There was a discussion a few months back in the comments section of The Angry Arab on the subject of Noam Chomsky and the sources he uses in his books and articles about the Middle East. If you've ever read, for example, Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians you will notice that, damning as Chomsky often is about U.S. and Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians, the materials he cites in his critiques are almost always American or Israeli ones. Angry Arab himself maintained that the refusal to rely on Arab sources of information was racist, presumably because it implied that such sources were inherently unreliable, and perpetuated the long tradition of having others speak for the Arab people of the Middle East rather than listening to what they have to say for themselves. Chomsky's defenders maintained that Chomsky's choice of sources wasn't a commentary on the value of Arab sources, but a practical measure which - by relying on sources that his critics would normally regard as impeccable - forced them to deal with the issues he raised, rather than allowing them to side-step them by insinuating that the question at hand was actually the quality of the sources.
On a theoretical level, I can sympathize with the point that Angry Arab was making, but in practice I would have to side with Chomsky on this, not least because I do exactly the same thing when I am citing sources for items on this blog or debating in online fora. If you use material from a source that even your opponent finds impeccable, you are taking away in advance one of the justifications they might use for not dealing with the subject at hand. But convenience is the only reason I do it: I really wouldn’t want anyone to think that I draw so heavily on Israeli or U.S. sources because I regard them as inherently more professional, truthful or reliable than anyone else.
In fact, for the benefit of anyone who might be tempted to think that what "we" say is probably true, but what "they" say is probably propaganda, let's dissect an official Israeli statement, and see how close a relation it is to reality. I’ll use as my example the official IDF statement on the killing of Ala Adin Masud Adawiya who, as I wrote earlier, was a 25-year-old baker who was shot dead by Israeli soldiers as he walked to work in the early morning hours of 18 December 2003. The reason I’m choosing this incident is that Adawiya's was a particularly gruesome killing, which prompted witnesses to report what they saw to the Israeli civil rights group B'Tselem, to an investigative journalist reporting for the UK's Observer Newspaper, and to Breaking the Silence (an Israeli organisation that collects testimonies from IDF soldiers concerning what they have seen and done while serving in the Occupied Territories). This means that, in contrast to most other killings of Palestinians by the IDF, we have a wealth of eyewitness testimony – from both Palestinians and Israelis - about what happened to Ala Adawiya, which we can compare to the IDF statement.
Two Israeli eyewitnesses have testified as to how Ala Adin Masud Adawiya died. The first (Soldier R), was a paratroop commander who was a member of the sniper team that fired the first shot at him. The second (I’ll call him Soldier S) was a member of the same unit, who observed the killing from street level, in the house opposite the sniper position.
There were also two Palestinian eyewitnesses. Fifty-year-old As’ad Hanun lived in the house outside which Ala Adawiya was killed, was awakened by the sound of the sniper’s bullet that hit him, and watched from an alley what happened to him after he was wounded. Adnan Soso was the ambulance driver who responded to an emergency call when Adawiya was first shot. He arrived at the scene within three minutes, but could not give approach and attend to Adawiya because an IDF jeep containing several soldiers was on the scene. He watched from inside his ambulance what happened between the soldiers and the wounded Palestinian.
A third Palestinian witness, Dr Samir Abu Zarour, did not observe the killing but examined the body of Ala Adawiya upon its arrival at Rafidia Hospital in Nablus on the morning of 18 December 2003, and can testify to the extent of the wounds.
So, here (via The Observer), is the official statement the IDF issued on the shooting of Ala Adawiya:
" 'Soldiers identified a terrorist planting an explosive device in the road. They shot him and when they examined the bag, it contained explosive material, as suspected. They later discovered he was a member of Islamic Jihad.' The spokesman denied soldiers had shot him several times."
Let's compare that statement line-by-line with the testimony of the Palestinian and Israeli eyewitnesses at the scene (taking the IDF claims in chronological order):
Claim 1: "Soldiers identified a terrorist planting an explosive device in the road."Soldier R’s testimony: "My team killed six innocent people, or probably innocent... We would joke about it and give them code names: the baker, the woman, the child, the old man, the drummer. Some of them by mistake, but as I see it, they were simply executed on illegal orders. There were many nights on which we received orders that whoever we see on the street between two and four in the morning is sentenced to death [dino mavet]. Those were the exact words....
The next man was the baker. We entered the Old City in Nablus, and as usual the open-fire regulations were that every man walking on the street at night is sentenced to death... That night we took over a house in an excellent position, and about four in the morning the sharpshooters’ position identified a man walking with a bag. I saw him on Jami’at al-Kabir Street with the bag in his hand. I went down to report, and the sniper, a friend of mine, was on duty. I reported to the commander who reports to the company commander. The order was ‘take him down.’ And so a man fell, 70 metres from his house."
Claim 2: The spokesman denied soldiers had shot him several times.Adnan Soso’s testimony: "I was called at around 3am to an area known as the onion market. I got there within about three minutes and saw an injured man lying against a wall within metres of an Israeli Jeep… Then they started shooting at the man from the Jeep. Every time they shot, the body moved and they waited then shot again, sometimes twice. They shot him about ten times over several minutes".
As’ad Hanun’s testimony: "After a few minutes I opened the window. The street was dark and I did not see the wounded man, but I saw the neighbours’ son. I asked him who was wounded, and he answered that it was a young man and he was in front of him. Immediately I went down to try to help. The wounded man was sitting on the ground and wearing a white hat. I saw an Israeli jeep approaching… I was afraid they’d shoot so I went back into the alley. In the meantime the street was lit up with flares that the army lit; afterwards I heard about 10-12 consecutive shots. I did not see who was shooting, but I heard the wounded man yelling. After the last shot I heard the sound of an explosion and after that I heard nothing, no shooting and no yelling".
Soldier S’s testimony: "Right away the jeep from the command post came, and the company commander got down and carried out a barbaric kill-verification just like that, with grenades, and he even sprayed the body with bullets. It’s a good thing that the IDF spokesman denies that there’s such a procedure".
Soldier R’s testimony: "Then the jeep of the command post came and 'confirmed kill', throwing two grenades on the body that smashed it completely".
Dr Samir Abu Zarour’s testimony: "He had been shot between eight and 10 times, including twice in the face and once in the testicles, and had a series of fragmentation wounds in his legs".
Claim 3: "They shot him and when they examined the bag, it contained explosive material, as suspected."Soldier S’s testimony: "Then they [i.e. the soldiers in the jeep] went and checked what he had in the bag. What do you think was there? Bread".
As’ad Hanun’s testimony: "It was clear that he [Adawiya] was dead because he did not show any sign of life.” The neighbour identified the killed man as ‘Ala al-Din, an employee of the a-Silawi bakery. “In the bag,” she corrects, “were work clothes, not bread."
Adnan Soso’s testimony: "Eventually, the shooting stopped and the Jeep allowed the ambulance to approach. 'The man was dead and both his eyeballs were hanging out. I looked at what he had in the black plastic bag next to him. Trousers, shoes and an overall, covered in flour. We put him on a stretcher and got him into the ambulance. As we were about to pull away, the Jeep approached. The soldier said: 'Is he dead?' He then asked what was in the bag and I showed him. He asked for the dead man's identification card and spoke on the radio for a few minutes. He then told us to take the body away."
Claim 4: "They later discovered he was a member of Islamic Jihad".
Obviously, no eyewitness testimony can confirm or refute whether the IDF subsequently discovered that Ala Adawiya was a member of Islamic Jihad, or whether is just an attempted justification ex post facto for the shooting of an unarmed man. One thing that might make us curious is the fact that Adawiya was one of four Palestinians killed by the IDF in Nablus on 18 December 2003, and Palestinian reporting of the deaths separates Adawiya from the other three fatalities, all of whom are acknowledged as members of militant groups. For example, this is the account of that night's deaths in Nablus by LAW (The Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment):[Translation mine]. Early Thursday morning December 18, 2003, Israeli troops killed four Palestinians in Nablus during an incursion in this West Bank city. According to LAW’s investigations, Israeli troops supported by more than 50 tanks and military vehicles raided the Old City and forcibly entered several houses. The Israeli troops shot and killed Ala Dawaya, aged 21, while he was going to work at a bakery in Nablus Old City. He was hit by nine shots. According to a witness who was woken by the shooting, " I looked through the window and I saw a man who shouted then passed out. I called an ambulance. Two military jeeps arrived straight after and approached the man on the ground. He moved a little, the jeeps moved back a litte and the soldiers shot him from a distance of one meter until he died". The witness affirms that the victim was not armed. The troops then fired indiscriminately at houses in the neighbourhood.
In addition, Israeli troops killed three Palestinians in Sheikh Musalam Street. According to witnesses, the three Palestinians were politically active, were “wanted” by Israeli troops, and were killed after an exchange of fire. They are: Majdi al Bahsh, aged 24; Jibril Awad, aged 27; Fadi Ihnini, aged 24.
And the Israelis too don't seem to have maintained for very long the allegation that Ala Adawiya was an Islamic Jihad terrorist. British journalist Donald Macintyre interviewed Adawiya's mother and brother in September 2005 for the UK's Independent newspaper and reported: "The Army, which said in early 2004 the victim had been identified as a 'terrorist' with Islamic Jihad, and that the bag contained explosives, now acknowledges the shooting was a mistake". (I could write a lot here about whether giving your soldiers an order to shoot dead anyone they meet on the street, and then calling it a mistake when they do just that and end up killing an unarmed baker, is a proper use of the word "mistake", but that's not what this post is about, so I'll let it pass).
So, how do you feel now about the reliability of official Israeli sources? Apart from the indisputable "They shot him..." there isn't a truthful phrase anywhere in that statement on the killing of Ala Adawiya. In fact, it is so unrelated to the actual events of the night in question that it sounds like a generic, proforma statement that the IDF dusts off and uses whenever it has a dead Palestinian body to explain away to a gullible English-speaking news media. Yet you won't see a news report in the U.S. about the killing of Palestinians that doesn't strive to be "fair and balanced" by including the official IDF statement of events, as if this were a legitimate source of information. Remember the case of Ala Adawiya when you hear these IDF statements on our news, explaining away the death of yet another "terrorist" at the hands of the IDF. And remember it now in particular, when the IDF is in its fourth month of relentlessly bombarding the penned-in population of the Gaza Strip in retribution for the abduction of Gilad Shalit, and we have - as yet - no testimonials from Breaking the Silence and B'Tselem to tell us who the 4,500 Palestinians killed or wounded so far in this campaign really are, or how the Israeli Army really killed and injured them.
The testimony of Adnan Soso and Dr Samir Abu Zarour is from Israel's 'execution' troops face death quiz; The Observer, 1 Feb 2004.
The testimony of Soldier R, Soldier S and As’ad Hanun is from Shooting and Hitting; Yediot Ahronot, 16 Sept 2005.
Testimony from Soldier R (again), and more information about Breaking the Silence and the circumstances of Ala Adawiya's killing are found in The Hebron Confessions; The Independent, 25 Sept 2005. (Available here without registration).