Watching the Media: Beware of Prepositions

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The lowly preposition can be a potent agent of spin. Here’s a case in point.

On August 24, 2004 undercover Israeli troops captured Adnan and Rateb Abayat, a commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and his brother. All sources agree on this point. Adnan Abiyat had been sought by Israel’s Shin Bet for some time because of his role in shooting attacks that had left eight Israelis dead, and because he had recently helped dispatch a suicide bomber to Jerusalem.

The sources differ in stating exactly where Abiyat was captured. According to the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, “undercover troops captured Fatah gunman Adnan Abiyat and another Fatah man, Rateb Nebhan, yesterday along with a machine gun, six rifles and much ammunition in the laundry room of Bethlehem’s Holy Family Hospital” (Amos Harel, “Army nabs Fatah man hiding in hospital laundry,” 8/25/04). The account is confirmed in the Jerusalem Post, which adds that Abiyat had evidently been hiding in the hospital for months (Melissa Radner, “Jewish group: French-run hospital hid terrorists,” 8/26/04).

The story is given a completely different twist by BBC and L’Agence France-Presse (AFP). According to AFP, “in Bethlehem, a commander of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades militant group and his brother were detained during an operation near the southern West Bank town’s maternity hospital, sources on both sides said” (8/24/2004, “Israelis herd 300 Palestinians into school compound during Nablus raid”). Note that the capture took place “near the southern West Bank town’s maternity hospital,” not in its laundry room; and note too that the report attributes this misreport of the location of the capture to “both sides.” The story of a hospital’s refuge for a killer and its violation of neutrality is buried within another story decidedly unfavorable to Israel. BBC follows suit. They reported that the capture occurred “during an operation at a maternity hospital” (“Israelis hold hundreds in sweep,” 8/24/2004), again failing to mention that Abiyat had secretly taken refuge in the hospital’s laundry for some time. The story leaves the reader to imagine that Abiyat has been chased into the hospital. The story is again buried within another unfavorable to Israel.

Though AFP and BBC omit the location of the capture, both report that Israeli troops did seize a sizable arms cache “during the operation.” BBC quotes an Israeli army spokesman reporting that a weapons cache was discovered during the operation, and according to AFP “a machine gun, five assault rifles, a telescopic lens and ammunition had been recovered during the operation.” From this delicate phrasing one would never know that the weapons were retrieved in the hospital’s laundry room, along with their owners. Abiyat and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades had turned the hospital into a base of operation, with or without the hospital’s permission. No casual reader of the BBC and AFP reports would ever get to this key point. Through selective reporting, false attributions, and positioning the story to downplay its significance, the two news sources managed to report everything but the most important feature of the event.

The two news sources might have gone on to report that harboring armed fighters and weaponry in a hospital violates the 4th Geneva Convention. According to the Geneva Convention, providing such a haven violates the neutrality of a civilian hospital and removes the protection mandated for such institutions even in time of war. But since Abiyat, according to BBC and AFP, was not seized in the hospital, and because his weapons were seized only “during the operation,” not in the hospital, no violation of the Convention need be mentioned.

Beware the rogue preposition: Use of “near” rather than “in” and “during” rather “at” completely obscures the significance of the event. No reader of BBC or AFP could possibly catch the spin without reading other sources.

Of course, American readers would not have been able to reconstruct the event in any case. American newspapers appear not to have reported the event at all, or if they did, not in any prominent way. This is surprising, given that this violation of medical neutrality is on par with Palestinian abuse of ambulances to carry weaponry, conceal suicide bomb belts, and convey Hamas operatives. To keep reporting honest, it is at least helpful to have the story covered – and then to check prepositions.

Steven M. Albert
Medical and Public Health Task Force
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East
447 Ogden Ave.
Teaneck, NJ 07666

212-305-2503 (office)

Watching the Media: Beware of Prepositions

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Steven M. Albert

In early 2000, I read the newsletter of the American Anthropological Association and was surprised to see an essay by Jeff Halper, who founded the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. The essay was biased in every way: selective in evidence, slanted in language, naïve in reasoning. In preparing my reply I searched the web and found that for every one balanced entry on Israel’s position, there were perhaps 20 negative entries. Many were stridently rejectionist and anti-Semitic; those that were not betrayed woeful ignorance or frank silliness about the Middle East. My reply was published and the editor asked if I would countenance a reply from Halper and perhaps a dialogue. I agreed. Halper never replied, suggesting that he could not face argument informed by facts. This was my introduction to the politicized world of the academic Middle East.Since then I have narrowed my focus to anti-Israel bias in the public health and academic medical literature, which is monitored by the SPME Public Health and Medical Task Force. There is no shortage of bias in this field. Key British journals, such as Lancet and the British Medical Journal, devote major resources to academic partnerships and journalistic coverage designed to show Israeli policy is responsible for poor health, limited hospital access, and psychological trauma in the occupied territories. In fact, the evidence suggests that health is not poorer in the territories and that people do have access to hospitals. It also true that Israelis suffer poor mental health in war. These inconvenient facts, now published in 2 letters in BMJ and 4 in Lancet, help, we hope, in stemming the tide of 60 years of anti-Israel propaganda, which has finally managed to make its way into academic medical research.The Task Force continues to monitor and respond to the most egregious instances of bias in the most prominent journals. It consists of 5-10 academics across the globe, from Israel to the UK to the US, who take the time to respond to such falsehoods. We are pleased to see that most journals are willing to admit fault and publish our work. Our monitoring has led to one journal retracting a bad piece of science and to others publishing corrections.In this effort, we have also crossed paths with virulent anti-Semites, such as the one who wrote me privately and said he would never accept Zionist facts. Others are more subtle. But at heart these critics cannot admit that the medical and public health record of Israel simply does not support their claims of a terrorist, racist, imperial regime. So they make stories up or simply ignore statistics from the UN, WHO, and other international medical organizations.Facts and reasoned argument support the claims of Israel and can be used to undo the propaganda of its enemies. But we need to marshal this evidence and face the false claims directly. The biggest challenge here is time. The members of the Public Health and Medical Task Force all have day jobs. I run a major research effort on aging, chronic disease, and health promotion. My colleagues are similarly busy with academic medicine, psychological research, bioethics, and other areas. Still, we take time from these efforts to play a small but important part in ferreting out propaganda that may bias others less informed about Israel and the Middle East.

Read all stories by Steven M. Albert

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