Terror or ‘terror’ in Israel?

I’m in Jerusalem at the moment, on an Act for Israel media fellowship. Sunday was our first day of activity and it was utterly exhausting. We began with a visit to Yad Vashem, the site for Holocaust remembrance.

Nearby, we passed preparations for the funeral of five Israeli settlers killed in an unspeakably brutal terror attack. We visited Old Jerusalem (Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Wailing Wall, etc.). Then we met with the parents of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas nearly five years ago. He is being held in conditions contrary to international human rights law and Hamas says he’ll only be released if 450 Palestinian prisoners with terror-related convictions are released early … along with 550 other prisoners.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the day was our visit to Itamar, the West Bank settlement site of the terrorist attack. While not terribly far from Jerusalem as the crow flies, for safety we had to avoid the straightest route there and add an extra 50 kilometers or so. We picked up a local Israeli councilman on the way there as our guide into Itamar. Here’s how the Jerusalem Post explained what happened there:

A mother, father and three of their children were stabbed to death late Friday night by at least one suspected terrorist who infiltrated the Itamar settlement southeast of Nablus.

The killings occurred shortly after 10 p.m., when one or two attackers jumped the fence that surrounds Itamar and broke into the home of Ruth and Udi Fogel, aged 35 and 36, respectively. The attackers went room to room, stabbing the parents, a three-month-old girl, Hadas, and two boys, Elad, three, and Yoav, 11.

Two other children – aged two and eight – were in a side room but were not attacked.

The family’s oldest child, 12-year-old Tamar, was out of the house at the time.

It was Tamar who found her parents and three siblings murdered. One of the settlers told us that one of the children was beheaded. (I in no way have a stomach for these things so I have not clicked on this link, but here is a link to the photos of the victims after the attack.) The story explains that the Israeli Defense Force began investigating a nearby town as the Al Aqsa Martyrs brigade took credit for the attack, calling it a “heroic operation.” Later Al Aqsa Martyrs brigade denied having anything to do with the attack.

So the story has received international coverage, although it’s interesting to see the disparities in that coverage. Take, for instance, this CNN headline to a three-paragraph story on the matter:

Israeli family of 5 killed in ‘terror attack,’ military says

The use of “scare quotes” and inability to describe the brutal killing of a family including a 3-month-old baby girl as a terrorist attack led one Israeli press liaison to ask “If this is not a terror attack, what is?” CNN responded by saying they stood behind the headline.

Needless to say, I don’t think I’d recommend the CNN story for anyone interested in a discussion of the killings. While the first story to appear on the New York Times website was an Associated Press dispatch with the bare details, I thought the lengthier report filed from Itamar by a Times reporter was very helpful. Unlike some reports that failed to even mention the names or ages of the children who were killed, the Times report begins by describing the manner in which each body (identified by name and age) was removed from the house after the killing. It puts the killings in context of the greater struggle between Jewish and Palestinian settlers.

There was quite a bit of disappointment in Itamar from the Los Angeles Times report, which some residents felt was almost an attempt to blame the victims for their own murder. The story anonymously suggests the killing of the family might have been retaliation for the killing of two Palestinian men the previous year, later adding that while the IDF says they killed the men, local Palestinians think the settlers were somehow to blame. Although it’s nothing like this Iranian news report.

One thing I thought interesting was the subtle difference between the way the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times described Israeli’s settling in the West Bank. The former:

Itamar’s settlers are considered among the most fervent, believing Israel has a historic and religious right to absorb the West Bank, which Israel seized during the 1967 Middle East War.

The latter:

Palestinians have often justified the killing of Israeli civilians, especially settlers, as a legitimate response to the Israeli occupation of territory conquered in the 1967 war, or in the case of radicals, as part of a broader struggle against Israel’s existence.

It’s just interesting to me. “Absorb” and “seized”? Or “occupation” and “conquered”? It seems the latter is the more neutral language to describe what happened. It’s also helpful to point out the issue of opposition to Israel’s very existence, which was neglected in the Los Angeles Times piece. The Six-Day War began when Israel responded to military buildups on the borders with Egypt, Syria and Jordan. Israel defeated these neighbors quickly and, in the process, captured land from each of them. It is these areas, won in a war against its neighbors, that are so hotly disputed within Israel and the international community.

Photo (of Fogel residence in Itamar) by Jennie E. DeVore.

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  • Jerry

    I think it’s helpful to have a historical timeline in mind to help putting stories such as this in historical perspective. The best one I could find so far is http://www.mideastweb.org/timeline.htm War and slaughter have a long history including in that part of the world.

    And if there’s any area in the world that does not lend itself to neutral language, it’s that region. Your characterization of the murders using the extreme expression unspeakably brutal is one example since I doubt such murders would have those words attached in, say, black areas of the US or other places around the world such as we’re witnessing in Libya. And, of course, the 20th century excelled in unspeakable brutality in the slaughter of millions.

  • Mollie

    A 3-month-old was beheaded. I think that’s unspeakably brutal, and not just because I’m a mother of small children.

  • Person

    “If this isn’t terror, then what is?”

    Look up the the American Abu Ghraib or Israeli made holocaust in Gaza. That’s besides kicking Palestinias out of their homes in the West bank and East Jerusalem.

  • http://theoldadam.wordpress.com Steve Martin

    One side want the other side completely extinguised, They teach their children to hate and to glorify murder in the name of Allah.

    That is terrorism.

  • Harold

    CNN was correct to use the term “terror” in quotes given the role the Israeli military plays in the territories and the Palestinians. We cannot trust that they are being accurate, but should assume they are spinning. The same can be said about pretty much any military operation.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    There was no military operation involved in this.

    There is no debate about whether a family of five, including a 3-month-old was murdered in their home by intruder(s). Candy was handed out in Gaza to celebrate the murders. Early on, a terrorist group claimed credit — then another one did. The only spin I see is in NOT calling this a terrorist attack.

  • Harold

    CNN was quoting military sources. End of story. The quotations around terror were appropriate when quoting military sources.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    That’s the point. Rather than writing up the terror attack, they made it seem like it was only something the Israeli Defense Forces claimed. There was no need to so characterize the killings.

    From the link above:

    Responding to the story headlined “Israeli Family of 5 Killed in ‘Terror Attack,’ Military Says,” Oren Helman wrote Kevin Flower that he was “dumbfounded and astonished” to read that the slaughter of the Fogel family is “what the Israeli army calls a ‘terrorist attack’.”

    “Your remarks sound as if we are talking about an IDF ‘claim’ that this was ‘a terrorist attack’ and that this is not necessarily the case,” he wrote. “If this is not a terrorist attack, then what is?”

  • Harold

    The government’s PR machine is mad about the way the story is being covered. Oren Holmes is a government spokesman responsible for media image. Of course they aren’t happy with the coverage, but that doesn’t make them right. They want a specific spin and they didn’t get it. Maybe that spin is right and maybe it isn’t, but shouldn’t the press be suspicious (and independent) of government PR flaks?

  • Norman

    Harold, I don’t see where spin is involved in acknowledging that cutting off the head of an infant is indeed an act of terror. CNN could easily have found other sources if they find quoting the military distasteful- nobody is contesting that these murders occurred.

  • Chris Jones

    What distinguishes “terrorism” from other forms of violence is not that terrorism is more violent or more brutal, but that terrorism is intended to induce fear in an enemy population by targeting the innocent, all in order to advance a political agenda. Whether this act was, or was not, “terrorism” turns on its political motivation, not on the degree of its brutality.

    Personally, I have little doubt that this was indeed an act of terrorism, properly understood. But if the IDF was, in fact, the source of the characterization of these murders as an act of terrorism, then the headline was fair. Leaving off the quotes would have suggested that the reporting of the story had independently established it as a fact.

    If we are supposed to be commenting on the journalism involved, rather than the substance of the story, then I think that is all there is to it.

  • Chris Jones

    BTW, what does this story have to do with whether or not the press “gets religion”? The problem with the story, and its headline, does not result from anybody’s failure to appreciate the religious dimension of the story.

    Or does it?

  • http://vjmorton.wordpress.com Victor Morton

    But if the IDF was, in fact, the source of the characterization of these murders as an act of terrorism, then the headline was fair. Leaving off the quotes would have suggested that the reporting of the story had independently established it as a fact.

    I agree that the brutality and method of the killings is not related to whether this is terrorism — there HAS to be some political element. And I agree that this is the primary journalism-related issue (though not with your point that this isn’t religion-related — coverage of terrorism is shot through with taboos and worldviews largely defined by religion).

    But I don’t think it’s the case that the IDF’s use of “terrorism” is the primary source of the claim that the killing was politically (or theologically) motivated and intended as a political-theological signal.

    The Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a political-theological organization, claimed responsibility (at least at first), as Mollie linked. She also could have linked to this article about Hamas documenting how it praised the attacks as political-theological killings in Arabic (to an approving Arab audience) while denouncing them in English.

    This was a terrorist attack — the deliberate killing of civilians as an object, with the goal of spreading fear and sending a political or related signal.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    We’ve got to realize that much of the media we now get our news from is global oriented-CNN is especially so. Consequently, they are not above tailoring their coverage to the larger audience which–in the case of this issue of slitting the throats of little innocent Israeli children–is callous if not outright approving of such an “heroic operation”–as the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade originally called it.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The religious dimension in the story is that if you ignore religion you see the settlers as merely people who should willingly move to safer land. If you incorporate religion you see that this would be giving up on a view of the proper limits of Israel that some do feel is a religious question.

    On the other hand, there seems to be no attempt to determine who the killers were. Were they motivated by their brand of Islam that holds that all Jews should be killed?