May 1 2002

‘Retaliation’ Is Reserved for One Side

A loaded term in the Mideast conflict

Even before the bloody events of April, more than 300 Israelis and 1,200 Palestinians had been killed since the current Intifada began in September 2000 (Boston Globe, 3/31/02). Thousands more people have been injured.

U.S. media coverage of the conflict was intense as Palestinian militants car­ried out several major suicide bombings and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) mounted a large-scale invasion of the West Bank. Amnesty International (4/3/02) condemned the targeting of civilians by both sides, voicing concern over “flagrant human rights abuses” by the IDF, including looting, mass deten­tions, the targeting of medical person­nel and possible extrajudicial execu­tions. Israel tried to exclude the press from areas where abuses were occur­ring; the Committee to Protect Journalists expressed alarm (4/2/02) over the apparent targeting of reporters in “ongoing incidents in which IDF forces have opened fire on, or in the direction of, journalists attempting to cover events in the West Bank.”

With thousands of lives at stake and reporters risking their own lives, it’s increasingly difficult—but perhaps more urgent than ever—to step back and examine how U.S. media have framed the story. To this end, FAIR sur­veyed how the language of “retaliation” has been used on the nightly news shows on ABC, CBS and NBC.

From the start of the Intifada in September 2000 through March 17, 2002, the three major networks’ nightly news shows used some variation of the word “retaliate” or “retaliation” 150 times to describe attacks in the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict. About 79 percent ofthose references were to Israeli “retalia­tion” against Palestinians. Only 9 percent referred to Palestinian “retaliation” against Israelis. (Approximately 12 per­cent were ambiguous or referred to both sides simultaneously)

This disparity is meaningful. The term “retaliation” suggests a defensive stance undertaken in response to some­one else’s aggression. It lays responsibil­ity for the cycle of violence at the doorstep of the party being “retaliated” against, since they presumably initiated the conflict.

Both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict routinely present their attacks as “retaliation” for specific attacks or actions by the other side. Both sides portray their struggle, in a larger sense, as essentially defensive. When network news shows characterize Israeli violence as “retaliation” almost nine times more often than Palestinian violence, they are sending a clear signal as to which side’s rhetoric they choose to believe.

Among the three major networks, ABC’s World News Tonight was the clos­est to being balanced, with 64 percent of its uses of “retaliation” referring to Israeli actions and 21 percent to Palestinian action s—a three-to-one ratio. CBS Evening News came next, with 79 percent of its uses of “retalia­tion” referring to Israeli actions and 7 percent to Palestinian actions. NBC Nightly News was the most imbalanced, never once referring to Palestinian “retaliation.”

The devastation human toll of such “retaliations” makes these imbalances all the most striking. According to the latest estimates from the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, of the Palestinians killed from September 29, 2000 through April 20, 2002, at least 948 have been civilians, including 205 children. B’Tselem records that 290 Israeli civilians were killed by Palestinians in the same period, including 52 children. B’Tselem notes that figures for deaths in the Occupied Territories are partial, “due to difficulties in obtaining information,” and that they include neither suicide bombers nor Palestinians who “died after medical treatment was delayed” by Israeli forces. (See

The language of retaliation is only one factor in reporting, of course, but the gap is striking, and suggests a tendency on the part of the networks to accept Israel’s view of its actions as inherently defensive–and to reject similar claims made by Palestinian militants. With noncombatants being the majority of those killed on both sides–and a large proportion of them children–it’s clear that it’s simply inaccurate to cast either side as acting purely defensively.