BBC uses unverified quote to advance its narrative

I must admit that the enthusiastic style of the BBC’s October 17th article, headlined “Israel forced to release study on Gaza blockade“, raised ironic smiles in this household – coming as it does from an organization which has spent years (and hundreds of thousands of pounds) avoiding the release of a report of its own. 

The actual context to the study in question is only briefly revealed by the BBC writer right at the end of the article:

“The Israeli defence ministry said the “red lines” study was only ever a draft but was aimed at ensuring there was not a major health crisis.

“The quantification was not done in order to arrive at a minimum threshold or restrict the quantities, but… to ensure that there was no shortage,” an official at the Co-ordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (Cogat) told the Haaretz newspaper on Tuesday.”

The bulk of the article, however, is dedicated to presenting the politically motivated point of view of the highly partisan NGO ‘Gisha‘, including the rather bizarre claim that:

“Gisha says the research contradicts Israel’s assertions that the blockade is needed for security reasons.”

Also quoted in the article is UNRWA’s Director of Operations in Gaza, Robert Turner, who – apparently having missed the Palmer Report memo from his parent organization – not only mistakenly declared the blockade to be “illegal under international law”, but also appears to have forgotten that in 1951 his own organization also produced a report in which (clause 31) the allocation of UNRWA food rations to Palestinian refugees was set at 1,600-1,700 calories per person/day. 

Towards the end of the article, the following unsupported and un-sourced claim appears:

“Israeli government officials now acknowledge the food restrictions were partly intended to put pressure on Hamas by making the lives of people in Gaza difficult, says the BBC’s Jon Donnison in Gaza City.

In 2006, Israeli government adviser Dov Weisglass was widely quoted as having said: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” “

Whether it was Donnison or an anonymous editor who saw fit to include the Weisglass “quote” is not clear, but its use is very interesting.

One would expect that a reputable journalist would only use a quote if its authenticity could be verified, either due to the fact that it appears in print –written by the person quoted, of course –or was recorded. So is that the case with the Weisglass “quote” used by the BBC as support for its claim that Israel deliberately restricted food supplies to the civilian population of Gaza?

In order to determine that, we need to do a little detective work. 

Reports of the quote first began circulating in February 2006. Hamas had won the majority of seats in the Palestinian elections the month before and a newly formed government under Ismail Haniyeh was about to be sworn in. The international community (the main source of the Palestinian Authority’s income through donations) and Israel were worried that the considerable amounts of money transferred to the PA would be used by the new Hamas-run government for terror purposes and so economic sanctions were proposed by the Quartet (the UN, the EU, the US and Russia) and Israel. 

On February 15th 2006, the Israeli news site Ynet reported on a high-level meeting of government ministers, advisors and representatives from the security services at which the strategy of economic sanctions was discussed. The Ynet article quoted unnamed ‘political sources’:

 “The political sources who took part in the meeting, quoted Weisglass as saying: “We must cause the Palestinians to become thinner, but not die.”

 Weisglass, responding to the source, said: “I never said such a thing.” “

The next day, Ha’aretz’s Aluf Benn, apparently informed by “a Jerusalem source”, had a different version of the quote in his article:

“It’s like a meeting with a dietician. We have to make them much thinner, but not enough to die” 

On February 19th, 2006, the Israeli financial journalist Sever Plotzker – also writing on Ynet – claimed (without providing a source) that Weisglass had spoken of a policy of “economic diet” towards the Palestinians. 

On the same day, writing in Ha’aretz, Gideon Levy – the Israeli journalist who has made quite a successful career out of demonising his own country – embellished the story with laughter at Weisglass’ alleged remark from the meeting’s participants. Levy claimed that Weisglass had said “It’s like a meeting with a dietician. The Palestinians will lose weight, but they will not die”. Levy provided no source however: the best he could do was to claim “so it was said” –without even stating by whom – in support of his allegations.  

From then on, the alleged quote – in its multiple forms, which surely should raise any reasonable person’s suspicions – took on something of a life of its own, particularly in far-Left and/or anti-Israel circles. 

On February 27th 2006, David R Francis of the Christian Science Monitor used it (un-sourced) in another different form:

“The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger”

Francis’ article was in turn used as a ‘source’ – along with an equally unverified version of the quote from a 2008 article by Edward Said’s nephew Saree Makdisi in The Nation – by the anti-Israel blog Mondoweiss in 2009.   

April 2006 saw the Guardian’s Conal Urquhart use one version of it in an article for the Observer. In December 2008, the (again un-sourced) quote was used by British comedian, former Socialist Workers Party member and pro-Palestinian activist Mark Steel in an article in the Independent and in 2010 it was used by Media Lens , apparently using a defunct AFP article as a source, as did the PLO’s Negotiations Affairs Department in November 2006. 

The alleged quote has also been used – un-sourced – by political NGOs and activists such as Machsom Watch, Jeff Halper of ICHAD and B’tselem

More recently, the quote has been cited on the Lenin’s Tomb blog (run by SWP member Richard Seymour), where it was sourced from Richard Silverstein, who in turn sourced it from the New York Times, which attributed the quote to “the Israeli news media”. All well and good, except that – as we know – the Israeli media itself had nothing but hearsay and an outright denial from Weisglass himself to go on. 

So perhaps the Middle East Editor of BBC Online, Tarik Kafala, would like to disclose to the BBC’s audience (in the name of accuracy and impartiality) his verified source for this quote, because – whilst nobody else seems to be able to find one – it is of course inconceivable to think that the trusted and often quoted BBC would be lifting un-sourced  quotes from such sources as Richard Silverstein, Media Lens and Mondoweiss, purely in order to make political hay.

Isn’t it?