By Nigel Parry and Laurie King, The Electronic Intifada

Deheisheh Refugee Camp, Bethlehem, 2 July 2002. (Photo: Musa Al-Sha’er)

A common formulation in reporting on the conflict holds that even the most severe Israeli attacks are acts of “retaliation”, regardless of what preceded the events.

The following Associated Press report from 16 April 2001, is a classic example:

Israel Attacks Gaza in Retaliation

BEIT HANOUN, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israeli helicopters and tanks hammered Palestinian positions in several parts of Gaza late Monday, retaliating for mortar shells fired at an Israeli town for the first time since fighting broke out seven months ago.

Israel, calling the mortar attack an escalation, also sent in bulldozers to disrupt farmland near Beit Hanoun, the suspected source of the mortar fire. Soldiers would begin to “occupy positions,” the military said.

The upsurge in fighting overshadowed separate efforts by the United States and Jordan to defuse the crisis and restart peace talks.

The mortar shells had exploded harmlessly near the town of Sderot, less than 3 miles outside Gaza near Beit Hanoun. Earlier, mortar shells hit two small Israeli farming villages just outside the Gaza border, and a mortar critically injured a 15-month-old Israeli toddler in a Jewish settlement in Gaza.

Retaliating for the attack on Sderot, Israeli helicopters targeted Palestinian police outposts in Gaza City, Dir al-Balach in central Gaza and Rafah in the south late Monday, Palestinian witnesses said. Israel also used surface-to-surface missiles, they said.

Source: “Israel Attacks Gaza in Retaliation,” by Ibrahim Barzak, Associated Press Writer, Monday April 16 6:37 PM ET.

“Retaliation” is a word that confers an aura of moral correctness on the actions it describes.

According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), the day before this report — 15 April 2001 — more than 170 Palestinian civilians were made homeless and dozens were wounded when Israeli forces invaded the area near Salah El-Din Gate in Rafah, Gaza, to destroy Palestinian-owned buildings.

Four days before that — 11 April 2001 — PCHR reported that more than 500 Palestinian civilians were rendered homeless after their houses were demolished or destroyed by the Israeli occupation forces. Two Palestinians were killed and dozens were wounded during shelling of Khan Yunis, and a minor from Gaza City and a young man from Jenin died the same morning from wounds received earlier.

Could the Palestinian mortar attacks therefore not also be termed “retaliation”? Perhaps all instances of Palestinian violence — particularly in light of the 1947-1950 ethnic cleansing of Palestine and the 33-year-old military occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza — could be described as retaliatory?

“Retaliation” is rarely used to describe Palestinian violence, and in the isolated instances when it is used, it is generally in the form of a quotation of Palestinian spokespersons. It certainly would not be used unqualified in headlines or in non-quoted body text as in the all-too-common example above.

The Israeli government’s public relations machine understands very well that journalists like to portray things in context, with reference to events preceding the focus of the report. “Retaliation” is a word that Israel regularly tries to slip into reports, using it repeatedly in its statements to the press, knowing that it appeals to this desire to offer context, spurring the journalist to include a few lines about the previous attack and, in the best scenario, describe the current attack as “retaliatory”.

Although it is indeed legitimate to quote an Israeli spokesperson using the word, framing a report in this context implicitly justifies an Israeli attack.

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