See if you can spot the similarity in these headlines:
The headlines come from the New York Times, Washington Post, BBC, Reuters, and the Associated Press, respectively. They are all attempting to convey what is happening in Jerusalem right now, and they are all wildly misleading, thanks especially to that one word you see over and over and over again: “clash.”
“Clash” is the default language that so many news organizations turn to in situations like these. There are two sides, they are set against each other, there’s some unrest on one side, some unrest on the other, voila, the “clash” has happened.
But that is not what is happening right now. This is not a “clash” between two equal sides. This is a straightforward attack by Israel on Palestinians. For days, the Israeli government has been systematically assaulting Palestinians worshipping at one of the holiest sites in Islam, during Ramadan, all while enforcing a move to ethnically cleanse a Jerusalem neighborhood of its Palestinian residents. Israeli forces have fired rubber bullets and stun grenades, injuring hundreds of people. The deputy mayor of Jerusalem has been filmed lamenting that Palestinian activists weren’t shot in the head.
Israel is one of the most militarily advanced countries in the world, thanks to the United States. It is the government in charge. It is the occupying power. It is the one taking active steps to displace Palestinians, to attack worshipers at a mosque. The asymmetry at play is beyond overwhelming. A notably honest report from Sky News makes it clear what is going on:
This would seem to be the kind of thing that it is easy to sum up, even if not every person being attacked by the government was “peaceful” every second of the day—even if some police wound up being injured after they decided to launch an offensive attack on people at a mosque. In other situations, news outlets appear to be able to sift through such chaos and come up with a far different frame. Take this Times headline from July of last year, which describes a protest in which there was some not-so-peaceful reaction to police violence: “Hong Kong Police Fire Tear Gas as Protesters Resist China’s Grip.” Quite a different message is being sent there.
But Israel has a way of fogging the news brain, just as police violence in America has a way of making seemingly intelligent journalists contort language beyond all comprehension rather than accurately describe what is happening in this country. So the language of the “clash” dominates, and the language of “both sides are equal here” can never be fully dispensed with.
The opening paragraphs of this Reuters report, for instance, are completely bewildering:
Palestinian protesters threw rocks and Israeli police fired stun grenades and rubber bullets in clashes outside the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on Monday as Israel marked the anniversary of its capture of parts of the city in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said more than 180 Palestinians were injured in the violence, of whom more than 80, including one person in critical condition, were transferred to hospitals.
It’s all here: the report starts with Palestinians throwing rocks, as if that is at all comparable to Israeli police who are armed to the teeth and are firing rubber bullets, which cause untold harm to people. And somehow, these “clashes” between two equal sides wound up with hundreds of Palestinians injured or hospitalized. Funny how that works out.
Other reports are clearly so nervous about veering from the script that even when they start strong, they descend into near-gibberish, like this one from the Guardian:
Israeli police have stormed the sacred Jerusalem compound that holds the Dome of the Rock amid mounting international concern over the worsening violence in the city.
Following the most serious clashes in the city since 2017, the Palestine Red Crescent reported 305 people had been injured after officers in riot gear clashed with Palestinian demonstrators in East Jerusalem.
A decent opening paragraph, but then, suddenly, the clash takes over—twice. Just read that sentence again: “Following the most serious clashes in the city since 2017, the Palestine Red Crescent reported 305 people had been injured after officers in riot gear clashed with Palestinian demonstrators in East Jerusalem.” It’s as if the Guardian thinks any other word could send the globe spinning off its axis.
The paper is a model of clarity, though, compared to the BBC’s attempt to describe what happened (emphasis theirs):
There have been clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police outside the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, ahead of a planned Jewish nationalist march.
More than 300 people were injured, as crowds threw stones and officers fired stun grenades and rubber bullets.
It comes amid soaring tensions in the city, which has seen weeks of unrest.
Ah yes, “soaring tensions,” “crowds” and “officers” firing randomly, it’s all so vague and ephemeral. What is causing the tension to soar? The weather? Scroll down and you get this semi-explanation:
The latest violence follows days of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police in the nearby Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem, with the possible eviction of Palestinian families from their homes there by Jewish settlers a focal point for Palestinian anger.
So the current clash (read: Israelis assaulting Palestinians) is connected to…other clashes (that arose because Israelis are systematically trying to remove Palestinians from their homes so a neighborhood can be more Jewish).
But the winner might just be this Associated Press report from Saturday (emphasis mine):
A night of heavy clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound and elsewhere in Jerusalem left more than 200 Palestinians wounded, medics said Saturday, as the city braced for even more violence after weeks of unrest.
Nightly protests broke out at the start of the holy month of Ramadan over police restrictions at a popular gathering place and have reignited in recent days over threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinians from their homes in east Jerusalem, which is claimed by both sides in the decades-old conflict.
It was unclear what set off the violence at Al-Aqsa, which erupted when Israeli police in riot gear deployed in large numbers as thousands of Muslim worshippers were holding evening prayers at the sprawling hilltop esplanade.
Again “heavy clashes” somehow leave hundreds of Palestinians injured, and then the piece de resistance: it’s unclear what set off the violence that happened when Israeli cops in riot gear descended on a mosque during prayers! Hey, AP, I think that might be a clue???
This is not complicated: if an occupying force launches sustained assaults on an oppressed people, you should say that that is what is happening, and you should avoid language that upholds the fiction that there are two equal sides squaring off against each other. There aren’t.
Update, 12:24 p.m. ET: Hamas has now fired rockets into Israel in retaliation for the Israeli assaults in Jerusalem, so we can expect this dynamic to exponentially increase. The New York Times news alert about the latest developments is very instructive.
Number of news alerts I received from the Times about the Israeli violence in recent days? Zero. The Israeli assaults on Palestinians were not deemed significant enough, I guess, but now that Israel is “on edge”—and the violence can be universalized enough to be given the vague, all-purpose description of “a sudden crescendo”—the paper is jumping on it.
Update, 1:37 p.m. ET: 🙃