The past fortnight has seen the killings of at least five teenagers in the West Bank.
The names and faces of three–Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach – are now familiar across the world, having dominated much of the international media in recent weeks. The killing of the fourth, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was picked up more slowly and with less detail by the Western media. The fatal shooting of the fifth, Yousef Abu Zagha, by the Israeli army, has barely even registered outside the Palestinian press.
These stark contrasts in the reporting by the media are particularly striking in view of the boys’ identical young ages – all but Yifrach were 16 – and the violent natures of their deaths. Aside from providing a telling insight into international perceptions of Israeli and Palestinian lives, these differences unwittingly reflect the unequal social and political order in which Israeli Jewish citizens are prioritized above Palestinian citizens of Israel, with East Jerusalem residents and finally Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza at the bottom of the hierarchy.
The ages of the Israeli teenagers formed a central part of many reports of their disappearance, which described them as boys, kids and youths. In keeping with the portrayal of them as innocent minors, news reports detailed their family lives, studies and hobbies, often mentioning them by first name only. We were repeatedly reminded by both the Israeli government and the media that the three boys were students trying to get home to spend Shabbat with their families. There was outrage at any mention of the fact that one was a settler and that they studied in the occupied West Bank, with many arguing that they should be treated as minors because of their young ages, and Israeli ministers referring to them as children.
Yousef Abu Zagha was also 16. The status of innocent minor did not apply to him; on the contrary, the Israeli military justified his killing on the grounds that he was a ‘Hamas operative’, with his age – identical to that of Fraenkel and Shaar – apparently not enough for him to be treated as a minor. This difference, and indeed Abu Zagha’s death altogether, was ignored in much of the Western media. Meanwhile, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, whose age has been reported alternately as 16 or 17, was buried or anonymised in much of the original reporting, which focussed instead on the funerals of Yifrach, Fraenkel and Shaar. The Guardian did not even name Abu Khdeir in its original report on Wednesday, instead simply referring to him by the generic moniker ‘Palestinian teenager’ (the New York Times opted instead for ‘Arab boy’ in its headline). It was 24 hours before any Western media source humanized him with a photograph – in stark contrast to the photos of the three Israeli teenagers that covered many news sites for days.
At what age a militant?
While Abu Khdeir’s death eventually became headline news – albeit belatedly – Yousef Abu Zagha has remained entirely absent from the narrative. The Israeli army’s proffered justification for his death – that he was a ‘Hamas operative’ – raises the obvious question of at what age an individual can be deemed a militant. Shaar was a teenage settler – and in the case of Yifrach, old enough to serve in the Israeli army – while Abu Zaghal was a teenager in a refugee camp whose supposed crime was to allegedly throw a rock at an Israeli soldier. So why is one a militant while the others are minors? And why has the media ignored this issue in its coverage of the events?
This gap in the coverage is particularly striking because the stories of the two boys actually provided an opportunity to cover a highly pertinent issue: the contrasting social, political and legal statuses of Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. Yifrach, Fraenkel and Shaar were not only different from Abu Zagha and Abu Khdeir in terms of their backgrounds and social status, or even their value to the international media. They also had a completely and significantly different legal and political status, which the media failed to either mention or analyse.
Nearly every report on the case of the three Israeli teenagers mentioned that Naftali Frenkel held dual US-Israeli citizenship, a fact of fairly limited relevance to the story. However, there has been little discussion of the political status of East Jerusalemite Abu Khdeir, despite the obvious contextual importance of this point. Instead of analysing and explaining the implications of his residency, many reports simply reflected the disparity of their own varying coverage of the individuals’ deaths. The brutal beating by Israeli police of a third teenager, fifteen-year-old Tarek Abu Khdeir, has been nominally reported by Western media sources, primarily due to the fact that as well as being a cousin of Mohammed, Tarek Abu Khdeir also holds US citizenship. However, the United States Consulate in Jerusalem has informed his family that they have little recourse beyond following Israeli legal procedures.
Meanwhile, Abu Zagha has not featured in any mainstream media discussions of recent events, meaning that his political status has not even been considered. Like Shaar, Yousef Abu Zagha was a teenager living in the West Bank. Unlike Shaar, he was not Jewish and therefore not entitled to Israeli citizenship. This meant that, like all Palestinians in the West Bank, he lived subject to military law. This legal difference has very serious repercussions; under Israeli military rule in the West Bank, Palestinians can be incarcerated from the age of 12 while the minimum age for custodial sentencing for Israeli citizens stands at 14. Palestinians living a few miles away from the Israeli teens who were killed face a very different response when they disappear, in terms of both their legal status and their absence from the media.
These hard differences in rights have been manifested in the Israeli state’s responses to the killings. The disappearance of the three Israeli teenagers resulted in the largest military operation in the West Bank since the second intifada, with more than 500 Palestinians detained and as many as 9 killed. Gaza has also been subjected to airstrikes. The response has been both military and political, with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon proposing the establishment of a new settlement in memory of the teenagers. Opposition to his proposal has come not on the grounds of proportionality or legality, but rather over concerns that such a move would damage Israel’s international standing.
By contrast, the murder of Abu Khdeir resulted in a police investigation. No soldiers were deployed, no Israelis detained and no houses searched. That the abduction and killing of Israeli teenagers is treated as a terrorist act meriting a military response, while the abduction and killing of a Palestinian teenager is perceived as a criminal act meriting a police investigation, reflects the differing statuses of these teenagers under Israeli rule. Meanwhile, the largely-unreported fatal shooting of Abu Zaghal – a West Bank resident with no state authorities to protect him – resulted in nothing more than a standard confirmation of death by a military spokesperson.
“Two sides in a conflict”?
The stark contrasts in the mainstream media’s treatment of these killings is at odds with its frequent remarks about the need to balance the ‘two sides’ of the conflict. In theory, the premise that this is an even-handed conflict between two sides is supposed to help ensure balance. In practice, it allows much of the media to present a distorted view of the situation on the ground, while ignoring the supposed need for balance when covering teenagers’ deaths. The difference between these boys’ stories are very real, but unfortunately the media has largely chosen to reproduce misleading narratives about them, rather than critiquing the realities of the situation on the ground.