Block that Lede, part I


A "lede" is the first paragraph of a news story.

It’s art is in making the story interesting while keeping it true to the facts. There are times when the desire to sell a story overwhelms facts that may not be that sexy. Good editors catch this, and tell the writer: "You don’t back it (the lede) up." Good writers catch themselves before they move on to the second paragraph.

Al Jazeera is reveling in its scoop, piles and piles of internal Palestinian Authority documents.

Someone at the network — anyone — needs to start cracking down hard on ledes unbacked by facts.

At least, someone would need to if there weren’t an agenda at work here — one that mitigates against assigning these papers their true significance. (More on that in a minute.)

First, to the most irresponsible Al Jazeera lede I’ve seen so far to emerge from the coverage of the Palestine papers:

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has shown operational willingness to co-operate with Israel to kill its own people, The Palestine Papers indicate.

This appears under a photo of Hassan al-Madhoun’s charred corpse being carried to a burial. Madhoun was killed on Nov. 1 2005 when his car was hit by an Israeli missile.

You’d think, from the lede and the photo, that the P.A. and Israel colluded to kill Madhoun, and that he was targeted simply for being Palestinian ("kill its own people."). You’d be wrong.

Madhoun was behind a bombing attack at Ashdod Port in March of 2004 that killed ten people. Here are the photos of the victims, all civilians.

Now, the document Al Jazeera is referring to is minutes of an Oct. 1 2005 meeting in Tel Aviv meeting between Shaul Mofaz, then Israel’s defense minister, and Nasser Yousef, the Palestinian interior minister. AJ singles out this exchange:

Mofaz: (?) which we talked about, Hassan Madhoun, we know his address and Rasheed abu Shabak knows that. Why don’t you kill him? Hamas fired because of the elections and this is a challenge to you and a warning to Abu Mazen.

Yusuf: We gave instructions to Rasheed and will see.

Mofaz: Since we spoke, he has been planning an operation, and that’s 4 weeks ago, and we know that he wants to strike Qarni or Eretz. He is not Hamas and you can kill him.

Yusuf: We work, the country is not easy, our capabilities are limited, and you haven’t offered anything.

AJ backs up the broader assertion — that the Palestinian Authority colludes in the killing of Palestinians — with this, excerpted from a meeting between Saeb Erekat and David Hale, a U.S. envoy, in September 2009:

Erekat: We have had to kill Palestinians to establish one authority, one gun and the rule of law. We continue to perform our obligations. We have invested time and effort and killed our own people to maintain order and the rule of law.

AJ follows on:

It is not clear as to which killings Erekat is referring to but the discussion about the plan to kill al-Madhoun is just one example of how, since the death of Yasser Arafat, Fatah’s policy of resistance to Israel has become one of collaboration.

"Just one example" and "collaboration" pretty much amount to assassination warrants for Erekat and Yusuf. (This is what I meant by "irresponsible.")

None of it bears out.

First, let’s look at the entirety of the Mofaz-Yusuf exchange. Its central tension is that Yusuf wants more leeway from the Israelis to carry out operations in the West Bank, and an allowance for more guns to control events there and in the Gaza Strip:

Yusuf: A lot has changed, but with [our] circumstances and capabilities, and they’re weak, a serious study must be conducted to strengthen the institution. Coordination between us is weak, and that applies to all cooperation levels, and our work is a consequence of yours.

Mofaz: What can we do?

Yusuf: Quick communication of information. You deal with everything on your own. We can take measures in the West Bank if you give us information. But you act and we pay the price, coordination and cooperation are weak and do not offer a basis for stability. Cooperation on the basis of a division of roles and cooperation for the sake of good security work. We work, the country is not easy, our capabilities are limited, and you haven’t offered anything.

Does Yusuf want these allowances in order to carry out Israel’s whim? No. He wants these allowances to establish P.A. order, which — the Palestinians argue persistently throughout these papers — will engender better results for both the Palestinians and Israel, and which is undermined when Israel big-foots the Palestinians.

In the same exchange, Yusuf pushes back against Mofaz for giving him orders. This has to do with a cell of terrorists in Tulkarm planning an attack inside Israel:

Mofaz: (?) the cell information (?) executing an operation within 1948 territory. I’m prepared to transfer names to you. If you don’t arrest them within 10 days, I will

Yusuf: I will not arrest them. I’ll only confiscate their weapons. Give me information

Major-General: He wants to give them 10 days, then I’ll get the weapons and give you a new mission

Yusuf: you will not get in and let me work my way

Mofaz: OK, but if there’s a ticking bomb, we will act to defend our citizens

Yusuf: We don’t have any information about a ticking bomb. If you have information, you have to report it to me within 24 hours so I can deal with it

So Yusuf, whom Al Jazeera is trying to depict as colluding in the assassination of Madhoun — in the very same document — says he will disarm a cell, but not arrest its members.

And then there’s this:

Major-General: Trust is built on action. If you act against a cell, that would be a proof. Act in Gaza and Khan Yunis

Mofaz: What of the 4 names, have you arrested any of them?

Yusuf: We’re working. Be patient, they’ll do nothing

Mofaz: Hassan Madhoun will stage an operation

Ghazi Atiyyeh

Ghazi abu Ta’ameh

It’s hard to make good sense of this shorthand, but what this appears to be is Mofaz pressing Yusuf to arrest  – not kill — four individuals he believes are planning operations. One of the individuals is Madhoun. Yusuf wants more information before going ahead.

So, correctly read, what this tells us is that Mofaz wants Yusuf to stop Madhoun and other terrorists. Yusuf needs information in order to justify arresting the terrorists. Mofaz seems reluctant to supply it, perhaps on sound grounds of not wanting to share information with an entity he doesn’t entirely trust.

Cast against this light, let’s go back to what Mofaz said about Madhoun at the outset: "Why don’t you kill him?" becomes an option Mofaz is pressing Yusuf to consider, not an order: Mofaz is arguing that it is in the P.A.’s interest to kill Madhoun because he poses a threat to Mahmoud Abbas, the P.A. president. Mofaz is lobbying Yusuf: This is in our mutual interest. Yusuf counters that "you haven’t offered anything" — what needs to be offered isn’t immediately clear, but the subsequent exchanges suggest Yusuf needs the information that would justify the arrest — not the killing — of Madhoun.

In fact, it is the practice of the Palestinian Authority to arrest suspects that Israel would otherwise kill, as revealed in this critique of the Al Jazeera papers by Ma’an, the Palestinian news agency:

Who said there was no security coordination with the occupation? Every five-year-old in Palestine knows there is and it started during Yasser Arafat’s administration. Israel is monitoring each Palestinian security service around the clock.

Our security services often detain resistance fighters. When they do it, they detain them regardless of their affiliation. They do this fearing Israeli forces might raid PA-controlled territories and kill these fighters.

But what about Erekat and all the Palestinians he said the P.A. killed? In fact, its conflating two separate statements (a major no-no in journalism.) Let’s see the whole excerpt of his exchange with David Hale, with what Al Jazeera used in bold:

SE: I know Bibi is preparing to announce a package of construction — Pisgat Zeev, Har Homa …

DH: I know we wanted more but there are political constraints. Restraint on settlements is better than unrestricted growth everywhere.

SE: As far as I’m concerned settlements will continue everywhere. There is a difference this time from the past. We’ve had General Dayton, the EU COPPS and others. We have had to kill Palestinians to establish one authority one gun and the rule of law. We continue to perform our obligations. We held the Fatah conference — our country remains divided. With this in mind (Netanyahu) begins the process of destroying (Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. and the PA institutions. We are back to 1996 –1999 again. If the US government now tailors its policy to BN, not just the Palestinians, but the whole region will go down.

DR: The package includes no new tenders, no new confiscation …

SE: I’m not coming from Mars! 40% of the West Bank is already confiscated. They can keep building for years without new tenders!

And then further on:

On substance, from day one Netanyahu said: Jerusalem the eternal undivided capital of Israel, demilitarized state without control over borders or airspace, no refugees. Once you agree to this we can negotiate a piece of paper and an anthem. We have invested time and effort and even killed our own people to maintain order and the rule of law. (Fayyad) is doing everything possible to build the institutions. We are not a country yet, but we are the only ones in the Arab world who control the Zakat and the sermons in the mosques. We are getting our act together. Now we have Netanyahu back again like in 96. Back then Israeli Palestinian relations were at their best. No attacks or violence. He consistently undermined this- and I believe he has begun that same process again. You know I tried to have meetings with the Israelis– with Arad and Molho. They adamantly rejected. Arad cancelled three times.

This is not a collaborator’s plea. It is an iteration of the Palestinian argument that, as I said, persists throughout these papers: The best path toward peace is Palestinian order and sovereignty. When Erekat speaks of "killing our own people," he is not doing his Peter Lorre-as-Ugarte impression and whining about favors not receieved; he is talking about how seriously the Palestinians take sovereignty. This, by the way, should not be an unfamiliar argument to Israelis: It is the same one made to explain Ben Gurion’s crackdown on the Irgun and the Lehi. It was painful but necessary to establish order in the nascent state.

Now, would that this were only an anomaly, a kid reporter a little over eager with his raw material.

But, in fact, the coverage by Al Jazeera and The Guardian of the Palestine Papers has been wholly characterized by irresponsible recasting of raw material to make night seem like day. Mitchell Plitnick and Bernard Avishai do a good job of dismantling the opus. (Not all of the Guardian’s coverage has been irresponsible — columnist Jonathan Freedland’s take on the papers is sharp and smart.)

I have my own theory as to why Al Jazeera and the Guardian are taking this slant: This blog post has gone on too long, and I’ll save it for another.

But meantime, Al Jazeera has called collaborators two Palestinian leaders who, whatever else one might think of them, appeared to be making good faith efforts to defend the best interests of their people (just as their Israeli interlocutors were defending theirs.).

And Al Jazeera knows what "collaborators" means in the West Bank.

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