Andrea Levin is executive director of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).
Israel's opening of a new entrance to an archaeological tunnel in Jerusalem on September 24, 1996, and the subsequent violence in the region, set off a tidal wave of coverage in the American media, much of it distorted. In particular, reporting and commentary disregarded the core facts of the controversy, slighted historical context, and gratuitously attacked the Israeli prime minister.
GETTING THE FACTS WRONG
What and where are the tunnel and its new entrance? The tunnel is approximately 500 meters in total length and includes both a newly cleared shaft that runs underground outside the Western Wall of the Temple Mount1 and an ancient aqueduct that spans the northernmost 80 meters. The aqueduct dates from the Hasmonean era (second to first century BCE).
Under the supervision of archaeologists and engineers, the tunnel project was begun shortly after the Six-Day War in 1967 as an effort to expose additional portions of the Western Wall for purposes of learning more about the wall itself and the structures in its vicinity. The archaeological discoveries have been dramatic, including streets and monumental masonry dating from the Herodian period as well as structures from later Ayyubid and Mamluke periods. The ancient Hasmonean segment was excavated in 1987, and thereafter the tunnel was opened to tourists.
Visiting the site was complicated, however, by the lack of an exit at the northern end of the tunnel, requiring visitors to double back through a narrow passageway. The newly added doorway enables tourists to pass continuously through and out onto the Via Dolorosa.
Although Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasir Arafat claimed that opening the entrance was a "big crime against our religious and holy places,"2 the Islamic shrines atop the Temple Mount are situated at the middle and southern areas of the plateau, at the opposite direction from the new entryway. The Hasmonean tunnel is more than two football fields away from Al-Aqsa Mosque, and tens of thousands of tourists have gone through it with no impact on that structure. The door opened on September 24 is completely irrelevant to the distant Islamic sites.
Reporting on these rudimentary but vitally important aspects of the story was strikingly skewed in much of the media. A New York Times editorial critical of Israel mirrored the Arafat charges, referring to "a tourist tunnel that runs under the holiest Muslim and Jewish religious places in Jerusalem, the Al Aksa Mosque compound which stands on the site of Solomon's Temple."3 Nearly a week into the crisis, Serge Schmemann, the Times's Jerusalem bureau chief -- someone with ready access to the site -- wrote of "an archaeological tunnel on an ancient man-made plateau."4
CNN's Walter Rodgers, who is also based in Jerusalem and whose network beamed continuous coverage of the story to its global audience during the heat of the crisis, consistently and without comment repeated Arafat's allegations and similar charges by other Arab speakers. On September 25, Rodgers reported that "Muslim clerics say the tunnel runs under Al-Aqsa Mosque and fear it undermines the building's structural integrity." Four days later, he still told viewers, "This tunnel is a problem because it runs close to the underground foundations of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a sacred Islamic shrine."5
Rodgers's interview with Palestinian Authority (PA) official Sa'eb Erakat hinted at the disconnect between fact and fury on the subject--then left unchallenged a still more absurd and incendiary claim: that Israel actually sought to supplant the Muslim holy site with a Jewish one. Rodgers stated: "I've been at the tunnel. It's essentially a tourist attraction. Explain to viewers please why it is so upsetting to Palestinians and other Arabs and Muslims." Erakat replied:
Well, the thing is, the story about this tunnel goes for years, actually, and it was the Israelis who announced that they will open this tunnel in order to build ... a new temple now in the place of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.6
Although this is an obvious and blatant invention, Rodgers did not ask Erakat to identify which Israeli had "announced" the startling plan. He evinced no skepticism about the charge, nor did he subsequently provide Israeli officials an opportunity to respond to the dangerous libel -- one likely to inflame resentment, especially Muslim resentment of Israel.7 Instead, in this interview and throughout the intensive coverage aired by the all-news network, Rodgers allowed viewers to believe that the Israeli government had been plotting to usurp an Islamic religious site.
In a similarly troubling deception, ABC's Ted Koppel provided Arafat and Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi a platform on the influential Nightline news program from which to repeat their frequent complaint concerning the "Judaization of Jerusalem"8 and the supposed distorting of history arising from the tunnel door.9 Koppel, a journalist highly regarded for his seriousness and depth, was mute in the face of this nonsense. He did not ask his guests what it meant to "Judaize" a city that had first been the capital of an independent Jewish state three thousand years ago, that was continually and repeatedly so through many centuries, that has never been the capital of a non-Jewish state, and that has always had a Jewish presence and been a focus of Jewish prayer. Nor did he ask how a city that in modern times has had a Jewish majority for over a century could now become "Judaized." The blunt evidence of the Hasmonean tunnel itself, ineluctable stone testimony to a long-ago-Judaized Jerusalem, is what Ashrawi crudely sought to obscure. And in this Koppel was her partner.
The New York Times treated history in a similarly slipshod fashion. A Times chart tracing events related to the Temple Mount site leaped from the eighth-century completion of Al-Aqsa mosque to the current period:
Since 1967, when Israel captured Jerusalem, the site has been a flashpoint for tensions between Palestinians and Israelis. Every proposed change in the status quo, from archeological excavations to this week's reopening of a disputed tunnel underneath [sic] the site, sets off alarms among Muslims.10
Not here nor anywhere else did the Times mention Israel's striking policy decision, on gaining control of Jerusalem in 1967, to defer to Muslim sensibilities. Moshe Dayan immediately decided that the Temple Mount, Judaism's holiest site, would remain under the jurisdiction of the waqf, a Muslim trust that administers the Islamic holy places. Nor did the Times ever note the contrast between Israeli practice toward Muslims and that of the Muslim authorities toward Jews (and Christians) during Jordanian control of the Old City from 1948 to 1967. Jews were barred from visiting their holy places and all but one of the Old City's fifty-eight Jewish houses of worship were destroyed, while the Jordanian army used headstones from the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives as paving and building stones, including as a latrine pathway.
Thus did major media begin by blurring the geography, history, and background of the crisis.
MISSING THE SOLOMON'S STABLES STORY
At the same time that Israel was under intense fire for its alleged insensitivity to Muslims, reporters gave little or no attention to a key related story. The waqf had pressed for prayer space in Solomon's Stables, a cavernous subterranean hall on the Temple Mount thought to date from King Herod's modifications of the Second Jewish Temple. In an agreement with the waqf reached in January 1996, Muslims were permitted a defined use of the space for prayer in return for which the Israelis would open a northern entrance to the archaeological tunnel.11 The tunnel opening, in short, took place in the context of negotiations and reciprocity.
In accord with this agreement, Muslims prayed in Solomon's Stables during Ramadan (and have made significant modifications of the halls, in contravention of the understanding). But when Israel went forward with the tunnel entrance opening, it met with massive public disturbance.
The Solomon's Stables deal was virtually unmentioned in coverage of the crisis. The New York Times buried this important aspect of the story in a three-sentence reference midway through an article on an inside page.12 The Associated Press mentioned it once.13
SPONTANEITY OR INCITEMENT?
The violence that exploded in late September occurred as a direct result of a determined campaign by the Palestinian Authority to bring out the masses and arouse public fury. On September 25, under instructions from the PA and Arafat's Fatah faction, busloads of Bir Zeit University students attacked Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint outside Ramallah.14 They hurled Molotov cocktails and rocks, and the Israelis initially repulsed them with rubber bullets and tear gas. Whereas PA police had previously prevented crowds from approaching Israeli checkpoints, this time they stood by. Eventually, the rioting spiraled out of control and Palestinian police joined in, firing on Israeli soldiers.15
In addition, Israeli military reports have pointed to other indicators of premeditated violence, including the strategic placement of sharpshooters with telescopic sites during a violent clash in Gaza.16 As though according to plan, the snipers provided cover for PA police embroiled in the violence.
Accompanying these measures, Voice of Palestine (VOP), the PA-controlled radio in Jericho, began exhorting the Palestinian public to take to the streets. On September 24, the day the new tunnel door was opened, VOP urged listeners to
Move immediately and effectively to face this serious criminal scheme. We appeal to them all to shoulder their religious and national responsibilities in these serious circumstances and to confront these painful incidents and tragic dangers facing holy Jerusalem.17
The next day, with violence escalating, VOP announced that the Palestinian leadership had "called for organizing popular and student marches and activities to protest the recent Israeli violation represented by opening a tunnel below [sic] the holy Al-Aqsa Mosque."18 In a speech in Gaza, Arafat invoked Islamic references to war, reminding the crowd that "to the believers who fight for Allah, kill and are killed, heaven is promised."19 Later that day, announcements on the radio continued to whip up fears and exhort violence with false claims of Israeli assaults.
Since this morning, the soldiers of the Israeli occupation have committed a bloody massacre against the participants in the peaceful marches that overwhelmed all Palestinian cities and villages in protest of Israeli measures against Islamic and Christian holy shrines in the holy city of Jerusalem."
Further incitements accused Israel of "declaring all-out war against the Palestinian people, their land, their sanctities and their national institutions."20 A report quoted Arafat's accusing Israel of "killing our children," while Palestinian Television broadcast clips of corpses and described the violence as a "massacre."21
The Palestinian leadership was unabashed in its intentions. Muhammad Nashashibi, a PA cabinet minister, announced after a meeting with Arafat on the first day of the violence that Arafat and the cabinet had given "a green light for escalation by all means in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem."22
Events earlier in September help explain why Arafat seized upon the tunnel door as a means to rouse the Palestinians. With his people restive at what some term the "Gazan occupation" by the PA and prepared to challenge the chairman's control of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Arafat had, in the first days of September, sought to firm his support among the public. Proclaiming dissatisfaction over negotiations with the Israelis, he called for a general strike and mass pilgrimage to Friday services at Al-Aqsa Mosque by Palestinian and Israeli Arabs. But his constituents were notably unresponsive, with fewer attending Al-Aqsa than on ordinary Fridays.23 Nor did Christians flock to Sunday church services, as he had urged.
Arafat clearly saw the Hasmonean tunnel as an issue he could inflate to excite emotions, and this time he succeeded in bringing out the crowds. When the riots subsided and the guns fell silent, fifty-eight Palestinians and sixteen Israelis lay dead, with hundreds more injured. And Arafat was soon off to the White House for a meeting hosted by a worried American president.
Media indifference to the evidence of calculated provocation in this crisis was consistent with a similar pattern of disregard for Arafat's incitement against Israel over previous months and years. Though intensified in the tunnel crisis, the exhortations have persisted despite the Oslo accords' explicit prohibition of violent rhetoric.24
Arafat's many calls for "liberation" of Jerusalem through jihad (Islamic sacred war) and for the dissolution of Israel through piecemeal stages, as well as his lauding of terrorists, have continued to trouble Israelis: they had hoped the ceding of land and power, even guns, to the Palestinians would have assuaged their enmity. Far from abating, that antagonism has been further cultivated. The PA has, for example, enshrined it in a permanent memorial in Jericho that celebrates the achievements of Yahya `Ayyash, the mastermind of post-Oslo terrorist bombings that killed scores of Israelis.25 Western-oriented and telegenic PA officials such as Nabil Sha`th also advance this antagonism: he announced in Nablus in March 1996 that
As long as Israel goes forward [with the Oslo process], there are no problems, which is why we observe the agreements of peace and non-violence. But if and when Israel will say, "That's it, we won't talk about Jerusalem, we won't return refugees, we won't dismantle settlements, and we won't retreat from borders," then all the acts of violence will return. Except that this time we'll have 30,000 armed Palestinian soldiers who will operate in areas in which we have unprecedented elements of freedom.26
So much for the facts. Journalists showed overwhelming sympathy toward Arafat's protestations that the tunnel and Palestinian "frustration" alone had sparked the violence. Israeli insistence that the riots followed a calculated campaign of incitement by Palestinian leadership won little or no credence. No one doubts the reality of Palestinian frustration but that discontent did not spontaneously trigger mass riots and violence in response to opening the tunnel entrance. Neil MacFarquhar in The New York Times was one of the few journalists to examine the issue of Arafat's incitement, yet even he distanced himself from a solid assertion of facts: although in possession of a seven-page report by the Israeli military citing specific Palestinian radio and television broadcasts during the violence, he referred to Israelis as having merely "accused" the Palestinian Authority of violent exhortations. In contrast, he reported as fact his personal view that "the tunnel has been such an incendiary issue for so long that the opening of the new entrance would have prompted demonstrations whether Mr. Arafat endorsed them or not."27 This breezy dismissal of Israeli contentions is what passed for objective reporting at the Times. Media indifference to such provocations fits a larger pattern of disregard for PA transgressions over previous months and years.
ATTACKING BINYAMIN NETANYAHU
If members of the American media overlooked Arafat's calls for orchestrated violence and bloodletting, they turned with a startling fury on Binyamin Netanyahu, the new Israeli prime minister, and held him uniquely responsible for problems in the peace process.
The epithets "hard-line" and "right-wing" everywhere accompanied Netanyahu's name in print and on the airwaves. ABC's Sam Donaldson compared Netanyahu to a horse thief.28 The Washington Post's Stephen Rosenfeld called him "stupid" and "arrogant."29 In the same newspaper, columnist Richard Cohen compared him to a bullying Southern sheriff in the civil rights era.30 National Public Radio's Daniel Schorr derided him as "cocky and fast-talking"31 and told listeners that "with the election of Netanyahu implementation of those [Oslo peace] agreements has broken down."32 CNN's Rodgers, in an oft-repeated argument on his network, said that the peace process "moved haltingly, but nonetheless forward, until last June when Israelis elected a right-wing prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu. And since Mr. Netanyahu's election, of course, the peace process slowed."33
This recitation of events ignored the fact that the calamitous terrorist murders of Israelis in multiple, unprecedented bombing attacks in February and March had been the true turning point. It was then that the Labor government, not Netanyahu, "slowed" the Oslo process, including putting off the planned redeployment in Hebron. The bloody events in Jerusalem, Ashkelon, and Tel Aviv caused the slowdown; the unseating of Shimon Peres and the election of Netanyahu was a public assertion by Israelis that those events required a government more committed to protecting them.
The most bizarre instance of animosity toward Netanyahu was Koppel's introduction to the third Nightline segment on the tunnel crisis. He began with a detailed description of an encounter he'd had with Arafat shortly after the emergency summit meeting in Washington with President Clinton, Netanyahu, and King Husayn of Jordan:
The bulk of this program tonight will be a lengthy conversation I had earlier this evening with the Israeli prime minister. But on leaving his hotel I was met with the news that President Arafat would be willing to receive me in his Virginia hotel suite. One of his aides met me outside the room to tell me that the president just wanted to say hello, that he was not giving any interviews. Indeed, Arafat and his chief advisors were seated around a long dining table eating hamburgers and French fries. Arafat explained that there could be no interview because he, King Husayn, and Prime Minister Netanyahu had agreed not to comment on the Washington summit while they were still here. I pointed out that Netanyahu had done little else but comment, first in a press conference and then in a series of interviews, including my own.
No, Arafat insisted, there had been a deal and he wasn't going to break it. I pointed to a television set in the suite. There was Netanyahu giving yet another interview--live. If he had broken their agreements so quickly and so repeatedly, didn't that undermine whatever else they had agreed to?
"Yes, it does," said one of Arafat's top advisors.
"You be quiet," said the Chairman, "or I will punish you."
It was said in a joking fashion but I returned to the question two or three more times. Each time Arafat insisted that there had been a deal.
I left, but within the hour a top aide to the Palestinian president issued a clarification: "There had been a request from President Clinton that the three men not answer questions while they were at the White House and none did."34
Although Netanyahu had not violated any agreement with the American administration about making public statements in the aftermath of the summit, Koppel contrived to suggest that he had and, further, to link this fictitious breach to alleged untrustworthiness by Netanyahu in his negotiations of the solemn matters facing Israel and the Palestinians. It is also noteworthy that after clarification of the actual events and uncovering of Arafat's capricious misrepresentation, Koppel said nothing about what this might indicate regarding Arafat's trustworthiness.
It is difficult to adduce any purpose in Koppel's digression other than to malign the Israeli prime minister. Koppel's bias and indifference to elementary journalistic standards are all the more alarming in a reputable news program, but his reports were only a particularly bizarre instance of the general media distortion of events surrounding the opening of the Hasmonean tunnel entrance.
In their coverage of the tunnel opening and the subsequent violence, journalists tilted heavily toward the version of events advanced by Arafat, omitting essential history and recent context, and deprecating Israeli assertions. The causes of media hostility toward Israel's decision to open a tunnel entrance, toward its new Likud prime minister, and, by extension, toward the Israeli electorate that recently ousted a government compliant to Arab demands are complex and troubling. Observers variously attribute the problem to reporter bias or incompetence; to the impact of the civil-rights era and the bizarre urge to superimpose the actors of that drama onto the Middle East; to an extrapolation onto Israel, an American-style democracy, of the tendency to excoriate America; or to Israel's being a Jewish state.
Whatever its sources, this bias has the potential to be profoundly harmful. Whether the striking media misrepresentations of the tunnel crisis affect American policy decisions or those made in foreign offices around the world is not yet clear, but media depictions do affect government policy and the inevitable consequence of repeated distortion is misguided actions.
The best antidote to such flawed media coverage remains public demand for adherence to standards of accuracy and objectivity, along with continual exposure of the biased and inaccurate coverage by watchdog groups. Lacking any other mechanism of accountability, it falls to the citizenry to raise the cost of malfeasance by journalists.
1 The Temple Mount (Hebrew, Har ha-Bayt) takes its name from having been the site of Judaism's First and Second Temples.
2 The Washington Post, Sept. 25, 1996.
3 The New York Times, Sept. 26, 1996.
4 The New York Times, Sept. 29, 1996.
5 Cable News Network, Sept. 29, 1996.
7 This is what happened, with lethal and lasting effect, in the aftermath of an arson attack that caused severe damage to Al-Aqsa Mosque on Aug. 21, 1969. Though carried out by a mentally disturbed Australian Christian, Michael Denis Rohan, Muslim authorities immediately blamed Israeli Jews, so that onlookers stoned Israeli fire trucks summoned to extinguish the fire, claiming they brought gasoline instead of water to the fire.
King Faisal of Saudi Arabia seized on the charges of Israeli culpability to rally Muslim heads of state, convening a first-ever summit of Muslim leaders. The fire has been regularly commemorated with attacks on Israelis; on Aug. 19, 1993, for example, nine Israeli soldiers were killed in southern Lebanon and a statement issued by the Party of God announced the assault was timed to mark the anniversary. After an Aug. 21, 1995, bus bombing in Jerusalem, Syrian radio aired statements by Fayiz Qabdil in a "Palestine Broadcast" segment linking the bus attack to commemoration of the Aqsa fire. Qabdil said, "Michael Rohan is an Israeli Jew even though Israel tried to prove that he is not a Jew, a Zionist or an Israeli when it claimed that he was an Australian." He said the Jerusalem bombing proved "that death will be the lot of the enemies of Arab Jerusalem and Arab Palestine."
Even Muslim spokesmen in the United States repeat this calumny. The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle published a letter on June 13, 1996, from Ahmed Ibrahim Lobad asserting that "It is impossible to detail all incidents of Israeli destruction, desecration and usurpation of Muslim and Christian holy place in a brief letter. To mention a few: In 1969 Zionists burned and heavily damaged part of the Al Aqsa Mosque, Israeli authorities would not help [sic] in extinguishing that fire." Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in The Washington Post, Oct. 16, 1996, includes "the 1969 arson attack on Al-Aqsa Mosque" in a list of alleged Israeli violations of the sanctity of Islamic sites in Jerusalem.
8 ABC's Nightline, Oct. 1, 1996.
9 ABC's Nightline, Sept. 26, 1996.
10 The New York Times, Sept. 28, 1996.
11 Nadav Shragai, Ha'aretz, Oct. 10, 1996.
12 The New York Times, Sept. 26, 1996.
13 Associated Press, Sept. 24,1996.
14 Graham Usher in the pro-Palestinian, Middle East International, Oct. 4, 1996.
15 Graham Usher in Middle East International, Oct. 4, 1996.
16 Associated Press, Oct. 2, 1996.
17 Voice of Palestine radio from Jericho monitored by BBC, Sept. 24, 1996, 1050 GMT.
18 Voice of Palestine radio, Sept. 25, 1996, 0600 GMT.
19 From a speech in Gaza quoted in The New York Times, Oct. 4, 1996.
20 Voice of Palestine, Sept. 25, 1996, 1350 GMT, attributed to the Culture and Administration Ministry.
21 The Jerusalem Post, Sept. 29, 1996.
22 The Jerusalem Post, Sept. 26, 1996.
23 The Jerusalem Post, Sept. 1, 1996.
24 Under Article XXII of the Oslo accords, Israelis and Palestinians are required to "foster mutual understanding and tolerance, and shall accordingly abstain from incitement, including hostile propaganda, against each other."
25 Peace Watch, August 1996.
26 The Jerusalem Post, Mar. 3, 1996.
27 The New York Times, Oct. 4, 1996.
28 ABC's This Week With David Brinkley, Oct. 6, 1996.
29 The Washington Post, Oct. 4, 1996.
30 The Washington Post, Oct. 1, 1996.
31 National Public Radio, Oct. 1, 1996.
32 National Public Radio, Oct. 3, 1996.
33 Cable News Network, Sept. 26, 1996.
34 ABC's Nightline, Oct. 2, 1996
Related Topics: December 1996 MEQ
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