Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu has been obliged to back away from his claim that it was a Palestinian leader, rather than Adolph Hitler, who came up with the idea of exterminating the Jews. But Netanyahu’s historical chutzpah has always been breathtaking, as I learned years ago when reporting on Israel for 60 Minutes.
First, to finish with the current furor:
After a storm of outrage from experts on the Holocaust around the globe, Netanyahu used his Facebook page to deny he had ever charged that it was a Palestinian chief who had convinced Hitler to undertake the Holocaust. Any such interpretation that the Israeli Prime Minister had said anything like that, wrote Netanyahu, was “absurd.”
That Facebook statement, however, was just another fabrication.
According to Haaretz, “in his October 20th speech before the World Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, Netanyahu described a meeting between the Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and Hitler in November, 1941: ‘Hitler didn't want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, 'If you expel them, they'll all come here (to Palestine).' According to Netanyahu, Hitler then asked: "What should I do with them?’ and the mufti replied: ‘Burn them.’”
I had first-hand experience with Netanyahu’s rewriting of facts in 1990, when I was reporting on Israel with Mike Wallace for 60 Minutes. Our report was provoked by the killing of 17 Palestinians gunned down on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount by Israeli Border Police on October 8th, 1990. Known in Arabic as al-Ḥaram al-Šarīf, or the "Noble Sanctuary", the Temple Mount is sacred to both Jews and Muslims. The questions of access and control remain a flashpoint to this day.
Back in October 1990, the Israeli government’s immediate explanation for the bloody killings was that the police had shot down the Palestinians only after the Palestinians, egged on by their imams, began throwing rocks at Jews praying at the Western Wall, which lay below the confines of the Temple Mount.
That was the message of Benjamin Netanyahu, then deputy minister of foreign affairs. He delivered it at a dramatic press conference, hefting a large lethal-looking boulder. He was outraged. Several Jews worshipping at the Wall had been hospitalized.
“The crowd that threw those projectiles wanted to slaughter the Jews,” Netanyahu seethed. “They were heralding their champion, Saddam Hussein, who wants to send a much bigger projectile—missiles—to burn half of Israel.”
The whole affair, said Netanyahu, “was a deliberate planned provocation aimed at deflecting world attention from the Gulf, from Saddam Hussein.” (Saddam had invaded Kuwait several weeks before on August 2, 1990).
The press bought the story. Except for an excellent but lonely investigative piece in the Village Voice, it went virtually unchallenged by the international media.
Arriving in Jerusalem a few days later, intending to research a different subject, I was struck by the fact that all the Palestinians we spoke with were still vehement in depicting the killings as an Israeli atrocity. Those shot on the Temple Mount had been gunned down in cold blood by rampaging Israeli police, they said. And more: there was never any threat to Jewish worshippers praying at the Western Wall.
We decided to investigate further, with important input from Michael Emory of the Village Voice and many key eyewitnesses. Most critically, we also obtained the raw video tapes shot of the actual events by CBS and other U.S. networks, as well Israeli TV.
What we found was that the official Israeli version put out by Netanyahu was, as the Palestinians had charged, a total fabrication. There was no other way to describe it.
The tragedy had been precipitated by a radical Jewish group, the Temple Mount Faithful, which had long been advocating a complete Israeli takeover of the holy site. In a pure grab for publicity, they announced they were going to march to the Mount in defiance of an Israeli court order. Determined to defend what they regarded as hallowed ground, a large crowd of Palestinians of all ages assembled on the Temple Mount. Some were armed with rocks. Attempting to control the extremely volatile situation were about 45 armed Israeli border police, who—unwisely--had been stationed on the grounds of the Mount itself.
Suddenly, there was as an explosion. Police had shot teargas into a group of Palestinian women in one corner of the site. In the ensuing uproar, some Palestinians thought the radical Jewish group was about to enter the Mount and began throwing rocks at the armed Israeli police.
Panicking, a few police fired live ammunition into the crowd. At least one Palestinian was killed; others were wounded. That sent the young people into even greater frenzy. They raced toward the wall, on which some of the Israeli police were standing, and continued throwing stones. As they later told us, they were throwing rocks at the Israeli police, not---and this is the key point--not at the Jewish worshippers completely out of sight on the other side of the wall in the Plaza below.
Indeed, when we looked at all the raw TV footage, we found there were no Jewish worshippers praying at the Wall when the rocks were hurled over. They had been evacuated—without any serious injury--when the disturbances first began.
In fact, despite repeated requests to the Government Press Office, the police, and the hospitals, we were unable to obtain the name of any Jews wounded at the Wall that day by rocks. On the other hand, the raw news tapes clearly demonstrated the use of excessive deadly force when the reinforced Israel border police stormed back onto the Temple Mount.
In one sequence captured by three different cameramen, Israeli police fired point-blank at an unarmed Palestinian man, shooting him in the head. They then fired teargas directly into the shocked crowd around the mortally wounded man.
Palestinians with private cars and ambulances dodged bullets and teargas in an attempt to treat the wounded. Three Palestinian health workers were shot that day. One of them, a nurse who we interviewed in her hospital bed, described how she was hit while treating the wounded INSIDE an ambulance that had been backed up to the door of the al-Aksa mosque. The police continued to fire at the ambulance even as it pulled away.
Other attempts by Israeli spokesmen to justify the killings also turned out to be totally false. The charge, for instance that Muslim firebrands used loudspeaker on the Temple Mount to exhort young Palestinians to violence, urging them to slaughter the Jews.
When we listened to the tape shot of the entire event, it turned out that Palestinian leaders were pleading with the young men to take shelter inside the mosque, not to expose themselves to death. At the same time, they were beseeching the Israelis to allow ambulances and doctors to approach the mosque to rescue the wounded.
Our report, which aired December 1990, was greeted with a storm of indignation from just about every major Jewish organisation in the United States--the greatest outpouring of protest ever generated by a 60 Minutes broadcast: We were whitewashing a plot by the Palestine Liberation Organisation. We had lied. We had misrepresented. We were doing the work of the anti-Semites. And of course, we were self-hating Jews.
Larry Tisch, a major American backer of Israel who also happened to own CBS, summoned Mike Wallace and “60 Minutes” Executive Producer Don Hewitt (also Jewish) to a fraught breakfast meeting to defend our report, fact by fact.
The Palestinians were much less vocal in reaction to our revelations. One reason was that newspaper reports of the broadcast in the local Palestinian Press were censored by Israeli military authorities.
It was not until July 18th 1991, nine months after the tragic affair, that an Israeli Judge, Ezra Kama, released the results of an extensive independent inquiry. It was the police not the Palestinians, said the judge, who provoked the violence. Some of the shooting deaths, he said, were clearly unjustified and in those cases, he labeled the police explanation that they had opened fire out of fear for their lives “exaggerated and strange.”
Despite the deaths of 17 Palestinians and the wounding of at least 150 others, there was no call for anyone to be punished. And none was
A few days later, Abe Foxman, president of the anti-Defamation League, who had originally fired off a lengthy memo attacking our broadcast, sent a new memo to Don Hewitt:
“Judge Kama rejects some of the claims the officials made and came closer to some of the conclusions raised by 60 Minutes. On that basis, while I still have some problems with the methodology 60 Minutes used, I want to publicly apologise to you, Mike, and the staff of 60 Minutes”
In my view, the broadcast on the Temple Mount was the best investigative report I ever did with Mike Wallace. It received no awards. Nor, unlike many other reports we had done, was it ever run again in the summer repeat season. Abe Foxman’s generous letter, for which he received a good deal of flak from within his own organisation, was never made public by CBS.
The tragic killings of those 17 Palestinians a quarter century ago was just a presage of horrors to come.
As for the Temple Mount, as the Palestinians see it their precarious status at the holy site is till very much under siege. Indeed, such fears were key in provoking the current outbreak of suicidal attacks by young knife-wielding Palestinians.
Netanyahu flatly denies any intention of changing the status quo on the Mount. But the fact is that many increasingly radical Israelis —including three cabinet ministers--are pushing to do just that. As deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely put it, “my dream is to see the Israeli flag flying over the Temple Mount.”