The Foreign Affairs correspondent for BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme, Mike Thomson, recently produced a feature on the subject of the kidnappings and murders of Naftali Frenkel, Gil-ad Sha’ar and Eyal Yifrach on June 12th 2014 and Mohammed Abu Khdeir on July 2nd 2014.
That feature appears on the BBC News website’s Middle East page under the title “The lost sons“. Additionally, an audio version of Thomson’s report was broadcast by the BBC World Service on January 23rd in the programme ‘The Documentary’ under the title “The Lives And Deaths Of Naftali and Mohammed” and the BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme featured segments from the audio version on January 22nd (from 2:40:20 here) and on January 23rd (from 2:50:27 here).
On one level, all versions of this feature present the personal stories of two families – Frenkel and Abu Khdeir – coping with the loss of their sons. The chosen format naturally promotes equivalence between the two murders and Thomson does not adequately clarify the differences between them. Whilst he does inform listeners that a Hamas cell carried out the murders of the three Israeli teenagers, the fact that the operation was financed by Hamas in the Gaza Strip is not adequately explained. Neither the issue of the logistical help that the two murderers obviously received from their community during the three months in which they were on the run nor the widespread support for the kidnappings in Palestinian society (which went completely unreported by the BBC at the time) gets coverage in Thomson’s various reports. Significantly too, no mention is made of the condemnation of the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir at all levels of Israeli society or the fact that he was recognized as a victim of terror by the State of Israel, which entitles his family to monthly financial benefits.
In both the website version and the World Service radio version of the feature, conspiracy theories about the deaths of the three Israeli teenagers are amplified. Whilst one must obviously question the editorial justification for the inclusion of such baseless claims at all, credit is due to Mike Thomson for challenging part of them – although not the one made in the audio version which falsely asserted that the boys were soldiers.
“But Mohammed’s parents insist, despite all the evidence, that Naftali and his two Israeli friends weren’t actually murdered at all – they died in an accident and the Israeli government used the deaths to fuel anger against Palestinians.
His mother says the Israeli government “wanted to bomb Gaza and planned to use this as a justification”.
I ask how widespread is this belief. She replies: “Everyone knows this story, not only us. We didn’t come up with this story.”
But, I point out, senior Hamas figures have admitted that members of the organisation carried out the killings.
Hussein says: “I am not a politician, I am an ordinary man and didn’t hear of this story. The story that we know is that they died in a traffic accident.” “
However, in the World Service audio version Thomson’s conclusion regarding those bizarre conspiracy theories is that they “show the depth of distrust” between Israelis and Palestinians and he makes no attempt to place them within the broader – and highly relevant – context of the baseless rumours and incitement seen in official Palestinian media or heard in sermons in PA mosques on a quotidian basis.
In that same audio version broadcast on the World Service, Thomson adopts the usual BBC practice of failing to meet its own supposed standards of impartiality by refraining from any mention of the existence of legal opinions which do not conform to the spirit of his statement:
“Under international law the West Bank is occupied territory…”
He goes on to say:
“…but many Israelis, like the speaker you are about to hear, still see it as part of Israel and use biblical language to describe it.”
The speaker is an IDF officer who was responsible for the coordination of the search operation for the three teenagers and the “biblical language” Thomson obviously finds worthy of note is the term Judea and Samaria. Of course that term was universally in use – including by the British mandate administration – until Jordan’s belligerent occupation and later unrecognized annexation of the districts of Judea and Samaria, after which the term ‘West Bank’ was invented in order to cement that occupation in language. In Thomson’s case that rebranding clearly worked.
A particularly significant aspect of this feature is its vigorous promotion of a theme which the BBC has been pushing for months.
In the introduction to the item in the January 22nd edition of the ‘Today’ programme, listeners were told that:
“The murders further fuelled hatred and bitterness on both sides, sparking riots in the West Bank, rocket attacks by Hamas and the Israeli invasion of Gaza.”
The next day listeners to the same programme were told that:
“After a summer war in Gaza and bloody clashes on the West Bank, Israel has suffered a winter wave of attacks, the latest wounding a dozen bus passengers in Tel Aviv. The catalyst for much of this was the abduction and murder of four teenagers – three Jewish and one Palestinian – in June and July.”
In the written version appearing on the BBC News website, audiences are told that:
“These brutal killings, and those of two other innocent boys, have had far-reaching consequences. Riots in the West Bank, a war in Gaza and a deepened divide between Israelis and Palestinians.”
In the audio version broadcast on the BBC World Service, listeners heard Mike Thomson say:
“There is little doubt that the slaughter of these four innocent and like-minded boys proved a catalyst for the deaths and injuries of thousands more people last summer.”
Since the hostilities ended six months ago, it has become standard BBC practice to promote the narrative of the conflict of summer 2014 as having taken place exclusively “in Gaza”, erasing any mention of the fact that in Israel thousands of southern residents had to leave their homes and millions ran for cover in air-raid shelters from over four thousand missile attacks launched at civilian targets throughout the seven weeks of hostilities.
It is also apparently BBC policy to mislead audiences by downplaying or erasing from audience view the hundreds of missiles launched at civilian targets in Israel between the date of the kidnappings – June 12th – and the commencement of Operation Protective Edge on July 8th. It was of course that surge in missile fire which was the reason for Israel’s military action rather than the kidnappings and murders of the three teenagers, with the later discovery of dozens of cross-border tunnels prompting the subsequent ground operation. The military operation could have been avoided had Hamas elected to take advantage of the ample opportunities it was given to stop the missile fire before July 8th but the terrorist organisation chose not to do so – for reasons by no means exclusively connected to Israel such as the PA’s refusal to pay Hamas employees after the formation of the unity government.
Over the last six months this same distortion of the background to Operation Protective Edge has been seen time and time again in BBC content. Accurate and impartial representation of Hamas’ motives for instigating that conflict has been usurped by a simplistic narrative promoting the notion of a ‘cycle of violence’ which actively prevents BBC audiences from forming a realistic understanding of events. Mike Thomson obviously put a lot of work into this feature and hence it is all the more unfortunate that one of its main themes is based on an inaccurate narrative which it in turn goes on to further entrench.