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Leaked NYT Gaza Memo Tells Journalists to Avoid Words “Genocide,” “Ethnic Cleansing,” and “Occupied Territory”

Amid the internal battle over the New York Times’s coverage of Israel’s war, top editors handed down a set of directives.

by Jeremy Scahill, Ryan Grim
 
 
Part 5 - Bucking International Norms

In the cases of describing “occupied territory” and the status of refugees in Gaza, the Times style guidelines run counter to norms established by the United Nations and international humanitarian law.

On the term “Palestine” — a widely used name for both the territory and the U.N.-recognized state — the Times memo contains blunt instructions: “Do not use in datelines, routine text or headlines, except in very rare cases such as when the United Nations General Assembly elevated Palestine to a nonmember observer state, or references to historic Palestine.” The Times guidance resembles that of the Associated Press Stylebook.

The memo directs journalists not to use the phrase “refugee camps” to describe long-standing refugee settlements in Gaza. “While termed refugee camps, the refugee centers in Gaza are developed and densely populated neighborhoods dating to the 1948 war. Refer to them as neighborhoods, or areas, and if further context is necessary, explain how they have historically been called refugee camps.”

The United Nations recognizes eight refugee camps in the Gaza Strip. As of last year, before the war started, the areas were home to more than 600,000 registered refugees. Many are descendants of those who fled to Gaza after being forcibly expelled from their homes in the 1948 Arab–Israeli War, which marked the founding of the Jewish state and mass dispossession of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians.

The Israeli government has long been hostile to the historical fact that Palestinians maintain refugee status, because it signifies that they were displaced from lands they have a right to return to.

Since October 7, Israel has repeatedly bombed refugee camps in Gaza, including Jabaliya, Al Shati, Al Maghazi, and Nuseirat.

The memo’s instructions on the use of “occupied territories” says, “When possible, avoid the term and be specific (e.g. Gaza, the West Bank, etc.) as each has a slightly different status.” The United Nations, along with much of the world, considers Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem to be occupied Palestinian territories, seized by Israel in the 1967 Arab–Israeli war.

The admonition against the use of the term “occupied territories,” said a Times staffer, obscures the reality of the conflict, feeding into the U.S. and Israeli insistence that the conflict began on October 7.

You are basically taking the occupation out of the coverage, which is the actual core of the conflict,” said the newsroom source. “It’s like, ‘Oh let’s not say occupation because it might make it look like we’re justifying a terrorist attack.’

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