Today marks the 22nd anniversary of just one of the innumerable tragic events in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is worth revisiting because it typifies the racism, cruelty, injustice, even insanity of the Occupation. A succession of New York Times articles captures the chronology of events and just as importantly, how those events were revealed and discussed by the newspaper of record.
The incident occurred on April 6, 1988 in and around the West Bank village of Beita. The intifada had begun several months earlier, and the death toll stood at 122 Palestinians killed by the Israeli military, which had lost a single soldier. In addition to the Palestinian fatalities, there had been untold numbers of arrests, routine torture of detainees, and broken bones deliberately inflicted by IDF troops pursuant to the openly-stated policy of the Defense Minister, the future Nobel peacemaker Yitzhak Rabin.
What landed this incident on front page of the Times was the fact that Israel had lost its first civilian, a teenage girl named Tirza Porat. In an article entitled “Israeli Girl Killed by Rocks in Melee,” John Kifner reported that Tirza had been “stoned to death by Palestinian villagers” while hiking with friends on a “holiday outing.” The body of the article revealed that two Palestinians also had been killed, but the headline left no doubt as to whose life was of more significance.
The Israeli hikers reported that their group of 18, two of whom were armed guards, had been confronted outside Beita by Palestinian youths throwing stones, and that “pandemonium broke out . . when a woman rushed out and slammed a big rock down on the head of one of the Israeli guards.” Military officials stated that Tirza’s “skull was crushed by repeated blows, apparently from stones.” According to Gen. Amram Mitzna, commander of the West Bank: ”Many stones were thrown at the children, who were also beaten. As a result, the girl was killed and two or three of the teen-age hikers were seriously injured.”
Israel, which had administered so much suffering to quell an uprising against a 21-year-old occupation, now found itself “victimized” by a tiny fraction of that suffering, and the reaction was immediate and extreme. Religious Affairs Minister Zevulun Hammer chimed in with the presumably religious viewpoint, calling on the army to ”cut off the arms of these wild men and smash the skull of the viper of death.”
The following day, Tirza’s funeral became a public spectacle. Her fellow settlers called for “revenge” and expulsion of the Arabs. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir brought lighter fluid, telling the mourners, “The heart of the entire nation is boiling” and “God will avenge her blood.” A “rabbi” added that the village of Beita “should be wiped off the face of the earth.” Minister of Justice Avraham Sharir recommended that dozens of houses be demolished and hundreds expelled upon mere suspicion of responsibility.
Israel began to dispense such justice immediately. A third Palestinian youth from Beita was killed, this time by the IDF, which explained that the boy was trying to flee, presumably from the armed soldiers who were pursuing and firing at him. The army also demolished several houses in the village.
However, the same day as the funeral, the hikers’ story began to unravel, when a bullet from an Israeli guard’s rifle was recovered from Tirza’s body. More information was available from the young Israeli hikers, who said that Israeli guards had fired some shots outside the village, and repeated that the trouble began when a woman hit one Israeli guard, a Meir Kahane follower named Roman Aldubi, with a rock. Aldubi had such a history of violence against Arabs, including shooting at them, that he had become the first Jewish citizen subject to the “emergency powers that are commonly used to control Palestinians,” according to the Times. One of the Israeli hikers confided to ABC News that the outing had a political message to the indigenous population: ”We have to show them that we are the owners of the country.”
The next day’s Times article confirmed that Tirza had indeed been killed by a stray bullet fired by Aldubi, the Israeli guard. It also turned out that the woman who hit Aldubi with the rock was the sister of the unarmed young farmer Aldubi already had slain. It was revealed that Aldubi had also shot and wounded another farmer in the stomach. The army’s response to these revelations was to demolish eight more houses in the village, bringing the total to 14.
According to the Israeli army commander, Aldubi used the young Israeli hikers as human shields. He told the children ”to form a belt, a barrier around him so that no one will reach him” and then he began shooting, killing one Palestinian and wounding another. In the melee that followed, some of the Palestinian villagers protected the Israeli youngsters from the angry mob. They disarmed the Israeli guards, but instead of using the weapons themselves, they tried to destroy them.
On April 10, four days after the incident, and after the most critical facts already were known, a Timeseditorial expressed uncertainty over whether Tirza had been “killed by Palestinian-hurled stones or by a bullet from the gun of an Israeli protector.” Its own reporter already had confirmed the latter. The editorial knew where to lay the blame: “both sides are accountable,” although considerably more attention was devoted to attacking the Arab side.
The following day, when responsibility for the event was quite clear, Trade Minister Ariel Sharon proposed that the entire village of Beita be evacuated and “all its houses blown up, and that more settlements be built.” Israel then expelled 12 Palestinians, including six from Beita, to southern Lebanon, and uprooted hundreds of almond and olive trees as collective punishment, teaching the villagers of Beita not to become victims of settler violence.
About one week after the incident, Prime Minister Shamir gave a speech in which he refused to accept his own military’s admission that Tirza had been killed by an Israeli bullet rather than Palestinian stoning: ”Even today, when we dwell in our own land, ‘evil-hearted and unfeeling people shoot poison arrows at our youngsters as they wander the countryside, turning it into a valley of death.”
When the dust settled, and the initial fevered emotions returned to normal, the Israeli authorities punished the guilty party. No, not Aldubi. The killer of three was judged to have suffered enough, and he was not prosecuted. But a prison sentence was handed down against the pregnant sister of the first Palestinian Aldubi killed, for hitting him in the head with a rock.
So let’s sum this all up. A group of illegal Israeli settlers take a deliberately provocative hike to an Arab village to show them who’s boss. They allow an Israeli racist hothead with a violent history to be an armed guard, and he predictably murders two Palestinians and shoots two others, and accidentally kills an Israeli girl. The Times blames both sides equally. The Israeli army kills a third Palestinian youth for “running away” and destroys 14 homes, most if not all of them after learning who was responsible for killing the Israeli. The killer of three is allowed to walk free, while the pregnant sister of one of the Palestinian victims goes to prison, and six men from the village are expelled from the country.
No less significant than these events was a follow-up article in the Times by Joel Brinkley appearing four months later about the seething villagers of Beita. In a bizarre effort to conform to the Times’ even-handed policy, Brinkley reduced the Palestinian death toll to a single fatality rather than three, neatly counterbalanced by the single Israeli death. For good measure, Brinkley added that by the time it became clear that Tirza had been shot by a fellow settler rather than stoned to death, “Israel had already taken vengeance,” blowing up 14 homes and deporting six residents to Lebanon.
Since his own paper’s articles had accurately reported both the death toll and the fact that Israel exacted this retribution even after learning the truth about Tirza’s death, it is hard to believe Brinkley’s errors were accidental. He simply rewrote history to make it more palatable to his own sensibilities. This is the type of reporting that landed Brinkley a professorship at Stanford after a 23-year career with the Times.
For more than two decades before this incident, and two more since, this is what the Occupation has meant to millions of Palestinians. They have had to endure the obscenity of a military dictatorship imposed by a foreign power with a flagrantly racist ideology that views them as sub-human for daring to be born on land coveted by another people. When they rebel, even when they’re victimized by Israeli hostility, they’re judged guilty of insubordination and subject to extreme collective punishment.
If anything, matters have gotten worse over the past 22 years. They will continue to get worse as long as one “people” insist on their right to absolute rule over another.