An article by the BBC’s chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet was promoted on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on May 21st using the headline “UN schools targeted in Middle East”. The report itself – titled “More than half UN schools in Middle East targeted in conflicts” – carries the following somewhat ‘cloak and dagger’ introduction:
“Nearly half the schools run by the UN in the Middle East have been attacked, damaged or rendered inoperable in the past five years, according to a new report obtained by the BBC.” [emphasis added]
Seeing as the head of the organization which produced that report – UNRWA – was interviewed in connection with its content on the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ (from 45:53 here) on the very same day, we can probably conclude that “obtained” means “given to us by UNRWA”.
Reflecting the framing used in the headlines, Doucet’s report tells readers that:
“More than 300 UN schools were attacked or shut down.” [emphasis added]
In the ‘Newshour’ interview a rather different portrayal was in evidence when presenter Julian Marshall put the following question to Pierre Krahenbuhl:
JM: “And the schools have been damaged as a result of the overall conflict rather than being targeted, have they?”
PK: “Yes indeed. It’s a mix between some having been of course affected by the fighting that takes place in some of the camp landscapes. […] and many of them are beyond reach in frontline areas that have become very, very delicate.”
Doucet’s report also includes the following:
“UNWRA [sic] runs 692 elementary and preparatory schools in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan and Syria; and 8 secondary schools in Lebanon. […]
At least 302 (or 44%) of UNWRA [sic] schools were directly affected by armed conflict or violence in the past five years.”
Readers are not however told how many schools were affected in each location.
In April 2015 the UN released a report concerning the seven UNRWA schools in the Gaza Strip which were damaged during the conflict between Hamas and Israel in the summer of 2014. The report also examined the cases of three additional UNRWA schools in which weapons belonging to terrorist organisations were found and noted the potential for “confusion” caused by UN practices on the ground at the time.
“The Board found that, at times, there had been multiple channels of communication, both within the United Nations and with outside interlocutors. While this could be helpful, it could also lead to misunderstandings. The Board also found that the existence of two United Nations operations emergency rooms, one organized and coordinated by OCHA and the other by UNRWA, could lead to confusion, even though they carried out distinct functions, which were clear to United Nations actors on the ground. […]
While they were channelled [sic] by the United Nations to the IDF in a timely manner, the Board sensed a degree of confusion concerning the names and coordinates of installations, as, on occasion, the IDF and the United Nations used different mapping references and some schools have multiple names. The Board welcomed the intention of UNRWA and Israel’s Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA) to refer to installations in the future by numbers, as opposed to names.”
Interestingly, neither Marshall nor Krahenbuhl mentioned those UN findings, the storage of weapons in three schools or the all-important context of the terrorist activity in the vicinity of the damaged schools when they later turned to the topic of the Gaza Strip.
JM: “Syria clearly in the midst of conflict at the moment but Gaza, the West Bank – we’re very much aware of what happened in Gaza way back in 2014 – but…eh…presumably the problem is not as acute any longer.”
PK: “The problem is not acute in the same way because we have rebuilt and repaired all the schools that were damaged or – more largely – destroyed during the 2014 war.”
Whether BBC audiences are in fact “very much aware of what happened in Gaza way back in 2014” is of course debatable given the corporation’s record of reporting in general and its frequent amplification of politicised UNRWA messaging (both during and after the conflict) in particular.
The timing of the appearance of this UNRWA report is – as stated in Doucet’s article – linked to the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit and – as is evident in the final part of the ‘Newshour’ item – UNRWA’s related funding drive. The BBC’s predictable self-conscription to UNRWA’s public relations campaign means that audiences are fed context-free messaging in the guise of ‘news’ – as ever with no critical examination of the organization concerned or its mandate.