Jamie Hyams and Ahron Shapiro
The ABC program Four Corners, together with the Australian newspaper’s Middle East correspondent John Lyons, produced a story, “Stone Cold Justice” about the alleged Israeli treatment of Palestinian minors it arrests in the West Bank. The basic thesis of this story is that Israel has a new policy of arresting Palestinian children in the West Bank in the middle of the night and 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 programme should have compelling proof. All Four Corners offers in this regard is footage of one interrogation, which merely demonstrates that a suspect was asked questions about possible other offenders, and claims by three strong critics of Israel.
Overall, the reporting in this story was often selective and lacking context and at times simply wrong, as this response will demonstrate in detail. Basic journalistic practices, such as getting both sides of the story, or providing opportunities to rebut allegations of misbehavior were often ignored.
After a brief introduction from Kerry O’Brien, itself problematic, the story was narrated by Lyons, although, in an interview that was part of the extensive promotion of the program throughout the ABC and Australian, Lyons stated that the Four Corners team ultimately decided what was included and, perhaps more relevantly, what was excluded from the program.
Untested Allegations, No Right of Reply
One noticeable feature was the uncritical way the programme accepted testimony from various Palestinian youths arrested by Israeli forces, as well as their families and supporters. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is fought not just on the ground, but in the media. It is in the Palestinians’ interests to make Israel appear as culpable and unreasonable as possible in the eyes of the international community, as a means to encourage the international community to increase pressure on Israel to surrender to Palestinian demands and end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Palestinian terms.
There have been many documented instances of Palestinian claims against Israel being trumpeted by the media and subsequently turning out to be grossly exaggerated or simply untrue. A notorious example was the so-called Jenin massacre, when Israeli troops entered the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin in April 2002, during Operation Defensive Shield, to destroy the terrorist infrastructure there. Palestinians, including prominent spokesmen such as Saeb Erekat, immediately alleged that Israel had carried out a “massacre” killing 500 civilians. These allegations were reported broadly in the international media. It later transpired that 52 Palestinians were killed, most of whom were combatants (together with 23 Israeli soldiers).
There have been countless other examples, including instances of Palestinian “corpses” supposedly killed by Israel getting up once they thought the cameras had gone; Palestinians killed in accidents, including by explosives blowing up in the course of bomb-making, or by misdirected Hamas missiles, being paraded as victims of Israeli violence and so on. Perhaps the most damaging example was the purported killing by Israeli troops of Palestinian boy Muhammad al-Dura on September 30, 2000, the publicity about which did so much to set off the Second Intifada.
To make a courtroom comparison, when it comes to procuring testimony which would exonerate Israel from allegations of abuse, Palestinians must be seen as hostile witnesses. In light of this background, the allegations should have been tested by Four Corners, rather than simply accepted as the truth by the program, especially when they included claims such as Israelis subjecting a minor to electric shocks from a “big machine with electric wires”, hitting one with “a whip with a hose”, shooting one with “three or four rubber bullets” and “a gas canister”, kicking one in the stomach, threatening to break his parents’ bones if he didn’t confess, widespread threats that family members would be raped if the suspects didn’t confess, hanging one on a cross so all his weight was on his handcuffs and his toes until the wood snapped “from all the shaking” and another one having a dog eat off his head and genitals.
At the very least, an Israeli spokesperson should have been asked about these allegations and been given the opportunity to respond. While Israeli officials, including the IDF’s Chief Prosecutor in the West Bank, Maurice Hirsch, were interviewed, if questions were asked about these specifics, nothing of their responses 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.”
One important source of the uncontested allegations was Australian lawyer Gerard Horton. Lyons explained, “He left his practice as a commercial law barrister in Sydney six years ago and is now leading a campaign to end a system under which Palestinian children have fewer rights than Israeli children – including being subjected to night-time arrests by heavily-armed soldiers.” Horton is now cited as being part of an organisation called “Military Court Watch”. However, until recently, Horton was the International Advocacy Officer-Lawyer for Defence for Children International – Palestinian Section (DCI-PS).
As revealed by Gerald Steinberg’s NGO Monitor, DCI-PS “is very active in wider anti-Israel political campaigns, including promoting the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel, lobbying for sanctions targeting Israel, and ‘war crimes’ accusations at the United Nations Human Rights Council. DCI-PS published a poster referring to Israeli security measurements as ‘a central pillar of the Apartheid-like system of discrimination in place in these areas.’ DCI-PS is also active in boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns,” while “Many of the allegations published by DCI-PS lack credibility, and are based on false or unverifiable information.” Again, none of this prevented Lyons from accepting Horton’s many allegations uncritically, while he should at least have fairly explained the broader agenda of the organisation that until recently employed Horton.
The UNICEF Report(s)
Much was made of a critical report from UNICEF on Israel’s practices issued in March 2013. In his introduction, Kerry O’Brien stated, “A UNICEF report last year found that Palestinian children had been threatened under interrogation by Israeli security forces with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault against themselves or a family member while demanding confessions for alleged offences, most commonly stone throwing.” Lyons also referred to the report, stating, “It found that Palestinian children had been threatened with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault against themselves or a family member.”
While it is true that the report did make this finding, it also stated that “This conclusion is based on the repeated allegations about such treatment over the past 10 years, and the volume, consistency and persistence of these allegations.” In other words, it is just allegations, without any independent verification.
Furthermore, a later report from UNICEF, the “First progress report”, which was released in October last year and which in part praised Israel for reviewing its tactics, was only obliquely mentioned in passing during Kerry O’Brien’s wrap and not at all in the actual story. One aspect that was praised in the progress report was Israel’s announcement that it was going to trial a pilot system whereby Palestinian minors suspected of criminal activities would be summonsed to appear in court rather than arrested, but even this was ignored by the Four Corners story, and only mentioned by O’Brien.
The story implies that 700 arrests per year of children (or more accurately, minors, as they range in age from 12 to 17) out of a population of 2.5 million is an unusually large amount. Gerard Horton 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…” In 2012-13 in Victoria, with a population of 5.4 million, 29,198 juveniles were processed for alleged crimes, with 10,937 of those arrested. Bearing in mind that minors make up a far greater proportion of the West Bank Palestinian population than in Victoria, this difference is even starker. According to the CIA World Factbook, 34.4% of the West Bank Palestinian population is 0-14 years, compared to 18.1% in Australia. Fully half the Palestinian population is under 18.
Given the large number of rock-throwing incidents in the West Bank involving large groups of minors, an average of some two arrests of minors per day would be remarkably low, even if they were all for throwing rocks. It indicates, if anything, under-enforcement of the law, not over-enforcement. This becomes even more apparent when you examine the statistics of Israeli minors questioned and arrested for violent crime inside Israel, where enforcement is more rigorous.
As reported by al-Jazeera, the Israeli army said more than 4,370 stones were thrown at Israelis in 2012, and 1,195 had been thrown as of April in 2013.
Moreover, Lyons created the impression that Israeli Military Law is draconian, when it is actually far closer to international standards than many other countries, including the civil law of its neighbour, Jordan (a situation which is only now beginning to shift in the Hashemite Kingdom).
As recently reported in the Jordan Times, under the law in Jordan, which applied to the West Bank prior to 1967, “the current age for a child to be tried in court is seven”. In the West Bank now, by contrast, the minimum age a minor can be charged with a criminal offence is 12. In other words, some legal rights for minors actually substantively improved under Israeli occupation compared to the rights they had as an annexed province of Jordan between 1948 and 1967.
In Australia, a child under 10 can’t be charged with a criminal offence, but a child between 10 and 14 can be charged if the prosecutor can rebut the presumption that a child under 14 is incapable of committing a criminal act by demonstrating to the court that the child was able to distinguish between right and wrong. In reality, the vast majority of the Palestinian minors arrested by Israel in the West Bank are 14 and over. According to figures released by Gerard Horton’s Military Court Watch, of the approximately 700 minors arrested in 2013, only eight were under 14.
Lyons looked at a hand-picked number of individual cases of Palestinian minors who had been arrested. He stated, “These boys are part of the new frontline in the Israel-Palestinian conflict”. One was Qsai Zamara. After an uncontested statement from Zamara’s mother describing his alleged violent arrest at night, Lyons stated, “Qsai Zmara insists he’s done nothing wrong, but this begins an 18 day nightmare.” In his Australian Jewish News article, Nathan Jeffay revealed that “the ‘8 day nightmare’ of… Qsai Zamara, was actually a prison stint served until he was released on bail. He was subsequently sentenced for stone throwing, after being incriminated by another Palestinian minor and confessing. The 18 days that he served before his bail was counted as his sentence. Of another featured teenager, Fathi Mahfouz, who Lyons says spent 82 days in prison, Jeffay writes, “This period of time was actually shorter than his sentence of 91 days, which he received after confessing to stone throwing in a plea bargain 11 days after his arrest.”
The third teenager was Islam Dar Ayoub. Of him, Jeffay reveals, “Islam Dar Ayyoub, one of the teenagers interviewed in ABC’s program, alleged that he was tricked into confessing. What the report failed to mention is that a special court session was assembled to hear the claim that his confession was inadmissible – and found that it wasn’t. The reporter, John Lyons, claimed in relation to Dar Ayyoub’s arrest that what the authorities ‘really want’ is information about activists in his village – suggesting that there wasn’t genuine concern about his activities. Viewers weren’t told about Dar Ayyoub’s record. He appears to be something of a compulsive stone thrower, having confessed to and been indicted on 35 counts of throwing stones or rocks at Israeli targets. His case is still in the courts.”
More than Stones
These three Palestinian minors were convicted of throwing stones, (although two of them denied it), and the tone of the program, and certainly its title “Stone Cold Justice”, gave more than just the mere impression that the arrests are all about stone throwing.
But the implication that the Palestinian minors are arrested only for stone-throwing is incorrect. In 2011, the Israeli NGO B’Tselem released a report called “No Minor Matter: Violation of the Rights of Palestinian Minors Arrested by Israel on Suspicion of Stone Throwing.” It examined the treatment of Palestinian minors prosecuted in the Israeli military justice system between 2005 and 2010. On B’Tselem’s website it says the organisation “endeavors to document and educate the Israeli public and policymakers about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, combat the phenomenon of denial prevalent among the Israeli public, and help create a human rights culture in Israel.”
As can be seen by this description, and by the title of the report itself, B’Tselem is a critic of Israeli government policy on the West Bank. However, the report noted the important fact that “According to the military court’s figures, in 2010, 650 indictments were filed against minors, 40 percent of them for stone-throwing with no other offenses. Other minors were accused, among other things, of throwing petrol bombs and of belonging to an unlawful organization.” Again, this fact, that should have been easily accessible to Four Corners, demonstrates the falsity of the impression the programme created.
In fact, the B’Tselem report, which specifically dealt only with Palestinian minors arrested for stone-throwing, uncovered only 835 cases of Palestinian minors arrested for stone-throwing in the six year period between January 2005 and December 2010 – an average of just 139 a year.
Lyons accepts that stone throwing can be lethal, and examines the case of three-year-old Israeli Adele Biton, who has been left severely brain-damaged after an attack. Horton also admits that four people have been killed by stone throwing since November 2000. An IDF blog gives details of eight Israelis altogether who have been killed by stones or rocks, most thrown at cars.
But Four Corners’ decision to fail to mention even one example of Palestinian minors being involved in terrorist acts, or attempted terrorist acts, kept from the viewer an essential element of the story. And many Palestinian minors have conclusively been involved in some heinous acts of terrorism. As Amir Ofek, the press attache for the Embassy of Israel in London, wrote, “Between 2000-04, 292 minors took part in terrorist activities.” In 2011, five members of the Fogel family were brutally murdered in their sleep by Palestinian infiltrators in the settlement of Itamar. All five victims had their throats cut, with three-month-old Hadas being decapitated. One of the two infiltrators, Hakim Awad, was 17.
It’s odd that the program failed to mention the 2011 B’Tselem report, even though it dealt specifically with Palestinian minors arrested for stone-throwing while UNICEF’s March 2013 report dealt with the more general issue of Palestinian minors arrested on any and all charges. Unlike UNICEF, B’Tselem also printed the response to their findings that were provided to them by various relevant branches of the IDF, including the IDF Spokeperson, which stated, “Betzelem were provided with 160 severe cases implicating Minors, Stone and rock throwing as well as bomb throwing that have caused death.”
Israel “Began Occupying the West Bank”
Lyons stated bluntly, “In 1967 Israel began occupying the West Bank.” Israel did not just begin occupying the West Bank because it felt like it. In 1967, at the height of the Six Day War, Jordan attacked Israel, so Israel fought back, and by the end of the war, had captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan, in a defensive war. Despite the fact that Israel had captured the land, together with the Golan Heights from Syria and the Sinai and Gaza from Egypt, in a defensive war, it offered to return land in exchange for peace. In response, on September 1 1967, the Arab League, at its summit in Khartoum, passed a resolution that included the following paragraph:
“The Arab Heads of State have agreed to unite their political efforts at the international and diplomatic level to eliminate the effects of the aggression and to ensure the withdrawal of the aggressive Israeli forces from the Arab lands which have been occupied since the aggression of June 5. This will be done within the framework of the main principles by which the Arab States abide, namely, no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with it, and insistence on the rights of the Palestinian people in their own country.”
This has become known as “the three noes”. Under those circumstances, Israel, for its own security, rejected the option of withdrawing from the captured territory in the absence of a peace agreement under the assumption that a return to the vulnerability of the cease-fire lines of 1949 would only invite future attempts to annihilate Israel similar to that which it had been facing just months before.
Lyons and various interviewees made a great deal throughout the programme of the fact that Israel carries out the arrests at night. Chief IDF Prosecutor in the West Bank, Maurice Hirsch explained to Lyons that “It’s unfortunately an operational necessity because of the widespread, widespread disturbance of the peace that occur when once we try to carry out the arrest during the day and the reluctance of the person, population to co-operate a priority with the law enforcement agencies.”
This understates the case. There are many cases of violence and even deaths when Israeli troops seek to carry out arrests during the day. For example, in September 2013, Israeli troops were attacked with stones, grenades and Molotov cocktails, and the suspect was shot dead when the troops were shot at.
In December, two more Palestinian suspects were killed after Israeli soldiers were attacked while seeking to arrest them, and in one of these cases, there were several wounded when the soldiers subsequently came under attack from rock-throwing rioters.
It should be understood that many arrests take place in Area A, under Palestinian rule, and many Palestinians are armed with automatic weapons in such areas, adding to the risk for IDF troops that must enter an area to arrest a suspect.
The program made it seem as if the arrests of minors are generally carried out at night, but even DCI – PS put the number for 2013 at 56.1%, a figure it based on “98 affidavits of Palestinian children aged 12 – 17”, while Jeffay, who spoke to Israeli authorities in writing his piece for the Australian Jewish News, put the figure at 17%.
Different Legal Systems
Much was also made of the fact that Israeli citizens in the West Bank and Palestinians who live 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, “Yigal Palmor, why are there two legal systems in the West Bank? One for Palestinians and one for Jews[sic]?”
Palmor explained, “There is a different legal system in Israel than the one in the West Bank, because that’s what international law demands. Once the territory was captured, it was, under international law, maintained under military law. This is what the Geneva Conventions demand. Otherwise, it would be simply annexation. If we extended Israeli law to all of the West Bank, it would have been annexation and the international community would have rejected it…since the status of the territory of the West Bank was to be determined by negotiation, meanwhile, we had no choice but to abide by international law. Therefore, to maintain it under military law. So, Israeli law is valid along, inside the green line, which means the pre-’67 line. And military law is valid in the West Bank because there’s no other way to do it. We can’t do it any other way.”
However, in what would seem to be a violation of basic journalistic ethics, this answer did not make it in to the program, and nor did any other explanation of the need for two systems.
Viewers would also have been unaware of the protections that apply to the minors brought before the court system. The IDF Military Advocate General explains that a separate juvenile court was established in 2009. Judges are appointed by the Chief Justice of the Military High Court of Appeals, and must have received relevant professional training and be qualified to serve as juvenile judges. According to the MAG, practically all defendants, minors and adults, have legal representation, and “Prior to the questioning of a minor suspect, the investigator shall notify the minor, in a language and wording that he/she understands, of his/her right to consult with an attorney in private.” Parents must be notified as soon as possible if a minor is arrested, minors in detention must be held separately from adults, 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. While the law has recently been further amended, this was the law in place at the time the incidents referred to in the programme occurred.
In his Australian Jewish News article, Nathan Jeffay wrote that Maurice Hirsch said to him 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’.”
Rather than raising any of these points, Lyons stated, “To understand Israel’s two different legal systems it helps to come to Hebron – the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank.
“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, although viewers would never have known this. It is the second holiest city for Jews, being the site of the tombs of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their wives Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. There was an unbroken Jewish presence in Hebron 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, almost uniquely among Israeli settlements, they exist side by side with Arab-owned properties.
Until the Second Intifada, the route that connected the nearby settlement of Kiryat Arba was protected by soldiers but open to all pedestrian traffic, Israeli and Palestinian. However, following numerous terror attacks, and under the constant threat of armed Palestinian violence, Israel’s Defence Minister decided that the risk of stabbings, suicide bombings and shootings to Hebron’s Israeli residents and visitors was impossible to contain under the circumstances and the route was closed to Palestinian foot and vehicle traffic. Nevertheless, Palestinians who live on that street still have access to their homes, and Palestinians can still cross the road at certain points for easier access to the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs. In addition, all Palestinian-controlled areas of the city are accessible to each other via a simple detour. According to a 1997 agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Israel remains in security control of 20% of Hebron in an area known as H2.
Lyons spoke to a Palestinian, who told him, “I asked [a soldier] that I want to pass to go to the cemetery to visit my father’s grave. He said you cannot.” This didn’t mean he couldn’t go to the cemetery, as was implied. It just meant he couldn’t go there that way. Lyons added, “I just find it interesting that we as foreigners and I as an Australian can walk there, but you two are Palestinians in the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank and you cannot walk.” Kept from the Australian viewer, however, was the highly relevant and related fact that Lyons could just as easily have walked a block further into Palestinian-held Hebron and found that as a foreigner, he could walk there but under Israeli law, Israelis aren’t allowed to, even though the West Bank is supposedly under complete Israeli occupation.
The reason for both rules are the same: Security.
Lyons came across Israeli forces firing tear gas in Hebron, apparently near school children walking to school. He said that the soldiers said they were responding to stone throwing, but, he 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. In addition, his footage did not actually show the military police firing the gas at the children either.
The video clips used on the programme entirely failed to show the whereabouts of the children at the time the tear gas was fired, and a still photograph on the ABC website puzzlingly showed a single youth running past an existing tear gas cloud and towards the IDF soldiers who fired it, some seconds after the canister had been launched and begun to discharge. No other schoolchildren could be seen in the foreground, near the tear gas canister or, indeed, in motion at all. Rather, a handful of adults and children can be seen nonchalantly spectating at the scene from a safe distance of what appears to be tens of metres away.
In the documentary, Lyons then questioned the commander twice with the sensational allegation “why did you fire the tear gas towards those children going to school?… They appear to be children going to school normally, can I ask you why you fired this and the other tear gas at them?” But the commander was not permitted to talk to the media, as Lyons would have known as a journalist well versed in army regulations pertaining to the press. The officer was therefore not even in a position to challenge Lyons’ very premise that schoolchildren were the target. This made the officer appear very much to Australian viewers like he had something to hide.
Serious Factual Flaws
Lyons then focused on the case of Wadi’a Mawadeh, which, he says, “shocked many”. A transcript of the program reads as follows:
JOHN LYONS: 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.
His friend tried to help.
DIA QAFEESHEH, WADI’A’S FRIEND: I kept holding his hand but the soldiers pulled him away from me and pushed me against the door.
(Wadi’a crying as he is led to soldiers car)
DIA QAFEESHEH: I said ‘Don’t be scared, I’m with you.’ He was hugging me from fear. I was upset, I had tears in my eyes but stopped myself from crying and kept holding him and hugging him.
WADI’A MAWADEH: I was playing and then a car came. The man said I threw a stone at the car. The Jewish man went and told them I threw a stone at him.
JOHN LYONS: 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.
As AIJAC’s Tzvi Fleischer has explained in a blog post examining three of the more egregious factual errors in the program, the reality was somewhat different. This was explained by the IDF in a letter that was printed in Ha’aretz, and a statement covered in the Times of Israel that the Four Corners should have known about.
Wadi’a Mawadeh was “caught in the act” of standing by the side of the road throwing stones at cars. It wasn’t just the word of one settler, as Lyons stated. He was taken into an army jeep by an older Palestinian friend and taken by the army jeep back to his house accompanied by the friend. He wasn’t arrested. 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 to come home so he could accompany them instead. 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, as Lyons did, that the boy was held for two hours.
One would expect that if a five-year-old in Australia was found by police throwing stones at cars, they would pick him up, take him home and, once the parents were located, possibly take them to the local police station to deal with the matter. This is exactly what happened here. Furthermore, Lyons seems to be suggesting that if it had been the word of one settler, the Israelis should have ignored the issue, but surely it is the responsibility of law enforcement to investigate an allegation, even if it is brought by only one person. In any event, even B’Tselem, which filmed the incident and was highly critical of the Israeli forces’ reactions, did not dispute that the boy was throwing stones.
It is also worth mentioning that a single mismanaged incident does not a “systematic” injustice make. Law enforcement is never perfect and mistakes and misjudgments are made in every country, including Australia. No Australian law enforcement officers are subject to the constant, microscopic scrutiny that the IDF is under in Hebron, where Israeli and foreign anti-occupation activists keep Israel’s forces under constant video surveillance.
One of the other errors dealt with by Fleischer was a claim that nine-year-old Karim Dar Ayyoub was arrested. Gaby Lasky, an activist left-wing lawyer interviewed by Lyons, stated, “He was nine-years-old I think when he was first arrested, Karim, which is completely unacceptable, even to the army authorities.” In fact, as mentioned above, it is illegal under Israeli law for anyone under the age of 12 to be arrested. According to Electronic Intifada, a virulently anti-Israel website that is hardly going to spin a story in favour of Israel, the boy was 11, not nine, and was picked up for a two-hour questioning during the day, and never at risk of being arrested, which again, would have been impossible under Israeli Military Law.
The third error dissected by Fleischer was a claim by Lyons 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.” Given its context in the story, and the fact that this statement was made by Lyons without in any way being distinguished as a separate matter from the rest of his report, this statement would have been taken to refer to Palestinian children on the West Bank.
However, the reports about the “cages” 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 that were to be transferred that day to be placed in cages, in reality outdoor holding pens, early in the morning fpr periods of up to two hours. 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, a city which is located on Israel’s temperate coastal plain.
Soldiers and Settlers
Lyons spoke to Yehuda Shaul, the founder of Breaking the Silence, which Lyons described as “950 current and former Israeli combat soldiers trying to end human rights abuses”. They are a group that occasionally puts out reports of anonymous testimony from Israeli soldiers alleging misdeeds that they took part in, saw, or heard about. The fact that the group’s members are almost all anonymous means that the events they describe generally can’t be verified, let alone acted upon, and the number of members the group has is also an unverified claim. In addition, as AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro noted in August 2012, much of the testimony is of instances that may have made the soldiers feel uncomfortable, but hardly amounts to human rights abuses, while the fact that the group is financially backed from foreign sources, fails to take its allegations through Israel’s justice system and publishes the bulk of its material in English, rather than Hebrew, suggests they are more interested in damaging Israel’s reputation than in improving human rights.
Shaul made various allegations, perhaps his most damning one being that “When we see settlers attacking a Palestinian, our orders are not to intervene.” This was accompanied by footage of clashes between settlers and Palestinians, with the obvious implication they were initiated by the settlers, even though it was impossible to tell from the footage who started it.
Lyons relies in part upon a B’Tselem clip taken on May 19, 2012 of a settler shooting one of a group of Palestinians who is hurling a rock at him and a few other Israelis, while a single IDF soldier enters the foreground of the footage, and appears to be unsure exactly how to respond to the violent scene unfolding rapidly before him.
According to a Jerusalem Post report of the melee, which involved a mass riot as well as an arson attack, “The IDF acknowledged that a shooting incident had occurred and said it was investigating the matter. It added that the videos did not present the entire narrative of what occurred, but it did not elaborate. It said that security forces had responded to the incident and had taken steps to separate both sides and bring an end to the incident.”
Indeed, the fact that only one person was shot in the incident, and not fatally, tends to lend credence to the IDF’s account that they did intervene to separate the two sides, despite appearances.
However, Lyons contradicts Shaul in the very next scene, when he says, “Palestinian children face danger on two fronts – night arrests from the army and violence from settlers. To get to school each day these children need to walk past this settler outpost. Attacks from settlers have become so bad that the army escorts the children. But school has finished early and the army has not turned up. Today, the children are on their own.”
This is all very dramatic, but it begs the obvious question of why the children rely on the soldiers to protect them when the soldiers, according to Shaul, have orders to do nothing to protect them. Clearly, they can’t both be right.
The footage showed the children walking straight past a settlement, with no reaction, let alone violence, from any settlers. It’s worth noting that, in its time in the West Bank, Four Corners’ cameras were not able to capture any violence from settlers against Palestinians, despite Lyons’ assertion that it is so commonplace. All of the footage of this nature Lyons relies upon has been collected from archived sources, cherry-picked from incidents going back several years.
In fact, the main “front” that Palestinian children face danger from has nothing to do with Israel at all. In 2011, the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics surveyed Palestinian children between the ages of 12 and 17 on whether they had been exposed to physical or psychological violence, and if so, whether that was from an “old neighbour”, a “young neighbour”, a “friend”, a “teacher”, the “Israeli occupation forces and settlers”, “boys/girls at street” or “school pupils”. The survey excluded family members. Of those surveyed, 21.4% 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 at street, 6.9% from an old neighbour, and bringing up the rear by a considerable distance, only 1.9% said they had been exposed to physical violence by the Israeli occupation forces and settlers.
Meanwhile, just 3.5% reported being exposed to psychological abuse from IDF soldiers or settlers, compared to 14.6% from old neighbours, 21.2% from young neighbours, 23.6% from a friend, 27.6% from a teacher, 15.4% from children in the street and 25% from classmates. These statistics would no doubt come as a shock to those who watched the Four Corners episode, a programme which turned a blind eye to the real sources of danger to Palestinian youth.
The Court System
Lyons stated, “After interrogation children are brought here for trial – Ofer Military Prison, near Jerusalem. The army would not let Four Corners film inside. I’ve been behind these walls three times. I saw children shuffling across the courtyard, handcuffed and shackled. Some hearings lasted sixty seconds. I saw one boy shout the name of his prison so his mother would know where he was being held. I saw the judge convict some children without even once looking at them. Through it all, what I saw was a conveyor belt of convicted children.”
The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA) analysed some of the claims in the Four Corners program, interviewing a senior IDF official. In relation to the various claims of torture, including the electric shocks and beatings, the official stated that the accused Palestinian minors never made those claims in court, despite being represented by lawyers, nor had he heard them at any time prior to the story. On the claims that a child needed to call out the name of a prison so his parents would know where he was being held, the official noted that before interrogations, authorities must notify parents where there child is being held, and that he is about to be interrogated.
The CAMERA report continued, “As for the allegation that some hearings lasted 60 seconds, the IDF man noted that some hearings are strictly technical, such as scheduling the next hearing. The official accuses the reporter of deliberately painting a false picture. The claim that the court system is a conveyor belt ‘is so far from the truth that it’s unbelievable,’ he said.”
The CAMERA report also revealed that “an IDF source told CAMERA that army representatives took the Australian reporter to film mass rioting in the West Bank Palestinian village of Qadum. The footage of that stone-throwing, however, never made it into “Stone Cold Justice.” Lyons also never mentioned or showed that the Palestinians don’t just throw rocks, they use slingshots to hurl them further and faster.
The B’Tselem report “No Minor Matter” noted, “The data provided to B’Tselem by the IDF Spokesperson’s Office indicate that trials in the case of minors charged with stone throwing are extremely rare, and the vast majority of cases ended with a plea bargain. In only five of the 642 files whose outcome is known to B’Tselem were full trials held.” It should be noted that these are informed decisions, as they all have legal representation. The B’Tselem report also revealed that 40 percent of these youths receive no jail sentence at all after the plea bargain. Furthermore, subsequent to the launch of the IDF’s Youth Military Court (a humanitarian gesture ignored entirely by Lyons) all of the 12-13 year olds reviewed by B’Tselem had received sentences of just a few days.
The Conspiracy Theory
Having made his false allegation about the cages, including the comment that Israel had ceased the practice, Lyons then reached the crux of the 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 on their villages, including asking them about their neighbours and family.”
It is noticeable here that as soon as Lyons makes what he sees as a slight concession that Israel may be making an improvement, he feels compelled to follow it with the claim that Israel is only doing so to cover up something far worse. Similarly, when he touched on the fact that stone throwing actually can be lethal, he followed up by saying, “While stone throwing can indeed be serious, critics say it’s been used as a catch all charge to arrest Palestinian children.” It appears that, when he is grudgingly forced to admit a fact that detracts from his narrative, Lyons feels the need to immediately compensate.
So what was the evidence for his calumnious conspiracy theory? As explained earlier, it was footage from one interrogation, which, according to Electronic Intifada, took place in 2011 (hardly evidence of a “new” strategy), and unsubstantiated claims from three critics of Israel.
One, Gaby Lasky, said, “I can see a pattern that Israel’s hasn’t been able to put down the non-violent movement in the occupied territories through violent means. So the best way to do that is by incriminating those leaders, and the easiest way to do that, to achieve, to get those incriminations is by arresting children which are the weakest link.”
Lyons clarified, “So they’re using children to gather intelligence?” to which Lasky replied, “One hundred per cent.” Horton then accused the Israelis of bribing the children to become informants, and Lyons then interviewed Nader Abu Amsha, Director of the YMCA Rehabilitation Program, who stated, “They are trying to know information about the village and about the life of people, the families, the attitudes, the attitudes of the community and all of these. And the most vicious and the most horrible thing to push people to collaborate as collaborators with occupiers, to put them under the stick and carrot process. If you reject this, if you are refusing this you will be punished, you will, you will stay longer in prison. So this kind of converting a child who’s not responsible on his act to be a collaborator is not just helping in information gathering for the Israelis, it’s breaking this child forever.”
Only after all this was Palmor shown explaining, “There has to be a pattern because the 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.” Surely it is normal practice for law enforcement officials to question an arrested suspect about who else may be involved in the crime, especially if it is suspected that the person arrested may have been following orders, but Lyons, Horton and Lasky twist it into something sinister.
It is particularly nonsensical to describe this alleged strategy as “new” when the supposed evidence is from 2011, because the nature of the army is that, over that period, the holder of just about every position changes. There’s even a different Minister of Defence now. Therefore, even something that was a policy in 2011 may well not be a policy at all in 2014, let alone a “new” one.
As his example of a non-violent resister Israel is allegedly trying to gather information about through these interrogations, Lyons cites Bassem Tamimi. However, Tamimi served a prison sentence for, among other things, “soliciting” youths to throw stones. He also openly advocates stone-throwing against Israelis as a legitimate and acceptable means of protest, which he somehow characterises as non-violent. In a hagiographic piece about Tamimi in the March 15 2013 New York Times, Ben Ehrenreich wrote, “‘We see our stones as our message,” Bassem explained. The message they carried, he said, was “We don’t accept you.” While Bassem spoke admiringly of Mahatma Gandhi, he didn’t worry over whether stone-throwing counted as violence. The question annoyed him: Israel uses far greater and more lethal force on a regular basis, he pointed out, without being asked to clarify its attitude toward violence. If the loincloth functioned as the sign of Gandhi’s resistance, of India’s nakedness in front of British colonial might, Bassem said, ‘Our sign is the stone.'”
Part of the program’s underlying agenda seemed to be that ultimately settlements are the cause of all the problems. Certainly Lyons repeatedly turned to settlements throughout the program and, in publicity prior to the program, referred to the “occupation” as being “at the heart of the problem”. Revealingly the only Israeli who was asked about the settlements was extreme right-wing settler Daniella Weiss, who no longer has any role in Israeli politics or in the settler movement. She told Lyons, “This land was promised to the Jews by God and all of it. It’s true that in the course of history Arabs came to this area from all over, but the promise of god is more important than the changes in history and the political changes. That is why you have to put it deep, deep into your mind, that you do not have any chance whatsoever in any point of history, neither you nor any of your offspring to ever have an independent state of your own here.” Palmor and Hirsch were not asked about this issue.
Of course, Israel has made three offers to the Palestinians of an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza, with many of the settlements to be evacuated, and land from elsewhere in Israel given to the Palestinians as compensation for the settlements retained. Ariel Sharon dismantled all of the 21 settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank. However, none of this was mentioned in the Four Corners story.
The Real Story
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 schools and soccer tournaments for youth after them. In January, Israeli officials released a presentation documenting some of the many instances of such incitement.
The program also ignores the fact that the children are deliberately recruited to take part in the violence. Article 8 of the International Criminal Court Statute provides that it is a war crime to use children to “participate actively in hostilities”. Here is a war crime taking place right under the program’s proverbial nose, but it elicited no interest whatsoever from the Four Corners producers.
Palestinian journalist Khaled Abu Toameh notes that a report issued by the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights revealed it received 56 complaints about torture and mistreatment in Palestinian prisons in January alone, as well as “innumerable complaints about arbitrary and unlawful arrests of Palestinians by the PA and Hamas.” By contrast, according again to Maurice Hirsch in an interview by Yonah Jeremy Bob in the Jerusalem Post, out of 1000 Palestinian minors arrested in the West Bank by Israel in 2013 (350 of whom were turned over to PA police), there were 30 complaints. He also noted that in about 15 percent of the cases, the Israeli prosecutors discontinued the cases without bringing them to trial.
Yet it was Israel alone that Lyons and Four Corners chose to make the focus of their story. As Khaled Abu Toameh wrote, “As far as the PA is concerned, Israel alone is responsible for human rights violations and assaults on freedom of expression and the media. Evidently, most Western journalists, governments and human rights groups have chosen to endorse the Palestinian Authority’s stance that the only evil-doers are the Israelis. And that is precisely why the ICHR report about the anarchy, lawlessness and human rights violations by the PA and Hamas will be completely ignored in the West.”
There is little doubt that Israel could better handle the situation involving hostile Palestinian minors in the West Bank, and it is taking steps to do so, but the participation of these minors in the violence would put any country in a difficult 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 a program funded by the taxpayer. Four Corners has 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, as Lyons does, that Israel’s many documented efforts to improve its policies in this regard are meant to “disguise” a “new policy” of “targeting Palestinian children”. This is an outrageous, malicious accusation, and the program did not come close to justifying it with actual evidence. The fact that the ABC saw fit to sensationalise the programme 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 extend beyond this broadcast.