On September 8th an article titled “Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ‘was KGB agent’” appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page. The article relates to a story first promoted by Channel 1 in Israel the previous day and it informs readers that:
“Israeli researchers have alleged that the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, worked for the Soviet intelligence agency the KGB in the early 1980s.
Researchers from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem say a Soviet-era document lists him as an agent. […]
Researchers Gideon Remez and Isabella Ginor said the document, in an archive at Cambridge University, shows that Mr Abbas was a KGB spy when he lived in Damascus in Syria.
The document, which the University of Cambridge’s Churchill Archives Centre confirmed was authentic, was smuggled in to the UK by a defector called Vasily Mitrokhin.
It is entitled “KGB developments – Year 1983” and Mr Abbas identifies him [sic] by the codename “Krotov” or “mole”.
“‘Krotov’ – Abbas, Mahmoud, born 1935, origin Palestine, member of the executive committee of Fatah, PLO, Damascus, agent of the KGB,” says the brief entry.”
However, the report also promotes irrelevant linkage between that story and a completely unrelated topic.
“The [PA] president’s spokesman described the claim as an absurd Israeli “smear”.
He suggested it was made to derail attempts to re-start Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. […]
An adviser to the [PA] president told the BBC the allegation was made up by Israel.
He said Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remained reluctant to meet Mr Abbas in a potential new round of peace talks organised by Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB staff member.””
Readers of the article are not told how “Israel” supposedly “made up” documents in the Cambridge University archives and despite uncritically amplifying the spin of PA officials, the article does not adequately clarify that the academic researchers have no connection to the Israeli government.
Towards the end of the article, readers are told that:
“Mr Abbas was born in 1935 in what was then British mandate of Palestine. After the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 his family fled to the Syrian capital, where he was educated.”
In fact, historical record shows that it is more likely that Abbas’ family decided to leave Tsfat (Safed) before Israel declared independence on May 14th 1948.
“And what about Safed? Having declined an offer by Gen. Hugh Stockwell, commander of the British forces in northern Palestine, to mediate a truce, the Arabs responded to the British evacuation of the city with a heavy assault on the tiny Jewish community, less than a quarter their size. “Upon the British evacuation on April 16, we occupied all the city’s strategic positions: the Citadel, the Government House, and the police post on Mount Canaan,” recalled a local Arab fighter.
“We were the majority, and the feeling among us was that we would defeat the Jews with sticks and rocks.”
What this prognosis failed to consider was the tenacity of the Jewish resolve to hold on to Safed, awarded by the partition resolution to the prospective Jewish state, on the one hand, and the intensity of Arab flight psychosis, on the other. As tens of thousands of Arabs streamed out of Tiberias and Haifa within days of the British evacuation of Safed, members of the city’s leading families and ordinary residents alike decided that now was the time to escape – which is probably when Abbas’s affluent family fled. In the words of a British intelligence report, “Such is their state of fear [that] Arabs are beginning to evacuate Safed although the Jews have not yet attacked them.” […]
On May 2, following the bombing of the Arab quarter by the deafening albeit highly ineffective home-made “David’s mortar,” scores of Arabs fled Safed en route to the Jordan Valley, accompanied by a substantial number of Arab Liberation Army fighters. Four days later, the ALA’s regional commander reported that “the majority of the inhabitants have left [Safed’s neighboring] villages.
Their morale has collapsed completely.”
Heavy artillery bombardments of Jewish neighborhoods failed to do the trick, and as the final battle for the city was joined on the night of May 9 a mass flight ensued. By the time fighting was over the next morning, Safed’s entire Arab population had taken to the road; a day later, Hagana patrols reported that “the [Arab] quarter had emptied to a man,” with evacuees leaving behind “a huge quantity of weapons and ammunition.””
“Although the biographical details are correct, the BBC’s Thomas Fessy in Jerusalem notes that the document does not say how and when Mr Abbas would have been recruited, whether he was paid, and how long he might have worked for the KGB.”
Interestingly, the article does not reflect an additional observation from Fessy.
As Reuters noted:
“Adding to the intrigue, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, whom Putin has tasked with arranging the Moscow summit, served two stints in the Soviet embassy in Damascus between 1983 and 1994, covering the period in which Abbas was purportedly recruited.
Bogdanov was in the area this week for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials.”
Clearly the BBC’s unchallenged amplification of vacuous spin from PA officials detracts from audience understanding of this story.