Been There, Spun That: Israel’s PR on Child Killings Echoes Apartheid

Published June 18th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

Jon Pattee 

Senior English Editor 


Editor's Note: This story first ran on June 18. It appears again in connection with the UN conference on racism, which will run through September 7 in South Africa. The Western media is focusing almost exclusively on the frictions created at the event by widespread condemnation of Israel's apartheid policies - thereby saving readers from having to face the factual basis for the charges. 


“It was a picture that got the world’s attention,” begins the June 15 CNN top story. Next to it, in a photo, blood pours from the mouth of the dying boy. 

A photo of 12-year-old Mohammad Ad Durra, accompanying a CNN in-depth report on Amnesty International’s finding that Israeli soldiers have killed nearly 100 Palestinian children?  

Not really. It is an article on the June 16 anniversary of the 1976 Soweto uprising, which pitted black South African schoolchildren with stones against the heavily armed security forces of the apartheid system. The photo is of Hector Peterson, one of the estimated 200 teens and children killed that day while protesting mandatory instruction in Afrikaans, the language of the white regime. The article ranks fourth on the list of CNN main page Top Stories. 

The top story/history lesson comes on the same day that both CNN and the BBC report on a 12-year-old Palestinian boy gunned down in the Gaza Strip. Neither article contains even a line about Amnesty’s report, either as background or as context. 

CNN showcases “what Hector Peterson and countless others sacrificed” a quarter of a century ago. But keeping CNN’s enormous audience informed of “what Mohammad Ad Durra and countless others sacrificed” just last week does not seem to merit mentioning Amnesty’s findings. 

In fact, while paying lip service to the lessons of history, CNN and nearly all international media outlets are ignoring a fundamental parallel. Like their apartheid-era counterparts decades before, Israeli spin doctors are busy blaming anyone but their own soldiers for a soaring child death toll.  




“We are dealing with a situation in which kids are cynically being used by being put on the front lines where they may be killed, maimed or injured…If a young boy falls, it gives [them] a lot of propaganda points.” 

Senior South African police officer or Israeli army captain? In this case, the latter, as quoted in an October 2000 issue of the St. Petersburg Times. But 16 years ago, the South African security forces were complaining of the same problem to the LA Times, labeling young or female demonstrators as “human shields.” 

Apartheid’s defenders find an echo in the words of an Israeli Embassy article posted on, which asks: “Why are [Palestinian children] frequently found on the streets, in the front lines of violent confrontations, when they should be safe at home or in school?”  

The answer, according to the Israeli PR team, is that “Arafat…would have the world believe that Israel, with its guns and helicopters, is waging a war against 10-year-olds with small stones. In truth, however, the children are the smoke screen masking the gunmen, petrol-bomb throwers and lynch mobs which have exacted their pound of Jewish flesh, unseen or ignored by the television cameras and media crews.” 

The message of these spin doctors reaches the highest levels, as evidenced by US President George W. Bush’s reported perplexity on the topic of dead Palestinian children. According to an Israeli official quoted by the Jerusalem Post in May, Bush told Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres that he could not understand why Palestinian adults were “pushing 16 and 17-year-olds to commit suicide instead of protecting them." 

In fact, Bush need have gone no further than the UN Human Rights Inquiry Commission charged with probing the current Palestinian uprising, whose recent report draws an explicit parallel with South Africa. 

“History is replete with instances of cases in which the youth, prompted by idealism, despair, humiliation and the desire for excitement, have participated in demonstrations that have confronted an oppressive regime,” reads the UN commission’s document. 

“In recent times children have behaved in a similar way in Northern Ireland, South Africa, Indonesia and elsewhere. The insistence of the [Israel Defense Forces] that the Palestinian demonstrators, humiliated by years of military occupation which has become part of their culture and upbringing, have been organized and orchestrated by the Palestinian Authority, either shows an ignorance of history or cynical disregard for the overwhelming weight of the evidence.” 




Echoing complaints by apartheid security forces, the Israeli Embassy article considers it “likely” that Palestinian children “are deliberately being taken out of their homes and sent into the streets…with the express purpose of placing them in the line of fire in a calculated play for world sympathy.” 

But digging a little deeper into the psychology of Palestinian children reveals that a sense of duty, rather than force, is more often at work. 

“Palestinian children have spent their entire lives under military occupation,” Monica Tarazi, staff person for an umbrella organization of Palestinian NGOs, told “They have seen their parents and grandparents humiliated by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, they have seen their friend's homes demolished, they have seen their land confiscated to build roads and settlements for exclusive Israeli use.” 

Tarazi’s description of childhood under the 34-year-old Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip sounds suspiciously like accounts of the heavily policed, squalid South African townships, where Hector Peterson and other children erupted in rebellion against apartheid. 

“They have never played on grass; their playgrounds are the alleyways of their refugee camps. They have witnessed their older siblings and cousins being hauled off to…prisons, not to return for months or years, and they have heard about the torture they endured there,” Tarazi notes.  

“Palestinian children feel the oppression of the Israeli occupation as heavily as their parents, so it's hardly surprising that they have played an active role in resisting it,” she concludes. 

Another NGO worker closely involved with children in the Occupied Territories rejects Israel’s fundamental assertion that Palestinian children are being pushed en masse into demonstrations. 

“First, it is imperative to note, that while children do participate in demonstrations, the actual percentage of children who participate regularly is around one percent of the population according to UNICEF,” says Catherine Cook, the public relations officer for Defence for Children International’s Palestine Section (DCI/PS). 

“The phenomenon of children’s participation has been inflated and inflamed by the international media. According to DCI/PS documentation, approximately 1/3 of the children killed in the first three months of the Intifada were not participating in any confrontation with Israeli military sources at the time of their death.” 

The NGO worker says that of those who were killed, an examination of 27 cases indicated that there was no exchange of gunfire between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli soldiers at the time. Rather, they were situations of Palestinian civilians, armed with stones and the occasional molotov cocktail, facing well-armed Israeli military forces.  

As for the children who do take part in demonstrations, Cook confirms Tarazi’s assertion that a sense of duty, not force, drives them there. 

“Children are not physically forced to take to the streets in protest,” says the NGO worker. “It is the logical outcome of coupling the energy of youth with being part of an oppressed population.” 

“There are a number of reasons children may go to participate in demonstrations… children make up 53 percent of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza Strip [and] are affected like everyone else by the Israeli occupation,” Cook told 

“They see their parents unemployed, family members in jail, they face travel restrictions. Going to school or work each day is often difficult. They are part of a larger community that is suffering and like most people in that community, they feel they need to do something to end the cause of that suffering. 

“For many of them, they have been raised with the mindset that as part of the Palestinian community it is their duty to participate in resisting the occupation. This resistance can take many forms, from teaching or working in healthcare to being politically active and participating in demonstrations.” 




CNN’s Soweto anniversary article focuses on a museum in Hector Peterson’s honor, which “will stand on the site where the apartheid police amassed to attack the students, within a stone’s throw of where they shot and killed Hector Peterson. It will house the history.” 

But readers who search the CNN website for history (or news) about “Palestinian” and “children,” or “Amnesty International” and “children,” will find this headline: Israeli Accuses Palestinians of Using ‘Children as Shields.’ No headlines emerge about Amnesty’s findings on the children killed by Israeli soldiers. 

If the Soweto article is any indication, CNN’s historians will be in Palestine a quarter of a century from now, devoting top stories to a museum for Mohammad Ad Durra. 

And like all good ghosts, Durra and 100 other shot-dead children, mostly ignored by CNN coverage, will remain invisible to CNN’s audience while the spin doctors echo apartheid. 






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