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Thursday, December 18, 2014

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Sticks, stones and the limits of free speech

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Amira Hass is an Israeli correspondent for Ha’aretz presently living in the West Bank town of Ramallah. In the past she’s resided in Gaza. While having a distinctly pro-Palestinian bent, she prides herself in telling stories that neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian establishments want to hear. 

In that vein, on April 3, Ha’aretz published an article by Hass headlined “The inner syntax of Palestinian stone-throwing.” In it, she opined that “throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule. Throwing stones is an action as well as a metaphor of resistance.”

Coming in the wake of what some perceive as signs of a nascent third Palestinian intifadah, Hass’ article has sparked a public debate, still ongoing, about freedom of speech, morality, journalistic ethics, incitement to violence and more.

Whether intended or not, the piece was published just a couple of weeks after three-year-old Edel Biton of the West Bank settlement of Yakir was critically injured when stones thrown by Palestinian youths hit the car in which she was travelling with her mother and two sisters.

Edel’s mom lost control of the vehicle, colliding with a truck parked at the side of the road. All four were injured, Edel most severely. She sustained serious head wounds, from which she has yet to regain consciousness.

And if that timing wasn’t troublesome enough, Hass’ piece was published the day after the Ofer Military Court, just north of Jerusalem, issued a verdict convicting Waal al-Araja, a member of the Palestinian security services, of murdering Asher Palmer and his infant son Yonatan. In September 2011, while driving near Hebron, Palmer was hit in the head by a rock thrown by al-Araja. He was knocked unconscious and his car overturned in a roadside ditch. Both father and son died at the scene.

Hass and Ha’aretz were assailed soon after her article’s publication. Politicians and publicists lambasted them. Leaders of Moetzet Yesha (the Council of Jewish Settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza) lodged criminal complaints against both and held a demonstration outside the paper’s offices, claiming the article encouraged Palestinians to continue hurling stones at Israelis in the West Bank, endangering them. As such, they claimed, the article was an act of criminal incitement.

While not addressing Hass’ article directly, Brig.-Gen. Hagai Mordechai, outgoing commander of the IDF’s Judea and Samaria division, declared that people engaged in stone-throwing were committing acts of terrorism.  

Most of those supporting Hass did so less because they agreed with her argument for the legitimacy of stone-throwing, but rather because they believe she has the right to express her opinion and that Ha’aretz was justified when it published it. Some argued that from a strictly legal point of view, Hass’ article was not an act of incitement.

Other Ha’aretz writers and its publisher, Amos Schocken, wrote and spoke about the inherent violence of Israel’s long-term occupation of the West Bank, violence that must be juxtaposed with that of Palestinian stone-throwers. They also suggested reading Hass’ article to its end, asserting that in essence it calls on the Palestinians to use Gandhian methods of civil disobedience, not violence, to confront Israel’s military occupation.

I’ll admit I’m usually ambivalent when it comes to Hass and her articles. They take me back to my days as the IDF’s legal adviser to Judea and Samaria and having to answer what I perceived to be annoying questions from her regarding different aspects of the IDF’s presence in the West Bank. On the other hand, I have respect for an Israeli reporter who tells us the Palestinian narrative from within, usually more openly than her Palestinian counterparts. And although her articles are usually critical of Israel and the IDF, she has also criticized the Palestinian Authority on many issues.

But Hass got it wrong this time. Completely wrong.

Yes, she has a right to express her opinion and should not be threatened with criminal proceedings for what she wrote. The debate should continue in the press, not the courts. But by encouraging Palestinians to throw stones at Israelis, she has lost her moral compass and created a double-edged sword that could easily boomerang. Violence is violence. No distinction based on the side one roots for can justify wanton acts of hostility and innocent victims.

Hass and her editors at Ha’aretz should be more responsible in the future.

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