BBC’s Knell shoehorns Israel into report on Syria and the Gaza Strip

On January 2nd a filmed report by the BBC Jerusalem Bureau’s Yolande Knell titled “The young Palestinians fighting in Syria” (also shown on BBC television news) appeared in the ‘Watch/Listen’ video section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page. 

Knell filmed report Gaza Syria

Previously, on December 15th 2013, a very similar written report by Knell had appeared in the ‘Features & Analysis’ section of the website’s Middle East page (where it remained for four consecutive days) under the title “Gaza fighters head to Syria as refugees flow in“. 

Knell written report Gaza Syria

Both reports relate to the subjects of refugees from Syria who have arrived in the Gaza Strip and residents of the Strip who have travelled abroad to join Jihadist militias in Syria.

In the filmed report, Knell opens her narration against a background of images of a Hamas military parade.

“Palestinian militants show off their weapons at a parade in the Gaza Strip. Islamist groups here are committed to armed struggle against Israel. But these Gaza fighters are different. They joined rebels fighting in Syria’s civil war. This is a message that Fahd al Habash left for his family, telling them to celebrate if he was killed as he’d be a martyr. Just afterwards, he was shot dead near Homs. He never saw his youngest child.”

Habash’s brother is then interviewed.

“The situation in Gaza is calm. There’s no fighting with Israel right now and some people see how Bashar al Assad and Hizballah are killing people in Syria. They decide to go for that reason.”

Knell continues:

“But in Gaza many people are still surprised at the idea of young men going overseas to fight Jihad. About thirty Palestinians from the Gaza Strip are believed to have headed to Syria since the war started. But the movement is not just in one direction. Syrian refugees and Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria have also come here. These snacks are a taste of home for a Syrian chef in Gaza City. He recently opened this restaurant with a long-time Palestinian friend. As the conflict in Syria has heated up, many of the half a million Palestinians who used to live there have fled, with hundreds arriving in Gaza. Hamza was born in Damascus.”

The camera then cuts to Hamza Issa:

“A lot of people have been killed, even some of my friends. The situation is chaotic. There is no work, you can’t study, it’s terrible. That’s why we left.”

Clearly not appreciating the irony of what she is about to say after having presented an entire report on movement of hundreds of people in and out of the Gaza Strip, Knell rounds off:

“Gaza is also a tough place to live with high poverty rates and border restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt. But refugees working here say they feel welcomed. They share their food and their stories of Syria.”

In the written version of this report Knell also injects the seemingly obligatory mention of Israel.

“However, recent arrivals have found out fast that Gaza is a tough place to live.

There are high rates of poverty and unemployment in the small, overcrowded coastal strip.

Tight border restrictions are imposed by Israel and Egypt. In the past five years residents of the Palestinian territory have endured two short but intense conflicts with Israel.”

Both these reports by Knell feature sympathetic portrayal of Fahd al Habash (aka Fahd Nizar al Habbash) as an example of the Gaza Strip residents who have travelled to join one of the Jihadist militias fighting in Syria – in Habash’s case, Jabhat al Nusra. In neither of them does Knell mention the fact that before his departure for Syria, Habash worked for the Hamas-run police force and prior to that was a member of Hamas’ Al Qassam brigades. 

“Al Habbash, a former member of Hamas’ police force in Gaza, was killed fighting with the Al Nusrah Front in mid-July 2013. According to the narrator of an ITMC production released in late August, al Habbash was born in the northern Gaza Strip in 1985 to a “good family.” After he completed his schooling in 2006, he got married and had two children. “He fought often alongside the Palestinian resistance against the criminal Jews,” the narrator said.”

In the written report, Knell recounts the story of an additional man killed in Syria -Mohammed Qanita (aka Muhammad Ahmed Qanitah) who was also previously a member of the Al Qassam brigades and who, according to one of his obituary videos:

“… grew up with a religious family and was raised to hate the ‘Jewish enemy,’” […] “He learned martial arts and threw stones at the enemies and was injured when he was 12 years old.”

The narrator of the video said Qanitah joined Hamas’ Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades of Hamas in 2003. “He came to know its leaders and worked with them and trained its fighters, and he participated in many jihadi actions and attacks against the settlements.” He fought against the Israeli military during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009, “and he continued participating in al-Qassam Brigades and the ‘cleansing’ of Gaza to live under Shariah-based governance,” […]“

Whilst Knell does note Qanita’s membership in the al Qassam brigades, she avoids any deeper exploration of the sliding scale of Islamist extremism upon which a range of terrorist organisations are located, including both Hamas and Jabhat al Nusra, and the basic shared ideology which enables the phenomenon of movement from one to the other. Instead, Knell opts to amplify the tactical distancing promoted by Hamas.

“In keeping with the popular mood, Hamas celebrated him as a “martyr” after news emerged of his death.

Yet the Islamist group, which governs Gaza, had been trying to distance itself from involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Its early support for Sunni Muslim rebels fighting President Assad put a heavy strain on relations with Tehran, a key ally of Damascus.

The movement’s exiled leadership, which used to be based in the Syrian capital, was forced to leave and Iranian funding for Hamas was cut.”

Likewise, Knell’s written report makes no attempt to inform audiences of the real status of Palestinian refugees in Syria and instead uncritically reproduces the words of her interviewee.

“Hamza Issa was brought up in Yarmouk refugee camp on the edge of Damascus but decided to leave for Gaza a few months ago.

“I came here directly because Gaza is my homeland. It was the obvious choice because I am Palestinian,” he says.

“We used to have a good life in Syria. We were treated as well as citizens.”

Syrians of Palestinian ethnicity are, in fact, subjected to restrictions which differentiate between them and other Syrians.  

“The 1965 Casablanca Protocol, which Syria ratified, stipulates that Arab countries should guarantee Palestinian refugees rights to employment, residency, and freedom of movement, whilst maintaining their Palestinian identity and not granting them citizenship. This is echoed in the Syrian legislation (Citizenship Law no. 276, 1969), which stipulates that the granting of Syrian citizenship to a person of Arab origin normally depends on habitual residence in Syria and demonstration of financial support or livelihood, but that Palestinians, in spite of fulfilling this condition, are not granted citizenship in order to “preserve their original nationality”. “

“Until 1968, Palestinians were not allowed to own any property in Syria. After 1968, this law was changed so that Palestinians were allowed to own one house per person, but they are still not allowed to own farm land.”

These two reports by Knell could have provided a good opportunity for the BBC to inform its audiences with regard to both the extremist Islamist ideology which similarly fuels Hamas and Jihadist militias in Syria and the discrimination against the descendants of Palestinian refugees in Syria. Knell, however, elected to go with a superficial presentation of the subject and predictably was unable to resist dragging Israel into an unrelated story. 

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