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?