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Washington Post Journalists Repeat Israeli Claims as Fact

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In the June 1st edition of theWashington Post, journalists Scott Wilson and Laura Blumenfeld uncritically repeat Israeli claims regarding the Gaza aid flotilla as fact. Wilson and Blumenfeld should recognize that Israeli officials have a vested interest in discrediting the activists who challenged Israel's blockade of Gaza. Instead, the reporters wrote a piece in which they presumed to know what Israeli officials were thinking -- not just what they were doing.

The piece, "Israel says Free Gaza Movement poses threat to Jewish state," runs in the Tuesday edition of the Washington Post. The first two sentences bear repeating in full:

Once viewed only as a political nuisance by Israel's government, the group behind the Gaza aid flotilla has grown since its inception four years ago into a broad international movement that now includes Islamist organizations that Israeli intelligence agencies say pose a security threat to the Jewish state. The Free Gaza Movement's evolution is among Israel's chief reasons for conducting Monday morning's raid on a ship carrying medicine, construction materials, school paper and parts for Gaza's defunct water treatment plant.

The key phrase in all of this is the following: "The Free Gaza Movement's evolution [to include Islamist organizations] is among Israel's chief reasons for conducting Monday morning's raid..." Note that this isn't a quote from an Israeli official. This is the narrative of the journalists themselves.

Why is this important?

No journalist can definitively write what Israel's "chief reasons" are for its raid. Journalists can only know what Israeli government officials publicly claim their chief reasons are. This isn't just true of Israeli officials -- it is true of all government officials.

Journalists are supposed to treat government statements with a healthy degree of skepticism. That skepticism is all the more important when dealing with an international conflict involving Israel and those challenging its blockade on Gaza civilians. As the cliche goes, truth is the first casualty of war.

The Washington Post reporters did quote Free Gaza Movement leaders who challenged the Israeli claim of a security threat. Where the reporters made a serious error, however, was in uncritically assuming that Israeli officials actually believe this notion of a "security threat" themselves. Maybe they do, maybe they don't.

In fact, there are good reasons to treat Israel's claims with skepticism. After all, the simplest explanation for an action is usually the best one:
  1. The Israeli government is maintaining a massive blockade of Gaza.
  2. Israel clearly doesn't want this blockade undermined, or they would end it themselves.
  3. Therefore, they must intercept and stop all those who seek to publicly challenge their blockade.

With the death of at least nine Free Gaza Movement activists, this policy has now come at great cost to the Israeli government. But if people start believing that Israeli officials saw the humanitarian aid activists as a "security threat," those same officials will seem slightly less callous in their decision to deploy military force.

Washington Post journalists Scott Wilson and Laura Blumenfeld should have kept this in mind as they wrote their piece. When journalists assume that they know what officials are thinking, they run the risk of being held captive to a government's talking points.

Sanjeev Bery is the Executive Director of Freedom Forward.