PRINT May 1994


the Massacre in Hebron

THE WAY THE NEWS MEDIA should treat some events seems obvious: when Dr. Baruch Goldstein, an American-born militant settler on the West Bank, raked a mosque full of Palestinian men and boys with gunfire as they prayed at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in February, for example, the American press was more or less compelled to make appropriate noises about bloodshed, vigilante violence, and Israeli-government responsibility. Yet in choosing the photographs to illustrate their stories, the print media took a more conservative—and cynical—line: a bloodbath perpetrated on Palestinians became another pretext for the timeworn theme of Palestinian violence, and for downplaying the realities of Palestinian life under occupation.

Certainly the massacre forced damning information about Israeli society into relief. On Nightline, Ted Koppel allowed that with the massacre, “Israelis learned some unsettling truths about themselves. They do, it turns out, subject Palestinians to a different system of justice.” But this was not news—certainly not to the Israelis, who see daily evidence of the separate and unequal treatment accorded to Palestinians. And it wasn’t news to anyone who has read some of the thousands of words written over the years, albeit mostly in the “alternative” press, about Israel’s harsh government policies and legal and social inequities, and about the routine harassment and humiliation of Palestinians by Israelis. Furthermore, even in light of this “new” information stumbled on by Koppel and the rest of the press, the image of the Palestinians hasn’t been substantially amended. They have been portrayed as a bunch of rock-throwing murderous terrorists for so long—with little balancing reportage—that even a massacre apparently won’t much change bedrock editorial opinion or its pictorial support.

And that editorial opinion, which shapes picture choices as well as story content, comes straight from the top. At major news publications like the New York Times, Newsweek, and Time, picture editors are responsible for providing high-quality photographs for every story, both by assigning photographers and by gathering existing images for reproduction. But they have little power to control what ends up in print: they indicate their choices from the available pool, and defend them to the editors who assign the stories, but it’s the top editors who have final say, and whose opinions the pictures chosen reflect.

Cases in point are the initial stories Time and Newsweek did on the massacre. Because it occurred on a Friday, editors had to scramble to include it in the issue on the stands the following Monday: reporting a news event that breaks at the end of the week means tearing up an essentially finished magazine to make space for the story, then getting reporters and photographers to cover it fast. In this case photographers weren’t hard to come by. In Hebron and the rest of the Occupied Territories, they were out in force within minutes of the massacre; the tirelessly efficient Associated Press photographers got images of the bloody dead and wounded being carried out of the Tomb of the Patriarchs and arriving at a hospital, and other agencies were there as well, including photographers from Reuters, Agence France Presse, and Flash 90. The increasing sophistication of digitization and satellite transmission of photographs meant that newspapers and magazines in the U.S. had access to images conveying some of the chaos, savagery, and human loss of the shooting on the same day it occurred.

You wouldn’t have known that by looking at Newsweek’s story. Meager and pallid, it was packed into slightly over three pages. And its opening image, of a father carrying his son into a hospital, looked surprisingly benign. The glare of the camera’s flash all but obliterates the blood that dapples one of the boy’s arms, and an immaculately white bandage is wrapped around one thigh. An intravenous tube is barely discernible; the boy looks as if he might merely have taken a nasty fall. The image conveys neither the human cost nor the incendiary politics of Goldstein’s act.

In contrast, Time opened its eight-page story with a four-column- wide shot of a bloodied man balanced precariously on a blood-smeared stretcher. His mouth and his eyes are open in startled pain. Although the presence of blood doesn’t necessarily make a better picture (and is controversial in some quarters), the image captures some of what we know was the shock and hysteria of the scene. Yet Time hadn’t fundamentally departed from the usual visual clichés of the Palestinian dilemma: on its second spread, a three-column picture of Palestinian men angrily throwing stones neutralized the sympathy a reader might have had for the guy on the stretcher. By captioning this photograph “The Aggrieved,” Time made the threatening stone-throwers stand for all of the Palestinian people. And the image next to it—smaller, showing riot police crouching to avoid a hail of stones—made the lsraelis look, once again, like the injured and endangered party.

And where were the truly aggrieved? Where were the people who rushed to hospitals searching for family members? Where were the survivors of the dead? One family, named Abu Sneineh, lost nine people. We don’t know their names and we haven’t seen their faces. The New York Times did run an image of Fathma Abu Sneineh praying over her husband’s grave, but it is a wide shot, in which she looks totemic rather than individual—the boulders and rocky ground are more prominent than she is. Despite all that we have heard of them, the “Palestinians” by and large remain a faceless, depersonalized mob of otherness.

In the next week’s follow-up stories, both Time and Newsweek led with standard images of shouting or stone-throwing Palestinian men. Newsweek opened with a three-column image of running Palestinians; the article’s headline, “Armed and Dangerous,” fell directly beneath it, and seemed to caption it, yet was supposed to refer to the three Israeli settlers seen toting automatic weapons on the facing page. And the fact that the Palestinians were coming straight at the camera—and the reader—while the settlers were casually strolling past it made the Palestinians look like the dangerous ones. Similarly, Time’s large photograph of marching, yelling Palestinians appeared above the headline “Raging against Peace.” with all the obvious connotations of obstructionism and intransigence.

Rarely was the spur for much of the stone-throwing shown—according to photographers, the patrols of the Israeli military, riding in jeeps and armored vehicles. Of course pictures of the daily intimidation by lsraeli soldiers—and radical settlers—are harder to get, and less dynamic, than the street chaos of the refugee camps. And the endless repetition of images of armed Israelis battling stone-throwing Palestinians sets up a false equivalency: the angry bravado of street brawlers is no match for genuine firepower and government sanction.

Ironically, much of the reporting on the massacre was pretty good, especially in Time and Newsweek. But the complexity and evenhandedness evident in some texts usually lost out to simplification and polarizing drama when the pictures got sorted out. By using the same types of pictures over and over again, even events as appalling as this are subsumed into a banal and repetitive continuum that inspires exhaustion and cynicism more than understanding or—dare we utter the word—hope.

Carol Squiers is senior editor of American Photo magazine, New York. She contributes this column regularly to Artforum.