The New York Times and Gaza:

On August 1, 2006, in the wake of Israel’s bombing of a house in Qana, in southern Lebanon, which killed at least 28 civilians, the New York Times published arguably the single most important fact in its coverage of the 2006 Lebanon conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. In the last paragraphs of a front-page story about the Israeli airstrikes of the previous day, Times correspondents Craig S. Smith and Steven Erlanger, citing a July 31 column in the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot, reported that Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz had “relieved the [Israeli] army of restrictions on harming civilian population [sic] that lives alongside Hezbollah operatives.”[1] Indeed, on July 16, 2006, at the outset of the conflict, reported that “Defense Minister Amir Peretz said Sunday [July 16] that IDF troops have been given the go-ahead to set aside routine regulations not to harm civilians, according to Army Radio.”[2] This authorization was a mere four days into Israel’s 34-day bombing campaign inside Lebanon, during which a thousand Lebanese civilians were killed, and 4,000 injured. (Israel sustained 55 fatalities, including 43 civilians.)[3]

Shortly after the Lebanon conflict ended, and though much of the world was outraged at the brutality of the Israeli bombing of Lebanon, the Jewish-American newspaper The Forward reported on August 25, 2006, that “America’s main organization of Modern Orthodox rabbis,” the Rabbinical Council of America, “is calling on the Israel military to be less concerned with avoiding civilian casualties on the opposing side when carrying out future operations.” The Forward also reported that the American Jewish Congress “is waging a campaign to amend international law” as it pertains to the protection of civilians during combat, “which it views as out of step with fighting terrorism.”[4] Indeed, in November 2002, the American Jewish Congress announced that it would seek an “update” of the Geneva Conventions as “an opportunity to unshackle anti-terrorist forces,”[5] presumably, the United States and Israel. In October 2007, the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, which is part of the Maxwell School of Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and the Institute for Counter Terrorism, which is part of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, co-sponsored a conference in Washington, D.C., also to argue for changes in international humanitarian law (“laws of war”). The U.S. and Israeli sponsors of the conference, referring to Israel’s bombing of Lebanon in summer 2006, were “frustrated … over how the world was relating to the war, mainly the claim that Israel wasn’t responding with ‘proportionality.’ ”[6]


I note these developments in the context of Israel’s most recent military campaign inside Gaza, which began on March 1, and upon reading on March 2 the following news report in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz:


[Israel’s] Defense Minister Ehud Barak will meet Monday with legal experts in the military and government to examine whether the Israel Defense Forces can legally target populated areas from which Qassam rockets are being fired at the western Negev.


Barak asked Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann at Sunday to determine the legality of these attacks. The defense minister will discuss the issue Monday with Friedmann, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, Military Prosecutor Brig.-Gen. Avihai Mandelblit, the Defense Ministry’s legal adviser and various elements from within the Foreign Ministry.


During Sunday’s cabinet meeting, Vice Premier Haim Ramon asked why the IDF was not directing massive fire at the areas from which Qassams are being launched. “According to international law, you can do that,” he said. “In the Second Lebanon War it was clear that if they shoot from within a village, we can fire on them even if the area is populated.”


Following Ramon’s comments, Barak asked Friedmann to examine the issue in order to determine whether the IDF indeed has such an option.[7]  



The idea that Israel can legally fire on populated civilian areas in response to rocket attacks from those areas is at odds with every relevant legal authority to have recently addressed the issue, including in the context of the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in 2006. In addition, the factual premise that Israel had bombed Lebanese civilian areas in response to rockets fired by Hezbollah from those areas has also been proven false.[8] It is astonishing that Israel would even consider giving permission to its military forces, as it did in the Lebanon campaign, to deliberately target civilians in Gaza, given the massive civilian casualties in Lebanon in 2006, and the broad international condemnation that the bombing engendered.


As important exceptions to the international condemnation, however, the Bush administration and the U.S. news media, including the New York Times, supported the Israeli bombing of Lebanon in 2006.[9] U.S. support for the bombing, including after the civilian-bombing policy had been published, may explain the lack of an apparent political deterrent among Israeli government officials against considering whether it should repeat the practice in Gaza. In this light, we shall see whether the New York Times repeats its performance with respect to the bombing of Lebanon in 2006, summarized briefly below, in the context of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza in 2008.


By about 9 a.m. in Israel on July 12, 2006, Hezbollah, operating in southern Lebanon, had killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two in its raid that day into northern Israel. The Hezbollah raid clearly was a provocative and deplorable incident; however, it was also clearly limited (reportedly designed to capture Israeli soldiers to trade for Lebanese prisoners held in Israel), and did not threaten the essential security of the state of Israel. It did not constitute an “armed attack” under international law and thus did not give Israel any legal justification to respond with a massive bombardment and ground invasion of Lebanon in “self-defense” without U.N. Security Council authorization. Nevertheless, throughout that same day and night (July 12), Israel retaliated with air strikes throughout Lebanon and a ground incursion into southern Lebanon.


The Israeli response violated international law on at least four counts: (a) it violated Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter—the cardinal rule of international law—which prohibits the threat and use of force by states without Security Council authorization (the only exception being a use of force in “self-defense” in response to an “armed attack,” “when the necessity for action” is “instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation”); (b) Israel’s military reprisals against Lebanon were illegal, given the broad prohibition of the use of force in international affairs, including as retaliation in response to an armed provocation; (c) the massively disproportionate scale of the Israeli reprisals, relative to the original Hezbollah provocation, violated international humanitarian law (“laws of war”), and (d) Israel’s failure to distinguish between civilian and military targets in its air strikes and artillery fire also violated international humanitarian law. These Israeli violations of international law were immediately apparent, even without public knowledge that Israeli authorities had authorized Israeli military personnel to illegally target Lebanese civilians.


Neither in its first editorial on the Lebanon conflict on July 13, 2006, nor in any of its several editorials on the conflict thereafter, did the Times’ editorial page ever mention the U.N. Charter, the international law prohibition against military reprisals, or international humanitarian law; it simply somehow assumed the legality and legitimacy of Israel’s military reprisals against civilians and civilian infrastructure in Lebanon. Nor did the Times’ editorial page bother to clarify—in an international law context or a simple factual one—that Israel’s armed reprisals escalated the conflict well beyond the original Hezbollah raid on July 12.


The rockets fired into southern Israel by Palestinian militants in Gaza likewise do not threaten the security or existence of the state of Israel. Nor should Israel, or any state, tolerate the firing of such rockets into its territory and at its civilian population. However, given Israel’s own logic of military reprisals, if Israel is entitled to massively respond to the firing of these rockets, then the militants in Gaza are entitled to respond with its relatively feeble rockets to Israel’s use of superior military power in Gaza. It is appalling that the editorial board of a supposedly civilized and liberal newspaper would ignore fundamental principles and rules of international law, under the circumstances, and support the logic of military reprisals on either side. And now that we know that Israeli officials are considering the deliberate targeting of Palestinian civilians in any future military campaign in Gaza, the Times editorial page should immediately denounce even the deliberations of such a policy.




Howard Friel is coauthor with Richard Falk of Israel-Palestine on Record: How The New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East (Verso, 2007), and is coauthor (also with Falk) of The Record of the Paper: How The New York Times Misreports US Foreign Policy (Verso, 2004).



[1]Israel Pushes on Despite Agreeing to Airstrike Lull,” New York Times, August 1, 2006.

[2] “Peretz: Okay to Harm Lebanese Civilians If Necessary,”, July 16, 2006.

[3] “Why They Died,” Human Rights Watch, September 2007.

[4] “Rabbis: Israel Too Worried Over Civilian Deaths,” Forward, August 25, 2006.

[5] “American Jewish Congress, “AJCongress Says Proposed Geneva Convention Update Affords an Opportunity to Unshackle Anti-Terrorist Forces” (press release), November 6, 2002. 

[6] “US, Israeli Researchers Work To Change Laws of War,” Jerusalem Post, July 11, 2007.

[7] “Barak To Hold Meeting on Legality of Striking Civilian Areas in Gaza,” Ha’aretz, March 2, 2008.

[8] See, for example: Amnesty International, “Israel/Lebanon: End Immediately Attacks Against Civilians” (press release), July 13, 2006; Amnesty International, “Israel/Lebanon: Deliberate Destruction or ‘Collateral Damage’? Israeli Attacks on Civilian Infrastructure,” August 23, 2006; Human Rights Watch, “Israel: Investigate Attack on Civilians in Lebanon: IDF Must Take Precautions to Protect Civilians Fleeing Areas at Risk,” July 17, 2006; Human Rights Watch, “Israel Responsible for Qana Attack,” July 30, 2006; Human Rights Watch, “Israel/Lebanon: Qana Death Toll at 28: International Inquiry Needed Into Israeli Air Strike,” August 2, 2006; Human Rights Watch, “Fatal Strikes: Israel’s Indiscriminate Attacks Against Civilians in Lebanon,” August 2006; Human Rights Watch, “Why They Died: Civilian Casualties in Lebanon During the 2006 War,” September 2007. See also, Howard Friel and Richard Falk, Israel-Palestine on Record: How The New York Times Misreports Conflict in the Middle East (London/New York: Verso, 2007), pp. 177-213.

[9] See, Israel-Palestine on Record, pp. 177-213.

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