BBC’s Yolande Knell erases Jewish history in campaigning article

On January 29th an article by the BBC Jerusalem Bureau’s Yolande Knell – over-dramatically titled “West Bank villages’ fate rests on key Israeli court ruling” – appeared in the ‘Features & Analysis” section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page.

Knell Battir

Knell’s article relates to two Supreme Court hearings on the subject of the route of the anti-terrorist fence – described in her opening sentences as “the controversial barrier” – which were due to be heard on January 29th. One of the locations under review is near the village of Battir and the other is in the Cremisan Valley.

Readers may remember that Knell has written about the Cremisan Valley before and that she has also promoted the campaign (indirectly funded by the UK government) to re-route the anti-terrorist fence on Twitter. In this article Knell informs readers:

“Nearby in Beit Jala, the planned route of the barrier – expected to be an 8m (25 foot) high concrete wall – will cut off Palestinians’ access to another green area and popular beauty spot in the Bethlehem district, the Cremisan valley.”

Throughout her two hundred and nine-word presentation of the point of view of those campaigning against the construction of the fence in the Cremisan Valley, Knell avoids any mention of the long history of terrorism in the area. That includes the takeover of Beit Jala by Palestinian terrorists during the second Intifada and the ensuing gunfire and mortar fire at the nearby Jerusalem neighbourhood of Gilo, as well as the murders in 1984 of students Revital Seri and Ron Levi by Issa Abed Rabbo (who coincidentally was recently featured in a television programme  on the Ma’an network which is funded by a variety of European governments, including the UK).

Knell does inform readers that:

“Many in Beit Jala believe the primary aim of this section of barrier is to link the nearby Jewish settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo, both built on land that originally belonged to their town.”

She then inserts the standard misleading BBC mantra which conceals from audiences the fact that there are many contrasting legal opinions on the subject:

“Settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.”

Were she really interested in informing audiences rather than in the promotion of a one-sided narrative, Knell would have also presented the counter-claim that much of the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Gilo is built on land purchased by Jews before the establishment of the State of Israel and she might even have asked around in Beit Jala about the sale to Israelis of some of the town’s land in that area (upon which other parts of Gilo were built) by its former mayor Jabra Khamis. 

In comparison with the 209 words dedicated to the Palestinian view, Knell allots eighty-three words to the presentation of a statement from the Israeli Ministry of Defence, but no column space at all to the views of Israelis living nearby.

The second location – Battir – has also been the subject of past BBC reports when Wyre Davies visited the village in 2012. In this part of the article, Knell outdoes herself as far as misinforming readers by omission is concerned.

Knell Battir c

Canaanite, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic: all that is well and good, but Knell makes no attempt to inform her readers of the rather significant historical facts which her interviewee has ‘overlooked’.

Whilst Knell quotes Badr as stating that the irrigation system in Battir is “2,500 years old”, the photo caption just to the side describes it as dating “from Roman times”. With the Romans having conquered Judea in 63 BCE, that leaves over four centuries unaccounted for and the answer to that anomaly is to be found in the fact that the name Battir is derived from the name of the much earlier Jewish community on that site – Betar –which fell to the Romans in the Second Jewish revolt of 135 CE.

In other words, Knell has adopted the politically motivated practice of avoiding any mention of the ancient Jewish presence in the region – which has of course been amply recorded by archaeologists

“Tel Betar (Khirbet el-Yahud) is situated southwest of Jerusalem near the Arab village of Bittir, its northern side flanking the Rephaim Valley.” […]

“Khirbet el-Yahud is unanimously identified with Betar, the last stronghold of the Second Revolt against the Romans, where its leader, Bar Kochba, found his death in 135 CE. The ancient name was preserved in the name of the Arab village Bittir, and the Arab name of the site – Khirbet el-Yahud, that is “The ruin of the Jews”, keeps the memory of the Second Revolt. The identification is supported by the results of the surveys and the excavations.”

Two hundred and twelve words of Knell’s 806 word report are assigned to presenting the point of view of the villagers of Battir and sympathetic organisations. Eighty one words are given over to presenting the Israeli Ministry of Defence’s point of view and yet again, the views of ordinary Israelis living in the area do not make it into Knell’s report. 

Conforming to what has been BBC policy for over a decade, Knell predictably informs audiences that:

“Israel says the barrier is essential for security but Palestinians see it as a land grab.”

In doing so she breaches BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality by failing to provide readers with factual information regarding the fence’s proven efficacy and thereby denying them the possibility of placing her “Israel says” statement in its proper context. She fails to distinguish “opinion from fact”, as required by the editorial guidelines, by juxtaposing a proven Israeli view (based on statistical evidence of the reduction in terror attacks since the fence’s construction) with an unproven Palestinian claim (of a “land grab” which has not taken place) as though they were of equal weight. Another reference to the anti-terrorist fence comes later on in the report when she states:

“Construction of the barrier began in 2002 during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, following a wave of suicide bombings inside Israel. It is now approximately 440km (273 miles) long.”

Still, readers are not provided with any factual information regarding the fence’s success in curbing terror attacks.

Seven paragraphs into her report, Knell comes up with the following claim with regard to the 1949 Armistice Line:

“Much of the international community identifies the boundary, also known as the Green Line, as the de facto border of Israel.”

Despite Knell’s transparent attempt to invoke the “international community” as some sort of authority, the 1949 Armistice Line was clearly defined in writing – at Arab insistence – as not being a border of any kind and hence Knell is in breach of BBC editorial guidelines on accuracy by failing to point that fact out to readers.

“Article II

With a specific view to the implementation of the resolution of the Security Council of 16 November 1948, the following principles and purposes are affirmed:

1. The principle that no military or political advantage should be gained under the truce ordered by the Security Council is recognised;

2. It is also recognised that no provision of this Agreement shall in any way prejudice the rights, claims and positions of either Party hereto in the ultimate peaceful settlement of the Palestine question, the provisions of this Agreement being dictated exclusively by military considerations.

Article VI

9. The Armistice Demarcation Lines defined in articles V and VI of this Agreement are agreed upon by the Parties without prejudice to future territorial settlements or boundary lines or to claims of either Party relating thereto.”

Additionally, she fails to make clear to readers that the status of Area C – as defined under the terms of the Oslo Accords to which the Palestinian leadership agreed – is to be the subject of final status negotiations between Israel and the PLO rather than an issue to be determined in some sort of popularity poll among the so-called “international community”.

It is the task of the BBC to provide audiences with factual information and context so that they can reach informed opinions. For any report on the subject of the anti-terrorist fence to be accurate and impartial, it must balance the presentation of the inconveniences and problems caused to the nearby Palestinian population with honest reporting on the very real issue of the counter-terrorism measures necessary to protect the lives of Israel’s civilian population, of which the fence is one. 

Yolande Knell’s misleading distortions of the status of the 1949 Armistice Line and her omission of factual information regarding the anti-terrorist fence actively hinder audience understanding of the subject matter of this report. Likewise, her adoption of the well-known tactic of erasing Jewish history to advance a specific narrative indicates that rather than aspiring to inform, Knell in fact seeks to herd audiences towards a particular view of this issue. This is not the report of an objective journalist: it is part of a campaign to which Knell long since self-conscripted.

Related Articles:

Does BBC reporting on Israel’s anti-terrorist fence meet standards of ‘due impartiality’? – part 3

BBC’s Knell promotes political church campaign supported by BBC funder

The one where BBC Business goes bananas

A filmed report by Jeremy Howell titled “Growing crops in drought conditions” which was shown on BBC television news programmes also appeared on the business page of the BBC News website last month.

Technion report

Howell opens his report by telling audiences:

“Travelling up the Jordan Valley and across the Galilee region to reach Haifa in northern Israel makes you aware how serious a problem water is for both Israel and the Kingdom of Jordan. To grow the fruit and olives this region produces means taking millions of litres of water a year from the Sea of Galilee and the River Jordan. Water volumes in both are at record low levels.”

Unless this report has been trapped in some kind of BBC vaults time warp for the past twelve years – i.e.  since November 29th 2001, when the Sea of Galilee reached its lowest recorded level of -214.87 m – Howell’s latter statement is clearly inaccurate. In fact in early 2013 the water level in the Sea of Galilee reached an eight year high and on November 17th 2013 – the date of Howell’s report – it stood at -211.39 m: 161 cm above the lower red line and 101 cm above the level on the same day the previous year. Since then, the recent storms have added a further 10 cm to the water level. In other words, those “record low levels” are nothing but a figment of Howell’s imagination.

Howell continues:

“But a solution to this area’s currently unsustainable demand for water could be at hand inside this greenhouse on the roof of a building at the Haifa Technion.”

If readers are wondering about the source of Howell’s dubious assertions of “currently unsustainable demand” for water in Israel, a clue to that will come later on. Howell then goes on to interview Professor Shimon Gepstein in connection with his work promoting drought-resistant qualities in plants. 

Howell later goes on to say:

“Plants which need 70% less water to grow could mean a welcome drop in extraction levels from the endangered Sea of Galilee and River Jordan. But Gidon Bromberg of ‘Friends of the Earth Middle East’ is worried the new technology might encourage ever more land in Israel and Jordan to be used to raise water intensive crops like bananas.”

It would of course have been appropriate for Howell to mention at this point that ‘Friends of the Earth Middle East’ has an ongoing campaign concerning the Jordan River and that the organization is not apolitical.

“FoEME supports the Palestinian call for UN recognition of a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, in peaceful coexistence with the State of Israel.

This is in keeping with FoEME’s longstanding position supporting a two-state solution in the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative, including mutual recognition of Israeli and Palestinian rights to two separate states based on the 1967 borders.

As far as Water Justice is concerned FoEME has developed its own Water Accord and is leading a campaign under the message that “Water Justice Cannot Wait”. “

The report then cuts to Gidon Bromberg:

“We want efficient use of water resources but then we need to look at the broader question of sustainability. So the growing of bananas in the midst of a semi-arid part of the world doesn’t make much sense. Israel is, you know, top class when it comes to efficiency and the rest of the world has a lot to learn, but on the other hand when it comes to sustainability, Israel is not where it needs to be.”

Some species of bananas have been grown in Israel since the tenth century. Currently, bananas are grown in three main areas: the Jordan Valley around the Sea of Galilee, the Western Galilee and the coastal plain. Practically all the 60,000 tons or so of fruit produced annually is for the domestic market: Israel does not export bananas. Of course some might say that it is in fact more ‘sustainable’ for Israelis to grow their own bananas rather than to import them from abroad with the associated ‘food miles’, in particular as methods are already in use which reduce the demand for water by 20 – 30%. Ironically, Howell interviews Bromberg whilst he is standing inside a banana grove using just such a method: special netting which provides shade from the sun’s rays, reduces evaporation and creates a micro-climate. 

banana netting

Howell continues:

“Professor Gepstein has sold the patents to his discovery to a Californian seed company Arcadia Bio. His real hope is for drought-resistant crops to be grown in the desert countries of the Middle East – in uncultivated areas of the Sinai, say, or the Sahara. It would boost world food supply and boost the incomes of local people. He’s asking Middle Eastern countries to collaborate with him to develop the technology. But for political reasons, most of them refuse to deal with Israel and they’ve ignored his offer. It’ll take time and delicate diplomacy to persuade them to use an Israeli discovery to help make their deserts bloom.”

What Howell neglects to inform BBC audiences is that Professor Gepstein’s discovery (first published, by the way, in 2007) is en route to a much bigger market unfettered by politically motivated self-defeating boycotts. 

“The drought-resistance technology was patented and licensed by the universities to Arcadia Biosciences, a California agro-tech company, which sublicensed it to seed companies that sell the engineered product in the United States and abroad. In July 2013, a Chinese patent was approved, paving the way for the Israeli-innovated technology in another vast market.”

This is the second BBC report in recent weeks which has promoted the agenda of ‘Friends of the Earth Middle East’ and in this case, the contribution provided by that organization adds nothing whatsoever to audience comprehension of the report’s subject matter. Once again, however, the BBC has neglected to conform to its own editorial guidelines on impartiality by failing to inform audiences of an NGOs political agenda.

“We should not automatically assume that contributors from other organisations (such as academics, journalists, researchers and representatives of charities) are unbiased and we may need to make it clear to the audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint, if it is not apparent from their contribution or from the context in which their contribution is made.”

And of course Howell’s adherence to BBC editorial guidelines on accuracy may have improved considerably had he taken account of FoEME’s agenda and hence avoided repeating such embarrassing inaccuracies about “record low levels” in the Sea of Galilee and “unsustainable demand” for water in a country now well on the other side of its former water crisis.

Related articles:

Promoted and quoted: the BBC’s preferred Middle East NGOs

Impartiality fail as BBC promotes FOEME objections to Red-Dead Sea project

On December 9th an article titled “Mid-East governments sign Red Sea-to-Dead Sea water deal” appeared on the Middle East page of the BBC News website. 

art RSDSC

Both the article itself and one of the recommended ‘related articles’ appearing as a link highlight the objections of ‘Friends of the Earth Middle East’ to this project.

“But critics fear the plan’s impact on the Dead Sea’s fragile ecosystem.”

“Environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth Middle East has called for an environmental study of how the brine from the desalination plant should be treated before the project begins in earnest, arguing it is unclear how brine from the Red Sea water will affect the Dead Sea’s ecosystem.” SONY DSC

The BBC report does not make it sufficiently clear to readers that considerable research has already been carried out, including a study of alternative options and a comprehensive environmental report. Neither does it sufficiently clarify the fact that the agreed project is in fact a pilot project involving relatively small volumes of water to be piped to the Dead Sea, which it has been established will not have a detrimental environmental impact, but which will enable further study of environmental factors.

If the BBC is going to highlight the issue of the project’s environmental aspects and amplify the concerns of FOEME, it should – in the interests of complying with its own editorial guidelines on impartiality – also provide audiences with details of additional professional points of view on that issue.

Meanwhile, BBC Watch looks forward to the long overdue removal of Martin Asser’s egregious “Obstacles to Peace:Water” article (see here and here) from the BBC News website in light of the innovations this joint Israeli/Jordanian/PA project will bring.