By Jerold Auerbach
Last month Israel began to confront a daily barrage of fire kites and burning tire smoke across its Gaza border, igniting fires that destroyed thousands of acres of farm land and nature preserves. The day after fifty Palestinians were killed when they attempted to breach the border, The New York Times ran a front-page story accompanied by a four-column wide photo of a dead Gaza baby who had inhaled “acrid gas” during the fighting. The photo was taken by a Gaza photographer whose self-described specialty is parents weeping beside lifeless little bodies.
The reported death of baby Layla Ghandour sparked the memory of 12-year-old Muhammed al-Durrah. A decade ago the Gaza boy was reported by the Times as “fatally shot” by Israeli soldiers, falling dead into his father’s lap just when a free-lance camera man for France 2 happened to photograph him. An Israeli investigation subsequently concluded that Muhammad had not been hit by IDF fire and may not have been shot at all.
Tragically, Layla Ghandour’s death actually happened. Times Cairo bureau chief Declan Walsh, who reported it, described “the rules of grief” in Gaza society that transform private suffering — for which Israel, not Hamas, is routinely blamed — into a political frenzy. One day later Layla’s father carried her body wrapped in a Palestinian flag while leading a crowd chanting slogans about “Israeli blood lust.” The Times could not resist memorializing Layla Ghandour as a tragic symbol of Israeli cruelty.
It turns out that the story was more complicated and less truthful, undermining the reflexive Times narrative to blame Israel first. Layla was taken to the Gaza border area by her 12-year-old uncle. Several hours later, when she began to cry, the boy carried her to the border to find their grandmother, who was busy shouting at Israelis across the fence. Tear gas fell nearby; one hour later Layla died. In the Times, Israel was to blame.
End of story? No. The Times of Israel reported (June 21) that a 20-year-old Palestinian member of Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade was indicted by Israel on terror-related charges for attempting to cross the border to torch an IDF post. During his interrogation he revealed that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar had paid his parents $2,206 to falsely inform the media that his baby cousin Layla had died from inhaling Israeli-fired tear gas. Layla’s mother obliged, claiming: “The Israelis killed her.”
What really happened? Layla, it turned out, had a preexisting blood disease, attested to by a Gaza doctor, which one year earlier had also killed her brother at the same age. The tragic folly of family members bringing Layla to the border area, and keeping her there while Hamas militants launched their fiery acrid kites, may strain credulity but is beyond dispute. They got what they were paid for: in addition to their money Layla’s funeral received world-wide media coverage and, best of all, Israel was blamed for her family’s appallingly callous indifference to her fragile health. Her death parade, The New York Times reporter noted, was designed to win “international sympathy.” The Times took the bait and honored the scam on Page 1. To date, there has been no public correction for its gullibility.
The lingering question seems to be whether The New York Times can relinquish, or at least moderate, its reflexive blame-Israel-first coverage. Perhaps that is the real story worth investigating. The editorial page would be the appropriate place for a mea culpa. Until then, readers should rely on the other Times, The Times of Israel, for all the news about Israel that’s fit to print.
Jerold S. Auerbach is the author of Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016, to be published by Academic Studies Press. This article first appeared at the Algemeiner Journal.