On Thursday morning, March 19, Israelis woke to find a story on the front pages of two leading daily newspapers that either rattled their self-image as citizens of a decent, ethical, Jewish state—or gave aid and comfort to the state’s enemies, depending on your point of view. The story was about a group of combat soldiers who, at a gathering a month earlier, had described Israeli army abuses during the just-ended Gaza incursion. Israel had been fighting nonstop accusations of atrocities in Gaza since the shooting ceased January 19. The publication of the soldiers’ accounts promised to be a huge embarrassment.
Because the story was so radioactive from Israel’s point of view, examining its progress as it made its way into the international media can serve as a sort of case study—it shows in real time how America’s media differ from other countries’ in their portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And it helps illuminate the frequent charge that the American press is biased in Israel’s favor. Or against it, again, depending on your point of view.
The soldiers had told their stories during a February 13 visit to the Yitzhak Rabin Pre-Military Academy, one of seventeen army-certified institutes that offer students a gap year for study, community service, and early military training before their mandatory military service. The visitors, all Rabin alumni, had been asked to talk with students about their experiences. In the course of a freewheeling presentation, according to the news accounts, one soldier after another began to relate painful memories from the Gaza combat.
The Israeli news reports quoted two infantry squad leaders describing incidents in which rooftop snipers killed obviously harmless Palestinian civilians—an elderly woman and a mother with two children—because they had wandered into closed security zones. Others spoke of wanton vandalism in Palestinian homes that had been commandeered, or of orders to shoot and kill anyone found in a house after civilians had been ordered out. One squad leader described arguing with his commander to tighten the orders of engagement—rules on when to open fire—only to hear his own troops complain that they “should kill everyone there. Everyone there is a terrorist.”
The Rabin academy’s director, a deputy battalion commander in the Israeli army reserves named Danny Zamir, transcribed the discussion and sent it to Israel’s military central command, asking for an investigation. Treated dismissively, he published the transcript in the academy’s newsletter. On March 18, copies of the newsletter were obtained by the military correspondents at two of Israel’s three main dailies, Amos Harel of the left-leaning broadsheet Haaretz, and Ofer Shelah of the larger, right-leaning tabloid Maariv. They filed their stories that evening, Harel on his newspaper’s Web site and Shelah on Israel’s Channel 10 television, where he also works. The next morning their stories appeared on their newspapers’ front pages.
It’s important to note that Israel’s largest-circulation daily, the liberal tabloid Yediot Ahronot, reported the allegations only as a next-day follow-up, deep inside the paper. Yediot’s authoritative military editor, Alex Fishman, told me the soldiers’ stories sounded to him like pure hearsay. Still, as much as Yediot dominates the Israeli newspaper market, it was Haaretz that mattered, because Haaretz dominates the world’s view of Israel.
Haaretz is sometimes called The New York Times of Israel—a high-minded, uncompromising, liberal-leaning broadsheet. Its circulation is surprisingly small given its reputation; it’s read mainly by Israel’s business and intellectual elite. Its biggest impact these days is through its English-language Web site, which features abridged translations of the paper’s daily reporting and reaches huge international audiences. Maariv has a Web site, too, but it’s largely independent of the scrappy print tabloid and it misses key stories. And none of it is in English.
Haaretz also publishes an English-language print edition that lands every morning on the doorsteps of most diplomats, tourists, and foreign correspondents, and this is the correspondents’ first window into Israel each day.
The Haaretz connection is important to understand for another reason. Because of the paper’s leftist reputation at home (not entirely deserved—its economic views are closer to those of The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages), foreign reporting that relies on Haaretz’s framing of issues is commonly dismissed by hardline, pro-Israel activists as leftist propaganda. That proved to be a key angle of counterattack against the soldiers’ stories after they were reported in the West.