Ethics watchdog overturns rebuke of Haaretz columnist

Gideon Levy wins appeal after being rapped for suggesting that former border policeman committed massacre in bank due to his military service experience

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

The crime scene outside the Bank Hapoalim in Beersheba where four people were killed by a local gunman on May 20, 2013. (photo credit: Dudu Greenspan/Flash90)
The crime scene outside the Bank Hapoalim in Beersheba where four people were killed by a local gunman on May 20, 2013. (photo credit: Dudu Greenspan/Flash90)

The Israel Press Council reprimanded the Haaretz newspaper and its columnist Gideon Levy for an opinion piece earlier this year in which Levy suggested that a former border policeman had learned from his service dealing with Palestinians that “killing innocent civilians can go unpunished” and as a result shot dead four people in a Beersheba bank.

The tribunal demanded that both Levy and Haaretz issue an apology, Haaretz reported on Thursday.

However, the Press Council later overturned its decision, accepting an appeal and ruling that freedom of the press means “the publication of extreme, provocative and annoying views.”

On May 20, 2013, Itamar Alon, a disgruntled, unemployed customer of Bank Hapoalim, entered a bank in Beersheba and opened fire on employees and customers, killing four and injuring three. Alon eventually killed himself as police moved to free a woman he had taken hostage.

Three days after the incident Levy wrote an article in which he tried to identify what it was in Alon’s past that had turned him into a killer. Citing Alon’s service in the Border Police, Levy asserted that the violence in which he had been involved while dealing with Palestinians in the West Bank was a contributing factor.

“In the Border Police Alon learned not only how to use a weapon but also the ease that it can be used,” Levy wrote at the time. “He learned that it is possible to kill innocent civilians without punishment. He served in the territories. The combination of the Border Police and the territories has great significance. The Border Police is the sickest of the forces of the occupation.”

Gideon Levy (photo credit: Soppakanuuna/Wikipedia Commons)
Gideon Levy (photo credit: Soppakanuuna/Wikipedia Commons)

Levy went on to claim that the traditionally wide diversity of ethnic backgrounds of those who serve in the Border Police had also played a role.

“The reasons are sociological and ethnic and are linked to the background of most of its policemen — Russians, Druze, Ethiopians and residents of Israel’s geographic periphery — who are cynically and not coincidentally sent by Israel to be the spearhead of its violent rule over the Palestinians and who, not coincidentally, become extremely brutal.”

The Israel Police lodged a complaint with the Press Council after the opinion piece was published. In its decision, the council rejected a claim by Haaretz and Levy that the article was an acceptable expression of opinion and should therefore be allowed.

It said that Levy had broken the code of ethics that requires a journalist to check facts, to be accurate, and to refrain from referring to the ethnic backgrounds of people unless it is relevant to the subject. Likewise, Haaretz itself should have verified the article’s content and its accuracy, the council asserted.

As an example, it noted that Alon, the shooter, had only served in the Border Police for one year in 1995-1996, that during that time he conducted joint patrols with Palestinian security forces, and that he had not been involved in any incidents that could be construed as causing him to commit the assault in the bank 17 years later. Likewise, there was no basis for the claim that in the Border Police Alon learned to “kill innocent civilians without being punished,” the council concluded.

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