Thanks to Haaretz, the soldiers’ allegations traveled around the world almost as soon as they appeared in Israel. The Associated Press correspondent Amy Teibel had her story on the wire just after 1 p.m. Israel time on Thursday, or 6 a.m. Eastern time in the U.S. The Washington Post put the AP story on its Web site before noon. The New York Times waited a few hours more to get a staff report from its Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner. In London, the left-leaning daily Guardian and the right-leaning Times also waited for staff-reported pieces.
The result was two different ways of telling the same story. The Guardian and the London Times both offered straightforward accounts that cut right to the heart of the matter. “Striking testimony has emerged from Israeli soldiers involved in the recent Gaza war,” Guardian correspondent Rory McCarthy began, “in which they describe shooting unarmed civilians, sometimes under orders from their officers.”
The London Times was harsher: “The Israeli army has been forced to open an investigation into the conduct of its troops in Gaza,” correspondent James Hider wrote, “after damning testimony from its own frontline soldiers revealed the killing of civilians and rules of engagement so lax that one combatant said that they amounted on occasion to ‘cold-blooded murder.’”
The New York Times took a far more circuitous route. “In the two months since Israel ended its military assault on Gaza,” Bronner began, “Palestinians and international rights groups have accused it of excessive force and wanton killing in that operation, but the Israeli military has said it followed high ethical standards and took great care to avoid civilian casualties. Now testimony is emerging from within the ranks of soldiers and officers alleging a permissive attitude toward the killing of civilians and reckless destruction of property that is sure to inflame the domestic and international debate.”
Bronner proceeded to detail the same allegations that the others had described. But he told a good deal more. He quoted two Israeli professors, one Orthodox and one secular, explaining why the alleged acts deviated from Israeli norms. He quoted a soldier who described acts of kindness by fellow soldiers. Unnamed military experts were brought in to point out that women, though seemingly harmless, might draw a soldier’s suspicions because women have served as suicide bombers in the past. And Bronner cited experts, again unnamed, who claimed that the soldiers’ behavior was partly a reaction to the experiences of the 2006 Lebanon war. “In that war,” Bronner wrote, “when Israeli soldiers took over a house, they sometimes found themselves shot at from a house next door. The result was that in Gaza, many houses next to those commandeered by troops were destroyed to avoid that risk.”
Bronner plainly worked hard to produce a deeper, more thorough story than his colleagues. He went beyond the allegations themselves to show his readers why they might have occurred, what might have been going through the soldiers’ minds, how such acts match up against the standards of a Jewish society, and how they fit within the context of recent Israeli military history. It was, in its way, a tour de force of spot-news reporting.
At the same time, it’s hard not to sense a bit of anxiety in Bronner’s writing, as though he had put the story together with one eye on the events and the other on the reactions he might get from readers back home. The story’s very thoroughness might even be seen cynically as a protective coating to ensure the harsh news goes down gently. Unlike the British reports, Bronner’s doesn’t lead with the soldiers’ allegations, but with a reminder that Israel is beset, yet it does its best. The allegations themselves, which are the point of the story—indeed, the whole story as other reporters told it—are met with just about every possible rebuttal and mitigating circumstance.
That might be reading too much into Bronner’s article. Bronner himself, in an interview shortly before the soldiers’ story broke, said he isn’t concerned about pressure from outside the paper—and he’s never felt any pressure from inside. “Readers write to complain,” he said. “Mostly I hear from people who click on my name on the Web site. I get it fairly equally from both sides, although Jews probably write to me a lot. There are a lot of Jewish readers.”
The question, Bronner said, “ is whether you as a journalist view that as pressure.