What context is missing from the BBC’s report on Umm al Hiran?

On January 18th the BBC News website published an article on its Middle East page under the headline “Israeli policeman and Bedouin killed during clashes over demolitions“.umm-al-hiran-art-main

The overwhelming majority of that article’s 614 words are devoted to conflicting accounts of the tragic events in Umm al Hiran earlier that day. Seeing as even now – four days later – the post-mortem examination has not been completed and the ballistics report has yet to be published, the value of some of the subjective and speculative accounts the BBC found it appropriate to publish can at best be said to be doubtful as far as helping readers understand what actually happened is concerned.

Facts were however readily available concerning another part of the story: its context. Strangely, the BBC devoted just 12.2% (75 words) of the article’s word count to informing its audiences of the background to the incidents.


The BBC’s claim that the people concerned were moved to Umm al Hiran in the 1950s is inaccurate – they were moved to the nearby Yatir area and some of them later took over land in Umm al Hiran. The claim that “they have now been told to move to new housing elsewhere” does not give BBC audiences a proper perspective of what the squatters have actually been offered. Neither is the BBC’s claim that the new town of Hiran is “mainly Jewish” supported by the facts.

One journalist who has studied the case of Umm al Hiran extensively is Ben Dror Yemini.

“The members of the al-Qiyan tribe are right. They were indeed transferred to the Yatir Forest area in the 1950s. They settled there with permission. Precisely because they have certain rights which have been recognized by the authorities and by the courts, they were offered to move – for free – to the regulated community of Hura. Not only did they receive free land, a quarter of an acre for each household, and not only was the infrastructure supplied by the government, but each family received an additional payment, at least NIS 100,000 to build its own home. Moreover, every man married to more than one woman received land units according to the number of his wives – even though polygamy is illegal. And in order not to discriminate against the young ones, all those over the age of 24 received an independent home as well.

Before you say that this is an insufficient settlement, it should be noted that most tribe members considered it a fair and sufficient proposal. They moved to the village of Hura. Very few decided to stay. And out of the very few, a small minority left the Yatir area and spread to the Hiran area. Aerial shots document exactly what went on there starting in the 1960s: The illegal construction continued even after it was decided in 2002 to build the community of Hiran, not just for Jews as the slanderers claim. […]

The arguments I am making here do not belong to a certain side. They are based on a Supreme Court ruling, which determined in these words that “most of the tribe members moved to Hura – a Bedouin community, which is regulated and connected to infrastructures – and the remaining ones are required to evacuate their homes, and are being offered to move to Hura… They are not being expelled and not being abandoned. The suggested evacuation involves different proposals for a move, construction, compensation and a housing option, whether in the town of Hura or in the community of Hiran which is about to be built… The planned community does not prevent the tribe members from living there… Anyone wishing to live in Hiran is entitled to do so, subject to the law and under the fixed conditions.””

Another Israeli journalist who has done extensive work on this topic is Kalman Liebskind. (translation: BBC Watch)

“For very many years the State has been trying to move members of the Abu al-Qiyan family from the area in which they settled and on which they illegally built tens of structures and sheds. In order to persuade them to move to Hura – an organized community with services they do not have in their present location – the State was ready to make generous offers of land and money. Most members of the tribe chose to accept the offers. Some of them, after additional financial encouragement from the state, demolished their illegal buildings themselves.

Among those who chose to stay and refused to move even after all the legal proceedings dismissed their claims, the State defined 58 as being ‘entitled’ to compensation if they agreed to move. Who are those ‘entitled’? Families with children, married couples, one-parent families and single people over the age of 24. What was each of the ‘entitled’ to get? A developed plot of one dunam in a neighbourhood in Hura which was prepared especially to absorb the family members, together with financial compensation for each illegally constructed structure that would be demolished.

But the story did not end there. ‘Where will our children live when they grow up?’ asked members of the tribe. ‘We want plots for them too’. The State also agreed to that. And so, for example, parents of four children aged 3, 5, 7 and 9 got a commitment of financial compensation – a one dunam plot for the parents and four more plots which would be put aside for the children which, when the time came, they could purchase for the symbolic price of a few tens of thousands of shekels. Just a moment, you ask, what happens if the Bedouin has two wives and each one of them has four small children? Well then each woman will get her own plot – and for the eight small children plots would also be put aside.

Last Thursday, when the State’s representatives asked to sign the agreement, the Bedouin announced that they had a few more demands; that what they had got until now was not enough; that in addition to all that they also want a million shekels compensation for each family for the illegal structures that they had built and also 400,000 shekels for each family for the emotional damage caused to them and also plots for business and for greenhouses and also tender-exempt plots in the industrial zone of Hura.

Against all that background, another small problem was born. It turned out that in the tribe there are ten Palestinian women who were brought by the al-Qiyan tribe to live here as second wives. Not only are they not Israeli citizens, but their presence is not legal. The State’s representatives explained to the Bedouin that with all the goodwill in the world, the State cannot give a gift of land to Palestinians from Hebron or Ramallah – Palestinian Authority citizens – that nobody knows how they got here.

In light of the new and inflated list of demands, the negotiators understood that the Bedouin were not interested in closing a deal. This was a list of demands from parties trying to end the negotiations. Nevertheless, the State’s representatives decided to see what more could be done in order to leave an opening for a quiet evacuation. A round of telephone calls between the members of the Israel Land Authority committee produced another better offer. Take ten more plots and we’ll close the deal. Nobody explained, of course, that this is an elegant way to give plots to the Palestinian women without saying so outright but each one understood what he was supposed to understand.

Yesterday evening [January 17th], after the last meeting, it was clear to the State’s representatives that there was nothing more to discuss and no-one to talk to and the evacuation went ahead.”

The vast majority of that highly relevant background is markedly absent from the BBC’s minimalist portrayal of the context of this story. To those familiar with the BBC’s partial portrayal of stories concerning Bedouin land claims over the years (see ‘related articles’ below) that will probably not come as much of a surprise. But nevertheless, the corporation cannot possibly claim that it met its remit of providing accurate and impartial information in order to enhance “audiences’ awareness and understanding of international issues” with those 75 words.

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Unquestioning repetition of claims by political activist in BBC report on Negev

BBC amplification of organised anti-Israel delegitimising campaign


BBC amplification of organised anti-Israel delegitimising campaign

A headline appearing on the Middle East page of the BBC News website on November 30th informed readers that “Bedouins hold Israel ‘day of rage'”, with the sub-header reading:

“Bedouin Arabs living in Israel have been protesting in the Negev Desert and towns and cities over government plans to resettle them.”

Prawer plan art on HP

Below that headline (and also at the bottom of the article itself) appeared a link to a ‘related story’ produced in January 2013 by Newsnight’s Tim Whewell which was discussed here.

The link in the headline leads to an article titled “Israel: Negev Bedouins’ ‘day of rage’ over resettlement plan“. 

Prawer plan art header

The article opens:

“Bedouin Arabs living in Israel have been protesting in the Negev Desert and towns and cities over government plans to resettle them.”

So, in two headlines, a sub-header and an introductory sentence, readers have already been informed four times before they begin to read the article itself that the participants in (and by implication, the organisers of) the protests which took place on November 30th were Bedouin.

There is no doubt that some Bedouin were present at some of those demonstrations. However, at no point does the BBC’s report inform readers of the broader background to those protests, which are part of a much wider delegitimisation campaign – initiated, led and coordinated by non-Bedouin actors – which has been going on for some time. 

Details of that coordinated campaign have been published by NGO Monitor in a report titled NGOS AND THE NEGEV BEDOUIN ISSUE IN THE CONTEXT OF POLITICAL WARFARE. Further information on the propaganda surrounding the issue can be read in this article by Ben Dror Yemini. 

The distinctly jaded term ‘Days of Rage’ has been used to conscript supporters to similar protests on several occasions in the past. Among those making up the conglomerate of anti-Israel activists promoting these regular demonstrations are the International Solidarity Movement (which is linked of course to the same people who organized the failed flotilla publicity stunts), the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), the ‘Stop the Wall’ organization (which was also involved in the ‘Global March to Jerusalem’ publicity stunt), the Communist Party of Israel and the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee (the leader of which also took part in the organization of the ‘Global March to Jerusalem’ and in the 2010 flotilla). As can be seen in the logo appearing on this campaign poster promoted on the blog of veteran anti-Israel campaigner Abir Kopty, advertising material for the campaign has been produced by non-Bedouin organisations such as the Haifa-based Baladna. 

Promotion of the November 30th ‘Day of Rage’ events outside Israel has also been carried out by known anti-Israel campaigners such as Yael Kahn (no stranger to the BBC), Ben White writing on the Hamas-linked MEMO site and of course the flotilla-participating, Hamas-supporting Palestine Solidarity Campaign

FB Kahn

Hence, the BBC’s portrayal of these demonstrations as spontaneous protests initiated by Bedouin living in the Negev is – at best – a very partial representation of the facts. However, it can also be viewed as aiding and abetting a political campaign which now exploits the Bedouin issue for a much wider and older agenda of delegitimisation and that perception is reinforced by the fact that the BBC article links to an organised campaigning letter signed (at the click of a mouse on the PSC website) by a collection of known anti-Israel campaigners and former ‘celebs’ and published – naturally – in the Guardian. 

Open letter

Beyond a few token sentences clearly designed to ‘tick the impartial box’, the BBC report makes no effort to inform readers of the actual substance of the proposed Prawer-Begin Plan. Neither does it make it clear that the majority of Negev Bedouin have already taken advantage of the incentives on offer to them and now live in planned communities where all the facilities and services can be provided. In fact, readers of this BBC article would take away the exact opposite impression.

“Before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, groups of Bedouin Arabs lived a semi-nomadic life in the Negev but in modern times many have settled in what are known as “unrecognised villages”.

Because they have no formal planning status, they have no access to government services including supplies of electricity and running water. Some are no more than collections of flimsy shacks made from corrugated iron.”

Here is what one Bedouin has to say about the Israeli government’s plan to improve the living conditions and economic status of the Negev Bedouin:

The BBC article also promotes the myth of “Jewish settlements” often advanced by anti-Israel campaigners:

“However, the Bedouin and their supporters see the resettlement move as a smokescreen for a programme to cut the historic links between the Arab communities and their land, and to replace them with new Jewish settlements.”

The BBC News website editors would do well to heed their own Key Terms guide on the use of the word “Jewish” in this case.


Be careful over whether you mean ‘Israeli’ or ‘Jewish’: the latter might imply that the story is about race or religion, rather than the actions of the state or its citizens.”

As it stands, the implication in the BBC report is that only Jews will be able to live in any “Jewish settlements” to be constructed in the Negev – an assertion which is patently untrue as Ben Dror Yemini notes.

“Any Bedouin who wishes to buy land there is invited to do so and is entitled to do so. Of course, that would cost money. In Meitar, for example, Bedouins from the surrounding area decided to buy plots of land. No one stopped them.”

Not only does this BBC article fail to meet basic editorial demands of accuracy and impartiality; it also seriously damages the BBC’s standing and reputation by displaying the extent of its self-conscription to the ranks of an organized political campaign which goes far beyond the issue of the Negev Bedouin. 

Related articles:

Unquestioning repetition of claims by political activist in BBC report on Negev

BBC’s Wyre Davies plays wingman to anti-Israel NGOs

Unquestioning repetition of claims by political activist in BBC report on Negev

On April 27th 2001 – exactly seven months after the second Intifada began – a group of Israeli citizens signed a petition calling for international intervention in the ever deteriorating situation. That call, however, did not arise out of concern for the dozens of Israeli civilians who by that time had already been shot, stabbed or blown up by Palestinian terrorists. 

“While we totally condemn acts of terror against innocent civilians, we regard Palestinian violence as being, on the whole, a legitimate revolt against colonial occupation. Despite the fact that many innocent Israelis have been victims of this revolt we understand that there can be no moral and military symmetries between occupiers and occupied.”

At the top of the list of signatories of that petition were Awad Abu-Freih from Rahat and Thabet Abu Rass of the Department of Geography at Ben Gurion University. Those two names will also crop up later in this story. 

One of the easiest Middle East stories for a foreign journalist to tell these days is that of the Bedouin in the Negev. There is no shortage of supply of NGOs which will happily take that reporter on a tour and set up interviews with the ‘right’ people, ensuring that the ‘right’ side of the story gets told.  There is also no shortage of journalists willing to take up those offers and they can even be back in their comfortable Jerusalem hotel by tea time, writing up a plethora of half-baked impressions fed by the telling of part of a story. 

In January 2013, the BBC’s Tim Whewell went down the well-trodden path of reporting on the subject of the Negev Bedouin. He produced a filmed report which was shown on BBC Two’s ‘Newsnight’ and a written report which was featured on the BBC News website and includes the film. 

In fairness, Whewell did feature Israeli views in his reports, both of which include interviews with members of ‘Ayalim‘ and the Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev. One of his other interviewees is the above mentioned Awad Abu Freih with whom Whewell spoke in Al Arakib, which is described as a village and as having been “demolished over and over again in the course of a lengthy legal battle”. 

Awad Abu Freih lives in the nearby Bedouin city of Rahat, and has done for considerable time. In both the written and filmed reports, Abu Freih claims that he is discriminated against because of his ethnicity.

The written report states: 

“Like many Bedouin, he would like to have a farm. But he says Jews find it easier than Bedouin to acquire land for agriculture, because of the policy of encouraging Bedouin to live in towns.

“Why can’t Bedouin live with camels, when Jewish people can?” Mr Abu Freih asks. “It’s our profession to milk camels. But now I drink camel milk from Jews.” “

In the filmed report, Abu Freih puts his claims rather less subtly.

 Tim Whewell: “But like many others he [Abu Freih] doesn’t want to live there [Rahat]. The new towns have high rates of crime and unemployment.”

Abu Freih: “This is our land, this is our area.”

TW: “Abu Freih wants to have a farm, just like David Ben Gurion did. But he says Jews find it easier than Bedouin to acquire land for agriculture.”

AF: “I want to live with..with…you know, with sheep or with agricultural life. If I was Jewish then they will give me and give me money. But I’m called me Awad and not Moshe, I can’t. I don’t have them.”

TW: “Because you’ve got a Bedouin name?”

AF: “Because I’m Bedouin. Because I’m not Jewish.”

Did Tim Whewell bother to check out that very serious allegation before including it in his report? It seems not. Had he done so, he Negev - horse riding at Ramon  Crater 3_normwould have discovered that the Bedouin are able to rent land for agricultural use for the distinctly modest fee of three shekels (52 p/81 cents) per dunam (about a thousand square meters) for a period of nine months. As is the case in any modern country guided by the rule of law, what the Bedouin – or anyone else – are not allowed to do is to illegally take over land which they do not own. 

Despite Whewell’s passing mention of the “lengthy legal battle” surrounding Al Arakib, he failed to inform his readers of the background to that battle, taking Abu Freih’s claims of ownership entirely at face value. Had Whewell chosen to focus on the factual aspects of the story – rather than on those with a more emotional pull – his audiences would have learned that the subject of Bedouin land claims in the Negev – including Al Arakib – has a long and complicated history. 

That history begins over a hundred and fifty years ago, back in Ottoman times. Awad Abu Freih’s co-signatory to the petition above, Dr. Thabet Abu Ras, who is a professor of political geography at Ben Gurion University and director of the Adalah Negev Project (also a member of ACRI and a former director of Shatil), has documented the actual sequence of events (the term ‘Naqab’, which was coined in the 19th century with the creation of the Egypt-Palestine frontier, means Negev).

“In 1858, the Turks enacted a law requiring that the names of landowners be officially recorded as a means of regulating land-related matters in the Ottoman Empire.  There were five categories of land in the Ottoman Empire: Mulk (land under private ownership),  Miri (state-owned land that could be cultivated for a one-time fee), Mauqufa (land in a religious trust or Islamic endowment), Metruka (uncultivated land), and Mawat (wasteland unsuitable for cultivation). Most of the land in the Naqab was categorized as Mawat. The Bedouin of the Naqab were opposed to the creation of a written record of their land holdings, since doing so would make them subjects of foreign rule. As such, they would be required to pay taxes and serve in the Ottoman army. 

In 1921, the British Mandate government issued an order calling for residents of the Naqab to register their land. The Bedouin, who were given a two-month extension, did not do so, and their land remained unregistered. According to the Land Ordinance (Mawat) of 1921, a Bedouin who cultivated revitalized and improved Mawat land was given a certificate of ownership for that land, which was then recategorized as Miri. The courts of the new State of Israel, a country born 27 years later, ruled that any Bedouin who passed up the opportunity to register Mawat land in his name in 1921 and did not receive a certificate of ownership was no longer eligible to do so.”

In other words, if Bedouin land ownership claims are today often impossible to prove, the Bedouin have the choices made by their ancestors to thank for that. 

As far as Al Arakib itself goes, the land take-over there began in 1998. The ‘residents’ were evicted at the time, but returned a year later and numerous times after that. The ILA (Israel Lands Administration) offered to rent the land to the squatters for two shekels a dunam, but they refused to pay. In 2003 the case went to the High Court, and whilst it was being heard, the Bedouin built illegal constructions on the land. Like Whewell’s interviewee Mr Abu Freih, those repeatedly evicted from the land at Al Arakib – to which they have failed to produce a valid legal claim in numerous court cases – are residents of Rahat, which was established in the 1970s.  

Like many countries – including Britain – Israel faces challenges in reconciling the wants of its formerly nomadic communities with the obligations of a modern state based on the rule of law. The majority of Bedouin in the Negev already live in seven purpose-built towns where services such as education, health-care, electricity and running water can be provided. An additional 13 new communities are planned and the Bedouin who move to them enjoy incentive packages to which they alone are eligible, including free land and infrastructure, compensation for leaving illegally built structures and relocation grants. 

In recent years, however, the subject of land ownership in the Negev has become a PR tool used by politically motivated NGOs such as Adalah and others to delegitimize Israel. The physical take-over of land, together with ownership claims, has been the subject of many court cases and even more frequent articles and reports by foreign journalists and ‘human rights’ groups. Significantly, Adalah is also involved in a campaign to remove Jewish residents from the Negev, but that subject does not seem to interest the foreign media at all.

For any foreign journalist aspiring to report on this subject accurately and impartially, it is not sufficient to merely interview people on both sides of the story (often without proper disclosure of their affiliations) and allow them to promote claims which do not stand up to scrutiny. It is also essential for such journalists to understand the history, the political background to the disputes and the motivations of those they interview. 

Unfortunately, Tim Whewell’s apparent failure to check out Awad Abu Freih means that audiences watching or reading his reports were left with little factual knowledge about the subject, but with the definite subjective – and mistaken – impression of a dispute fueled by Israeli racism. That is neither accurate nor impartial reporting: it is an attempt to define a narrative.