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Passover 2002: A Tale of Two Massacres

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avatar by Chaim Lax


Israel’s Netanya beachfront. Photo: Flickr.

This Passover marks 21 years since the bombing of the Park Hotel in Netanya, as well as the Battle of Jenin.

While both events were termed “massacres” by the international media, the “Passover Massacre” appellation has endured while the “Jenin Massacre” claim has been largely discredited.

In this piece, we will take a look at what constitutes a massacre, why each event was referred to as a “massacre,” and why this term is applicable to the Park Hotel bombing but not the Battle of Jenin.

What Is a Massacre?

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In brief, a massacre is the wholesale and wanton killing of a group of people who are unresisting, particularly civilians.

Unlike other loaded terms that are used in general conversation (such as “genocide,” “Apartheid,” and “war crime”), there is no legal definition of the term “massacre.”

The Passover Massacre

The deadliest attack by Palestinian terrorists during the Second Intifada, the Passover Massacre, occurred on March 27, 2002.

On the first night of the Jewish holiday of Passover, the dining room of the Park Hotel in the coastal city of Netanya was packed with guests who had come to take part in the holiday’s festive Seder meal.

As the meal was getting underway, a Hamas terrorist from the nearby Palestinian city of Tulkarm brushed past hotel security and detonated his suicide belt in the midst of the bustling celebration.

Thirty people between the ages of 20 and 90 were killed, and 140 others were wounded.

The sheer magnitude of the attack coupled with the desecration of a religious festival and the innocence of the victims (many of the victims were elderly and a number were Holocaust survivors) provoked an intense and visceral reaction in both Israel and around the world.

In order to illustrate the depravity and monstrosity of this attack, government spokesmen quickly deemed it the “Passover Massacre” when speaking to the foreign media.

This label was picked up by the international press, with many of the initial reports referring to it as such (albeit as a spokesperson’s quote).

In fact, the term had become so widespread that one day after the attack, Salon magazine published an article questioning whether the Park Hotel bombing would become known to history as the “Passover Massacre” due to its appearance in a wide range of international media outlets.

Now, 21 years later, we know that this is the case.

The term “massacre” is an apt descriptor for the Park Hotel bombing, as it was an indiscriminate and targeted attack against a group of non-resisting civilians that resulted in large-scale casualties.

The Battle of Jenin: The Massacre That Never Happened

In response to the Passover Massacre and other deadly Palestinian terror attacks that had occurred around the same time, the Israeli military launched Operation Defensive Shield in order to disrupt the activities of Palestinian terror groups and put an end to the continuous wave of Palestinian terror attacks.

As the operation focused on hubs of terror activity throughout the West Bank, one of the key sites targeted by the IDF was the Jenin refugee camp, which was known as the “Martyrs’ Capital,” due to the large number of suicide bombers that emanated from the city.

The Battle of Jenin, which began on April 1 (the fifth day of Passover) and ended on April 11, was especially bloody, as the Palestinian terrorists and militants were heavily embedded within the camp’s civilian infrastructure. The IDF was forced to engage in urban warfare in order to capture them and dismantle these terror networks.

Soon after the fighting ended, a number of international (particularly British) news outlets began to report on a “massacre” or other “war crimes” that had been committed by Israeli forces in Jenin.

These allegations spread rapidly around the world, with a variety of journalists, activists, and politicians lambasting the Jewish state and calling for an investigation of Israeli actions during the 11 days of battle.

However, soon after these allegations began to circulate, it became clear that the accusation of a massacre taking place in Jenin was unfounded. The number of Palestinians killed was much lower than initially reported, and the vast majority of those killed were fighters. While it is tragic whenever a civilian is killed during the heat of battle, this does not constitute a “massacre.”

Why was the massacre claim able to gain steam before the truth was revealed?

According to media analysts, a number of factors helped contribute to this: The IDF failed to construct a media strategy prior to the fighting. In order to reduce casualties and aid the movement of Israeli forces, Israel barred journalists from entering the area, forcing them to rely on rumors emerging from the camp. Once Israel granted journalists access to the scene of the battle, they took for granted the unsubstantiated claims put forward by Palestinians that were intended to besmirch Israel’s reputation in the public arena.

Even though the claim of a massacre in Jenin was disproven, even 20 years later, many people believe that a massacre took place in Jenin.

One of the reasons for this continued false belief is that those same news organizations that were quick to spread the allegations of a massacre in Jenin gave little coverage to the refutation of the massacre allegation, and few journalists or editors admitted wrongdoing in their spreading of the Jenin massacre libel.

The Use & Misuse of the Term “Massacre” Today

The term “massacre” is a powerful rhetorical tool, conjuring up feelings of moral disgust and revulsion in the face of wanton cruelty and depravity.

Thus, when Israel referred to the Park Hotel suicide bombing as the “Passover Massacre,” it was not only an appropriate designation but also meant to convey the enormity of the attack’s cruelty and monstrosity.

Similarly, when the Palestinians falsely claimed that a massacre had taken place in Jenin, this was intended to not only besmirch the Jewish state but also to provoke a visceral emotional reaction against Israel and in support of the Palestinians.

Over the past 20 years, there have been a number of similar cases where the word “massacre” is thrown around so as to provoke an emotional reaction against Israel and its actions, even when the incident in question does not qualify as a massacre.

This includes Al Jazeera’s use of the term “Passover Massacre” to refer to the killing of violent rioters along the Israel-Gaza border in March 2018, the claim of a second “Jenin Massacre” during clashes between the IDF and Palestinian gunmen in January 2023, and the allegations of a massacre in Nablus during clashes between the IDF and Palestinian gunmen at that time.

When the word “massacre” is used haphazardly in order to make a political point rather than accurately describe a violent incident, it not only weakens the import of the word but also lessens the severity of events that can correctly be termed “massacres,” such as the Baruch Goldstein massacre of Muslim worshippers in 1994 and the Kafir Qasim massacre in the Arab town in 1956.

Thus, it is important that, when reporting on incidents of violence, journalists are careful with their words so as to not aid in the spreading of false libels or diminishing the import of events that can correctly be deemed a “massacre.”

The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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