Check Your Sources!
Doubts about Palestinian credibility ought to sound the alarm for journalists
Jonathan S. Tobin
Oct. 14, 2004
Every once in a great while, a journalist can stumble upon something so important that even they themselves don't understand how crucial it is. Philadelphia Inquirer staffer Michael Matza seems to have reached just such a point in ci dispatch last week datelined from the Jabaliya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. In an Oct. 6 story titled "In desperation, Palestinians spin tales to rally support," Matza took on a disturbing angle on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that is rarely reported in the mainstream press: The Palestinians lie.
In his piece, Matza described an incident in which official and unofficial Palestin-ian sources claimed to have killed 47 Israeli soldiers in fighting inside Gaza that occurred in the aftermath of Palestinian missile attacks on Israeli territory.
"The rumor spread like wildfire through this war-ravaged refugee camp. Mosque mounted loudspeakers fanned the flames .. They passed out candy on debris-strewn streets to celebrate," wrote Matza. Then, he added. "In truth, no Israelis died."
Why did the Arabs make such a false claim? According to the Inquirer correspond-ent, "The rumor that 47 soldiers were killed was a lie some Palestinians propa-gated to soothe the psychological suffering of their people against a vastly superior foe."
As one of his Palestinian sources conceded to him, "Many Palestinians succumb to wishful thinking."
Though he bends over backward in the piece to rationalize the liars' behavior, Matza deserves credit for taking on one of the most underreported aspects of this complex and often perplexing war. If, as California Sen. Hiram Johnson famously said in 1918, "The first casualty when war comes is truth," the Palestinians have been slaying it nonstop. Indeed, they have been doing so for a while; history tells us of similar '`rumors" spread from mosques that led to bloody Arab pogroms against Jews in Jerusalem in 1920 and in Hebron in 1929.
Of course, lies can be spread on mediums other than loudspeakers. Those listen-ing to Arab radio stations during the wars of 1948, 1956 and 1967 were under the impression that Tel Aviv was in flames, and that Arab forces were triumphing over a vanquished Israel.
But contrary to Matza's sympathetic explanation, the lies told by the Palestinians have purposes other than to boost the morale of the depressed residents of Gaza. They also serve to delegitimize their Israeli opponents and influ-ence world opinion against the Jewish state.
The best example of this occurred two years ago in the aftermath of a wave of Palestinian terrorist suicide bombings.
A 'massacre' it was not
When Israeli forces counterattacked against the terrorist base in Jenin, in the West Bank, official Palestinian spokespersons claimed a vast "massacre" of civilians was taking place. Though this lie was repeated by credulous foreign correspond-ents, the facts of that case were soon uncovered not only by Israeli sources, but even by a U.N. investigation that showed that few Palestinians were killed in the fighting, and that the majority of them were armed combatants.
Which brings us back to the work of the intrepid Michael Matza. As much as Matza deserves applause for publicizing the truth about Arab lies, this topic deserves more than a single dispatch out of the many stories he has filed. Indeed, it throws into question not only his own work covering the Palestinians, but of that compiled by many other correspondents as well.
If, as he now acknowledges, the Palestinians in Gaza have been lying about the number of Israelis they have killed, it also cannot be denied that the Palestinians have also been guilty of exaggerating their own casualties, and even the manner in which many of them have been killed.
Journalists like Matza have often been quick to accept the findings of the Pales-tinian Red Crescent or alleged Palestinian eye-witnesses to Israeli killings of civilians, sometimes giving these accounts less scrutiny than reports issued from official Israeli sources. Sometimes, the exaggerations are subsequently corrected, but the problem with lies is that once spread, they're awfully hard to kill.
How did they die?
And were we to examine Matza's own recent work, we find that Mr. Matza is not following up as closely on his Palestinian sources as he should. The week after his "Palestinian spin tales" piece, Matza made the cover of the Inquirer on Oct. 11 with an article about the plight of Arab children: "Growing up in Gaza's war zone." In it, he rightly points out the manipulation of these children, but only makes a passing allusion to the fact that in most incidents where Palestinian kids are wounded or killed by Israeli fire, the circumstances are not, as is often portrayed, brutal Israelis firing indiscriminately on civilians.
Talk to any Israeli soldier who has been confronted by crowds of stone-throwing Palestinian adolescents and preteens, and they will tell you that right behind the younger kids with rocks are older teenagers with firebombs. And behind them are Palestinian adults from the terrorist groups such as Hamas and the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade that Matza styles "militias," who are firing assault weapons at the Israelis.
We have a right to ask why Matza, who has already proven to us that he knows his Palestinian sources have a predilection toward mendacity, doesn't go out into the field with either the soldiers or the stone-throwers to see exactly what happens. Instead, he gives us second-hand reports from untrust-worthy sources and throws in a few quotes from a local Arab psychologist who blames the deaths of Palestinian kids on traumas inflicted by the Israel-is. Though there's nothing wrong with citing this study, it ought to have been bal-anced by other resources at Matza's disposal, such as those that cite the hatred for Jews taught in Palestinian schools and on official Palestinian Authority television.
These stories show us how important it is for reporters to think seriously about the credibility of their sources and the context of their reporting
Investing in the reliability of liars is a fatal trap for a reporter. Unfortunately, it is a mistake that is made all too often by those covering the Palestinians.
Jonathan S. Tobin can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org