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analysisIsrael-Palestinian Conflict

Debunking the media narrative on Judea and Samaria violence

A media outlet’s audience deserves to know what is really happening, not what the journalists would prefer to be the truth.

Armed Palestinians march after an Israeli military operation, in the West Bank city of Jenin on July 5, 2023. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
Armed Palestinians march after an Israeli military operation, in the West Bank city of Jenin on July 5, 2023. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
David M. Litman
David M. Litman
David M. Litman is a media and education research analyst at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA).  

It’s a cliché that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one is free to have an opinion on who is at fault for violence in Judea and Samaria (aka the West Bank). But honest journalism forbids distorting and omitting material context to conform to the journalist’s preconceived opinions. Inaccurate coverage serves no one, especially not the victims of violent conflict.

Yet misrepresentation of facts pervades Western media coverage of the background and context surrounding violence in and emanating from the West Bank.

According to many recent flawed news accounts, the “flare-up” in violence began with the introduction of a new Israeli government and has been driven by extremist Israelis.[1]

For example, a June 15 CNN article claimed: “Since Israel’s new government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in late last December, the most right-wing and religiously conservative in the nation’s history, violence between settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank has flared.”

The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor stated it bluntly, declaring in the headline: “Israel’s far-right government is at the heart of a surge in violence.”

The BBC’s Yolande Knell declared that “Violence between Palestinians and Israelis has flared since Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected last year.”

Is there any truth to this narrative? Based on the publicly available data, the answer is unequivocally “no.” Not only did the “flare-up” begin long before the current government took power in November 2022, but it has been overwhelmingly driven by Palestinian attacks.

The data

To examine whether there has been a “flare-up” in violence, and if so, when it began, it’s useful to look at the level of violence over time in terms of the number of incidents as well as the number of victims.

In portraying the “flare-up” in violence as Israeli-driven, media outlets typically rely on United Nations data (specifically, from the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) relating to “settler-related incidents.” Thus, for “settler violence,” CAMERA’s study uses the same U.N. data on “settler-related incidents” which media outlets themselves cite.

The United Nations, however, does not track Palestinian violence. For that information, this report relies on the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), the most complete source of data for the number of attacks against Israel. Its data will be used for purposes of tracking attacks against Israel over the same time period. For the number of victims of terrorism, this analysis employs data from the Israeli government’s list of “Victims of Palestinian Violence and Terrorism since September 2000.”

To retain focus on the violence in the West Bank, the figures used below will exclude attacks carried out from Gaza and the victims of such attacks.

It must be noted that the comparison of data on Palestinian attacks versus Israeli attacks is imprecise for several reasons. The sources don’t always count the same types of attacks. For example, U.N. data on “settler-related incidents” includes Israeli stone-throwing attacks, while Shin Bet data only includes Palestinian stone-throwing when they “resulted in moderate and serious injuries” (see, e.g., asterisk on page three here).

Moreover, deciphering the actual meaning of U.N. data is challenging. The data is non-transparent and often suspect, as CAMERA’s Tamar Sternthal has detailed. What we do know about the data suggests it often doesn’t mean what you’d expect. For example, according to the United Nations’ own explanation, the figures for “incidents involving Israeli settlers” includes:

“[A]ttacks and alleged attacks by Israeli settlers, as well as incidents involving access prevention, and clashes following the entry of Israeli settlers into Palestinian communities. It also includes Palestinians killed or injured during attacks or alleged attacks they perpetrated against Israeli settlers.” (Emphasis added.)

In other words, the “421 settler-related incidents” cited by CNN likely include incidents in which the assailants were Palestinians. This figure may also include Palestinian “attempts to access Israel without a permit,” according to the United Nations’ definition of “access prevention.” It could also include incidents that have just been alleged, but not confirmed.

The United Nations’ padding of figures for settler violence with unrelated or unconfirmed data is not merely a hypothetical concern. A case in point is the UN’s data on Palestinian fatalities resulting from “settler-related incidents” (discussed further below). The U.N. figures indicate 42 Palestinian fatalities in such incidents since the beginning of 2018. Unfortunately, the United Nations fails to disclose sufficient details needed to identify the fatalities or the relevant circumstances.

However, an examination of B’Tselem, one of the U.N. sources, is more illuminating. While the organization does not break down fatalities in the same way as the United Nations, its list for “Palestinians killed by Israeli civilians—West Bank (including East Jerusalem)” and “Palestinians killed by Unknown Israeli party—West Bank (including East Jerusalem)”[2] provides the names of 27 Palestinians it says were killed since the beginning of 2018. Of those 27:

  • One isn’t dead, but rather lying in a coma after being accidentally run over by an Israeli police tow truck that was being pelted with stones.
  • Eight were killed while carrying out stabbings.
  • Two were killed while carrying out shootings.
  • One was killed while carrying out a car-ramming.
  • One was killed while infiltrating an Israel settlement with explosives and knives.
  • One was killed while infiltrating an Israeli settlement with a gun (Note: B’Tselem omits to mention that he was carrying a handgun).
  • Two were killed while infiltrating an Israeli settlement with knives.
  • One was killed while throwing stones at Israelis and allegedly attempting to stab an Israeli (Note: While B’Tselem acknowledges that one of the shooters that killed the Palestinian claimed the latter was attempting to stab his daughter, it omits the fact that a knife was found at the scene).
  • One was killed while throwing stones at Israelis.
  • One was killed while infiltrating an Israeli settlement while unarmed.
  • One was killed while engaged in “clashes” with Israelis.
  • Two were killed while engaged in “mutual stone-throwing” with Israelis.
  • Two were killed while throwing stones at Israelis who allegedly had assaulted residents of Palestinian villages.
  • One was killed by a stone thrown from the direction of an Israeli settlement.
  • One was killed during a settler attack in a Palestinian village.
  • One was killed during a confrontation with settlers setting up an illegal outpost.

Thus, of 26 fatalities (discounting the “fatality” that isn’t dead) which would seemingly fall under the United Nations’ “settler-related incident” definition, at least 17 (65%) were armed and in the process of carrying out attacks on Israelis. Note that this figure involves the most charitable interpretation of the Palestinian fatalities in those incidents involving “clashes,” “mutual stone-throwing” and unarmed infiltrations into the homes of Israelis at 3:45 in the morning.[3]

Whether this trend holds true for the other 15 or 16 fatalities (depending on whether the United Nations also deems the living to be among the “fatalities”) it claims, but not mentioned in the B’Tselem database, cannot be determined given the United Nations’ opacity. But it does provide strong evidence that a significant proportion of “settler-related incidents” under the United Nations’ definition involves incidents in which Palestinians, not Israelis, were the attackers.

Nonetheless, for purposes of analyzing the accuracy of the media narrative regarding West Bank violence, let’s assume arguendo that the U.N. data on “settler-related incidents” is an accurate reflection of the level of Israeli settler violence against Palestinians.

Number of attacks

A clear picture emerges from examination of the U.N. and Shin Bet data for the number of attacks carried out by each side over the previous five years and into 2023.

Sources: https://www.shabak.gov.il/en/reports/; https://www.ochaopt.org/poc/26-November-9-December-2019; https://www.ochaopt.org/poc/16-november-6-december-2021; https://www.ochaopt.org/poc/13-june-4-july-2023.

The chart shows two takeaways. First, that the number of attacks against Israelis far exceeds the number of attacks by settlers.

Second, it shows that the upward trend in violence began long before the current government took power in November 2022. After remaining relatively stable for 2018-2020, the number of incidents began dramatically increasing during 2021. That upward trend continued into 2022.

Number of fatalities

Data regarding the number of fatalities shows a similar trend. While the figures are relatively low for 2021 (higher than 2020, but lower than 2018 and 2019), the number of fatalities rises dramatically in 2022.

Sources: https://www.gov.il/en/departments/general/victims-of-palestinian-violence-and-terrorism; https://www.ochaopt.org/data/casualties. Note: For purposes of clarity, the figure for 2018 include the death of Amiad Israel Ish-Ran, who was born by emergency C-section when his mother was murdered by a Palestinian terrorist. Amiad died several days later in intensive care. Not included are Israeli soldiers killed during counter-terror operations, for reasons explained below.

While the current Israeli government took power in 2022, the vast majority of the fatalities occurred before it was sworn in on November 15 (the election was on November 1). Of the 13 Palestinian fatalities of “settler-related incidents” the United Nations claims occurred in 2022, the B’Tselem database provides the names and dates of eight. Of those eight, every single one was killed before November 15. Of the 28 victims of terrorism, 23 were killed before and three were killed on November 15.

A note regarding IDF counter-terror operations

For what should be obvious reasons, the figures do not include incidents relating to Israeli counter-terror operations. Lawful security operations designed to disrupt and eliminate threats emanating from internationally designated terrorist organizations cannot be compared to terrorist attacks carried out by Palestinians, nor can they be compared to other unlawful attacks carried out by Palestinian and Israeli civilians.

For those interested, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has maintained a map showing “the timing and location of violence perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists as well as responses from Israeli security forces” since Israel launched “Operation Break the Wave” on March 31, 2022 in response to the dramatic increase in terror attacks depicted above beginning in 2021.

Conclusion

The narrative promulgated by outlets like CNN, the BBC, and the Washington Post is without merit. In deceiving their audiences, the outlets present a skewed, selectively edited timeline in which the dramatic surge of Palestinian violence against Israelis during 2021 and the first 10 months of 2022 is entirely erased. In doing so, the articles distort reality to make the violence appear driven by Israeli extremists. While such extremists have undeniably contributed to the violence, they are but a part of the story.

A media outlet’s audience deserves to know what is really happening, not what the journalists would prefer to be the truth. But more importantly, the victims of the violence are not served by falsified narratives that mislead both the public and policymakers.

Notes:

[1] CAMERA is a non-partisan organization. It is not the intent of this article to defend, promote, or attack any particular politician or political party or to express any opinion regarding the label of “far-right.” Nor is it the intent of this article to defend or justify in any way incidents such as the condemnable attack carried out by Israeli settlers on Huwara earlier this year. However, it is our mission to “promote accurate and balanced coverage of Israel and the Middle East.” Thus, the attempt to inaccurately blame Israel or Israelis for an event, trend, or phenomenon is relevant to our mission, regardless of the political actors at play.

[2] The database contains no Palestinian fatalities within the “Green Line” caused by Israeli civilians or unknown Israelis.

[3] According to the IDF, the Palestinian entered the farm home at 3:45am and tackled and fought with a farm guard.

Originally published by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.

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