Newseum Honors

Can You Bomb Hamas Propagandists?

05.13.13 4:45 PM ET

I love a good museum fight. Symbolic kulturkampf (like the squabble over whether the Simon Wiesenthal Center was building its Museum of Tolerance on a Muslim graveyard) draws all the ire and bile of the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but without, you know, actual artillery shells. This round of hostilities was ignited by Washington's journalism-themed Newseum, which included, in its list of “journalists who died or were killed while reporting the news,” Mahmoud al-Kumi and Hussam Salama, two Palestinians with Hamas affiliations killed by an Israeli Army airstrike during last November’s hostilities.

The usual suspects (right-wing blogger Jennifer Rubin, Adam Kredo of the neo-conservative Washington Free Beacon, the Anti-Defamation League) hollered angrily that the Newseum is honoring terrorists. Today, Newseum announced it will "re-evaluate their inclusion" on its list of journalists. So are al-Kumi and Salama heroic journalists, or scurrilous terrorists? The truth is, they are sort of both. Those outraged over Newseum’s decision are using “terrorist” sloppily, muddying the waters of international law and morality.

Critics of the museum confuse two basic claims about the Palestinian journalists: first, that they were propaganda agents for Hamas, helping propping up a savage band of thugs, and second, that they were materially aiding a terrorist operation, and thus participating in hostilities as combatants. Anyone who doubts the first point is welcome to watch this video from their employer, Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV, in which Mickey Mouse menaces the Zionists with death. Hateful filth. And so it’s good that, as Tablet’s Adam Chandler noted back in November, the United States Treasury considers Al-Aqsa TV a “terrorist financing organization,” and has frozen its funds. Which means, technically, that Al-Aqsa TV’s employees are terrorists.

Technically, sure, but not in any way that’s relevant to the question of whether they deserved to be taken out by an IDF airstrike. That, according to the rules of law (as Human Rights Watch explains) depends on whether they were actually participating in hostilities. Anti-Semitic and pro-terrorist journalists remain civilians until they aid an ongoing attack. During World War II, for instance, Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl (who makes Al-Aqsa look like PBS), as vile as she was, was not fair game. For that, you don’t need to be a member, in the words of Israeli Army Spokesperson Avital Leibovich, of “legitimate media outlets.” You just need not to be a soldier. And no one on the right has supplied any evidence that al-Kumi and Salama were terrorists in the sense of actually being combatants.  

These two men were doubtless unsavory. But you do not have to be a hero to have the right not to be targeted in war. Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, a possible pick for Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, has called for carpet bombing Gaza in response to Qassam rocket attacks (killing “10,000” people if need be); Ovadya Yosef, one of his predecessors, was nearly as bad. But certainly no one thinks they would be valid targets in war. What about Ann Coulter (“We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity”)? Inciting violence is terrible; it is not warfare. We firmly divide between combatants and civilian propagandists for good reason.

I think Newseum’s critics know this, which is why they resort to innuendos, as when the Weekly Standard suggested that al-Kumi and Salama’s “‘being part of the resistance’… could mean that those carrying a camera during the day could be carrying rockets at night.” Well, of course, it could mean that—but, in this specific case, did it? Similarly, when Israeli Army Spokesperson Avital Leibovich, in a letter to The New York Times defending the airstrikes, complains, “terrorist organizations exploit reporters, either by posing as them or by hiding behind them,” she is not talking about this specific case at all, just hand waving. When she says that Al-Aqsa TV has “encouraged and lauded acts of terror against Israeli civilians for the past decade,” she is correct, but that does not permit Israel to drop bombs on their cars. Like her allies in the conservative media, Leibovich pivots between two arguments for targeting Al-Aqsa cameramen: one valid but (as far as we can tell) empirically false, the other true but a red herring.

So, though it looks like Newseum may fold, they shouldn’t. They correctly excluded from their list a third journalist killed on the same day, Mohamed Abu Aisha, who, as Chandler noted, was a uniformed member of Islamic Jihad’s militia. (Chandler seems to be mistaken in asserting Abu Aisha was in the same car though; this is his version of guilt by innuendo). Contra its right-wing persecutors, no one has ever claimed that journalists ought to get special rights because they’re journalists. This isn’t about whether a Hamas affiliate ought to get a press pass, or a hero’s ribbon. It’s whether he forfeits his right, as a civilian, not to be bombed. And on that one, the record’s pretty clear.