When, in July 2014, a BBC presenter chided an Israeli spokesman for carrying out a military operation in the Gaza Strip rather than trying to arrest members of Hamas using what she termed “surgical strikes of the arresting kind” we noted on these pages that:
“One of the recurrent phenomena associated with media coverage of outbreaks of conflict in this region is the proliferation of journalists who suddenly transform into self-appointed ‘experts’ in military strategy and ‘international law’…”
That practice was evident once again in the March 31st edition of the BBC Radio 4 news and current affairs programme ‘Today‘ which included two items relating to the previous day’s events on the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip when mass rioting took place under the guise of a ‘protest’ dubbed the ‘Great Return March’.
In the introduction to the first of those items (from 09:04 here) listeners heard presenter Justin Webb unquestioningly quote information supplied by Hamas – one of the co-organisers of the propaganda stunt. [emphasis in bold added, emphasis in italics in the original]
Webb: “First to events on the border between Gaza and Israel. According to Palestinian officials there are 16 dead, hundreds injured on that border – the worst violence since the war of 2014.”
Webb then brought in the BBC Jerusalem bureau’s Yolande Knell who accurately stated that not only is Hamas involved in the organisation of this six-week ‘protest’ but is financing it. Knell also accurately pointed out that the camps set up at five locations by “the Hamas authorities” are “a few hundred meters from the border fence” and that the violent incidents of March 30th began when crowds “started to approach the border fence with Israel” with “people throwing stones and firebombs” and “tampering with the fence”.
However Knell then also went on to unquestioningly promote information supplied by Hamas which there is no evidence of the BBC having independently verified.
Knell: “And there were really hundreds of people who were injured…ahm…along this 40 mile-long Israel-Gaza border. Many of them had bullet wounds.”
Justin Webb then chipped in with his commentary on a filmed incident:
Webb: “Yeah because the IDF have issued a statement saying that there was an infiltration attempt by three terrorists but what we see – what people who were there will have seen – is not a targeted attack on people who are making a concerted effort to get through but just sort of firing through the…through the fence.”
Later on in the conversation Knell stated that “we have to expect further flare-ups” because:
Knell: In the coming weeks we’re going to have Israel celebrating what it sees as its independence day […] but then you have that very controversial move of the US embassy expected on the 14th of May, just ahead of that day that the Palestinians call their Nakba day: the catastrophe day.”
Later on in the same programme (from 01:09:59 here) Justin Webb introduced the second item on the same topic which began with a barely audible telephone interview with PA official Sabri Saydam.
Webb: “Dr Saydam; what is your version of what happened at the border and led to the deaths of 16 people and the wounding of hundreds more?”
Saydam: “As you know, yesterday marked the anniversary – the 42nd anniversary – since the Land Day where 13 Palestinians [sic- actually 6 Arab-Israelis] were shot dead in 1976, which is an annual demonstration arranged by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and this was arranged again yesterday. As you know this year marks 70 years since the Palestinian Nakba – the catastrophe – and almost 51 years since the 1967 war so this was an expression of discontent, a display total despair that exists in the West Bank and Gaza for the prevailance [sic] of the Israeli occupation – the longest occupation [sic] in modern times. So people who are marching in peace, protesting against occupation, Israel [inaudible] with force.”
Webb: “Are you saying that people who were peacefully protesting were fired on? There is evidence of that, is there?”
Saydam: “Absolutely and you can look at the footage that you broadcasted and other networks and you can see that they were peacefully marching. There was no confrontation using armed guns, machine guns. There was no application of violence. If anything, they were carrying just flags and marching towards the fence. This is Gaza where 2 million people are deprived of basic needs and this is Gaza that lives under occupation same as West Bank and East Jerusalem and the continuation of the occupation will yield the results of [inaudible] saw yesterday.”
Webb could at this point have clarified to listeners that the Gaza Strip has not been ‘occupied’ for nearly thirteen years. He could have asked the PA minister about his government’s cutting of electricity and medical care and supplies for the deprived people of Gaza as ways to put pressure on Hamas. He could also – given the fact that this publicity stunt organised by Hamas and other Gaza terror factions rests on the so-called ‘right of return’ – have asked Sabri Saydam if he agrees with that demand aimed at destroying the Jewish state – especially seeing as just over a year ago the BBC provided a platform for Saydam’s repeated insistence that all Palestinians support the two-state solution.
Webb however did none of that. Instead he twice asked whether or not the people taking part in the propaganda stunt should “go home…for their own safety” and listeners heard Saydam promote the falsehood that “this is not a Hamas orchestrated kind of demonstration”.
After Webb had asked a question concerning “the charge…that you are cynically using the lives of civilians, including children, to create the kind of tensions and violence that focuses the attention of the world on this area”, Saydam suddenly disappeared from the broadcast.
Webb then introduced the Israeli ambassador to the UK, Mark Regev, and that interview – in which listeners witnessed the return of the well-worn BBC favourite ‘disproportionate’ – can also be heard here.
Webb: “Your troops have fired on civilians, on children. They’ve fired through a fence. That is – is it not? – indefensible.”
After Regev noted that “we can’t allow the Hamas activists to tear down the border fence and enter Israel”, Webb donned his ‘military expert’ hat while misleading listeners about the border fence.
Webb: “You say ‘Hamas activists to tear down the border’: what – and Dr Saydam referred to this – what you’ve seen online in the footage is quite young children, some of whom have been shot, who are not capable of tearing down…this is an electric fence, isn’t it?”
Regev: “You saw attempts to physically destroy the fence. You saw attempts…”
Webb [interrupts]: “But attempts that would not have been successful.”
After Regev had disagreed, pointing out that the ‘protests’ were not spontaneous, Webb interrupted him again.
Webb: “Yeah but whoever it was who sent them, whether they were there voluntarily these youngsters…”
Regev: “They weren’t. It was orchestrated.”
Webb: “Well alright. Even if it was orchestrated, to shoot them, to kill 16 of them, to injure hundreds according to the United Nations with live ammunition – that is not proportionate, is it?”
The United Nations got its information on the casualties from the Hamas-run ministry of health in Gaza but listeners were not given that relevant information.
Regev explained methods of crowd control and again referred to attempted infiltrations but Webb interrupted him once again and yet again misrepresented the border fence.
Webb: “But you have troops – sorry to interrupt you on that – but just thinking about this border, we’re talking about an electrified fence. We’re then talking about a lot of troops behind it – way before there are any Israeli civilians. The idea that there’s someone coming through and about to kill Israeli civilians is just fantasy, isn’t it?”
Some of the Israeli communities in the area are of course located less that a mile from the border that Webb ignorantly described as “way before there are any Israeli civilians”.
Regev: “That’s exactly what they want to do.”
Webb then put on his ‘laws of armed combat expert’ hat:
Webb: “Yes it might be what they want to do but I’m saying to you that actually they would not have been capable of doing it and therefore killing them – particularly killing kids, people running around next to the fence – is disproportionate and probably illegal.”
After Regev had pointed out that if the demonstration had remained in the camps set up – as Yolande Knell previously noted – several hundred meters away from the border nothing would have happened, clarified that Israel withdrew from Gaza over a decade ago and pointed out that Hamas denies Israel’s right to exist, Webb went on to downplay Hamas’ role in the agitprop but made no effort to inform listeners of the involvement of additional terror factions such as the PIJ and DFLP.
Webb: “Dr Saydam was saying it’s not just Hamas – it’s much wider than that and he was pointing out that he’s not a member of Hamas but actually it is a widely felt feeling among the Palestinians that this is the right demonstration at the right time and that they have a right to make it. It’s not just Hamas.”
Following a ‘question’ about a potential UN investigation Webb continued:
Webb: “You have…I mean this is not the first time that Israel has found itself in this situation where you are accused of using hugely disproportionate force and I think what some people – including some friends of Israel – would say is why do you not learn from what happens in these situations? Why is there an inability actually in a sense in practical terms to defend yourself, to defend that border fence, without using live rounds?”
Regev again explained that non-lethal crowd control measures had initially been used before Webb went on:
Webb: “You see you keep saying armed members of Hamas. The people who were killed – almost all of them – and the people who were injured were not armed members of Hamas – were they? – and I don’t think you’re claiming they were. They were civilians.”
That of course is not the case – ten of the sixteen dead on that first day belonged to terror factions – but when Regev tried to reply, Webb once again interrupted him and once again uncritically parroted claims put out by the terror group that co-organised the propaganda stunt.
Webb: “But there are hundreds of people in hospital with gunshot wounds – they weren’t armed members of Hamas, were they?”
The impression of events that Justin Webb was trying to communicate to BBC Radio 4 listeners is blatantly obvious. Webb’s portrayal includes only ‘peaceful protesters’ and “kids… running around next to the fence” and his quoted – but unverified – casualty figures are sourced (as has been the case all too often in the past) from a terror organisation that is party to the violence.
Equally unsurprising is the opportunistic dusting off of the ‘disproportionate’ charge and the miraculous but entirely predictable transformation of a breakfast news show presenter into a self-appointed expert on military strategy and the laws of armed combat.
That, after all, is a pattern that has regularly been seen at the BBC in the past when the terror faction that rules the Gaza Strip has initiated violence.