The March 21st afternoon edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour‘ included an interview that was described by presenter James Menendez at the start of the show as follows:
Menendez: “…and later in the programme we’ll hear from a Palestinian gynecologist who lost his three eldest daughters when an Israeli tank shelled his home in Gaza. But he’s somehow turned tragedy into an appeal for reconciliation.”
Later on (at 34:45 here) listeners heard a long interview – lasting nearly eight minutes – which appears to have been conducted for no reason other than the fact that the guest happened to be in London for a variety of speaking engagements.
A clip from the interview was also later promoted on social media and notably its accompanying synopsis includes at least some of the relevant context that was completely absent from the interview broadcast to millions of listeners around the world.
“The shelling took place as Israel was involved in operations against Hamas. The army said troops had fired shells at suspicious figures in Dr Abuelaish’s house, believing they were observers directing sniper fire. He denies that any militants were hiding in or firing from his house.”
Menendez introduced the prerecorded interview as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]
Menedez: “Now to a very tricky question: how would you react if three of your children were killed in an incident by a tank shell? And if it happened just three months after your wife – their mother – died from leukemia? Well many of us would probably fall apart, unable to cope with such unimaginable, unbearable tragedy. But this is precisely what happened to Palestinian gynecologist Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish in Gaza in 2009 when part of his house was destroyed by an Israeli tank during the three-week conflict of that time.”
Listeners heard nothing whatsoever on the topic of why that conflict – Operation Cast Lead – began and no mention was made of the thousands of missile attacks from the Gaza Strip against Israeli civilians which preceded it. Menendez continued:
Menendez: “And yet Dr Abuelaish hasn’t fallen apart: quite the opposite. He’s made a new life for himself and his remaining children in Canada and turned his tragedy into a powerful plea for reconciliation. The BBC reported on what happened to Dr Abuelaish at the time. It was also well-known to Israeli TV viewers during the conflict because of his friendship and interviews with one reporter. In fact after the attack on his house – straight after – he called him live on air, partly to summon medical help for the injured. Well here he is being interviewed by us in the days after.”
Archive recording of Abuelaish: “They are sitting there, four daughters, two nieces, in their own room and I started to play with my youngest child whom I carried on my shoulders. And just seconds after I left their room, the first bomb. I started to scream, looking at them. Bodies, parts here and there. The heads. What can I do at that time?”
Menendez: “Well Dr Abuelaish came into the Newshour studio a little earlier today. I began by asking him what he remembered of the day his daughters were killed.”
Abuelaish: “It lives with me, it runs with me. I see my daughters. I talk to them and on daily basis I am reminded because the situation in the Gaza Strip is the same situation. And the suffering. And I see it in everyday suffering in this part of the world; in Syria, in Yemen, in Afghanistan I see in these children my daughters to remind me and live with me all of the time. And my daughters who are asking me what did you do for us? Did you forget us? I say to them I will never forget you. I am determined to keep moving. The tragedy is there, the tragedy is not the end of our life and we must not allow the tragedy to be the end of our life. And, thank God, we succeeded.”
Menendez: “Do you remember the panic though in those immediate moments afterwards? And also your thought process that led you to ring your Israeli friend because that’s a crucial part of what happened afterwards isn’t it?”
Abuelaish: “Of course; at that moment we were under fear, under attacks from everywhere. We are expecting the worst all of the time. But thank God to give me the wisdom and to think rational at that moment and to direct my face to God and to call my friend who was supposed to interview me. So I called him to expose the secret and to show that there are human civilians who are killed on daily basis and to put an end to this tragedy.”
Menendez: “That was…it was also about getting some medical help, wasn’t it?”
Abuelaish: “For the severely wounded; my daughter, my niece, my brother and the others who were under threat. So I asked to stop the shelling and to take them to the Palestinian hospital and then from there to be transferred to the Israeli hospital where I used to work.”
Menedez: “And what sort of reception did you get when you ended up in those Israeli hospitals? I mean was there sympathy, great sympathy?”
Abuelaish: “Of course. It opened the eyes of the Israeli public about the human face of the Palestinian people. But do we need to be killed in order to show the other that we are human? We are neighbours and we need to live as neighbours, as equal human beings and that human life of the Palestinians is equal to the human life of the Israelis.”
Failing to challenge Abuelaish’s repeated assertion that Israelis do not view Palestinians as human beings, Menendez went on:
Menendez: “Why do you think your house was shelled?”
Abuelaish: “From my side there is no reason to be kill my daughters or be targeted. We are human civilians sitting in our home. There was no reason.”
As the synopsis to the promoted clip indicates, the BBC is well aware of the background to the incident and hence knows that Dr Abuelaish’s daughters were not “targeted”.
“The IDF concluded Wednesday that Israeli tank shells caused the deaths of four Palestinian girls, including three daughters of Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish, when his house was accidentally attacked on January 16, during Operation Cast Lead. Following the investigation, the army confirmed that two shells had hit the building. […] The IDF said that a Golani Brigade force was operating near Beit Lahiya when it came under sniper and mortar fire in an area laden with explosives. After determining that the source of the fire was in a building adjacent to Abuelaish’s home, the force returned fire. While the IDF was shooting, suspicious figures were identified in the top floors of the doctor’s house, and the troops believed the figures were directing the Hamas sniper and mortar fire, the army said. Upon assessing the situation in the field while under heavy fire, the commander of the force gave the order to open fire on the suspicious figures, and it was from this fire that his three daughters were killed, said the IDF. Once the soldiers realized that civilians, and not Hamas gunmen, were in the house they ceased fire immediately, continued the army.”
Moreover, having covered this story many times, the BBC is most likely aware that Dr Abuelaish had been advised to leave his house prior to the incident.
“The IDF Spokesman’s Unit stressed that in the days prior to the incident, Abuelaish – who had worked before at Beersheba’s Soroka University Medical Center and had very good connections with Israelis – was contacted personally several times by officers in the Gaza Coordination and Liaison Administration to urge him to evacuate his home because of Hamas operations and the intense fighting that was already taking place in that area for several days. In addition to the personal contact made directly with the doctor, the IDF issued warnings to the residents of Sajaiya by dropping thousands of leaflets and by issuing warnings via Palestinian media outlets. The IDF said it regretted the incident and the loss of life, and that the doctor had been updated with details of the investigation as well. Considering the constraints of the battle scene, the amount of threats that endangered the force, and the intensity of fighting in the area, the investigators concluded that the forces’ action and the decision to fire towards the building were reasonable. Abuelaish, speaking on Channel 2 Wednesday, thanked all those who worked to find the truth about the incident and accepted the findings, saying that mistakes can happen.”
Concealing all that relevant context to the story from listeners, Menendez continued:
Menendez: “Have you had an apology from Israel for what happened?”
Abuelaish: “That’s the most painful part. Last March we went there to testify at the court and my daughter – who was severely wounded and she lost the sight in her right eye – when they ask her how do you feel, she said I feel in pain as if I am killed another time to prove that I am a victim. And we are asking just for apology.”
In fact, Dr Abuelaish also asked for financial compensation in the lawsuit he initiated against Israel.
Menendez: “Why? What does it signify, that apology? Is it an acknowledgement of the terrible mistake that happened?”
Abuelaish: “Acknowledgement that we are human. That they are human beings. To give them the dignity and the right of apology. The acknowledgement of their existence.”
Menendez: “So why do you think it hasn’t happened, given how high-profile your case has been?”
Abuelaish: “You need to ask the politicians, the leaders. We need that courage. To acknowledge and to respect and to value human life and to have that moral courage to say we made a mistake, we take responsibility for what happened, we apologise. And then we can all move forward. I moved forward and my daughters are kept alive through good deeds and spreading hope in a time of despair in this world.”
Menendez: “And how have you managed to maintain that hope? How did you stop it turning to hate? Was it a conscious effort?”
Abuelaish: “Of course it’s a conscious effort because as a medical doctor the only possible thing I believe in is to return my daughters back. I can’t return them back but I can keep them alive and I see them while I am talking to you. I see them. They are in front of me. It’s my faith which help me a lot.”
Menendez: “Did you feel the hate bubbling up on occasion?”
Abuelaish: “I never feel and I say to people if you face any tragedy, if you face any harm from anyone, don’t allow hatred to approach you. Hatred is destructive, contagious disease to the one who carries it. Hatred is a poison. We need to be strong in order to move forward.”
Menendez next adopted the common BBC practice of referring to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as the main issue in the Middle East.
Menendez: “Do you see any hope at the moment in the Middle East? There seems to be very little common understanding between the two sides. They seem as far apart as they’ve ever been.”
Abuelaish: “They are far apart but both are alive and that’s the hope. In medicine, as long as the patient is still alive there is hope. And the Palestinians and the Israelis and the Middle East; the people there are alive but it needs wisdom and the international community and all of the people to work together from violence to inclusiveness to partnership and sharing and to understand that the human life and the freedom is the most precious thing.”
Menendez: “But do you think though that people on both sides have stopped seeing the other side as human beings?”
Abuelaish: “We need justice and justice means putting yourself in the position of the others. And when we speak about both sides, both sides are not equal. We need to equalise between them, the Palestinian and the Israelis because the Palestinians are suffering on a daily basis. We need to equalize between them and to live as good neighbours, as equal citizens in independent states. We need to humanise not to politicise. We are disconnected. How close are we as neighbours but how far from each other. See my Israeli friends who live in Ashkelon close to the Gaza Strip. They don’t know what is happening in Gaza Strip which is a disaster. Can you sleep and your neighbour is hungry? Can you eat, can you run a normal life and your neighbour without electricity, without freedom? And our neighbours are disconnected from what is happening in the Gaza strip and the world is also watching what is happening.”
Failing to clarify to listeners that the electricity crisis in the Gaza Strip has nothing to do with Israel or that Gaza’s freedom deprived residents have been under Hamas rule for over a decade, Menendez closed the interview at that point.
Readers can judge for themselves whether or not Menendez’s repeated claim that Dr Abuelaish has “turned his tragedy into a powerful plea for reconciliation” is supported by his interviewee’s entirely one-sided messaging. However, in an item in which words such as ‘Hamas’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘rocket attacks’ did not appear even once and vital context was omitted, it is blatantly obvious that BBC World Service audiences did not hear a balanced account of this story.
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