Journalistic irresponsibility from Four Corners
Jamie Hyams and Ahron Shapiro
The analysis below is a shortened summary of a much longer and more detailed critique of the ABC Four Corners program in question – complete with full sourcing for all claims made in it – available on the AIJAC website. We urge anyone interested in the subject to view the full critique at www.aijac.org.au/news/article/red-hot-injustice
The ABC’s “Four Corners”, together with the Australian newspaper’s Middle East correspondent John Lyons, produced a story, “Stone Cold Justice” about the alleged Israeli mistreatment of Palestinian minors it arrests in the West Bank. Their basic thesis is that Israel has a new policy of arresting Palestinian children in the West Bank in the middle of the night, then torturing them to create a culture of fear and to gather information to use against Palestinian non-violent resistance. This is categorically untrue.
To make such a serious allegation – that a country is abusing the criminal justice system for sinister motives – a responsible current affairs program should provide compelling proof. All Four Corners offers in this regard is footage of one interrogation from January 2011, which demonstrated merely that a suspect was asked questions about possible other offenders, and unsubstantiated claims by three critics.
Overall, the reporting in this story was often selective and lacking context and at times simply wrong. Basic journalistic practices, such as getting both sides of the story, or providing opportunities to rebut accusations, were often ignored.
Untested allegations, No right of reply
The program uncritically accepted testimony from various Palestinian youths arrested by Israeli forces, and their families and supporters. One battlefield in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is the media. It is in the Palestinians’ interests to make Israel appear as culpable and unreasonable as possible.
There have been many documented instances of Palestinian claims against Israel being trumpeted by the media yet subsequently turning out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue including the so-called “Jenin massacre” of 2002 and Israel’s alleged shooting of Muhammad al-Dura in 2000.
In light of this background, the allegations should have been treated sceptically by Four Corners, rather than simply accepted as the truth, especially claims such as Israelis subjecting a minor to electric shocks from a “big machine with electric wires”; shooting one with “three or four rubber bullets”; threats to beat or rape family members; hanging one on a cross until the wood snapped and another having a dog eat off his head and genitals.
At the very least, an Israeli spokesperson should have been given the opportunity to respond to these allegations. While Israeli officials, including Maurice Hirsch, the IDF’s Chief Prosecutor in the West Bank were interviewed, if questions were asked about these specifics, no response went to air.
Nathan Jeffay, writing in the Australian Jewish News, did specifically question Hirsch about the allegations. Hirsch stated,”The means of interrogation described in the article does not exist. There is no use of electric shocking, no use of wooden devices of any kind, no use of dogs in interrogation – this is simply unfounded and that is putting it lightly.” Why were such denials not included?
Much was made of a critical report from UNICEF on Israel’s practices issued in March 2013. While it is true that the report did, as the program stated, make findings that Israel had mistreated minors in custody, it also stated that this conclusion is based purely on repeated allegations. Furthermore, a later report from UNICEF, the “First Progress Report”, released last October and which in part praised Israel for reviewing its tactics in cooperation with UNICEF, was only obliquely mentioned in passing during host Kerry O’Brien’s wrap and not at all in the actual story.
Instead Lyons specifically implied that claims about any improvements should be dismissed before asserting the key conspiracy theory underpinning his story. He stated, “While Israel appears to be making concessions, others argue this disguises a harsher reality. Four Corners has learnt that the Israeli security services now have a new strategy. They bring Palestinian children as young as 12 to massive interrogation facilities like this one. The security services are now targeting the children as a way of gathering information.”
The evidence for this calumnious conspiracy theory was footage from one interrogation, which took place in 2011 (hardly evidence of a “new” strategy), and unsubstantiated claims from three critics of Israel, left wing Israeli lawyer Gaby Lasky, who claimed Israel was doing so to “put down the non-violent movement”, Gerard Horton, and Nader Abu Amsha, Director of the YMCA Rehabilitation Program.
Only after all three had their say was Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Yigal Palmor shown explaining that, “interrogators will want to gather information about possible violence emerging from a certain area or from certain people. And I think that’s perfectly legitimate to ask people who are arrested for being involved in violent actions, to ask them where they come from, why they have been involved in such violent actions, who sent them and whether there are more people coming from the same place with the same intent.” This would appear obvious, but Lyons, Horton, Lasky and Amsha twist this into something sinister.
As an example of a non-violent resister Israel is allegedly targeting, Lyons cites Bassem Tamimi. However, Tamimi served a prison sentence for, among other things, “soliciting” youths to throw stones. In fact, he openly advocates stone-throwing against Israelis, having told a journalist, “We see our stones as our message.”
The story implies that an average of 700 arrests per year of children (or more accurately, minors, as they range from 12 to 17) out of a population of 2.5 million is unusually high. Critic of Israel Gerard Horton, one of Lyons’ interviewees, says of the arrests, “That has a paralysing effect on whole communities, and it’s that fear and intimidation that makes this system work so effectively well…” However, in 2012-13 in Victoria, with a population of 5.4 million, a far smaller percentage of whom are minors, 29,198 juveniles were processed for alleged violent crimes, with 10,937 of those arrested.
Given the many rock-throwing incidents in the West Bank involving large groups of minors – and the fact that such attacks can be lethal – an average of some two arrests of minors per day would be remarkably low.
Moreover, in Australia, a child between 10 and 14 can be charged with leave of the court. Under current Jordanian law, which applied to the West Bank prior to 1967, the minimum age for a child to be tried for a criminal offence is seven. In the West Bank now, by contrast, the minimum age is 12 but according to figures released by Horton’s Military Court Watch, of the approximately 700 minors arrested in 2013, only eight were under 14.
In reality, the principal dangers that Palestinian children face have nothing to do with Israel. A 2011 survey by the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics revealed that 21.4% of Palestinians between 12 and 17 said they had been exposed to violence from a teacher, 14.2% from school pupils, 11.9% from a friend, 8% from a young neighbour, 7.4% from boys/girls in the street, 6.9% from an old neighbour. Only 1.9% said they had been exposed to physical violence by the “Israeli occupation forces” or settlers. Meanwhile, just 3.5% reported being exposed to psychological abuse from IDF soldiers or settlers.
Lyons looked at three hand-picked cases of Palestinian minors who had been arrested, stating, “These boys are part of the new frontline in the Israel-Palestinian conflict”. One was Islam Dar Ayoub, who alleged that he was tricked into confessing. What the report failed to mention is that a special court session addressed his claims and found his confession was admissible. John Lyons claimed that what the authorities “really want” from him was information about activists in his village – suggesting that there wasn’t genuine concern about his activities. In fact, he had confessed to and been indicted on 35 counts of throwing stones or rocks at Israeli targets.
These three Palestinian minors were reportedly convicted of throwing stones (although two of them denied it in the program), and the tone of the program, and certainly its title “Stone Cold Justice”, gave a strong impression that the arrests are all about stone-throwing. However, of 650 indictments filed against minors in 2010, only 40% of them were for stone-throwing alone.
Also unmentioned was that Palestinian minors have frequently been involved in heinous terrorism. For instance, in 2011, Hakim Awad, 17 , along with an accomplice, entered a home and killed an entire family, including a three-month-old baby, and children aged four and 11. The IDF has cited 160 severe cases implicating minors that have caused death prior to 2011.
Lyons and various interviewees agonised over the nighttime arrests of Palestinian youths at their homes. Hirsch explained to Lyons that “It’s unfortunately an operational necessity because of the widespread disturbance of the peace that occur when… we try to carry out the arrest during the day.”
This understates the case. There are many examples of violence, riots and even deaths when Israeli troops seek to carry out daytime arrests, especially as many arrests take place in Area A, under Palestinian rule, where many Palestinians have automatic weapons.
The program made it seem as if the arrests of minors are generally carried out at night, but even Gerard Horton’s website put the number for 2013 at 56.1%, a figure based on “98 affidavits of Palestinian children.” Jeffay, who spoke to Israeli authorities, puts the figure at 17%.
Much was also made of the fact that Israeli citizens in the West Bank and Palestinians there are subject to different legal systems. Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor was interviewed for the program, and Four Corners has put the entire interview on its website. The very first question Lyons asked Palmor was, “…why are there two legal systems in the West Bank? One for Palestinians and one for Jews[sic]?”
Palmor explained that it was “what international law demands,” because “Otherwise, it would be simply annexation,” whereas “the status of the territory of the West Bank was to be determined by negotiation.” However, this answer did not make it to the program, and nor did any other explanation of the need for two systems – only repeated implications that it was unfair and discriminatory.
Viewers would also have been unaware of the protections for the arrested minors. A separate juvenile court was established in 2009. Judges must be qualified to serve as juvenile judges. Suspects must be informed prior to questioning of their right to legal representation. Parents must be notified as soon as possible if a minor is arrested, minors under 14 must be brought before a judge within 24 hours of being arrested and minors under 16 must be brought before a judge within 48 hours.
Maurice Hirsch told Nathan Jeffay that the reports of coerced confessions “failed, for example, to acknowledge that the rules of evidence are the same in military courts as in Israeli civilian courts. Confessions extracted under duress are inadmissible just as in civilian courts, making claims of untoward investigative techniques ‘ludicrous’ as confessions based on them ‘would have no culpable value in court’.”
Part of the program’s underlying agenda seemed to be that ultimately settlements are the cause of all the problems. Revealingly, the only Israeli who was asked about settlements was extreme right-wing settler Daniella Weiss, who currently has no official role in Israeli politics or in the settler movement. She told Lyons that the land was promised by God to the Jews, so there would never be a Palestinian state. Palmor and Hirsch were not shown talking about this issue. Israel’s various offers of a Palestinian state, and the withdrawal from Gaza, were never mentioned.
However, perhaps the most important point ignored by the program is the relentless incitement of Palestinian youth to hatred of Israel and glorification of violence against it. It has been well documented that Palestinian children receive a steady diet of delegitimisation of Israel through their state-run media, in their mosques and even in their school textbooks. The Palestinian Authority routinely glorifies the most heinous terrorists by naming streets, squares and even soccer tournaments for youth after them.
The program also ignores the fact that children are deliberately recruited to take part in the violence, a war crime under Article 8 of the International Criminal Court Statute. Here is a war crime taking place right under the program’s proverbial nose, yet that elicited no interest whatsoever.
Rather than raising any of these points, Lyons stated, “To understand Israel’s two different legal systems it helps to come to Hebron… Here 800 Israeli settlers live in the centre of Hebron surrounded by 180,000 Palestinians. This used to be a thriving Palestinian market. The effect of Israel’s occupation is obvious – now it’s a ghost town. Israeli soldiers will not allow Palestinians to walk along these streets.”
Hebron is unique among West Bank settlements. It is the second holiest city for Jews, and there was an unbroken Jewish presence there from antiquity to 1929, when 67 Jewish residents were murdered and the rest driven out by Arab attackers. The houses in the middle of town that the settlers occupy were reclaimed properties that Jews had owned up to 1929, which is why, uniquely, they exist side by side with Arab-owned properties. The situation is undeniably tense and difficult, but nothing similar exists anywhere else.
Lyons found Israeli forces firing tear gas in Hebron, apparently near school children walking to school. He reported that the soldiers said they were responding to stone throwing, but added, “we could see no provocation from the children who were trying to avoid the gas.” Despite having a video camera at his disposal, Lyons did not back up his claim of an unprovoked tear gas attack with video evidence.
Lyons then questioned the commander twice with the sensational allegation “why did you fire the tear gas towards those children going to school?” But the commander was not permitted to talk to the media, as Lyons would have known, and so it was made to appear the officer had something to hide.
Serious Factual Flaws
Lyons then focused on the case of Wadi’a Mawadeh, which “shocked many”. Lyons stated, “On the streets of Hebron five-year-old Wadi’a Mawadeh was picked up by soldiers. An Israeli settler had claimed that he had thrown a stone at him…The boy is taken by six soldiers. He was released after two hours. One settler, making one allegation, is able to activate this level of military intervention against a five-year-old.”
The reality of the case was explained by the IDF in a letter that was published in Ha’aretz, and that Four Corners should have known about. Wadi’a Mawadeh was “caught in the act” by the Israeli forces throwing stones at moving cars. It wasn’t just the word of one settler. He was taken into an army jeep accompanied by an older Palestinian friend and then to his house. He wasn’t arrested by the soldiers. His mother was home, and the troops wanted her to accompany them and the boy to the Palestinian police, but she wanted to wait for the boy’s father. It is true that when the boy’s father came home, the father became agitated and was handcuffed and blindfolded, and Israel has admitted that shouldn’t have happened, but ultimately, the boy and his father were taken to the Palestinian police, who dealt with the matter. While this may have all taken two hours, it is misleading to say that the boy was held for two hours.
What would happen if Australian police found a five-year-old throwing stones at cars? They would pick him up, take him home, locate the parents and possibly take them all to the local police station to deal with the matter. This is exactly what happened here.
The program also claimed that nine-year-old Karim Dar Ayyoub was arrested. It is illegal under Israeli law for anyone under the age of 12 to be arrested. The boy, reportedly 11, not nine, was caught throwing rocks at Israelis, was picked up for a two-hour questioning during the day, and was never arrested.
Lyons also claimed that “Last month, under pressure from human rights groups, Israel stopped a longstanding practice of keeping children overnight in outdoor cages. Children had been kept freezing in the cages during snowstorms.” In the context it was made, this statement would have appeared to any viewer to refer to Palestinian children on the West Bank.
However, the reports about the “cages” quoted referred to a situation that had arisen in Ramle, well inside Israel proper. The jail in question is part of Israel’s court system, for crimes committed in Israel, not the West Bank. The procedure, since stopped, was for prisoners of all ages that were to be transferred that day to be placed in outdoor holding pens early in the morning for periods of up to two hours – not overnight. It had nothing to do with the system for Palestinians in the West Bank, children or otherwise. Also, it doesn’t actually snow in Ramle. Similar claims to Lyons’ about the “cages” actually led to corrections being published in both Haaretz and the Independent.
There is little doubt that Israel could handle the situation better, and it is taking steps to do so, but the participation of these minors in violent activity would put any country in an invidious position. It is incumbent on any journalism which aspires to be regarded as fair and balanced to responsibly cover all sides of what is a complex issue, especially in a taxpayer funded program. “Four Corners” woefully failed to do so.
Furthermore, while it is one thing to criticise Israel for its treatment of Palestinian children who are questioned or arrested for suspected violent crimes, it is quite another to allege that Israel’s efforts to improve its policies in this regard are meant to “disguise” a “new policy” of “targeting Palestinian children”. This is an outrageous accusation, and the program did not come close to justifying it with actual evidence. The fact that the ABC sensationalised the program by using this unsubstantiated accusation as the driving force behind the show’s promotion is inexcusable, and should raise questions about journalistic ethics and standards by the national broadcaster that have ramifications extending well beyond this broadcast.