A Palestinian man rammed a truck into a crowd of Israeli soldiers boarding a bus in Jerusalem on Sunday, killing four and injuring 17 others. Immediately after the news broke, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the suspect “ISIS” without offering an ounce of proof.
“We know the identity of the attacker,” Netanyahu told reporters, “according to all the signs he is a supporter of Islamic State.” This pronouncement–accompanied by zero evidence–was enough to frame the issue for subsequent media reports:
- ‘ISIS’ Attack in Jerusalem Uses a Truck, the New/Old Weapon of Choice (Daily Beast, 1/8/16)
- Jerusalem Truck Attacker Was Probably an ISIS Supporter, Says Netanyahu (Independent, 1/8/16)
- Jerusalem Lorry Attacker ‘Was IS Supporter’ (BBC, 1/8/16)
- Jerusalem Truck Attack: Suspect May Have Supported ISIS, Netanyahu Says (CNN, 1/8/16)
- 4 Israeli Soldiers Killed in ISIS-like Truck Attack (Boston Herald, 1/9/16)
CNN’s live broadcast chimed in, not even putting ISIS claims in scare quotes:
Despite headlining its piece “Jerusalem Lorry Attacker ‘Was IS Supporter,’” the BBC’s very first sentence would concede, “Although Benjamin Netanyahu did not give evidence for the claim….” Lack of evidence, evidently, is no reason not to frame your reporting around an official charge.
The BBC would rationalize this by claiming ISIS has “threatened” Israel in the past, while ignoring the far more material reality that ISIS has never attacked Israel—a rather glaring piece of historical context that was left unmentioned.
Netanyahu, it’s worth noting, has much incentive to inflate the threat as an ISIS one. Aside from needing a distraction from the ongoing investigation by the Israeli attorney general over bribery and corruption, Netanyahu has long-sought to conflate Israeli security threats with those to of Western Europe and the United States to garner sympathy and support. Despite the lack of ISIS attacks on Israel, and the hostility the militant group has received from Palestinians, Netanyahu has frequently evoked their specter, once even insisting “Hamas is ISIS, and ISIS is Hamas.” (Hamas, which is Islamist but not Salafist, has frequently arrested Palestinians suspected of being sympathetic to the Islamic State.)
The conflation also serves to distract from legitimate Palestinian grievances, including preeminently the decades-long occupation by the IDF, massive displacement by settlements in the West Bank (likely to increase with a new wave of settlement construction) and periodic large-scale bombings of Gaza.
The only superficial connection between Sunday’s attack and recent ISIS ones was the use of a truck to ram the victims.
“This is part of the same pattern inspired by ISIS,” Netanyahu insisted, “that we saw first in France, then in Germany and now in Jerusalem.” Many outlets ran with this thread but, in doing so, omitted two key pieces of context.
First, the attack in Jerusalem was aimed at military personnel, and ISIS typically attacks civilians, since they make no distinction between combatants and noncombatants. Also: the use of vehicles as weapons—by both Islamic and Jewish militants—has been around in Israel/Palestine for over a decade. It cannot be used as per se evidence of an “ISIS attack,” though many outlets would simply parrot Netanyahu’s claim that it constitutes a “sign” of the group.
Even the Daily Beast, which tried to provide some context had to torture their headline to make the narratives fit by insisting ramming people with trucks was an “New/Old Weapon of Choice.” See, it’s both new (e.g. ISIS) but here are all the times it happened in Palestine before.
ISIS has so far not claimed to have been behind the Jerusalem attack, though it is quick to do so even in cases where no direct link to the militant group can be established. For example, after the Nice attack, ISIS declared that perpetrator to be “a soldier of the Islamic State,” although French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve later said that an ISIS link had “yet to be established” (CNN, 7/21/16). “No element at this stage shows the allegiance of Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel nor links with individuals claiming to be” from ISIS, French prosecutor Francois Molins said, noting that Bouhlel was not an observant Muslim.
In Jerusalem, a hitherto unknown group, the Groups of Martyr Baha Eleyan, claimed to have organized the attack “in defense of our Jerusalem,” though the assertion could not be authenticated (Reuters, 1/9/17). The Times of Israel reported the attacker, Fadi al-Qunbar, had ties with the secular Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), according to “Palestinian media”—though this was also unconfirmed. These ties, sketchy as they were, did not drive coverage the way the evidence-free assertions of an ISIS angle did; indeed, few news reports even mentioned them.
As FAIR has previously noted (6/14/16, 10/9/15), when the assailant is Muslim, the specter of ISIS is the default position for media eager to evoke the organization’s brand. Whether or not the perpetrator has any actual connection or sympathies to ISIS is typically sorted out later.
The ISIS framing also provided much needed cover for Israeli’s increasingly right-wing government to pass draconian legislation, hours after the attack, to detain “suspected ISIS supporters” without trial. This was followed by mass roundups of Palestinians in the West Bank.
As a general rule, media outlets should not let the unilateral, unsubstantiated and self-serving claims of political leaders dictate how they frame such politically charged incidents. While many outlets chose to remain motive-agnostic (the New York Times’ “4 Die in Jerusalem Attack as Palestinian Rams Truck Into Soldiers” being a good example), the willingness of so many others to uncritically repeat Netanyahu’s sweeping claims–flying in the face of history and baseline evidentiary standards–shows the extreme degree of information and power asymmetry that marks the broader Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Adam Johnson is a contributing analyst for FAIR.org. You can find him on Twitter at @AdamJohnsonNYC.