Eritrean man’s ‘lynch’ highlights failings of the Israeli press

The Israeli media shares some responsibility for the hysteria on the streets and the phenomenon of ‘accidental’ attacks against Jews, Palestinians, and now Eritreans.

By Hagar Shezaf

Habtom Zerhom, an Eritrean asylum seeker, was shot by security forces and then lynched by Israelis in Beer Sheva’s bus station after being mistakenly identified as a terrorist on Sunday.

Moments later, Habtom’s identity was revealed, leaving many puzzled: the man who was accused of being the second assailant in a deadly gun attack didn’t match the profile of those behind the latest round of violence between Palestinians and Israelis.

The Eritrean community, though subject to vast and eclectic forms of racism by the state and Israeli society, has never been directly involved in the Israeli-Palestinian so-called conflict.

That critical piece of information did not stand in the way of the Channel 2 reporter who interviewed one of Habtom’s friends at the bus station, moments after the lynching.

“Did he ever talk about hating Jews? Hatred toward Israel?” the reporter asked the confused interviewee, who did not respond to the question.

“Did he ever talk about any hatred… that he hates Israelis?” the reporter badgered, after failing to get an answer to his first question. Habtom’s friend, obviously not understanding what he was asked, did not respond to the question. It was clear from the short clip that the man does not speak fluent Hebrew.

“You don’t know,” the reporter narrated in conclusion.

At the time of the interview, the deed had already been done. Security forces had already shot Habtom, the mob had already beat him. And even though the facts did not add up, the reporter didn’t think to question the basic assumptions handed to him – that a security officer shot a terrorist.

There were many questions that could have been asked in that moment. Instead, the journalist only thought to try and justify for the shooting.

There is an undeniable link between the lynching of Habtom and the growing number of extrajudicial killings of alleged assailants in recent weeks. When the system messes up, the whole system works to cover it. And right now, the press in Israel is definitely part of the same system.

Moments after Asraa Abed, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, was shot by Israeli security forces video of the shooting was already embedded and up in Channel 10’s Facebook page. Days later, when police stated they were examining the possibility that her motive may not have been terror-related, the report was buried deep in Ynet’s local news pages.

When Fadi Alloun’s body was eventually returned to his family after their request for an autopsy was denied, this strange fact was covered in Haaretz alone.

The same media outlets did not stop to ask themselves whether publishing a photo of 13-year-old Ahmad Manasrah shackled to his hospital bed, be he a terrorist or not, might not be ethical, not to mention legal. The photo was released by the government and therefore no questions were asked. The fact that the government might break its own laws did not cross a single editor’s mind, and if it did, adhering to the law for protecting minors was not as important as proving that Mahmoud Abbas is a liar.

The growing hysteria on Israeli streets, which is also responsible for a rise in “accidental” attacks — that is, Jews attacking Jews who they mistook for Palestinians, Jews attacking random Palestinians, etc. — can be partially attributed to the mainstream Israeli media and its coverage of developing news events.

Last week, at the height of public tensions, Ynet published a report on riots in northern Israel, headlined: “Masked Palestinians in northern Israel: We have weapons.” (It was later changed.) Only inside the article’s text was the full quote and its full context revealed: “we have weapons but we don’t want to use them.. we want to get back to how things used to be.. we don’t have anything against Jews. We need to respect each other and not have everyone draw his weapon, leave us alone. Leave Al-Aqsa alone.”

Public hysteria is amplified and exacerbated by breaking news reports published without any fact-checking, which seems emulate military press releases — reporting and refuting “security events” by the minute. Just last week, the army put out a statement: “shooting on the Eilat crossing, IDF forces on their way.” Two minutes later the notice was followed up with: “the shooting was apparently from a Jordanian shooting range across the border.”

The morning after the lynching of Habtom Zerhom, someone who allegedly took part said in an interview with Army Radio: “In this kind of moment you don’t know who the terrorist is, you don’t know who’s against who.”

This short statement should be at the heart of every future report about “neutralizing” alleged terrorists. But what really needs to be learned — by the media — is that in states of emergency, much more is unknown than known. Facts change, new details emerge, and security forces’ actions and assertions always need to be questioned.

Extrajudicial killing literally means there is no court, and there is no opportunity to correct mistakes — there is no such thing as a presumption of innocence, there are only terrorists, and careful investigations are not carried out, leaving room for conspiracy theories, suspicion and distrust.

Hagar Shezaf is a journalist based in Jaffa. She is currently a freelancer with AJ+. Follow her on Twitter: @hshezaf.