Last month one of my friends ran into the newspaper editor, and complained to him that the paper is biased in favor of Israel. She argued that news items that prompt sympathy for Israel are featured, while those that might prompt sympathy for the Palestinians are buried on a back page. She was not, of course, prepared to document that, and she didn't think she made much of an impression. At the next meeting of our pro-Palestinian group, she urged others to phone him and say that we also perceive bias.

I know I'm not articulate on the phone, so I sent a polite e-mail instead. I wrote, in part:

"Aside from the relative prominence given news items that reflect badly on Palestinians or Israelis..., you never give your readers the historical background crucial to understanding the present situation. That background might make them more inclined to support the Palestinians. ...

"When I've written pro-Palestinian letters or would-be Op-Eds, I've been asked for my sources and subjected to major editing. That's fine; I have no complaint. If I made an error on a point of indisputable fact, I'd want someone to bring it to my attention. And I'm in favor of trimming excess verbiage. I welcome being made to see that I used four unnecessary words in a paragraph; it helps me improve my writing.

"But pro-Israeli letter writers are not required to be factually accurate, nor are they edited."

I reviewed my grievance concerning the paper's refusal to correct, or let me correct, that pro-Israeli writer's erroneous characterization of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. In addition to that complaint about accuracy, I had a more recent one about editing:

"You cut a piece of mine from 798 words [just under the Op-Ed limit of 800] to 480. No problem. But then you published two replies, which were allowed to run to lengths of 587 and 489 words (longer, taken together, than what I had initially submitted), and wouldn't allow me to respond to the first of them. (I didn't bother trying to submit a reply to the second.) The first, in particular, showed no sign of editing. It included phrases like 'by the way.' Even [the wording] 'had five Arab armies not attacked Israel in 1948 when it declared independence pursuant to the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine' was not cut to 'had five Arab armies not attacked Israel in 1948.' The sheer length of the letter was likely to impress readers and make them think the writer had successfully refuted my points, when in my opinion he had not."
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In his reply, the editor asserted that both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli readers think the paper is biased in favor of their opponents, and studies have shown that advocates on both sides of controversial issues always have that response to the mainstream press. (I don't doubt it; but that doesn't preclude the possibility that in some cases, the press really is biased.)

He did admit that "newspapers don't do a good job of publishing historical background on contemporary stories." But he said they try, given their space limitations, and added: "People who rely upon television newscasts as their primary news source, of course, get next to none of that context."

On the Geneva Convention issue, he wrote:

"As to the misrepresentation of a section of the Geneva Conventions that you cite, and your demand that we publish a correction: We generally publish corrections on letters when errors are the result of our editing. That was not the case here. Rather, we typically rely upon the back-and-forth of readers to correct misstatements in letters whenever possible, thereby encouraging more open dialogue among our readers. That's exactly what happened in this case: The letter you criticized ran on Oct. 18, 2003, according to [the Letters Page editor]; a rebuttal letter clearly dissecting and disputing the points you cite was published on Oct. 24, 2003."

And on my other complaint:

"It is simply untrue that writers of letters that are pro-Israel are subjected to different standards from that applied to your letter. The last letter you wrote was a rebuttal to a...column, I believe. In that letter, you offered some statistics, and [the Letters Page editor] asked you to cite the sources as a way of bolstering your argument. This is responsible editing, and it's precisely what we apply to our reporters all the time. Two letters came in response to your letter. I do not think the fact that the total number of column inches afforded to them may have exceeded your letter's length means that our letters column unfairly tilted in their direction. Length is not a measure of an argument's power. Most readers prefer to read shorter pieces."
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I would have let it go at that, were it not for the howler about the letters on the Geneva Convention issue. I couldn't let that go unchallenged! So I wrote, again politely:

" 'Clearly dissecting and disputing'? I don't recall anything of the sort, and I was reading the paper every day. Moreover, [the Letters Page editor] wrote to me as follows in November 2003: 'I've reviewed the letters we ran, including those from [me, and three others I was aware of].' That indicates I didn't miss one.

"[Mr. Y.] quoted Paragraph 1 of Article 49 while claiming he was quoting the Article 'in full.' [Mr. R.] wrote a letter supporting the Palestinian point of view, but clearly hadn't read Article 49: he assumed [Mr. Y.] had quoted it accurately, and had to fall back on the lame argument that the settlements violate its 'spirit.' As for [Mr. G.]...read on!

"[The Letters Page editor] wrote me: '[Mr. G.'s] letter, whether you agree or disagree with it, offers his defense of Israel in view of what the full article 49 says.'

"Here's what I wrote in reply at the time:

" 'I disagree with you that [Mr. G.'s] letter "offers his defense of Israel in view of what the full Article 49 says." [Mr. G.] did not acknowledge [Mr. Y.'s] error, quote Paragraph 6, and then advance an argument that the Article nevertheless bans only forcible transfers. He wrote: "[Mr. Y.] was...correct about the 4th Geneva Convention. ... Article 49 explicitly contemplates forcible transfers. Israeli settlers have not been forced to live in the West Bank." Saying [Mr. Y.] was "correct" is inexcusable. It's entirely possible that neither of these gentlemen has ever read the Article.'

"I no longer have [Mr. G.'s] letter on my disk, but I'm sure the passages I omitted did not relate to the content of Article 49. [Mr. G.] may, like [Mr. R.], have taken for granted that [Mr. Y.] had quoted it correctly. Proceeding from that false assumption, he agreed with [Mr. Y.'s] interpretation--an interpretation based on a tortured reading of a part of the Article that had nothing to do with the subject under discussion.

"Also, while I realize you seldom publish corrections to letters, you did publish one on October 31, while I was trying unsuccessfully to persuade you to correct the Article 49 error. I believe the correction you published involved something local--the wrong person or persons having been alleged to have said or done something. And I had the impression the error had been made by the writer, not by an editor.

"On my more recent complaint--it wasn't simply a matter of 'column space.' I had no objection to editing of my submission. But I did wish [the editor] had included two paragraphs I considered important:

" 'During World War I, when Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire, Jews were less than 12 percent of its population. The region had been mostly Muslim for more than 1,000 years. When Muslims came on the scene in the 7th century, they had found a population that was predominantly Christian.

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" 'As late as 1944, near the end of British-authorized immigration, Jews were more than 30 percent of the population in only four of the Mandate's 16 districts. They were a majority only in the one that included Tel Aviv. That was the most populous of the 16; but it was one of the two smallest in area, and also included heavily Arab Jaffa.'

"This information on regional concentration of the Jewish immigrants clarifies why they had no right to access to the Gulf of Aqaba. ...

"The paragraphs whose omission I regret totaled 114 words. That would have brought the length of the piece to 594 words. But eight could have been cut by trimming the first sentence above to 'During World War I, Jews were less than 12 percent of Palestine's population.'

"What I'm saying is that if I'd been allowed as many words as [Mr. K.] was allowed in 'response,' my point could have been made more clearly. And while I try to deal in facts, [Mr. K.] did not attempt to address any of the three core issues I raised: the inequity of giving 33 percent of a population 55 percent of the land, the fact that international law guarantees Palestinian refugees the right of return, or the fact that Israel acknowledged that right as a condition of its admission to the U.N. There are arguments he could have made, especially on land allocation (the Zionists' expectation of more Jewish immigration). But he used most of his 587-word ramble in an attempt to distract readers from those issues with sarcasm, ridicule, and false analogies."
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In his equally polite but brief reply, the editor reiterated that he was "absolutely convinced that a review of the facts, even based on the level of minute detail you are citing, does not in any way reflect a bias, either intentional or unintentional."
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Three weeks later I had occasion to write to the newspaper again. I can't be sure they were influenced by the points I'd raised in my exchange with the editor; it's possible. But for whatever reason, they printed this letter in its entirety: a letter that finally informs their readers of the existence of Paragraph 6 of Article 49!
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"Any confusion regarding the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention to Israeli settlements in the West Bank should have been dispelled by the opinion recently handed down by the International Court of Justice, the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. In an Advisory Opinion requested by the General Assembly, the Court, by a 14-to-1 vote, found that the 'security barrier' Israel is constructing in the West Bank violates international law. The opinion includes this passage:

" 'As regards these settlements, the Court notes that Article 49, paragraph 6, of the Fourth Geneva Convention provides: "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." That provision prohibits not only deportations or forced transfers of population such as those carried out during the Second World War, but also any measures taken by an occupying Power in order to organize or encourage transfers of parts of its own population into the occupied territory.

" 'In this respect, the information provided to the Court shows that, since 1977, Israel has conducted a policy and developed practices involving the establishment of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, contrary to the terms of Article 49, paragraph 6, just cited.'

"The Court went on to point out that the Security Council had on numerous occasions taken the same position.

"The one negative vote on the security barrier issue was cast by the U.S. Justice, Thomas Buergenthal. He argued that the Court should have declined to give an opinion on the overall legality of the barrier, on the ground that it was not in possession of sufficient evidence. But in his separate opinion, he wrote:

" 'Paragraph 6 of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention...does not admit for exceptions on grounds of military or security exigencies. It provides that "the Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." I agree that this provision applies to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank and that their existence violates Article 49, paragraph 6. It follows that the segments of the wall being built by Israel to protect the settlements are ipso facto in violation of international humanitarian law.' "