The centrepiece of the BBC News website’s coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War was published in the ‘Features’ section of its Middle East page on June 5th. That article by the corporation’s Middle East editor is titled “1967 war: Six days that changed the Middle East” and it runs to a remarkably lengthy 6,181 words and – as Jeremy Bowen’s Twitter followers later learned – is based on a book he originally had published 14 years ago.
The article includes numerous factual inaccuracies or inadequately clarified statements. For example, the person named by Bowen as “Ray Rothberg” was actually Roi Rotberg from Nahal Oz. What Bowen repeatedly describes as “disputed territory” along Israel’s border with Syria was in fact the demilitarised zones defined as such in the 1949 Armistice Agreement between the two countries, while his reference to “Syria’s attempts to divert the River Jordan away from Israel’s national water grid” fails to adequately clarify that the Headwater Diversion Plan was actually conceived by the Arab League in 1964. The article also makes use of B’tselem’s inaccurate and partisan map that has been seen in numerous other BBC reports.
Interestingly, readers of this article discover that the BBC’s Middle East editor is entirely aware of factors such as Soviet disinformation, Nasser’s demand to expel UN peacekeepers from Sinai and his closure of the Straits of Tiran that were crucial in causing the war but yet curiously are so often omitted from BBC portrayals of the topic.
However, the most important aspect of Bowen’s tome is its promotion of a narrative composed of two parts.
As he has done in the past, Bowen suggests to audiences that the Six Day War was not a war of survival for Israel. [emphasis added]
“Western powers had no doubt which side in the Middle East was stronger on the eve of war in 1967. The US military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff judged “that Israel will be militarily unchallengeable by any combination of Arab states at least during the next five years.”
In a report on the Israeli army in January 1967, the British defence attaché in Tel Aviv assessed that “in command, training, equipment and services the Israel army is more prepared for war than ever before. Well-trained, tough, self-reliant, the Israeli soldier has a strong fighting spirit and would willingly go to war in defence of his country.””
“The pressure was crushing General Rabin. Against all the military evidence, he had convinced himself that he was leading Israel to catastrophe.”
“If they could fight on their own terms, Israel’s generals were confident they would score an overwhelming victory. But strict military censorship kept those conclusions private.”
The second part of Bowen’s narrative is designed to steer audiences towards the belief that the modern-day conflict is exclusively rooted in the outcome of those six days in June 1967. [emphasis added]
“Fifty years ago, war broke out between Israel and its neighbours. The conflict lasted just six days but its effect would last to the present day.”
“All the issues that are now depressingly familiar to anyone who follows the news – violence, occupation, settlements, the future of Jerusalem – took their current form as a result of the war. The shape of the occupation emerged very quickly. Predictions of the dangers that lay ahead were ignored.”
“The 1967 war made Israel into an occupier, which is why more than anything else it matters. The experience has been a disaster for Israelis and Palestinians. Israel built settlements for Jews, in defiance of international law that says occupiers cannot settle their people on the land they capture. Israel, though, sees it differently.”
“Military occupation is by definition oppressive. The occupation has created a culture of violence that cheapens life and brutalises the people who impose and enforce the occupation and those who fight it.”
“Fifty years on from 1967, President Trump – like many new American presidents – is hoping to help Israelis and Palestinians make peace.
If his dreams become substantive talks, they will have to be about the future of the land that was captured in six days of war. […]Ignoring the legacy of 1967 is not an option.”
However, the urge to promote that selective narrative means that Bowen has to erase from audience view the fact that – as Michael Oren recently explained – the Six Day War was just one chapter in a conflict that began long before.
“Far beyond 1967, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is in fact about 1917, 1937 and 1947. Those anniversaries can teach us much about the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and why peace has proved so elusive. […]
What began as a clash between Palestinian Arabs and Palestinian Jews changed overnight into the Arab-Israel conflict. The two-state solution twice turned down by the Palestinians, in 1937 and 1947, would be forgotten as Egypt occupied the Gaza Strip and Jordan annexed East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Yet the Palestinians showed no interest in establishing sovereignty in those areas. Instead, they rejected Israel within any borders. “We shall destroy Israel and its inhabitants” swore Ahmed Shukairy, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, on the eve of the Six-Day War. […]
The conflict is not about the territory Israel captured in 1967. It is about whether a Jewish state has a right to exist in the Middle East in the first place. As Mr. Abbas has publicly stated, “I will never accept a Jewish state.””
Jeremy Bowen’s promotion of his preferred narrative (which, notably, has not altered at all over the years despite repeated Palestinian rejections of peace proposals) has long been on view. However, while his exclusive focus on “the occupation” and his related concealment of the most basic factor underlying the Arab-Israeli conflict – the refusal to accept the Jewish state’s right to exist – may well serve the advancement of that political narrative, it does not serve the BBC’s funding public: the people for whom he is supposed to “make a complex story more comprehensive or comprehensible”.