Three separate terrorist attacks in Israel claimed at least 25 lives this past weekend, and subsequent Israeli army attacks on Palestinian areas have killed at least five people. The Palestinian group Hamas claimed responsibility for the suicide bombings, which it said were in retaliation for the November 23 assassination of the group’s senior West Bank leader, Mahmoud Abu Hanoud.
Echoing the response of the Bush administration, the U.S. news media have largely blamed the attacks on Palestinian Authority leader Yasir Arafat, despite the fact that Hamas is an unaffiliated rival of the PA. “Arafat didn’t send the suicide bombers, but he didn’t stop them either,” reported CBS Evening News correspondent David Hawkins (12/3/01). Although no one has charged that the Palestinian Authority carried out or authorized the suicide attacks, Israeli airstrikes against Palestinian Authority headquarters and police facilities were presented in some outlets as a direct response to the suicide bombings, as with the December 4 New York Daily News front-page headline: “PAYBACK.”
The New York Times made the Palestinian Authority’s failure to arrest more Hamas militants a major theme in its December 3 reporting and commentary. According to a news analysis piece, “Mr. Arafat’s lieutenants said they would crack down on two powerful extremist groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and began making arrests. Mr. Arafat had said before that he would take this step, without doing so.” The Times added that Arafat’s Fatah organization “has maintained uneasy relations with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Palestinian analysts and officials say– relations that are likely to end if he puts their leaders in prison and keeps them there.”
The paper quoted Secretary of State Colin Powell as telling Arafat, “You’ve got to go after the organizations who are conducting these kinds of acts of terror… putting them in real jails where they are not walking free several days later.” The Times’ editorial followed the same line, warning that “a decisive moment is now at hand in which Mr. Arafat has to assert his authority with actions, not merely words. He must, as Washington demands, break up the terrorist organizations led by Hamas and Islamic Jihad by arresting leaders involved in planning violence and by seizing illegally held arms.”
While it is certainly valid to investigate whether either the PA or Israel have done enough to pursue suspected terrorists or to stop violence under their control, the New York Times has omitted crucial facts about this latest cycle of violence, even though the paper has reported these facts in the past.
On August 26 of last year, Hamas’ Hanoud was wounded by Israeli forces in a shootout near the West Bank town of Nablus. Hanoud then surrendered to the Palestinian Authority, and four days later he was sentenced to 12 years in prison by a Palestinian military tribunal for training and arming military groups (Associated Press, 9/2/00).
On May 18, Israel launched an F-16 attack on the Nablus jail where Hanoud was being held, in an attempt to kill him. The action proved disastrous: Eleven Palestinian police officers are believed to have died, and Hanoud escaped (New York Times, 5/20/01). Castro Salameh, the Palestinian commander of the Nablus post, told the Times, “Abu Hanoud has been my charge for nine months, and I have kept him under lock and key… But now Israel has liberated him. I have absolutely no idea where he has gone to.”
These facts have been reported in the New York Times, most recently in a November 25 story about Hanoud’s assassination. But the stories written after the latest round of violence have omitted these facts. Targeting civilians is never acceptable, but context is critical as people seek a way out of the cycle of Mideast violence: If the Times reminded readers that the Hamas leader whose killing sparked the recent round of violence was in a Palestinian jail until the Israeli military tried to assassinate him, it would put the contention that the Palestinian Authority bears most of the responsibility for the current strife in a different light.
On December 5 the Times did report that Arafat and others believe that Israeli attacks on Palestinian police facilities are in fact encumbering their ability to arrest militants. But the troubling connection between Israel’s attempt to kill a prisoner in Palestinian custody and the recent rash of bombings is still not being pointed out by the paper.