Journalism, separation, and independence: newspaper coverage of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948 — Part III

This is the third part of my article about British and U.S. newpaper reporting of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. You can read Part I here, Part II here, and the whole article on the website of Journalism, where it was first published. This part deals with the way that the massacre at Deir Yassin in April 1948 was reported differently by British and U.S. newspapers, and why.

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The entrance to the King David Hotel, headquarters of the British Authorities during the Mandate for Palestine, pictured in 2014 © James Rodgers

DISTANCE, DISCOURSE, AND DANGER
 

The coverage of the massacre at Deir Yassin on April 9 1948 – a month before the Mandate came to an end – is significant for what it tells us about Jewish armed groups’ attempts to restrict and shape international reporting, and the kind of reporting which resulted. In recent decades, the State of Israel and the Israeli Army have been in charge of issuing, through the Government Press Office (GPO), journalist accreditation, and controlling access based upon whether or not the journalist in question holds a GPO card. In the conflict in Gaza in 2008-9, known as ‘Operation Cast Lead’, the Israeli Authorities actually banned international journalists from entering Gaza for the duration of their campaign in the territory. The decision was reversed after the Foreign Press Association, which represents journalists employed by international news organizations to report from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, successfully took the government to court. (FPA News, 2009). It is understandable that the Israeli Authorities might wish to keep international correspondents away. The British Mandate authorities had closer contact with British members of the international press corps than is the case today with the Israeli government and correspondents from outside the country. That does not mean that the correspondents of the Mandate era enjoyed unrestricted access, or that they universally shared the political and military authorities’ outlook – consider Hollingworth’s questioning of their competence; Duffield’s frustration at what he saw as the easy life the Public Information Office afforded to his competitors. Gurney’s reflections on the press seem to mirror those of military men in difficult situations throughout modern history: an annoying necessity whose needs must be considered. By the final weeks of the Mandate, however, British authority in Palestine had dwindled to an extent that being a British correspondent, or being accredited to the Public Information Office, was not sufficient to grant reporters the kind of access which they needed to do their job.

 

The massacre at the village of Deir Yassin is a case in point. The killing there of some 250 villagers (Khalidi, 1992: 290) on April 9 1948 was described by Gurney in his diary as ‘one of the worst things the Irgun and Stern[i] have done’ (Golani, 2009: 111). Even Harry Levin, a journalist working then for the illegal radio station run by the Haganah (a Jewish military organization set up during the Mandate era[ii]) seems to have been horrified by what he heard. ‘Last night Etzel[iii] captured Deir Yassin. Appalling accounts are circulating of their indiscriminate killing of men, women, and children. The entire purpose of the operation is questionable.’ (Levin: 1997: 57). Gurney himself is in the dark as to the details of what has happened. The British correspondents are, too. The Times correspondent, Gurney writes, is unable to reach Deir Yassin, ‘stopped by the Haganah’ (Golani, 2009: 111). Further, remarkable, indication of the conditions under which British correspondents were working appeared in the next day’s edition of The Times. Not only had the paper’s correspondent been prevented from reaching Deir Yassin. Two paragraphs of a Reuters despatch carried in the paper on April 10th reported that Irgun and Stern leaders had actually organized a news conference ‘outside Jerusalem’ the night before – a news conference at which they ‘claimed they had killed 200 Arabs – half of whom were women and children’ (Reuters, 1948). However, ‘Only American and Jewish correspondents were admitted to the Press conference, the British being banned as “untrustworthy”.’ (Reuters, 1948). The reasons why the British journalists are seen in this way are not given, but it might be reasonable to assume that those giving the news conference feared being identified, and subsequently arrested – and that they did not ‘trust’ British correspondents to deliver the kind of coverage they sought. The Reuters despatch suggests a great deal of confidence, an air even of being untouchable, on the part of the ‘Irgun Commander’. The fact that the commander is quoted as saying that ‘the main Jewish assault on Arab-held territory would not begin until after the British withdrawal’ (Reuters, 1948) makes clear that the Irgun feel free to say what they like without fear of British reprisal. With the Mandate so clearly on its last legs, the days when ‘much of the terrorist campaign’ needed to be ‘directed at the British media’ (Zadka, 1995: 178) were over. A reading of the New York Times’ report, however, suggests that there may still have been an element of security consciousness, too.

The report, by Dana Adams Schmidt, appeared in the New York Times on 10th April 1948, under the headline, ‘200 Arabs killed, Stronghold Taken’. The massacre is infamous to this day for the number of civilians killed. It is also a turning point in the history of Jewish Militant groups’ involvement in the conflict of the late Mandate era. As Schmidt wrote, ‘This engagement marked the formal entry of the Irgunists and Sternists into the battle against the Arabs. Previously both groups had concentrated against the British.’ (Adams Schmidt, 1948). The most telling paragraphs from the point of view of the access afforded to Adams Schmidt and others appear lower down the piece, under the crosshead ‘Victors Describe Battle’

The Irgunists and Sternists escorted a party of United States correspondents to a house at Givat Shaul, near Deir Yasin (sic), tonight and offered them tea and cookies and amplified details of the operation.

The spokesman said that the village had become a concentration point for Arabs, including Syrian and Iraqi (sic), planning to attack the western suburbs of Jerusalem. If, as he expected, the Haganah took over occupation of the village, it would help to cover the convoy route from the coast.

The spokesman said he regretted the casualties among the women and children at Deir Yasin but asserted that they were inevitable because every house had to be reduced by force. Ten houses were blown up. At others the attackers blew open the doors and threw in hand grenades.

One hundred men in four groups attacked a 4:30 o’clock in the morning, the spokesman said. The Irgunists wore uniforms of a secret design and they used automatic weapons and rifles. (Adams Schmidt, 1948).

The perpetrators of the killings at Deir Yassin did keep some details to themselves: their  identities, for one. These were not for publication. Throughout Adams Schmidt’s report, he refers to the speaker as ‘the spokesman’. No name or description appears. Adams Schmidt’s report, based on access denied to his British counterparts, is a kind of masterpiece of extreme journalistic objectivity. As such, it serves to highlight what can go wrong when correspondents adhere so strictly to such an approach. It excludes any reflection, or speculation, upon the suffering endured by the inhabitants of the village as their attackers fell upon them. While the headline writers have picked out the death toll, Adams Schmidt’s report saves it for the end of the first paragraph, which concludes ‘the Jews killed more than 200 Arabs, half of them women and children.’ (Adams Schmidt, 1948). To be fair to Adams Schmidt, it is impossible to know at this distance whether the number of dead was placed at the end of the paragraph by editors in New York, perhaps on the grounds that the figure appeared prominently in the headline. The matter-of-fact tone of the rest of his report suggests that he may genuinely not have considered it the top line of the story. The word of ‘the spokesman’ is taken at face value. Nothing in the report suggests that Adams Schmidt or his colleagues challenged the spokesman, or asked for an explanation. Nor is the fact that the attack began at ‘4.30 o’clock in the morning’ (Adams Schmidt, 1948) commented upon. It may help to explain why only ‘some’ of the ‘women and children’ who were told to ‘take refuge in the caves’ (presumably adjacent to the village) apparently did so.

Adams Schmidt’s report is memorable for the fact that it brought news of the massacre to a wider audience. Its indifference to the fate of those killed, and its readiness to convey unchallenged the spokesman’s words as he seeks to justify the deaths of civilians, make it stand out in another way, too – even decades later. No attempt is made to put a human face on those killed. Throughout, they are simply ‘Arabs’ or, as Said (1995: 207) might have seen it, ‘Orientals [….] seen through, analyzed not as citizens, or even people.’ In common with the British correspondents, Adams Schmidt may have found it impossible to get to Deir Yassin itself (although his reporting from around the time of the massacre does not mention any attempt to do so), but he did at least have access to sources in the way that the British correspondents obviously did not. He, along with his American colleagues, was trusted by the Jewish militant groups to the extent that they shared information with them, albeit apparently on entirely their own terms. In terms of the close relationship between Israel and the United States which was to follow later in the 20th century, and into our own, it is interesting to note the Jewish militant groups’ attempts, even on the eve of Israeli statehood, to favour American correspondents with privileged access.

Given the Jewish militant groups’ antagonistic approach to the British press, it seems less surprising that the correspondents seem at a distance from those they are covering. They lack contacts in the circles which would help them to understand in more detail what is happening. In this case they are distanced from the peoples of Palestine not because of an Orientalist barrier. They are distanced because, whatever efforts they might make to try to find out what is happening, physical obstacles are put in their way.

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A view of the barrier between Israel and the West Bank, near Qalandiya crossing point, June 2014 Picture: James Rodgers

That is not to say such barriers of discourse did not exist in the coverage at the time. At the end of the previous year, 1947, when the timescale for British withdrawal from Palestine was first being outlined – ‘Large-scale evacuation of British troops and officials from Palestine will begin early in January,’ (Daily Mirror, 1947), as the Mirror put it in early December of that year – the British correspondents’ distance from the story seems more marked. Writing in the Daily Express a couple of days later, Eric Grey gave an account of unrest in Jerusalem

British troops barricaded the King David Hotel: the civil and military headquarters. Arab youths fought it out with Palestine Police who used armoured cars to bar them from the Jewish quarters.

Then 200 Jewish youths carrying cudgels marched out, looking for trouble. Police reinforcements were called to keep the rival mobs apart. (Grey, 1947).

Grey’s story was datelined ‘Jerusalem’, but the source of his information is not clear. His reference to British troops barricading the King David Hotel (despite the bombing of the year before, the building did remain the British ‘civil and military headquarters’ right up until the end of the Mandate) suggests that he may have been there, or at least seen the troops protecting the hotel. The lack of descriptive detail of the barricade; the ‘Arab youths’; or the ‘Jewish youths’ however, suggests that Grey may have been elsewhere, and based his story based on official statements. That lack of detail in this incident, as in Deir Yassin, suggests a combination of factors shaping the reporting.

Whatever the shortcomings of the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this century, it is very difficult to imagine that were a massacre of this scale to take place today, there would not be at least some attempt to find survivors, or relatives of those killed, to put a human face on such a horrific story. Criticizing T. E. Lawrence (often known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’) for the way he describes the Arabs among whom he lives and alongside whom he fights, Said writes

We are to assume that if an Arab feels joy, if he is sad at the death of his child or parent, if he has a sense of the injustices of political tyranny, then those experiences are necessarily subordinate to the sheer, unadorned, and persistent fact of being an Arab (1995: 230) (Italics in original).

Said was not writing about the way British correspondents covered the people among whom they were staying, but his words here, especially those about being ‘sad at the death of his child or his parent’, seem apt – as do his words on the work of Gertrude Bell ‘about life in Damascus’ (Said, 1995: 229). Said suggests that Bell’s words ‘wipe out any trace of individual Arabs with narratable life stories.’ (Said, 1995: 229). The same could be said of some of the reporting of the end of the British Mandate.

[i] The Stern Gang was a splinter group from the Irgun (Irgun Zvai Leumi) dedicated to violence as a means of achieving Jewish statehood

 

[ii] For details of its founding, see Segev (2000: 209)

[iii] The Hebrew initials of the Irgun (see Segev: 2000: 384)

I will publish the full references with a future extract. In the meantime, please feel free to comment here; email me at reportingconflict.com; Tweet @jmacrodgers. If you have read Headlines from the Holy Land, thank you — and please do consider writing a review on Amazon.

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One thought on “Journalism, separation, and independence: newspaper coverage of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948 — Part III

  1. Pingback: Journalism, separation, and independence: newspaper coverage of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948 — Final part | reportingconflict

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