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Pressure & Censorship

The New York Times Marginalizes Palestinian Women and Palestinian Rights

Patrick O'Connor is a New York City-based activist with the International Solidarity Movement (ISM) and Palestine Media Watch.

Rachel Roberts is a writer and activist based out of Miami, Florida. She currently works with the International Solidarity Movement media group, and has worked with Palestine Media Watch and Jews Against the Occupation.

Patrick O'Connor and Rachel Roberts
The Electronic Intifada
November 17, 2006

A November 7, 2006 New York Times news article about a Human Rights Watch report on domestic violence against Palestinian women1 brings welcome attention to human rights issues. Unfortunately, the same article, viewed in the context of The New York Times' reporting on Israel/Palestine over the last six years, provides a powerful example of typical US mainstream media bias against Palestinians. Research shows clearly that The New York Times pays little attention to human rights in Israel/Palestine, downplays the larger context in which violence against Palestinian women occurs and generally silences Palestinian women's voices. By omitting crucial details and emphasizing certain others, The New York Times, one of the US' most respected and powerful media outlets, has turned a valuable piece of human rights reporting into a tool that can be used to reinforce a Western agenda that has cynically exploited "saving Muslim women" as an excuse for dominating and abusing the rights of people from other cultures.

The Human Rights Watch November, 2006 report, A Question of Security: Violence Against Palestinian Women,2 is important and needed. However, this human rights report received unusual attention from The New York Times. Since the current Palestinian uprising began on September 29, 2000, three of the leading human rights organizations focusing on Israel/Palestine – Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the Israeli organization B'Tselem – have published 76 reports focused primarily on Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights, and four reports primarily focused on Palestinians abuses of Israeli or Palestinian rights. 3 This weighting suggests that Israel has committed a disproportionate share of the human rights violations. Yet, a Lexis-Nexis search reveals that The New York Times has published only four articles on those 80 reports, just two full articles on these 76 reports primarily about Israeli violations of Palestinian rights, and two full articles on the four reports on Palestinian violations.4

The other three New York Times articles fully devoted to a human rights organization report on Israel/Palestine, were a November 1, 2002 article5 on a Human Rights Watch report criticizing Palestinian suicide bombings,6 a May 3, 2002 article7 on a Human Rights Watch report largely devoted to criticizing Israeli actions in Jenin,8 and a November 13, 2001 article9 based on a B'Tselem report about the Israeli army's exoneration of soldiers who killed a Palestinian child.10

Reports by Three Major Human Rights Organizations on Israel/Palestine and New York Times Articles on those Reports

 

Number of reports by major human rights organizations

% of reports

Number of NYT articles focused on reports by major human rights organizations

% of NYT articles

% of human rights reports turned into NYT articles

Primarily critical of Israel

76

95%

2

50%

2.6%

Primarily critical of Palestinians

411

5%

2

50%

50%

TOTAL

80

100%

4

100%

5%

Human rights organizations can serve as a valuable source of information for media covering Israel/Palestine. While the US media sometimes provide conflicting information from "both sides," information from independent third parties not involved in the conflict like human rights organizations, governments, international organizations, and researchers can provide important context that helps readers to evaluate conflicting claims. 11

The Times may assert that its reporting is balanced because it has published an equal number of articles based on human rights reports criticizing Israelis and Palestinians, and one article criticizing Israel's war in Lebanon and one article critical of Hezbollah. However, "balance" does not rest on misrepresenting the evaluations of respected third parties, and creating a false parity where it does not exist in reality. Through these distortions, the Times is actively obfuscating reality in Israel/Palestine, rather than revealing it to its readers.

The entire 796-word New York Times article, Violence Against Palestinian Women Increasing, Study Says,12 is devoted to quoting and paraphrasing the Human Rights Watch report and one of the report's American authors. By itself, this single article on Palestinian women represents a remarkable and disproportionate 13% of all 6256 words that The New York Times quoted or paraphrased from the three major human rights organizations in 66 articles since the Palestinian uprising began on September 29, 2000. Most quotes, paraphrases or citations of human rights organizations' findings were very brief. Excluding the four Times' articles entirely devoted to human rights organizations' reports, a Lexis-Nexis search shows that in thousands of articles published on Israel/Palestine in The New York Times since the beginning of this uprising in 2000, the Times quoted, cited or paraphrased just 4187 words on Israel/Palestine from human rights organizations in 62 articles, snippets averaging just 69 words per article. The brief citations from human rights organizations are often overpowered by the inclusion of much longer denials from the Israeli government, as they were when Israel denied killing seven family members of 12 year old Huda Ghalia on a Gaza beach on June 9, 2006.13 Additionally, in 18 of the 62 articles, The New York Times simply provided statistics from the organizations, but none of their analysis or assertions.

On top of highly selective coverage of human rights issues in Israel/Palestine, Steven Erlanger's article on the HRW report reinforces stereotypes by effectively portraying Palestinian women as passive victims. Erlanger fails to note that local Palestinian women have been leading the fight against domestic violence in Palestine. While the HRW report includes a section on the Palestinian Women's Rights Movement, and even begins that section by talking about "how [Palestinian women] balance their dual commitment to the national struggle and to the feminist struggle," Erlanger's article leaves the reader with the impression that Palestinian women are helpless, and completely reliant on the efforts of foreign groups. The HRW report mentions by name 21 Palestinian women, including university professors, mental health professionals and human rights organizers who are fighting to protect women against violence, and yet The New York Times article fails to quote a single Palestinian woman, or any Palestinian for that matter. In contrast, the Associated Press (AP) also published an article on the HRW report, which quoted two Palestinian women, lawyer Manal Kleibo, and former parliamentarian Hanan Ashrawi, as well as a Palestinian Authority official responding to the HRW report.14

Unsurprisingly, research shows that The New York Times op-ed page also marginalizes Palestinian voices and has completely shut out Palestinian women. Since September 29, 2000 the Times has published just one op-ed by a Palestinian for every 3.4 by an Israeli. Palestinian men wrote all 22 op-eds by Palestinians that The New York Times published. During the same period the LA Times and The Washington Post did slightly better, publishing four and one op-ed respectively by Palestinian women.15

In contrast to the limited space to the limited space the Times affords Palestinian women, a recent Times article devoted to the sexual exploitation of Israeli women highlighted their voices and their efforts to change their society. Dina Kraft quotes five Israeli women in her October 19, 2006 article, Israel Warriors Find Machismo Is Way of Past, about sexual misconduct among high-ranking Israeli military officers and government higher-ups. Among the women interviewed was Knesset member Yael Dayan, who introduced legislation to combat sexual harassment in Israel.

Curiously though, victims of Israeli domestic violence and sex trafficking have not been granted the opportunity to speak in the Times. While The New York Times considers domestic Palestinian violence newsworthy, similar problems in Israel are ignored. According to a recent blog posting by Arthur Neslen in The UK Guardian's "Comment is Free": "between 2000 and 2005, there was an almost 300% increase in the number of Israeli women murdered by firearms, almost half of whom were killed by partners who were soldiers, security guards or policemen."16 Despite clear trends pointing to systemic problems of domestic violence against Israeli women, this problem has not been covered in The New York Times. The New York Times has also never published an article focusing on Israel's problems with sex trafficking of women, despite reports that sex trafficking accounts for more than one billion U.S. dollars per year of Israel's economy,17 and despite strong criticism by the US government.18

Tellingly, the Times chose to cover the HRW report, but completely ignored a similar 2005 report by Amnesty International about violence against Palestinian women.19 While both Amnesty and HRW report on domestic violence and the failures of the Palestinian Authority, the Amnesty report places much greater emphasis on the deleterious effects of the Israeli occupation on women, with discussions about "the impact of military checkpoints, blockades and curfews on women," the deaths of pregnant women at checkpoints and "ill-treatment of Palestinian women in Israeli detention centres."

It is ironic that news media like The Times picked up on HRW's report on the heels of widespread news coverage of the Palestinian women's march at Beit Hanoun, Gaza on November 3, 2006. Hundreds of Palestinian women boldly rushed to the aid of Palestinian male fighters holed up in a mosque during a standoff with the Israeli military, and two were shot and killed by the Israeli army. The women of Beit Hanoun contradicted Western stereotypes that portray Palestinian women (and Muslim women more generally) as passive, docile and at the mercy of men. In contrast to the image of Palestinian women waiting to be saved by Westerners from the torment of their traditional circumstances, the women of Beit Hanoun showed the West something far different: Palestinian women actively supporting resistance to Israeli occupation. At the same time, these women, far from validating our Western ideas about their lives, showed, defiantly, that they are already capable of acting on behalf of their own interests with or without help from the outside.

By representing Palestinian women as passive victims of abuse by Palestinian men, The New York Times echoes themes that were exploited to justify the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the US' current Middle East policy, and many past colonial adventures. Columbia University anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, in her September 2002 article "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?" points out the ways that modern discourses dealing with the liberation of Muslim women actually echo the colonial and missionary rhetoric of the last century. Referring to a speech that Laura Bush made about liberating Afghan women from the Taliban in the lead up to the US' attack on Afghanistan, Abu-Lughod likens the rationale for invasion to the 'colonial feminism' of a century ago, in which those in positions of power expressed "selective concern" for the plight of Muslim women in order to appropriate women's voices and enlist them in justifying the actions of the powerful.20 Too often, advocates for Israel have echoed this pattern, using the victimization of Palestinian women to pull focus away from the ways women are harmed by the occupation, while emphasizing the parts of women's oppression which are the responsibility of Palestinian men.

The New York Times' highly selective disclosure of information from reports by major human rights organizations, and its portrayal of Palestinian women are just two examples of a larger pattern of biased US reporting. More generally, US mainstream media tend to accept Israeli claims at face value, and marginalize Palestinians and third parties who support Palestinian concerns. Israelis tend to portray themselves as victims of Palestinian terrorism, while the Palestinian narrative focuses on Israeli military occupation and violence, and Israeli violations of basic human rights which are enshrined in international law.

Like most US mainstream media, the record shows that the US' newspaper of record, The New York Times, pays little heed to international law21 and human rights in Israel/Palestine, marginalizes Palestinians and actively silences the voices of Palestinian women. The Times' publication of an article featuring an important Human Rights Watch report on domestic abuse of Palestinian women is an anomaly, and should not be viewed as an attempt to support Palestinian women's rights. Within the context of the Times' overall reporting on Israel/Palestine, the article instead contributes to the dangerous pattern of Western disparagement of Muslim society.

If the Times cared about human rights in Israel/Palestine and valued independent third party perspectives, the Times would have published more than 6256 words on reports of major human rights organizations in its thousands of articles on Israel/Palestine over more than six years. Instead, The New York Times, like most US media, leaves its readers with the impression that Israeli crimes against Palestinians are marginal. In this instance, it has presented a distorted picture of the struggle for Palestinian women's rights. Given the low standard set by one of the US' most revered media outlets, it is little wonder that Americans raise so few questions about the US government's uncritical support of Israeli policy.

Footnotes

  1. Violence Against Palestinian Women Increasing, Study Says, Steven Erlanger, November 7, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/07/ world/middleeast/07palestinians.html?ref=middleeast
  2. http://hrw.org/reports/2006/opt1106/
  3. B'Tselem produced only reports that were primarily critical of Israel, though B'Tselem press releases sometimes focused on Palestinian violations. B'Tselem published 46 reports primarily critical of Israel. HRW published eight reports primarily critical of Israelis, and three reports primarily critical of Palestinians. Amnesty International published 22 reports primarily critical of Israelis, and one report primarily critical of Palestinians. Reports were tallied as primarily critical of Israelis or Palestinians when they predominantly or entirely focused on violations committed by one side or another. Some reports criticize both Palestinians and Israelis. However, if the report clearly focused more on violations by one side, it was classified as primarily critical of that side. For example, more than 60% of the words in the 2005 Amnesty International report on Palestinian women – Conflict, Occupation and Patriarchy – focused on Israeli violations. It was therefore classified as primarily critical of Israel. This tally included reports on Israel/Palestine. It did not include reports on Israel/Lebanon. This tally did not include these organizations' much more numerous press releases, statements, letters, newspaper articles, these organizations' annual reports, their multi-country reports, or their annual reports to various UN bodies. For the lists from which this tally was compiled see: http://www.hrwatch.org/doc?t=mideast&c=isrlpa; http://web.amnesty.org/library/eng-isr/reports; http://www.btselem.org/English/Publications/Index.asp
  4. New York Times articles were located via a Lexis-Nexis search for Israeli or Palestinian and the names of the three major human rights organizations. These searches identified 198 articles. 133 of those articles were eliminated because they were about the Israel/Lebanon conflict, the Human Rights Watch Film festival, or, for example, were about Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Egypt or Darfur, but came up because of a tangential mention of Israel, or because they were simply a letters to the editor, or because they included a map provided by B'Tselem.
  5. Rights Group Blames Arafat For Not Halting Suicide Attacks, Joel Greenberg, November 1, 2002.
  6. Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Israeli Civilians, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2002/isrl-pa/ISRAELPA1002.pdf
  7. Mideast Turmoil: Inquiry; Rights Group Doubts Mass Deaths in Jenin, but Sees Signs of War Crimes; David Rohde, May 3, 2002.
  8. Jenin: IDF Military Operations, http://hrw.org/reports/2002/israel3/israel0502.pdf
  9. Joel Greenberg, Death of a Child: How Israel's Army Responds, November 13, 2001.
  10. The Times also published two articles on Amnesty International reports on the summer 2006 Israel/Lebanon War, one report that criticized Israel and one report that criticized Hezbollah.
  11. In addition to the Human Rights Watch reports on domestic violence against Palestinian women, and suicide bombings noted previously, reports primarily critical of Palestinians also include: Justice Undermined: Balancing Security and Human Rights in the Palestinian Justice System, November 2001, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2001/pa/isrpa1101.pdf; and Without Distinction: Attacks on Civilians by Palestinian Armed Groups, July 11, 2002, http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ ENGMDE020032002?open&of=ENG-ISR
  12. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/07/world/middleeast/07palestinians.html?ref=middleeast
  13. The New York Times reported 1473 words on Israeli positions, only 274 words on Palestinian positions, and just 216 words of Human Rights Watch criticisms of Israel's investigation, US Corporate Media Misses Target in Israeli Assault on Gaza, June 27, 2006, Dissident Voice, http://www.dissidentvoice.org/June06/OConnor27.htm
  14. See for example "Group Says Palestinian Women Victims of Societal Violence, Karin Laub, AP, November 7, 2006 in The Boston Globe, http://www.boston.com/news/world/middleeast/articles/2006/11/ 07/group_says_palestinian_women_victims_of_societal_violence/
  15. Israeli and Palestinian Voices on the US Op-ed Pages, Patrick O'Connor, http://www.pmwatch.org/pmw/reports/pmw_03052006.pdf
  16. A Soul-Searching Mission, October 19, 2006, http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/arthur_neslen/2006/10/arthur_neslen_1.html
  17. Israel's Sex Trade Booming, YNet, Miri Hasson, March 23, 2005, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3062297,00.html
  18. Trafficking in Person Report, June 2006, US State Department, page 144, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/66086.pdf
  19. Conflict, Occupation and Patriarchy: Women Carry the Burden, March 31, 2005, http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ ENGMDE150162005?open&of=ENG-ISR
  20. Thanks to Hunter College Professor Rupal Oza for raising this line of thinking and providing this source: Lila Abu Lughod, "Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?" American Anthropologist 104 (3), September 2002, 783-790.
  21. See for another example, International Law not fit to Print, Ahmed Bouzid and Patrick O'Connor, May 1, 2005, Common Dreams, http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0501-28.htm

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