Palestinian “Eyewitnesses”: Proven Unreliable – Again

Palestinian “Eyewitnesses”: Proven Unreliable – Again

August 27, 2013 16:00
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Every movie buff knows that when a gang of criminals is apprehended by the forces of law and order, the first thing they need to do is get their story straight. Under police questioning a case is then constructed around holes and inconsistencies in the criminals’ individual stories.

Picking apart the stories of so-called Palestinian “eyewitnesses” is not a luxury that the IDF has. It’s also not something that many journalists can be bothered to deal with before writing up an article.

So just how reliable (or unreliable) are Palestinian eyewitnesses?

The story surrounding the deaths of three Palestinians during a pre-dawn Israeli arrest raid in the Qalandia refugee camp near Ramallah is illustrative of the problem.

Threat to IDF life

The threat posed by Palestinians engaged in stone throwing or worse is often downplayed by a media keen to promote a simplistic David versus Goliath framing of the story, with the Palestinians playing the David role. Once again, in this story, most media avoided any graphic descriptions of the Palestinian rioting, leaving the impression that the IDF had resorted to a disproportionate and indiscriminate response.

Only a short quote from IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner was included in most media stories: “Live fire was used only after soldiers felt their self defence required it,” he said. “With the great numbers of people and the way the situation developed forces felt there was no choice but to use live fire.”

Credit then to the Daily Telegraph and the New York Times for including descriptions of the scene that paint a much more detailed and alarming picture.

The Daily Telegraph:

The noise and disturbance brought large numbers of inhabitants from their homes, many of whom climbed to the roofs of low rise buildings and began hurling missiles, witnesses told The Telegraph.

Outnumbered, the police requested help from the Israeli army, which deployed soldiers in armoured vehicles and jeeps.

“It was like a battlefield,” said Ahmed Lafi, 25, a journalism student at Ramallah’s Bir Zeit University “Nobody was on the roof simply watching.

People were throwing rocks, Molotov cocktails, iron bars, even satellite dishes.

“The Israeli forces panicked and some of them were screaming like women.

One of their jeeps broke down and another was almost burned. One group of soldiers got trapped. At one point, they thought they had lost a soldier and started breaking into houses looking for him.”

The New York Times:

Mr. Lafi described people attacking the soldiers with firebombs, stones, bricks, satellite dishes — anything they could get their hands on. “If the army meets resistance each time it tries to arrest activists in the West Bank,” he said, “then the army won’t dare to go on raiding and arresting.”

Is it any wonder that IDF soldiers felt sufficiently threatened to resort to live fire?

What time is it?

Most media, including the BBC, relied on an Associated Press report:

Hatim Khatib, whose brother Youssef was arrested in the raid, told The Associated Press that undercover troops dressed in civilian clothes arrived at their home at 4:30 a.m. looking for the brother.

“After half an hour we started hearing shooting from the soldiers inside our house, and then people started throwing stones at them,” he said.

According to the LA Times, however:

Palestinian witnesses said the raid began at 3 a.m. as an undercover operation to re-arrest a Fatah militant who had recently been released from an Israeli prison.

In stark contrast, the Washington Post said:

At the funeral for the three dead, senior Palestinian leaders and angry residents said Israel provoked the attack by arriving in the refugee camp in the morning, when people were heading to work, school and mosque.

Just how many people go to work or school at 4.30 in the morning? It’s entirely unlikely that the IDF would contemplate an undercover arrest operation at a time when ordinary Palestinians would be moving around on the streets. This is precisely in order to avoid both detection and the risk of a confrontation. Indeed, for the record, the IDF stated that the operation began around 5am.

The arrest

The aforementioned AP report, relied upon by numerous media outlets describes how Youssef Khatib was arrested based on his brother Hatim’s testimony:

“After half an hour we started hearing shooting from the soldiers inside our house, and then people started throwing stones at them,” he said.

Youssef was arrested after he returned from morning prayers at 7 a.m., he said.

The New York Times, however, quotes another Palestinian claiming to be Youssef’s brother:

Amer Khateeb, 27, said undercover Israeli forces had come to arrest his brother Yusef, who was released from an Israeli prison two years ago. Yusef escaped to a neighbor’s house, but the forces caught up with him and beat him, his brother said.

Apparently two brothers from the same Palestinian family cannot agree on what happened. Which is it? Was Youssef Khatib arrested after returning from morning prayers or was he already at home when Israeli security forces arrived to arrest him?

Considering by 7am a large-scale riot was taking place in the camp, it seems unlikely that Khatib casually walked back to his house from the mosque to find Israeli troops waiting for him.

The Daily Telegraph reports the following:

After police used explosives to blow open the door of his home, Mr Khattib initially escaped to the upper storey before jumping on to the roofs of two adjoining buildings. He was finally caught in a storeroom after officers forced entry to one of the buildings.

Intent to kill?

Consider this in The Guardian:

Robin al-Abed, 32, was shot in the chest as he tried to get from his home to his workplace, and Jihad Asslan, 20, was pronounced brain dead after being shot on the roof of his house where he had gone to watch the clashes, said a neighbour of the men, Abu Omar Hammad. The third dead man was Younis Jahjouh, 22, who was also shot in the chest.

Hammad, 46, who sells sweets in the camp, said he had been woken by his children at 6am to find “soldiers smothering the neighbourhood”. He said he saw al-Rabed shot as he tried to get to his job with the UN Palestinian refugee agency, Unrwa.

“He was not throwing stones. The soldiers opened the back door of their jeep and shot him in the chest. The bullet came out of his back and he was puking blood. I called an ambulance, but it was prevented from entering the camp,” he said.

“I’ve seen many incursions in this camp, but this was different. They came to kill.”

Based on other newspaper reports and a statement from UNWRA itself, “Robin al-Abed” is actually Rubin Zayed. Perhaps we can forgive The Guardian for this error but not for promoting a narrative that Zayed was deliberately targeted.

In reference to the three Palestinians killed during the incident, the New York Times reported:

Witnesses in Qalandia said that two of the dead had been participating in the riot but that Mr. Zayed, a father of four who worked for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinian refugees, was caught between stone throwers and the Israeli military on his way to work.

This description is also repeated by the Daily Telegraph: “caught between stone throwers and the Israeli military on his way to work.”

So while the NY Times and Daily Telegraph refer to multiple witnesses, The Guardian chooses one who claims that the IDF “came to kill.”

Conclusion

In conclusion, the events in Qalandia offer us a good case study as to how Palestinian eyewitness accounts can lead to multiple versions of a story as well as how different journalists and media outlets choose to present the story.

One thing is clear, however: the media should take into account the unreliability of so-called Palestinian “eyewitnesses” and spokespeople before accepting their narrative without question.

Source material can be found at this site.

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