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The south African zionist federation vs the star ruling by press ombudsman joe thloloe

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October 14 2008


The South African Zionist Federation complained against the strap above the headline of an article by then Minister for Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils and the captions to three pictures that accompanied it in The Star on April 7.

The headline in The Star was: A call to confront the past. The strap reads: Remembering the massacre.

The captions that offended the Zionist Federation are:

A Killed like animals: Bodies lie at Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian camp in Beirut, Lebanon in this 1982 file picture. The writer argues that because Israel was allowed to get away with mass killings such as the Deir Yassin slaughter, it simply continued on its bloody path.

B Aftermath: An Israeli tank is positioned in the rubble and debris of Jenin camp, where a massacre occurred in 2002.

C Smouldering: People gather at the rubble of a destroyed building, minutes after an Israeli missile attack in Tyre, Lebanon in 2006.


The federation’s head of media and public relations, Bev Goldman, argued that the newspapers were in breach of the code in that they misrepresented or suppressed facts, distorted the facts in text or headline and were thus in breach of Sections 3.2 and 3.3 of the code.

She also argued that they were in breach of 4.1 and 4.3 of the code in that their comment was not fair and honest and did not take into account all available facts and of Section 5 that says: “Pictures shall not misrepresent or mislead nor be manipulated to do so.”

In her complaint Goldman says: “Remembering the massacre, placed within the context of the article and photographs, implies that all the incidents referred to in the article and pictures were massacres perpetrated by Israel against Arab Palestinians.”

The article the before the noun massacre clearly tells the reader that it is one massacre that is being remembered. Massacre is also singular, confirming that it is one massacre that is remembered. The article itself tells the story of one massacre, the Deir Yassin one.

Kasrils quotes an Israeli historian, Ilan Pappe, as having “meticulously recorded 31 massacres from December 1947 to January 1949”.

Kasrils does write: “They attest to a systematic reign of terror conducted to induce the flight of Palestinians from the land of their birth.” The focus of the article however is on the one massacre.

The strap is a true reflection of the contents of the article.

What probably happened was that the newspaper did not have pictures from the Deir Yassin massacre to illustrate the article and so decided to get pictures from their archives to illustrate Israel’s “bloody path”. The caption to the largest picture, A above, proves this.

First, it makes it clear that it is a file picture and then it goes on to say: “The writer (Kasrils) argues that because Israel was allowed to get away with mass killings such as Deir Yassin slaughter, it simply continued on its bloody path.”

Goldman said it was the Lebanese Christian Phalangist Militia who carried out the killings in Sabra and Shatilla. She writes: “The Kahan Commission of Inquiry found that Israel was indirectly responsible for not anticipating the Phalangist violence. However, the report concluded: ‘No intention existed on the part of any Israeli element to harm the non-combatant population in the camps’.”

Goldman concedes: “Israel accepted responsibility for having allowed the Phalangists into the camps and carried out the recommendations of the commission to dismiss the Minister of Defence and Army Chief of Staff since they did not foresee the massacre.”

A more careful reading of the Kahan report implicates Israel much more deeply than Goldman accepts. For example: “The Chief of Staff, together with the people accompanying him, went to the Phalangists’ headquarters, where, according to his testimony (p. 210), he ordered the Phalangist commanders to effect a general mobilization of all their forces, impose a general curfew on all the areas under their control, and be ready to take part in the fighting.”

And: “Brigadier-General Yaron spoke with the Phalangists about the places where the terrorists were located in the camps and also warned them not to harm the civilian population. He had mentioned that, he stated, because he knew that the Phalangists’ norms of conduct are not like those of the I.D.F. and he had had arguments with the Phalangists over this issue in the past.”

After reading the report, there is no doubt in my mind that Israel was implicated in the killings. The picture and caption do illustrate Israel’s bloody path, one covered in both Israeli and Palestinian blood.

Ms Goldman objected to the second caption, saying when it was placed in the context of Kasrils’s article it implied that Israel perpetrated a massacre against innocent unarmed Palestinian refugees. It is true that there was a battle between the Palestinian combatants and the Israeli army, which resulted in the death of 23 Israeli soldiers and between 52 and 56 Palestinians, 38 of them reportedly armed.

If we accept that a massacre is ‘the vicious killing of large numbers of people”, was this a massacre? Did the newspapers imply that Israel perpetrated a massacre against innocent unarmed Palestinian refugees?

When a senior Palestinian Authority official first alleged that 500 Palestinians had been killed, it appeared to be a massacre, but later reports, including one by the United Nations, showed much fewer casualties. It could then not be described as a massacre.

The newspapers’ obvious fault was to pick up an archival picture and to use it with its original caption without checking later developments in the story.

The third photograph and caption, according to Goldman, “appearing as it does, side by side with the other two and accompanying Kasrils’s article, implies that Lebanon 2006 was also a massacre perpetrated by Israel, and not a war started by Hezbollah”.

I do not find this implication in the use of the picture or the caption. The captions were not intended to tell the full story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Picture and caption C correctly reflected a moment in time.

In the article Kasrils does concede somewhat that the Palestinians act violently but in his view it is a response to Israeli violence: “Unless Israel confronts the past, as many have attempted in South Africa, it will continue to be viewed with revulsion and suspicion. Israelis will continue to live by the sword and deceit, feigning surprise when Palestinians violently respond.” (My emphasis.)

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Kasrils on the source of the violence it is true that Israel has been on a bloody path. The intention of the newspaper in using these pictures was to illustrate that path.


The Star did not misrepresent, suppress or distort facts and were thus not in breach of Sections 3.2 and 3.3 of the code.

The captions and pictures were not comment but were used to illustrate the Kasrils article, which was itself legitimate comment on a heatedly controversial subject. The newspapers are thus not in breach of 4.1 and 4.3 of the code as argued by the Federation.

The second caption is the only one that was in breach of the code. It has now been firmly established that the Jenin battle was not a massacre and to continue to call it one is inaccurate.


On April 10, three days after the publication of the pictures in The Star, the newspaper published a letter from Rabbi Yossy Goldman, President of the SA Rabbinical Association, arguing that the captions were misleading. The view of The Star’s editor Moegsien Williams is that this letter and another above it from the Ambassador of Israel, Ilan Baruch, headlined Kasrils uses history only where it serves his purpose, constituted an immediate right of reply to the original query.

In a subject as controversial as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there are strong opinions on both sides and the newspaper did give the side opposed to Kasrils the opportunity to respond.

I however find that on the captions, the newspaper should at least have carried a footnote to the letter from the Rabbinical Association acknowledging that it had been wrong on the Jenin battle.

The newspaper is hereby ordered to carry an apology for inaccurately describing the events at the Jenin Camp between April 3 and April 18 2002 as a massacre.


In an article in The Star on April 7, we carried an analysis by Ronnie Kasrils headlined “A call to confront the past” in which the writer examined what he regarded as terror conducted on the part of Israel to induce the flight of Palestinians from the land of their birth. A complaint was directed to the Pressombudsman by the Zionist Federation, and a ruling has since been made. We apologise for inaccurately describing the events at the Jenin Camp between April 3 and April 18 2002 as a massacre.

Published on the web by Star on October 22, 2008.