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Media Coverage Distorts Issues in "Settler" Murders

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Distorted media coverage of the recent terrorist assault on the Israeli community of Itamar compounded the pain of an unspeakably brutal crime.

On Friday night shortly after 10 PM, just hours after the commencement of the Jewish Sabbath, two knife-wielding intruders broke into the modest one story home of the Fogel family, murdering the mother and father in their bed along with their three month old baby girl. They then stormed one of the children’s rooms, slashing to death two boys, ages three and eleven. Two other sleeping children – aged two and eight – managed to survive when the terrorists fled the scene before they entered the other bedroom. The oldest child, a twelve year old daughter, also escaped death because of her participation in a Sabbath program of her religious youth group. When she returned to her home, she discovered the mutilated and bloody bodies of her parents, her two brothers and her infant sister. Tracks from the scene of the crime led directly to the nearby Palestinian village of Awarta. Later, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade claimed credit for the killings (though ultimately retracting that claim) and crowds in Gaza took to the streets in celebration, receiving sweets from the Hamas authorities to honor the vile deed.


In its initial report on the incident, CNN ran the headline, “Israeli Family of 5 Killed in ‘terror attack,’ military says” By placing quotation marks around the phrase “terror attack” the cable network cast doubt on that obvious characterization of the incident. As one Israeli press liaison aptly demanded, “If this is not a terror attack, what is?” By citing the “military” in the headline, CNN also seemed to suggest a martial dimension to the incident—though the only connection with soldiers involved the post-murder search for the terrorist perpetrators.

At the New York Times, initial coverage appeared under the headline, “Suspecting Palestinians, Israeli Military Hunts for Killers of 5 West Bank Settlers.” Again, the invocation of the “military” plays into the morally blind “cycle of violence” narrative favored by mainstream media in the United States—suggesting that the latest incident is part of an ancient blood feud between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian “militants.” Moreover, the term “5 West Bank Settlers” hardly captures the hideous reality of the mangled, desecrated bodies of a three-month-old infant, and her three and eleven-year-old brothers. Do these slaughtered children count as “Settlers” because they grew up on territory claimed by Palestinians? Some Palestinian factions claim every square inch of Israel as their own, qualifying every Israeli as a “settler.”


In fact, the Times used this logic to try to explain the murderers’ motivations before the killers had even been identified and apprehended. “Palestinians have often justified the killing of Isareli civilians, especially settlers, as a legitimate response to the Israeli occupation of territory conquered in the 1967 war…” wrote America’s “Journal of Record.”

The very words “settler” and “settlements” serve to mislead all those members of the public who’ve never paid a visit to the thriving, industrious and often idyllic communities that have sprung up in the ancient Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria. Itamar, for instance, is hardly a new colony, but a flourishing hillside development established 27 years ago, now home to 1,032 citizens principally involved in organic farming or raising goats and deeply committed to religious study. There is nothing temporary or tentative about the sturdy, red-tiled, suburban-style homes with their lovingly tended gardens.

Another “settlement” is the Jerusalem bedroom community of Maale Adumim, home to more than 35,000 residents and established some 36 years ago. Two generations have been born and raised in this handsome city less than fifteen minutes away from Israel’s capital, so designating its commuter families as “settlers” utterly distorts the nature of their middle-class suburban lives. Therefore the government’s authorization of new housing permits in Maale Adumim and three other populous, well-established cities (Ariel, Modiin Ilit and Gush Etzion) hardly constitutes some outrageous provocation or a threat to the already dim prospects of advancing the peace process.


Nevertheless, the New York Times gave four times more space (in text and photographs) to this decision than the newspaper used to describe the Itamar atrocities. The Monday headline: “Israel to Step Up Construction in the West Bank Areas” advanced the conclusion by reporter Isabel Kershner that the prospect of 500 new units in major towns (that no Israeli government would ever turn over to Palestinian control) somehow was likely “to complicate international efforts to revive the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.”

To the New York Times, in other words, an Israeli move to add housing to well-grounded communities represents a more newsworthy threat to the elusive “peace process” than the murder of a young family in its home.

For the most part, American media sources pointedly avoided the obvious moral contrast between killing innocents and building homes, viewing both as comparably “unhelpful” to the two state solution endorsed by the international community. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, stressed that distinction in brief remarks to mourners. “They shoot and we build,” he solemnly declared, underlining his nation’s refusal to bend to the will of brutal terrorists.

Jonathan Tobin at the “Contentions” blog of Commentary Magazine made the excellent point that Netanyahu’s clarity not only provided a refreshing corrective to media obfuscations but also increased the prospects of accommodation. Constructing homes within established communities “does make it clear to the Palestinians that every act of terror will have a price tag attached to it. Though Netanyahu’s decision won’t convince Hamas and its fellow travelers to lay down their arms, it will impress upon most Palestinians that a policy of violence is not going to convince Israel to give up the territories. Seen in that context, Netanyahu’s announcement may actually do more to bring the Palestinians to their senses and thus enhance the chances of peace than the Israel-bashing sessions at the United Nations and elsewhere.”


Even if that enhancement eventually bears fruit, the pain of the Itamar incident remains undiminished. Just hours before their murder, the members of the Fogel family gathered around their festive Sabbath table and, like Jews around the world, sang the beloved hymn “Shalom Aleichem” (Peace Be Upon You), welcoming the angels of peace as honored Sabbath guests (“May your coming be for peace, O angels of peace, angels of the Exalted One!”).

May those angels of peace return soon to beleaguered Itamar, to all Israel, and to a wounded world that’s seen far too much of bloodshed and horror.

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