BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace”: a barrier to understanding Israel’s borders

The BBC’s July 2013 backgrounder titled “Middle East peace talks: Where they stand“, which includes details of what the BBC defines as the “core issues” of the current negotiations between Israel and the PLO, has been appended to many articles appearing on the BBC News website’s Middle East page as a ‘related article’.

At the bottom of that webpage, under the heading “more on this story”, audiences still find links to the four highly problematic articles going under the title “Obstacles to Peace” which – despite being dated 2010 – were actually originally produced by Martin Asser in mid-2007.

We have previously discussed here three of Asser’s pieces – see ‘related articles’ below. The fourth article in the series is titled “Obstacles to Middle East peace: Borders and settlements“. Asser borders

Asser elects to completely ignore the San Remo conference and the Treaty of Sevres in 1920 which brought about the creation of the Mandate for Palestine by the League of Nations. Hence, he is able to begin his flawed account in 1948.

“The modern Israeli state was forged in the fires of the first Middle East war in 1948-1949, but from the beginning it was a state without clear borders.”

The borders of the Mandate for Palestine were of course amply clear. The fact that surrounding Arab countries chose not to respect them when Britain abandoned its role as administrator of the Mandate and the State of Israel was declared is the real issue which Asser chooses to conceal. He goes on:

“Jordan and Egypt have signed treaties with Israel, turning some of the 1949 ceasefire lines into state borders. But the absence of final settlements with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians mean most of Israel’s boundaries remain potential flashpoints and the state itself is unstable.”

In fact, the border agreed upon by Israel and Jordan within the framework of the 1994 peace treaty does not run along the 1949 ceasefire lines at all, but this obvious inaccuracy has nevertheless been allowed to stand on the BBC website for seven years.

Asser continues by failing to clarify that it was the “Arab forces” who initiated the war against the nascent Jewish state:

“In 1948, when British rule of Palestine ended, Israeli forces managed to push most of the Arab forces that joined the war to the former Mandate boundaries, which became temporary ceasefire lines.

The exceptions were what we now know as the West Bank, which remained under Jordanian control, and the Gaza Strip, which was controlled by Egypt.”

By use of the word “exceptions”, Asser fails to adequately clarify to readers that the 1949 ceasefire lines agreed with Jordan were also specifically defined as temporary. He then promotes the chimera of the UN partition plan, which of course is entirely irrelevant to the issue under discussion because it has no legal standing due to the fact that it was rejected by the Arab side to the dispute.

“Thus Israel came into being on 78% of the former Palestine, rather than the 55% allocated under the UN partition plan.”

Asser then moves on to 1967 – once again failing to note why that war broke out and the fact it was Jordan’s decision to join the attack which led to the capture of Judea & Samaria.

“Fast forward to 1967, when Israel captured both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as Syria’s Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai peninsula.

Israeli-controlled land now stretched from the Jordan Valley in the east and the Suez Canal to the west; it completely enclosed the Sea of Galilee in the north, and gave it a foothold on the Straits of Tiran in the Red Sea.” ???????????????????

Asser’s assertion that only after 1967 did the Sea of Galilee become “completely enclosed” by territory under Israeli control is inaccurate.

“The 1923 Franco-British Boundary Agreement came about after the British High Commissioner at the time, Herbert Samuel, demanded and got full control of the Sea of Galilee and the Upper Jordan River. The border was set 100 meters to the east of the Jordan River, with a ten meter-wide strip at the north-eastern side of the lake and a broader strip at its south-eastern side included in the territory of the Mandate for Palestine.” 

Asser goes on to make a gratuitous reference to Israel’s former presence in southern Lebanon, with no mention at all of the cross-border terror war waged by the PLO which brought about the first Lebanon war.

“The Sinai was exchanged for peace with Egypt in the early 1980s (at about the time Israel occupied south Lebanon, where it remained until withdrawing unilaterally in May 2000).”

Asser then turns his attention to communities in Judea & Samaria, including the usual incomplete BBC representation of their legal status which – in breach of editorial guidelines on impartiality – fails to inform readers of the existence of conflicting opinions regarding the claim that “settlements are illegal under international law”.

“The settlements are illegal under international law, but Israel disputes this and has pressed ahead with its activity despite signing various agreements to curb settlement growth.”

Which “agreements” those are supposed to be is unclear, but Asser certainly makes no attempt to clarify to readers that the terms of the Oslo Accords – willingly signed by the representatives of the Palestinian people – do not include any restrictions on Israeli building in Area C. Neglecting to mention Hebron’s historic Jewish ties as well as its status under the terms of the Oslo Accords, Asser then goes on to claim that:

“The first settlers were religious Jews who remained in Hebron after celebrating Passover there in 1968.”

In fact, Mehola in the Jordan Rift Valley was established in 1967, and Kfar Etzion was reestablished in Gush Etzion in the same year. Ignoring the fact that at least a third of Israeli residents of Judea & Samaria do not identify as religiously observant, Asser presents a cherry picked portion of scripture as though it were the basis for contemporary Israeli policy:

“The settlement movement has become closely affiliated to Jewish religious nationalism, which claims boundaries of modern Israel based on Genesis 15:18: “God made a covenant with Abram and said, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates’.” “

That leads on to a blatantly political presentation of a ‘timeline’ which completely ignores the terrorism of the post-Oslo years and the second Intifada.

“On both political and religious grounds, therefore, it has been extremely sensitive for Israeli politicians to dabble in land-for-peace negotiations.

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin pushed for a two-state solution in the 1990s, and was made to pay for it with a Jewish nationalist assassin’s bullet.

Successors Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon unilaterally pulled out of south Lebanon and Gaza, respectively – both of which moves were followed by a resurgence of violent confrontation in subsequent years, discrediting that approach.

Benjamin Netanyahu managed to put the brakes on Rabin’s historic drive for a two-state solution in the 1990s and has been in no rush to get to the negotiating table during his second term.”

Asser’s piece ends with outlines of various ‘solutions’ to the issue where he makes a reference to some mysterious “further territorial compromises” on the part of representatives of the Palestinian people who, in their various line-ups over the years, have refused the partition plan, refused to make peace after the Six Day War, scuppered the Oslo Accords and failed to respond to Olmert’s peace proposals.

“Further territorial compromises (having already been squeezed into 22% of pre-1948 Palestine) could also be a bitter pill for the Palestinian faction that favours a two-state solution, the Fatah party led by Mahmoud Abbas.”

Although he does note that Hamas is opposed to any negotiated end to the conflict, Asser eliminates Hamas’ terrorism from the picture entirely and fails to clarify its opposition to the Saudi Arabian initiative which he mentions, or the fact that Hamas is not alone in its opposition to Israel’s existence. He ends up by suggesting that Israel is to blame even for Hamas’ stance:

“In the long term, therefore, Israel’s reluctance to accept the existing Green Line in some ways plays into the hands of militant Islamist groups such as Hamas.”

Asser’s article also includes a side box in which, inter alia, it is stated that:

“Settlements and the area they take up cover 40% of the West Bank”

With even the PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat having stated that Israeli communities in Judea & Samaria take up 1.1% of the land, one might wonder where the BBC sourced that bizarre 40% figure. One possibility is a report put out by the highly politicised UN OCHA in the same year that Asser wrote this article which states in its introduction that:

“The analysis shows that almost 40% of the West Bank is now taken up by Israeli infrastructure.”

Later on readers learn that nature reserves and military training areas also count as “infrastructure” for UN OCHA.

“More than 38% of the West Bank now consists of settlements, outposts, military bases and closed military areas, Israeli declared nature reserves or other related infrastructure that are off-limits or tightly controlled to Palestinians.”

The BBC’s claim that “settlements and the area they take up cover 40% of the West Bank” is therefore obviously both inaccurate and misleading.

In light of the fact that the current round of negotiations has – like its predecessors – so far failed to break new ground, it is all the more regrettable that the BBC continues to promote this partisan and misleading article by Martin Asser from which attacks on Israel by neighbouring countries and ideologically driven terrorism are completely erased. Like the rest of the outdated “Obstacles to Peace” series, this item fails to provide BBC audiences with the sort of accurate and impartial information they need if they are to be able to “participate in the global debate on significant international issues“.

Related Articles:

BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” do not hold water – part 1

BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” do not hold water – part 2

BBC’s ‘Obstacles to Peace’: wrong on right of return – Part 1

BBC’s ‘Obstacles to Peace’: wrong on right of return – Part 2

BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” erases pre-1967 Jewish history in Jerusalem









BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” erases pre-1967 Jewish history in Jerusalem

Since we last visited the subject of the BBC’s four-part series of articles titled ‘Obstacles to Peace’, their presence on the BBC website has been extended. No longer accessible only via the ‘country profile’ for Israel on the Middle East page, the four articles now appear as links at the bottom of an item titled “Core Issues” in the standard collection of links coming under the heading “Mid East Crisis” which is appended to most Israel-related articles. 

Core Issues on profile page

The link titled “Core Issues” leads to an article titled “Middle East peace talks: Where they stand” which was amended in July 2013 and the links to the “Obstacles to Peace” series appear at the bottom of that. 


As we have previously pointed out here, despite being dated September 2010, all four of the articles were originally written in 2007 and were the subject of critique by CAMERA at the time. Their author – Martin Asser – has also recently undergone a change, moving from the BBC’s Search Engine Optimisation department to the post of Digital Editor at the BBC Arabic Service – possibly in the framework of the latest personnel changes at that beleaguered department. 

Asser linkedin

Previously we have discussed Asser’s articles on the subjects of water and refugees (see ‘related articles’ below). Another of Asser’s pieces is titled “Obstacles to Arab-Israeli peace: Jerusalem“.

Obstacles Jerusalem

Asser opens by citing Karen Armstrong – known for her partisan writings on the subject of Jerusalem.

“The ancient city of Jerusalem has changed hands many times, its religious significance exerting a powerful pull on Jewish, Christian and Muslim conquerors.

Religious writer Karen Armstrong has observed that those who held it longest are those who showed the most tolerance to devotees of other faiths.

She cites two Muslim leaders – Caliph Omar and Saladin – as exemplars of this approach, and the Crusaders as the city’s most blood-soaked ravagers.

More than 40 years ago, Israel’s army captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the June 1967 War.

The area fell in the heat of a deadly battle, but Israel did not massacre its Palestinian inhabitants or destroy its holy shrines like the medieval Christian knights.”

So we have “Muslim leaders” (not, one notes, imperialist conquerors), Crusaders and modern-day Israelis – but no mention of ancient Jewish Jerusalem, of six hundred years of Jewish sovereignty over the city before the Babylonian conquest in 587 BCE, of two Temples which were the focus of thousands of years of Jewish pilgrimage and prayer or of a Jewish majority in Jerusalem since the mid-nineteenth century. That airbrushing of Jerusalem’s Jewish history allows Asser to go on to write: SONY DSC

“From the Jewish perspective 1967 brought the “reunification” of the holy city, restoring a divine plan after centuries of interruption.

But history has yet to decide if Israeli rule over the city is a doomed enterprise, that will founder – on Karen Armstrong’s analysis – because of the very measures taken to make Jerusalem Israel’s “eternal and indivisible” capital.”

It is not made sufficiently clear to readers that Jerusalem had only been divided for the nineteen years of the Jordanian occupation between 1948 and 1967, or that both the division and the reunification of the city occurred due to the decision by surrounding Arab countries to wage war on Israel.

Asser’s unsourced claim of Jewish belief in the restoration of a “divine plan” deliberately implies that religious motivation lay behind the military operations which removed the Jordanian occupation in 1967. He coyly side-steps the very worldly subjects of the ethnic cleansing of Jews from parts of the city conquered by Jordan in 1948 (whilst at the same time taking the trouble to mention the demolition of the slum housing in the Mughrabi  Quarter) and the systematic desecration and destruction of Jewish burial grounds and places of worship by the Jordanians by stating:

“Under Arab control since 1948, the Jewish holy places had been tantalisingly out of reach to Israelis – in violation of the Israel-Jordan armistice agreement.”

Asser neglects to mention that Muslim holy sites were also out of reach to Israel’s Muslim population during the Jordanian occupation and that access for Israeli Christians was severely limited. His use of the sub-heading “Modern Fortress” to describe post-’67 Jerusalem conceals the fact that free access to – and self-administration of – the holy sites of all religions has only been guaranteed under Israeli rule.

Asser’s breaches of BBC editorial guidelines on accuracy and impartiality continue, coming to a head with his misrepresentation of the ‘corpus separatum’ issue.

“The international consensus has never recognised Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem – the city and its surroundings were designated a corpus separatum by the UN in 1947, to be given a special international status and government.”

In fact, the ‘corpus separatum’ proposal (limited to a ten-year period) was one of the non-binding recommendations (not, as Asser claims, a ‘designation’) which formed Resolution 181 – or the Partition Plan.  The Arab nations of course refused to accept the plan – including the aspects of it pertaining to Jerusalem – and in fact vowed to oppose its implementation by force.

Asser’s disingenuous attempt to resurrect the ‘corpus separatum’ issue and to suggest to BBC audiences that it (along with the rest of the Partition Plan) has any standing – legal or otherwise – is a blatant breach of BBC editorial guidelines. Revealingly, Asser makes no attempt to explain to his readers why, during the 19 years of Jordanian occupation of parts of Jerusalem, the ‘international city’ idea was not enacted.  SONY DSC

In the latter part of his transparent attempt to delegitimize Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, Asser focuses on what he terms the “precarious lives” and “strange half-existence” of the Arab residents of Jerusalem – so ‘precarious’ that the city’s Arab population grew from 26% of Jerusalem’s population in 1967 to 36% in 2009 and in 2010, whilst the city’s Jewish population rose by 1.4%, its Arab population grew by 3.3%.

Asser misleads his audience by not making it clear that Arab residents of Jerusalem can apply for Israeli citizenship (as increasing numbers are indeed doing) and that residency permits are provided to those who choose not to take full citizenship.

“Allowed special Israeli residency permits, they enjoy advantages over those in the occupied West Bank – but many feel their future in the city is not guaranteed.”

Replete with omission and inaccuracy, including on the subject of building, Asser’s portrait of Jerusalem’s Arab population makes no attempt to hide its political motivations.

“Israel has allowed the Palestinians of East Jerusalem to remain, but it has hemmed them in, squeezed them, left them in no doubt the city is no longer theirs.”

No less blatantly political is Asser’s portrayal of Jerusalem neighbourhoods as “settlements”.

“Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers have been allowed, or encouraged, to move to the occupied east of the city – an area the Palestinians hope to establish as the capital of their future state.”

Asser portrays what would be seen in the rest of the world as unremarkable procedure – border controls for foreign travellers from a hostile entity – as some sort of discrimination.

“Palestinians from outside the city – in the West Bank and Gaza – are rigorously excluded by a ring of roadblocks and Israeli military checkpoints.”

He also describes Israeli attempts to curb terrorism as “controversial”.

“In recent years, Israel has been building the controversial West Bank barrier around Palestinian population centres, a response to the suicide bombings of the 1990s and after 2000.” SONY DSC

 Asser even goes so far as to dramatically equate modern Palestinian political aspirations regarding Jerusalem with the millennia-old cultural and religious Jewish links to Jerusalem.

“They now find themselves experiencing the same sense of deprivation and longing for Jerusalem, and determination to make it theirs again, that the Diaspora Jews once did.”

It is, of course, bad enough that this one-sided political polemic has been allowed to stand on the website of an organization supposedly committed to accuracy and impartiality for well over six years. It is even worse that this misleading article and its accompanying ones in the same series are now being promoted by the BBC as additional reading for audience members seeking to learn more about the issues surrounding the talks between Israel and the PLO. That promotion comes in direct conflict with the constitutional basis according to which the BBC’s defined public purposes include building “a global understanding on international issues”.

Related articles:

BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” do not hold water – part 1

BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” do not hold water – part 2

BBC’s ‘Obstacles to Peace’: wrong on right of return – Part 1

BBC’s ‘Obstacles to Peace’: wrong on right of return – Part 2

BBC’s ‘Obstacles to Peace’: wrong on right of return – Part 2

In the first part of this article we discussed Martin Asser’s partisan treatment of the subject of Palestinian refugees in which he promoted claims of an Israeli “pre-determined plan to expel Palestinian civilians”.

One very notable feature about Asser’s article is the way in which he isolates the subject of Palestinian refugees from the context of the war which raged at the time – thereby avoiding the subject of responsibility of any parties other than Israel for the creation of the refugee problem. In this article we will look at a case study – the events which led to the departure of the Arab population of the town of Tiberias – which provides a good example of the many factors deliberately ignored by Asser in order to enable the promotion of his one-sided narrative. SONY DSC

On the eve of the War of Independence Tiberias had a population of around 11,000 – the majority of whom were Jews. The Arab population of the town numbered some 5,700 people; mostly Muslims but also a small Christian community. During the time of the British Mandate the residents of Tiberias had begun to settle outside the Old City walls, with Jews and Arabs building separate neighbourhoods as well as mixed ones. Traditionally, relations between Jews and Arabs in the town had been good, with the leading Arab family at the time – the Tabaris, who apparently originated in the Houran region of today’s Syria – being renowned for its moderation and Tiberias saw very little trouble during the Arab riots of 1921 and 1929. 

During the Arab revolt of 1936 – 1939 extremists began to dictate the agenda and that changed, with frequent attacks taking place including the massacre of 19 Jews – among them eleven children – in the Jewish neighbourhood of Kiryat Shmuel on October 2nd 1938 and the murder of the Jewish mayor of Tiberias, Zaki Alhadeef on October 27th of the same year.

Zaki Alhadeef PP

Palestine Post 28.10.1938

With the announcement of the UN Partition Plan decision on November 29th 1947, most mixed towns in Mandate Palestine were plunged into unrest, but an agreement between Jewish representatives from Tiberias and the Tabari family initially prevented trouble there. That agreement however did not prevent either side from making preparations for other eventualities. The Haganah had mostly local people engaged in guarding the Jewish neighbourhoods. The Arabs also amassed weapons and their numbers were increased by gang members from the nearby village of Lubiya. 

By the end of February 1948 around 400 mostly local members of the Haganah and 60 trained members were stationed in the town. The Arab fighters numbered around 500, including gang members and 30 Syrian soldiers. In the nearby villages of Turan and Ilaboun were stationed 800 members of Fawzi al Qawugji’s Arab Liberation Army (created by the Arab League) which had infiltrated from Lebanon in January 1948 with little or no British opposition and now awaited orders to attack Tiberias. At Tsemach – some thirteen kilometers south of Tiberias – were soldiers from the Jordanian Arab Legion. In Tiberias itself, British paratroopers were stationed in the police building, with their commander Colonel Anderson known to lean towards the Arab side. 

Relative quiet reigned in Tiberias until March 10th 1948 when a rumour spread among the Arab population that a Jewish leader had been killed by Arabs and that the Jews were planning reprisal attacks. The Arabs opened fire and fighting continued for three days until a British-brokered ceasefire was agreed

Tiberias truce

In the wake of the fighting, however, some of the Jews living in the Old City abandoned their homes and moved to the newer Jewish neighbourhoods. At the same time, some Arabs left mixed neighbourhoods and either moved to the Old City or left the town altogether. The Haganah kept a presence in the Old City.

The ceasefire held until April 5th 1948 when Arab gunmen opened fire on Jewish shoppers at the market, killing five elderly people and taking ten women prisoner. The Haganah responded, taking 12 Arabs prisoner, and fighting took place all over the town. Another British-brokered ceasefire resulted in an exchange of prisoners, after which the two sides marched together down the town’s main street – Galilee Street – to demonstrate their wish for peace. 

In the meantime, the Mufti Haj Amin al Husseini intervened in an ongoing dispute between the leaders of the two main Arab families in the town – the moderate Tabaris and the extremist Subhi family. Husseini appointed the latter as leader of the Arab forces in Tiberias. 

That ceasefire was short-lived and on April 8th Arab gunmen again opened fire on shoppers at the market and on Haganah positions, took over the Scottish hospital and the Tiberias Hotel and blocked the main street of the town. British attempts to secure a ceasefire were unsuccessful and fierce fighting continued. With the local members of the Haganah exhausted from days of non-stop fighting, it was decided to send in additional troops including the Golani Brigade to try to bring an end to the fighting.

Several days of fierce battles ensued until, on the morning of April 18th, representatives of the Arab forces approached the British commander and requested to leave the town with their weapons. Colonel Anderson then summoned the town’s Jewish commanders and informed them that the British would be evacuating its Arab residents and that as of ten days later, British forces would leave Tiberias in Jewish hands – as indeed they did on April 28th 1948.

The Jewish representatives responded that they would happily take control of the town, but requested that the Arabs simply hand over their weapons and that they not leave. However, that afternoon trucks and buses began arriving in Tiberias and, under British supervision, the town’s Arab population was evacuated  – some to Nazareth and others to Jordan. 

PP 19 4 48

PP 2 19 4 48

Palestine Post 19.4.1948

The day after the Arab exodus, the Haganah commander of Tiberias put out a public announcement in which he forbade the doing of any damage to Arab property in the town, including Christian and Muslim holy places. 

Haganah announcement

PP 20 4 48

PP 2 20 4 48

Palestine Post 20.4.1948

Obviously, as is true in many other cases too, the reasons behind the flight of Tiberias’ Arab population are considerably more complex than suggested by the simplistic picture painted by Martin Asser in his article. In addition to his making no attempt whatsoever to include the context of years of violence which preceded the actual War of Independence, Asser conveniently neglects to make any mention of the foreign Arab forces at work or the divisions between differently inclined Arab groups within mandate Palestine and he totally ignores the part played by the British in the whole story. SONY DSC

Asser’s stereotypical presentation of Palestinian Arabs as a homogenous group of passive victims is as erroneous as his presentation of Israelis as aggressors and his political polemic does nothing to contribute to the understanding of BBC audiences of the real historical facts behind the issue of Palestinian refugees – quite the opposite in fact.

Amazingly, the BBC has allowed this article to stand for six years – despite having been alerted to its inaccuracies as far back as 2007. It is hence little wonder that BBC impartiality continues to be called into question.

Related posts:

BBC’s ‘Obstacles to Peace’: wrong on right of return – Part 1

BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” do not hold water – part 1

BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” do not hold water – part 2

BBC’s ‘Obstacles to Peace’: wrong on right of return – Part 1

As we noted earlier this year, via the country profile for Israel on the BBC’s Middle East page, readers reach a series of four articles under the heading “Related Stories” which are entitled  “Obstacles to Peace”. We previously dealt with the item on the subject of water here and here. This article will address the item entitled “Obstacles to Arab-Israeli peace: Palestinian refugees“.

All four of the “Obstacles to Peace” articles were written by Martin Asser and are dated September 2nd 2010. However, they already existed prior to that date and were the subject of critiques by CAMERA in mid-2007 – including the one about Palestinian refugees. Significantly, the BBC has not corrected the inaccuracies pointed out over six years ago and the article continues to mislead BBC audiences searching for information on the Middle East. 

Asser article refugees

Asser’s article is nothing more than an emotive exercise in promoting the narrative of Palestinian extremists on the subject of refugees, with a few half-hearted references to ‘the Israeli view’ added to create an impression of impartiality.

The fact that Asser provides no significant context regarding the belligerent actions of the various Arab armies and paramilitary groups both in the years before the War of Independence and in the Six Day War means that he is able to present the refugee issue as an isolated product of “Israel’s creation” and remove from the view of his audiences any responsibility for that refugee problem which cannot be apportioned to Israel.

“In the course of Israel’s creation in 1948 and its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, more than half the Arabs of pre-1948 Palestine are thought to have been displaced.”

In his third paragraph Asser claims: [emphasis added]

“Today there are millions of Palestinians living in exile from homes and land their families had inhabited for generations.”

Of course the UNRWA definition of a Palestinian refugee plainly contradicts the claim that all refugees were long-established residents of the area (whilst the British were restricting Jewish immigration to mandate Palestine, migration from the surrounding Arab countries went on relatively uninhibited – and largely unrecorded) and shows the extent to which Asser inflates his figures: [emphasis added]

“Under UNRWA’s operational definition, Palestine refugees are people whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict.

UNRWA’s services are available to all those living in its area of operations who meet this definition, who are registered with the Agency and who need assistance. The descendants of the original Palestine refugees are also eligible for registration. When the Agency started working in 1950, it was responding to the needs of about 750,000 Palestine refugees. Today, 5 million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA services.”

Asser makes no attempt to explain to his readers why Palestinian refugees inherit that status – in contrast to refugees elsewhere who do not fall under the auspices of UNRWA – or why they are not taken care of by the UN body responsible for all other refugees in the world – the UNHCR.

Asser continues:

“Many still suffer the legacy of their dispossession: destitution, penury, insecurity.”

Predictably, he makes no effort to inform his audience of the deliberate politically motivated refusal of most Arab countries to grant citizenship and equal rights to Palestinian refugees.

“In the year 1959 the Arab League accepted decision number 1457 and this is its text: “Arab states will reject the giving of citizenship to applicants of Palestinian origin in order to prevent their integration into the host countries”. This is a shocking decision, which stands in stark opposition to international norms on all subjects concerning the treatment of refugees during those years and particularly during that decade.” 

Neither does Asser pose the tricky question of why – post-Oslo – Palestinians continue to keep other Palestinians in refugee camps in the Gaza Strip and the Palestinian Authority-controlled areas.

In paragraph five, Asser introduces the pernicious “ethnic cleansing” canard:

“Palestinian historians, and some Israelis, call 1948 a clear example of ethnic cleansing – perpetrated by the Haganah (later the Israeli Defence Forces) and armed Jewish gangs.” 

Predictably, he has nothing to say about the preceding expulsions of Jews by Arab militias from places in which some of them really had lived “for generations” such as Hebron (1929), neighbourhoods of Jerusalem (1936) and the Old City of Jerusalem (1948). Neither does he mention the Jewish communities depopulated during the War of Independence such as Kfar Darom, Mishmar HaYarden or the Gush Etzion villages.

Apparently not content with UNRWA figures regarding the number of registered refugees (which the organization itself admits are inflated in some cases), Asser turns to quoting bizarre numbers from the political NGO ‘Badil’ – an organization which has not shied away from using anti-Semitic imagery to promote its dedicated cause of ‘right of return’. 

Having vanished away the context of a war of annihilation against the nascent Jewish state, Asser is able to turn to some moral finger-wagging:

“Israel steadfastly argues that all refugees – and it disputes the numbers – should relinquish any aspirations to return to what is now its territory, and instead be absorbed by Arab host countries or by a future Palestinian state.

It disavows moral responsibility by arguing that 800,000 Mizrahi Jews were displaced from Arab countries between 1945 and 1956 (most of whom settled in Israel) and insists Palestinians left willingly.”

He then tries to back up his argument using the UN and the UDHR:

“But that view is at odds with UN General Assembly Resolution 194 and Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Resolution 194 asserts the refugees’ unconditional right of return to live at peace in their old homes or to receive compensation for their losses.”

As Asser remembers to add later on, UN GA resolutions have no legal status whatsoever and in any case, his interpretation of 194 (passed on December 11th 1948) is distorted, with the actual text of clause 11 (which notably does not mention Israel by name or specifically refer to Palestinian refugees only) reading:

“Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible;

Instructs the Conciliation Commission to facilitate the repatriation, resettlement and economic and social rehabilitation of the refugees and the payment of compensation, and to maintain close relations with the Director of the United Nations Relief for Palestine Refugees and, through him, with the appropriate organs and agencies of the United Nations;”

In other words, the suggestion (as indicated by the words “should be permitted”) of resettlement is placed on an equal footing with repatriation of those who commit to “live at peace with their neighbours” – a not insignificant detail which would necessarily involve acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state and clearly negates Asser’s claim of an “unconditional right of return”. It should also be noted that all the Arab countries which were members of the UN at the time (Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen) voted against the resolution.

As for Asser’s invocation of the UDHR – part 2 of Article 13 reads:

“Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

The co-option of that clause to the case of Palestinian (or any other) refugees is not consistent with its background.

“The clause “return to his country” was never intended to establish a right of return, rather it was added to underscore the right to leave. According to its legislative history Article 13 was aimed at governments that, in effect, imprisoned certain subgroups of their nationals by preventing them from leaving – Jews in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union, for example. The clause “and to return to his country” was added at the last minute, according to its sponsor, in order to assure that “the right to leave a country, already sanctioned in the article, would be strengthened by the assurance of the right to return.” (Jose Ingles, Study of Discrimination in Respect of the Right of Everyone to Leave Any Country, Including His Own, and to Return to His Country, UN Doc E/CN.4/Sub.2/220/Rev.1, 1963)”

Towards the end of the article Asser tosses out some particularly offensive terminology clearly designed to place the mostly self-initiated departure of Palestinian refugees on a par with the Holocaust.

“Palestinians accuse Israel of a kind of “Nakba-denial” “

That is swiftly followed by a malicious attempt to bring readers’ attention back to his earlier theme of “ethnic cleansing”. 

“But some of Israel’s “new”, or revisionist, historians argue that its founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, exaggerated the Arab threat, in order to implement a pre-determined plan to expel Palestinian civilians and grab as much of the former Palestine as possible.”

By the time Asser was penning this article, at least one ‘new historian’ had revised his position in light of the declassification of documentation from the time. 

“Even Benny Morris, the most influential of Israel’s revisionist “new historians,” and one who went out of his way to establish the case for Israel’s “original sin,” grudgingly stipulated that there was no “design” to displace the Palestinian Arabs.”

Next, Asser attempts to suggest to his readers a ‘logical’ background for a “pre-determined plan to expel Palestinian civilians” by resurrecting the non-binding recommendation known as the 1947 Partition Plan, which of course has no significance whatsoever as it was not accepted by the Arab states – a fact which obviously does not fit in with Asser’s one-sided narrative.

“Under a 1947 UN-sanctioned plan to partition Palestine, Israel would have been established on 55% of the former territory, and without a significant transfer of population the Jews in that territory would have scarcely exceeded the Arab population there.”

Asser’s entire article is nothing more than a rehash of some of the most extreme anti-Israel propaganda which the passage of time – and the distortion of history – has done much to enable. In the second part of this article, we will take a look at one particular case study which shows the range of context and facts ignored by Asser in order to promote his inaccurate and partial narrative. 

BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” do not hold water – part 2

In part one of this article we looked at the various historical claims made by Martin Asser in his article on water – one of four in a series entitled “Obstacles to Peace” which appear among the pages comprising the Israel country profile on the BBC News website. This second part will deal with Asser’s claims regarding the current situation.

When he turns to the subject of contemporary water affairs in Judea and Samaria, Asser’s sloppy use of history becomes more than just badly researched misinformation: it forms a basis from which he advances a specific political narrative. 

“In the 1967 war Israel gained exclusive control of the waters of the West Bank and the Sea of Galilee, although not the Litani.

Those resources – the West Bank’s mountain aquifer and the Sea of Galilee – give Israel about 60% of its fresh water, a billion cubic metres per year.

Heated arguments rage about the rights to the mountain aquifer. Israel, and Israeli settlements, take about 80% of the aquifer’s flow, leaving the Palestinians with 20%.

Israel says the proportion of water it uses has not changed substantially since the 1950s. The rain which replenishes the aquifer may fall on the occupied territory, but the water does flow down into pre-1967 Israel.”

 Asser’s claim that the Sea of Galilee provides 60% of Israel’s fresh water is long out of date (the actual figure is 10% today) and he  fails to give adequate explanation of that last sentence, either in terms of the geography itself or its ramifications. 

A very valuable resource on this subject is the paper published in January 2012 (which is well worth reading in full) by Professor Haim Gvirtzman – Professor of Hydrology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. First, it is useful to take a look at the mountain aquifer basins and to note that indeed they do not lie solely in areas under Palestinian Authority control. 

Mountain aquifer

As Prof. Gvirtzman notes in his paper: 

“Geographical and hydrological factors are among the natural parameters according to which shared water resources should be divided. Since the natural replenishment of the Mountain Aquifer (by rainfall) takes place principally in the area that is or will be part of Palestinian territory, the Palestinians claim that all or most of this water belongs to them. This claim, however, ignores the fact that the geographical and hydrological characteristics of the aquifer include not only the replenishment areas but also the discharging areas. As seen in Figure 11, the Mountain Aquifer is discharged through major springs located west and north of the Green Line – specifically the Yarkon springs (which naturally collect 220 MCM/Y) and the Taninim springs (which naturally collect 110 MCM/Y) in the western basin, and the Harod and Beit Shean springs (which naturally collect 110 MCM/Y) in the northern basin. Also, the storage areas of the aquifer are not located beneath the replenishment area, but rather beneath the discharge areas, as the water flows eastward and westward away from the replenishment area.”

Asser’s simplistic claim that Israelis “take about 80% of the aquifer’s flow, leaving the Palestinians with 20%” thus not only ignores geography, but also the terms of the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, signed in Washington, D.C., September 28, 1995 as part of the Oslo Accords. Under that agreement, the allocation of water from the mountain aquifer to Israel and the Palestinian Authority is clearly set out. Useful information on that subject is available in this factsheet

“According to the agreement (Article 40) Palestinians are entitled to 196 MCM of self-extracted water per year, plus an additional 31 MCM that Israel needs to actively supply from its own water and with its own infrastructure. Combined, the Agreement states that the Palestinians in the West Bank are entitled to an availability of 227MCM of water.”

In practical terms, Israel supplies the PA with more water than it is obliged to provide under the terms of the agreement.

“In reality, West Bank Palestinians have access to over 248 MCM of fresh natural water. This is because Israel supplies an extra 21 MCM beyond its obligation.(2010 figure). Adding to this, approximately 17MCM of water is extracted through unapproved wells from the Northern and Western Basins, against the Interim Agreement and at Israel’s expense (because the water current naturally flows towards the Israeli side).

This gives us a per capita sum of 124 m3/year without counting unapproved extraction (based on 2010 census).

In comparison, Israel’s per capita sum of fresh natural water is 150 m3/year . (2010 census)” [emphasis added]

Despite the fact that 96% of the Palestinians living in the area reside in the PA-controlled territories and hence have not lived under “occupation” by a “belligerent military power” for almost twenty years, Asser writes:

“But the Palestinians say they are prevented from using their own water resources by a belligerent military power, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to buy water from their occupiers at inflated prices.”

And despite the fact that two decades ago the Palestinian Authority signed agreements setting out the terms of joint water management between Israelis and Palestinians within the framework of the Oslo accords, Asser continues:

“Moreover, Israel allocates to its citizens, including those living in settlements in the West Bank deemed illegal under international law, between three and five times more water than the Palestinians.

This, Palestinians say, is crippling to their agricultural economy.

With water consumption outstripping supply in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, Palestinians say they are always the first community to be rationed as reserves run dry, with the health problems that entails.”

In fact, most of the water supplies of those 96% of Palestinians living in Areas A & B are under the auspices of the PA’s Palestinian Water Authority (PWA). As Prof.  Gvirtzman explains:

“The Palestinians claim that the water consumption of the average Israeli is four times greater than that of the average Palestinian.However, this claim is not factually supported.”

“In 1967, Israel’s total water consumption was 508 cubic meters per capita per year (m3/c/y), while that of the Palestinians was 93 m3/c/y. But by 2006 the gap had significantly narrowed to 170 m3/c/y for Israelis and 129 m3/c/y for Palestinians.  The acute decrease in per capita fresh, natural water consumption has taken place in Israel due to both the natural decrease in available water and the dramatic increase in population. At the same time, a very significant rise in per capita fresh, natural water consumption has taken place in the Palestinian communities in spite of the population increase, due to the dramatic advancement in water supply systems. Since 2006, these trends have continued due to the drilling of 15 new wells for Palestinian consumption that produce 15 MCM/Y. The current per capita consumption is 150 m3/c/y for Israelis versus 140 m3/c/y for Palestinians.”

So what is the reality behind the Palestinian claims and the political use of water as a means to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the international community? A very good overview of that subject is given in this recent article which is based on the findings in a thesis titled “The Politicization of the Oslo Water Agreement,” written by Lauro Burkart, a Swiss graduate of the Institute of International and Development studies in Geneva. The thesis itself is available here and well worth reading in full. As mentioned in the article, some key points include the following:

  • The goals of the Oslo II water agreement have been reached regarding the quantities of water provided to the Palestinian population (178 mcm/year in 2006). The Oslo water agreement estimated that demand would eventually reach 200 mcm/year.
  • The JWC [Joint Israeli-Palestinian Water Committee] functioned well in the first years following signature of the agreement, but since 2008 cooperation has come to a halt.
  • Dr. Shaddad Attili, head of the PWA [Palestinian Water Association], was appointed in 2008. Attili, a Fatah member, is responsible for the de facto ending of the cooperation with Israel in order to bolster Palestinian water rights claims. He did this to strengthen the position of Fatah after the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections. The abundance of donor money [from foreign governments and bodies such as the EU] allowed Atilli to continue the noncooperation strategy which has led to a complete stagnation of the water negotiations during the past five years.
  • One of the results of the refusal to cooperate with Israel is that almost all of the 52 mcm of waste water generated by the Palestinian population flows untreated into Israel and the West Bank, where it contaminates shared groundwater resources. 
  • Most of the Palestinian waste water treatment and reuse projects have already received foreign funding and were supported by Israel. The PA, however, has not taken sufficient action to execute those projects. 
  • Israel offered to finance water and waste water projects that would serve Palestinian communities in the West Bank. The Palestinians did not respond.
  • Israel made an offer to the Palestinians to build a desalination plant in Hadera south of Haifa and pump the desalinated water to the northern West Bank. The Palestinians rejected this solution since it would put Israel in an upstream position to the West Bank. Another reason for this rejection has to do with water rights since the Palestinians claim the Mountain Aquifers.
  • The fact that the PA pays most of the water bills of the Palestinian population gives no incentive for saving and leads to an unreasonable use of water in the domestic sphere as well as in the agricultural sector. 

(By way of comparison, Israeli domestic consumers currently pay 9.09 shekels (£1.58 / $2.46) for the first 3.5 m3 of water consumed and 14.60 shekels (£2.53 / $3.95) per m3 beyond that.)

Towards the end of his article, Asser ‘zooms out’ to discuss the subject of water at a regional level, in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict as a whole.

“Demand for water already outstrips supply, requirements are rising and current supply is unsustainable.

Hydrologists say joint solutions need to be found, because water requirements are interdependent and water resources cross political boundaries.

That necessitates improved conservation and recycling by both sides.

Improving the political atmosphere would allow supplies to be piped from neighbouring countries. Also crucial, experts say, are investment in desalination and other technical advances.

Such solutions are desperately needed in the medium to long term. In other words, Israel and the Palestinians must work together, because they cannot survive as combatants.”

Asser neglects to mention that on the regional scale, Israel is the most water-efficient country in the region, having made significant technological advances in the field of waste water recycling for agricultural use, innovative irrigation methods and desalination, combined with public awareness regarding water conservation. As Prof Gvirtzman points out:

“For the sake of comparison, the per capita consumption of natural, fresh water in Israel (150 m3/c/y) and in the PA (140 m3/c/y) are less than that of their Middle East neighbors, such as Jordan (172 m3/c/y), Egypt (732 m3/c/y), Syria (861 m3/c/y) and Lebanon (949 m3/c/y). Israel overcomes this water shortage by recycling sewage for agricultural irrigation, and by desalinating seawater for domestic use.However, in many of these adjacent countries, most water is used for (inefficient) agricultural irrigation, creating severe shortages in domestic water supply in the cities and towns.”

It is ironic that Asser concludes his article with the recognition that Israelis and Palestinians must work together (which was precisely the aim of the establishment of the Joint Water Committee under the Oslo Accords – which Asser fails to mention at all) after having spent the entire piece advancing the politically motivated, factually incorrect and historically lacking Palestinian water narrative which undermines and actually seeks to prevent such co-operation. 

A mere glance at one of the photographs used to illustrate Asser’s article – and its caption – is a clear indication of the article’s intent:

Israeli soldier gives Palestinain prisoner a drink of water

Palestinians say water politics are just part of the injustice of occupation

That photograph, which has nothing to do with the subject of the article itself, is clearly designed to leave an impression in the reader’s mind of helpless, bound Palestinians entirely at the mercy of an anonymous, faceless oppressor. 

It is doubly ironic that the BBC could place such a factually inaccurate and partial article under the heading ‘obstacles to peace’, as its unquestioning adoption and propagation of a one-sided political narrative is a major contribution towards preventing BBC audiences from understanding the real barriers to peacemaking.  

Despite the criticism offered by CAMERA almost six years ago, this article was not corrected. The passage of time has rendered its inaccuracies, distortions and omissions even more blatant and misleading. Clearly, the article should be removed from the BBC website. 

Related posts: BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” do not hold water – part 1

BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” do not hold water – part 1

At the bottom of the Middle East page on the BBC News website one finds a series of ‘Country Profiles’. Below the ‘Overview’ page of the profile of Israel, one finds a link to an item entitled “Middle East peace talks: Where they stand“. At the bottom of that page one finds a series of four articles under the heading “Obstacles to Peace”. One of those articles relates to the subject of water

OtP Water

All four of the “Obstacles to Peace” articles were written by Martin Asser and are dated September 2nd 2010. However, they already existed prior to that date and were the subject of articles by CAMERA in mid-2007 – including the one on water.  Significantly, the BBC has not corrected the inaccuracies pointed out nearly six years ago and the article continues to mislead BBC audiences searching for information on the Middle East. 

But this article is not only inaccurate. Like some of the BBC’s other coverage on the subject, it also advances a simplistic and specific political narrative on the subject of water in the Arab-Israeli conflict: a narrative used by political NGOs and by the Palestinian Authority itself to discredit Israel and employ water as a weapon against it. 

Martin Asser’s article is both long and winding, jumping back and forth between claims connected to history and claims supposedly relating to the present day situation – or at least that of six years ago when the article was first written. Here, therefore, we will tackle those subjects in two parts, beginning with Asser’s historical claims. 

Asser opens his article by stating:

“The Arab-Israeli dispute is a conflict about land – and maybe just as crucially the water which flows through that land.

The so-called Six-Day War in 1967 arguably had its origins in a water dispute – moves to divert the River Jordan, Israel’s main source of drinking water.

Years of skirmishes and sabre rattling culminated in all-out war, with Israel quadrupling the territory it controlled and gaining complete control of double the resources of fresh water.”

Asser is rather coy about what he terms “moves to divert the River Jordan” and fails to inform his readers that what he is actually talking about is the Arab League plan to divert the headwaters of the Jordan River. In 1965 Syria began constructing a canal – with financing from Egypt and Saudi Arabia – which would divert the Banias tributary from the Jordan to the Yarmouk, thus preventing its waters from reaching the Sea of Galilee. Concurrently, Lebanon began diverting another tributary – the Hatzbani – into the Litani River. Had the plan materialized, it would have reduced Israel’s overall water supply by some 11% and increased the salinity of the Sea of Galilee by 60 ppm. 

Whilst this issue undoubtedly contributed to tensions between Israel and its neighbours, it is notable that Asser skirts around the fact that the Six Day War was about much more than that – not least the massing of Egyptian troops in Sinai on May 15th and the ejection of the UN from that area, the closure of the Straits of Tiran on May 22nd and the threats issued by Arab leaders such as the then Syrian Defence Minister Hafez al Assad and Nasser, with the latter stating (inter alia) on May 27th “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight” and the former stating on May 20th:

“Our forces are now entirely ready not only to repulse the aggression, but to initiate the act of liberation itself, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian army, with its finger on the trigger, is united….I, as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.”

Asser’s account, however, could well leave the reader with the impression that it was Israel which went into the war with the intention of conquering territory, rather than Egypt, Syria and Jordan, along with the Arab Expeditionary Force composed of soldiers from eight more countries, together with the PLO. That impression is not dispelled by his later caveat “Israel says the 1967 war was forced upon it by the imminent threat of hostile Arab countries and there was no intention to occupy more land or resources”.

Returning later on in the article to the subject of the Six Day War, Asser writes:

“But the war’s outcome left Israel occupying an area not far short of the territory claimed by the founders of the Zionist movement at the beginning of the 20th Century.

In 1919, the Zionist delegation at the Paris Peace Conference said the Golan Heights, Jordan valley, what is now the West Bank, as well as Lebanon’s river Litani were “essential for the necessary economic foundation of the country. Palestine must have… the control of its rivers and their headwaters”. “

Asser neglects to mention that the League of Nations originally included the Golan Heights, Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip within the area allocated to the establishment of the Jewish National Home. He also fails to mention that the British too were of the opinion that control of water sources was essential and hence the British High Commissioner Herbert Samuel demanded – and secured – full control of the Sea of Galilee and the Upper Jordan River under the terms of the 1923 Franco-British Boundary Agreement.

Later on in the article Asser makes the habitual BBC mistake of conflating armistice lines with borders when he states that:

“Syria wants an Israeli withdrawal to 5 June 1967 borders, allowing Syria access to the Jordan and Yarmouk rivers” 

Asser’s historical inaccuracies continue:

“Any country needs water to survive and develop. In Israel’s history, it has needed water to make feasible the influx of huge numbers of Jewish immigrants.

Therefore, on the margins of one of the most arid environments on earth, the available water system had to support not just the indigenous population, mainly Palestinian peasant farmers, but also hundreds of thousands of immigrants.

In addition to their sheer numbers, citizens of the new state were intent on conducting water-intensive commercial agricultural such as growing bananas and citrus fruits.”

Asser’s message here is very clear: the water-guzzling foreign-born Israelis do not belong to the region, the “indigenous” (environmentally friendly and romantic into the bargain) “peasant farmers” do. This narrative ignores the fact that significant numbers of those “indigenous” Arabs had in fact immigrated to the region during the days of the British Mandate when, whilst Jewish immigration was under strict controls, Arab immigration was not, prompting the British Governor of Sinai at the time to remark that:

“This illegal [Arab] immigration was not only going on from the Sinai, but also from Transjordan and Syria, and it is very difficult to make a case out for the misery of the Arabs if at the same time their compatriots from adjoining states could not be kept from going in to share that misery.” 

As for Asser’s implication that stubborn Jews were “intent” upon engaging in “water-intensive” agriculture, had he referred to the British-executed Survey of Palestine of 1945/6, he would know that in fact, less than three years before Israel came into being, citrus fruit production was divided equally between Arabs and Jews and that 60% of the banana groves were owned by Arabs. 

Citrus industry


Part two of this article will take a look at Martin Asser’s claims regarding the subject of water in the present day. 

Related posts: BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” do not hold water – part 2