports it & lays it out for you to see. But then he fails to make the proper use of the material and refuses to acknowledge what is obvious to most fair minded people.
His reports are certainly NOT more complete than most. There are tens of reporters around the world doing a better job of reporting this than him including several Israeli ones who can’t even GET to Gaza due to the IDF’s fear that they might actually harm domestic morale with images too vivid for Israelis to withstand.
Richard Witty says
Why don’t you take his information as information, and not seek authority or perfection from it.
I personally have been greatly educated by what I’ve read and heard from Bronner on NPR.
You aren’t mentioning reports that you trust more, or contrasting impressions, to provide more complete information, from sources that are equally subject to skepticism.
Please assist in our getting information. I THANK Ethan Bronner for the extent that he and his colleagues have informed. I understand that there is more to inquire into.
Is that what Bronner saw? If it is, then everything that Mr. Silverstein wrote above stand.
Alex Stein says
Interesting post. On a similar topic, I wonder what you made of Obama’s first ‘war crime’ – a drone attack in Pakistan which killed a number of civilians. JSF has a typically reductionist assessment of it here – http://jewssansfrontieres.blogspot.com/2009/02/obama-first-murder.html
John Dickerson says
Politically, Hamas May Have Won
by Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani, February 4, 2009
CAIRO – Despite declarations of victory by Israel, the military assault on the Gaza Strip failed to achieve its stated aims, many analysts say. The assault, and even its exceptional brutality, may only have vindicated the notion of resistance among the Arab public.
“The steadfastness of the resistance in Gaza in the face of Israeli military power has resuscitated the idea of armed resistance,” Gamal Fahmi, political analyst and managing editor of opposition weekly Al-Arabi al-Nassiri, told IPS……
ENTIRE ARTICLE – http://www.antiwar.com/ips/morrowomrani.php?articleid=14189
Richard I agree with your last paragraph and I share your outrage at what was done in this Gaza War not only to the innocents but to the cause of peace. I cannot tell you how upset I am to watch Israel committing this slow suicide, so unaware of it, apparently.
I think you go way overboard in your reaction to Ethan Bronner’s reporting. I find so often I read his articles and they sit well with me. I don’t expect a moral judgment from him. I expect reporting- as best he can get it. It was not until the so-called “ceasefire” that he was allowed into Gaza and now we get his impressions. I appreciate how hard it is to phrase things to allow the reader to make the “correct” or even obvious judgments as you and I and others do. I don’t want Bronner to spoon feed me and tell me what is moral and what is not.
If you listen to his recent interview on Terri Gross you get a good idea of what is trying to do. I recommend it.
Many Palestinians ( both WB’ers and Gazans) can believe in the legitimacy of firing rockets and at the same time question the efficacy of it. Two different things, two different poll questions. They can feel that it is legitimate ( and necessary) and at the same time feel it ( or know it is) counter-productive ultimately, but that they have little choice.
Again, for me good reporting presents facts and impressions in such a way that I am able to make the proper judgments. This has to do with the whole article and all the choices that go into it, choices of which anecdotes to tell or not to tell. It’s an art in a way…. and subject to a deadline.
I read this blog for commiseration and articulation on the similar moral judgments I make. I read certain columnists (opinions) for that commiseration too. I don’t want a reporter to do this. A reporter should report. Bronner has gone well enough beyond reporting so as to set the reader up to make moral judgments of their own.
Donald Johnson says
I don’t understand what you’re saying, Suzanne. Bronner does editorialize and he does tell readers what they are supposed to think and he makes judgments which don’t seem to be backed up by his own reporting. Richard (our blog host here, not the other one) points this out. I give Bronner a little bit of backhanded credit for the fact that his own reporting undermines his editorializing Still, given his biases I wonder if he’s unconsciously leaving things out.
Horrifying at times and Bronner does do good digging. At least he even spoke to the victims and feigned at their truth. It’s as if those victims had something to gain by falsifying what happened: dead relatives, more condemnation and war crimes investigations that really compensate the victims here. Funnily enough, it’s not the IDF who has to repay the damage it did in Gaza but through donations coming from everyone else’s pockets but the people who did the damage.
It must feel good to be a Palestinian.
Alex Stein says
Phil Weiss also deals with the Obama drone attacks – http://www.philipweiss.org/mondoweiss/2009/02/obama-continues-policies-in-muslim-world-discredited-by-the-last-administration.html
FROM “THE MAGNES ZIONIST” (01/04/09) – by Jerry Haber (nom de plume): “Every time you think that Israel has hit rock bottom with respect to morality, we learn the painful truth – we still can and will descend further into the muck.”
SOURCE – http://themagneszionist.blogspot.com/2009/01/only-jewish-prophet-left-gideon-levy-on.html
FROM “THE MAGNES ZIONIST” (01/04/09) – by Jerry Haber (nom de plume): The truth is that Israel finds it easy to justify the so-called collateral damage in Gaza for the same reason that America found it easy to justify the collateral damage in Iraq. Because most Israelis are bigots when it comes to the Arabs, whether they are Hamas terrorists or Israeli citizens. They are gnats, tics, or perhaps, some quasi-humans, who one doesn’t really care about. Or as the wife of a rabbi told me, “They are animals, Jerry, all of them.”
SOURCE – http://themagneszionist.blogspot.com/2009/01/from-ticking-bombs-to-bombing-tics-why.html