The April 16th edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘The Documentary’ was titled “Walls and Peace“. In that programme, Professor Cathy Gormley-Heenan of Ulster University visited locations in her native Northern Ireland, in the USA and in Israel asking “do walls built for political purposes create bigger problems than they solve?”.
Gormley-Heenan’s own position on the topic (she is not in favour) is very much apparent in the programme’s conclusion but along the way to that summing up, she ostensibly presents both sides of the debate.
The synopsis to the online version of the programme includes the following:
“Professor Gormley-Heenan is a specialist in barrier walls, which she has witnessed and studied in her native Belfast, where “peace walls” still separate Nationalist and Unionist communities. […]
There have been fewer militant attacks in Israel since the barrier with the West Bank was built there, yet many Palestinians are cut off from, for example, their olive groves on the Israeli side. And even Jewish settlers in the West Bank, who are now on the Israeli side of the barrier, and feel safer, are adversely affected by the barrier.”
The photograph used to illustrate the programme is described by the BBC World Service as follows:
‘Photo: man climbs a wall on a ladder. Credit to Heidi Levine, with kind permission’
That photograph – from 2002 – was in fact taken in Israel. Why the BBC chose to change the original caption is unclear.
The section of the programme relating to the anti-terrorist fence constructed by Israel during and after the second Intifada commences at 13:20 and goes on for over 17 minutes.
Gormley-Heenan’s introduction to that section includes generalised speculations about the socio-economic status of the residents of neighbourhoods near the structure which are absent from the sections of the programme relating to Northern Ireland or the USA.
“Here’s another one [wall]. It’s made of concrete slabs 9 meters high in the middle of a major city and there’s a big contrast between the housing on the two sides. This is the separation barrier in East Jerusalem. The Palestinian side is very densely populated with high-rise blocks of housing packed close together. The western, Israeli side is more spacious with more beds of grass and a population – judging by the style and quality of the housing – seems considerably better off. The barrier isn’t a wall everywhere; only in cities. It was put there by popular demand from the Israeli side.”
BBC coverage of the anti-terrorist fence has never been notable for its balance and impartiality and so the fact that listeners to this programme got to hear from the man who planned it is remarkable.
“My name is Colonel (retired) Danny Tirza. In March 2002 in one month we lost 128 people that were murdered by terror attacks. And people said to the government ‘enough is enough; we cannot live with such level of terror. Do something. Build something’. And the government took the first decision to let the army design and build a security fence. And that was the moment when I got the mission to be the head of this project. From 2000 till the end of 2006 we had in Israel more than four thousand terror attacks. We lost in this period 1,562 people that were murdered by terror attacks. We’re a very small country.”
Unfortunately, nowhere in the item are listeners provided with statistics concerning the reduction in the number of terror attacks following construction of the anti-terrorist fence.
Gormley-Heenan then goes to meet a resident of the community of Tzofim in Samaria – Hagai Mayer. Her introduction to that interview includes standard BBC messaging concerning ‘international law’ but does not clarify to listeners that, like all Israeli communities in Judea & Samaria, Tzofim is located in Area C and under the terms of the Oslo Accords, its final status is to be determined in negotiations.
CGH: “Away from the cities, in the more rural areas, things look different. The concrete wall turns into a high metal fence with sensors and cameras. So let’s go meet residents to find out what it’s like to live close to these barriers. This is Tzofim; a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. The international community considers these settlements illegal but Israel disputes this. In places the separation barrier runs right on the ‘green line’; the 1949 Armistice Line separating Israel from the West Bank. Elsewhere the barrier diverges into the West Bank to surround settlements like Tzofim which now finds itself on the western, Israeli side of the barrier along with 9.4% of the West Bank.”
After her interviewee has told her about his feelings and experiences before and after the fence’s construction and explained the procedures put in place to provide access to Palestinians with agricultural land on the western side of the fence, listeners again hear from Col. Danny Tirza.
CGH: “Despite the inconvenience in places like Tzofim, the barrier is popular in Israel. But why was it built in the particular way that it was? Colonel Tirza remembers why he designed it the way he did.”
DT: “I tried to construct only wire fences. But when we came to urban areas I had to construct concrete walls. In some areas like along road number 6 cross-Israel highway, there are two Palestinian towns – Tulkarem and Qalqilya – and they were shooting from their towns to where the traffic that runs on the main highway of Israel. So I had to construct there concrete wall. Another reason: in urban areas I wanted to reduce the friction between the soldiers and the people that lives on the ground. I didn’t want that some Palestinian children will throw stones on the fence. The fence is very sensitive so the fence will react, the soldiers will run and it will start something between the soldiers and the people on the ground. There is another reason; the fence costs a lot of money and I didn’t want the Palestinians to harm the fence. Therefore, in urban areas – concrete walls. So a lot of people says to me OK, we can understand that but why so high? Mostly it’s 9 meters high. Can you make it some shorter? Well really at first I tried to construct only 6 meters high but six meters, if you climb it, some people can jump. Nine meters; nobody jumps.”
Gormley-Heenan then introduces her own agenda into the story by promoting a specific theory in the form of a ‘question’ and finding an interviewee who will give her the desired answer [from 21:43].
CGH: “I wonder though, could the separation barrier make Israelis less safe in the long-run? Might it be counter-productive by further escalating tensions and anger in the Palestinian areas? Here’s what Barbara Opall-Rome says. She’s the Israel bureau chief of Defense News – a US publication.
BOR: “Absolutely. There’s a fine line between deterrence and provocation. And these physical barriers are deterring but – as you noted – the other side can see it as a source of oppression; something to rebel at, something to gain their courage and act upon. When assessing threats you always have to take two things into consideration; capabilities and intent. So the fact that Israel has built these barriers, whether it’s all along the Gaza border – where they’re reinforcing and fortifying even more – or along all of its borders, with these barriers the ability is diminished but the intent; that could have expanded, that could have been accentuated. So it’s always a fine balance and it’s an interesting question that you pose. I would assume that along with deterrence comes a perception of provocation on the other side.”
Remarkably, that lengthy response to a deliberately posed question completely erases the political and religious ideology behind the terrorism that has necessitated the building of fences in Israel.
Gormley-Heenan than goes to visit Palestinians “on the other side” – beginning in Nazlet-Isa near Baka al Garbiya. There, the head of the village council recounts how the construction of the anti-terrorist fence “affected directly on the local economy of the village because it affected on the income that they were having before through the open road and the open market and shops on the main road of the village”.
It is of course true that the terrorism of the second Intifada – which included several cases of murders of Israeli shoppers in Palestinian villages – and the later construction of the fence caused Israelis to cease shopping in Palestinian areas, as used to be the case. However, without providing the relevant background information, the BBC found it appropriate to include the following statement from that interviewee:
“I have no logical idea about why did they construct such a barrier inside the village. […] they say that it’s for security issues but we don’t understand what are the security concerns.”
Ignoring the Oslo Accords, the fact that Area C is subject to final status negotiations and the fact that the 1949 Armistice Agreement specifically and purposely defined the ‘green line’ as not marking a border, Gormley-Heenan goes on to promote the notion of “Palestinian territory”.
“In Nazlet-Isa the wall is exactly on the ‘green line’ – the 1949 Armistice Line that divides Israel from the occupied West Bank. But elsewhere the barrier diverges from the ‘green line’ and cuts into Palestinian territory; sometimes by several kilometers. As a result, 9.4% of the West Bank is now on the Israeli side of the barrier. Some see this as an Israeli land-grab but Israel says it’s for security, including that of the Jewish settlers.”
That is the second time that listeners to this programme heard the figure “9.4%” together with the word “now”. However, even political organisations that tout that figure – eg UN OCHA and CAABU – clarify that it does not relate to the current situation and that it includes areas such as Ma’ale Adumim where the fence has not yet been constructed.
“Some 85% of the Barrier’s route runs inside the West Bank, rather than along the Green Line; if completed as planned, the Barrier will isolate 9.4% of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.” [emphasis added]
Gormley-Heenan then visits Jayus to interview a man – identified as Abu Azzam – who challenged the route of the fence in court and won his case. Once again erasing the Oslo Accords and final status negotiations from her story, she again promotes the term “occupied Palestinian land”.
CGH: “Just on the other side of the barrier, across from Abu Azzam’s village, is the Jewish settlement of Tzofim that we visited earlier. It’s the one that’s now on the Israeli side of the barrier despite being situated on occupied Palestinian land.”
Gormley-Heenan also facilitates her interviewee’s promotion of patently false claims concerning water and land.
AA: “If it [the fence] is for security they have on the ‘green line’ two fences. No dog, no cat can pass through it. If it is about security, those two fences are enough. And if it is a matter of security, why go 22 kilometers inside West Bank land? So why?
CGH: “So why do you think?”
AA: “It’s clear. It is to steal as much as possible from our main waters in addition to the fertilized areas. We are not allowed to pump water as much as we need.” […]
CGH: “The barrier has given Israel control over more land and resources.”
That, of course, is untrue. It is, however, consistent with the ‘land-grab’ falsehood that has been promoted by the BBC consistently over the years.
Returning to previous interviewee Barbara Opell Rome, Gormley-Heenan chooses to close the part of the programme relating to Israel in a truly bizarre manner [from 30:00].
CGH: “Let’s talk now a little bit about the technology that has underpinned the construction of these barriers. Has it given a boost to the defence industry in Israel?”
BOR: “In a word, yes. Big time yes. This is a multi-million dollar global business. And Israeli industries view themselves as the forefront in this industry. They have proven operationally deployed barriers and technologies that are…and when we talk about a barrier it’s not just a barbed wire fence and ditches and patrol paths. These are sensor-fused border protection elements where they have every 150 to 200 meters there are stationary cameras and radars that are all fused together and they filter in to command centres. It’s fortress Israel and I can tell you that it is big business: billions of dollars. A major company in Israel that is at the forefront is Elbit Systems and Elbit has been selected by the US government some years ago to protect and render some type of similar programme along the border with Mexico.”
Beyond the convenience of creating a smooth transition to Gormley-Heenan’s next port of call – the US-Mexico border – it is difficult to understand why those statements from Opall-Rome were deemed relevant to the programme’s supposed subject matter.
While this programme did go somewhat against the grain of usual BBC reporting on the anti-terrorist fence in that it presented a more accurate picture of actual structure and included rarely heard information from Col. Danny Tirza, it nevertheless stuck to the usual BBC mantras on ‘international law’ and promoted to audiences information that is inaccurate and misleading.