BBC misrepresentation of Resolution 242

With the renewal of talks between Israel and the Palestinians apparently due to commence this coming week, it is worth taking a look at some of the material available on the BBC News website for audiences looking to inform themselves on the background to news stories. After all, in response to criticism of its Middle East coverage, BBC news editors have stated that:

 “…our strategy is to supplement our news coverage by providing detailed background on BBC News Online. It has the space to carry more information than broadcast news programmes, helping readers to understand the political, historical or economic background to an event.”

Via the country profile of Israel on the Middle East page of the BBC News website, readers can reach an interestingly illustrated page entitled “History of Mid-East peace talks” compiled by Paul Reynolds in August 2010. 

History of ME peace talks

The first entry on that page relates to the subject of UN SC resolution 242.

“Resolution 242 was passed on 22 November 1967 and embodies the principle that has guided most of the subsequent peace plans – the exchange of land for peace.

The resolution called for the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict”, and “respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognised boundaries free from threats or acts of force”.

The resolution is famous for the imprecision, in English, of its central phase concerning an Israeli withdrawal – it says simply “from territories”. The Israelis said this did not necessarily mean all territories, but Arab negotiators argued that it did.

It was written under Chapter VI of the UN Charter, under which Security Council resolutions are recommendations, not under Chapter VII, which means they are orders. Many peace proposals refer to 242. Resolution 338 is usually linked to it. This called for a ceasefire in the war of October 1973 and urged the implementation of 242 “in all its parts”. “

The third paragraph of this entry severely misleads BBC audiences. The wording of resolution 242 is not imprecise: it was deliberately phrased in that specific manner by those who drafted it. But by presenting that wording as some sort of typographical oversight, and by concealing the fact that many others besides “the Israelis” have, over the years, clarified that the lack of definite article in the sentence is deliberate, the BBC lays the groundwork for the presentation of attempts to distort the resolution’s intent as though they were of equal validity.

The background to resolution 242 provides some insight into its choice of wording, as explained by Professor Ruth Lapidot:

“The Six-Day War of June 1967 ended with cease-fire resolutions adopted by the Security Council. However, neither the Security Council nor the General Assembly, which met in an Emergency Special Session, called upon Israel to withdraw to the armistice lines established in 1949. Most likely, the reason for this was the conviction that a return to those lines would not guarantee peace in the area, as the 1957 precedent had proven.

In November 1967 the United Arab Republic (i.e., Egypt) urgently requested an early meeting of the Security Council “to consider the dangerous situation prevailing in the Middle East as a result of the persistence of Israel not to withdraw its armed forces from all the territories which it occupied as a result of the Israeli aggression committed on 5 June 1967 against the United Arab Republic, Jordan and Syria.”

 In answer to this request, the Security Council was duly convened and debated the crisis in its meetings of November 9, 13, 15, 16, 20 and 22.

 In its deliberations, two draft resolutions were presented: one was jointly submitted by India, Mali, and Nigeria, the other by the U.S. In the course of the deliberations, two further draft resolutions were submitted, one by Great Britain (November 16) and another by the U.S.S.R. (November 20). Only the British draft was put to a vote and it was carried unanimously.”

The clause to which the BBC refers above is worded:

“Affirms that the fulfillment of Charter principles requires the establishment of a just and lasting peace in the Middle East which should include the application of both the following principles:

i) Withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict;

ii) Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force;”

So let’s take a look at what some of the people who actually composed the wording of the resolution have had to say about it.

 Lord Caradon, who was Britain’s representative to the UN at the time, said: 

“Much play has been made of the fact that we didn’t say “the” territories or “all the” territories. But that was deliberate. I myself knew very well the 1967 boundaries and if we had put in the “the” or “all the” that could only have meant that we wished to see the 1967 boundaries perpetuated in the form of a permanent frontier. This I was certainly not prepared to recommend.”

And:

“We could have said: well, you go back to the 1967 line. But I know the 1967 line, and it’s a rotten line. You couldn’t have a worse line for a permanent international boundary. It’s where the troops happened to be on a certain night in 1948. It’s got no relation to the needs of the situation.

Had we said that you must go back to the 1967 line, which would have resulted if we had specified a retreat from all the occupied territories, we would have been wrong. [….] but we deliberately did not say that the old line, where the troops happened to be on that particular night many years ago, was an ideal demarcation line.”

And:

“We didn’t say there should be a withdrawal to the ’67 line; we did not put the “the” in, we did not say “all the territories” deliberately. We all knew that the boundaries of ’67 were not drawn as permanent frontiers, they were a cease-fire line of a couple of decades earlier… . We did not say that the ’67 boundaries must be forever.”

And:

“It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of 4 June 1967 because those positions were undesirable and artificial. After all, they were just the places the soldiers of each side happened to be the day the fighting stopped in 1948. They were just armistice lines. That’s why we didn’t demand that the Israelis return to them and I think we were right not to …”

And :

“The purposes are perfectly clear, the principle is stated in the preamble, the necessity for withdrawal is stated in the operative section. And then the essential phrase which is not sufficiently recognized is that withdrawal should take place to secure and recognized boundaries, and these words were very carefully chosen: they have to be secure and they have to be recognized. They will not be secure unless they are recognized. And that is why one has to work for agreement. This is essential. I would defend absolutely what we did. It was not for us to lay down exactly where the border should be. I know the 1967 border very well. It is not a satisfactory border, it is where troops had to stop in 1947, just where they happened to be that night, that is not a permanent boundary…”

Another person involved in drafting the wording of the resolution was Eugene Rostow – at the time US Under-secretary of State for Political Affairs – who said: 

“… the question remained, “To what boundaries should Israel withdraw?” On this issue, the American position was sharply drawn, and rested on a critical provision of the Armistice Agreements of 1949. Those agreements provided in each case that the Armistice Demarcation Line “is not to be construed in any sense as a political or territorial boundary, and is delineated without prejudice to rights, claims or positions of either party to the Armistice as regards ultimate settlement of the Palestine question.” … These paragraphs, which were put into the agreements at Arab insistence, were the legal foundation for the controversies over the wording of paragraphs 1 and 3 of Security Council Resolution 242, of November 22, 1967. …

The agreement required by paragraph 3 of the resolution, the Security Council said, should establish “secure and recognized boundaries” between Israel and its neighbors “free from threats or acts of force,” to replace the Armistice Demarcation Lines established in 1949, and the cease-fire lines of June, 1967. The Israeli armed forces should withdraw to such lines, as part of a comprehensive agreement, settling all the issues mentioned in the resolution, and in a condition of peace.

On this point, the American position has been the same under both the Johnson and the Nixon Administrations. The new and definitive political boundaries should not represent “the weight of conquest,” both Administrations have said; on the other hand, under the policy and language of the Armistice Agreements of 1949, and of the Security Council Resolution of November 22, 1967, they need not be the same as the Armistice Demarcation Lines. …

This is the legal significance of the omission of the word “the” from paragraph 1 (I) of the resolution, which calls for the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces “from territories occupied in the recent conflict,” and not “from the territories occupied in the recent conflict.” Repeated attempts to amend this sentence by inserting the word “the” failed in the Security Council. It is therefore not legally possible to assert that the provision requires Israeli withdrawal from all the territories now occupied under the Cease-Fire Resolutions to the Armistice Demarcation Lines.”

And:

“Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 … rest on two principles, Israel may administer the territory until its Arab neighbors make peace; and when peace is made, Israel should withdraw to “secure and recognized borders,” which need not be the same as the Armistice Demarcation Lines of 1949. …

The omission of the word “the” from the territorial clause of the Resolution was one of its most hotly-debated and fundamental features. The U.S., Great Britain, the Netherlands, and many other countries worked hard for five and a half months in 1967 to keep the word “the” and the idea it represents out of the resolution. Motions to require the withdrawal of Israel from “the” territories or “all the territories” occupied in the course of the Six Day War were put forward many times with great linguistic ingenuity. They were all defeated both in the General Assembly and in the Security Council. …

Those who claim that Resolution 242 is ambiguous on the point are either ignorant of the history of its negotiation or simply taking a convenient tactical position.”

And:

“Five-and-a-half months of vehement public diplomacy in 1967 made it perfectly clear what the missing definite article in Resolution 242 means. Ingeniously drafted resolutions calling for withdrawals from “all” the territories were defeated in the Security Council and the General Assembly. Speaker after speaker made it explicit that Israel was not to be forced back to the “fragile” and “vulnerable” Armistice Demarcation Lines, but should retire once peace was made to what Resolution 242 called “secure and recognized” boundaries, agreed to by the parties. In negotiating such agreements, the parties should take into account, among other factors, security considerations, access to the international waterways of the region, and, of course, their respective legal claims.”

And:

“Security Council Resolution 242, approved after the 1967 war, stipulates not only that Israel and its neighboring states should make peace with each other but should establish “a just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” Until that condition is met, Israel is entitled to administer the territories it captured – the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip – and then withdraw from some but not necessarily all of the land to “secure and recognized boundaries free of threats or acts of force.” “

The American representative to the UN at the time was Arthur J Goldberg, who is on record as saying: Arthur Goldberg

“The resolution does not explicitly require that Israel withdraw to the lines that it occupied on June 5, 1967, before the outbreak of the war. The Arab states urged such language; the Soviet Union proposed such a resolution to the Security Council in June 1967, and Yugoslavia and other nations made a similar proposal to the special session of the General Assembly that followed the adjournment of the Security Council. But those views were rejected. Instead, Resolution 242 endorses the principle of the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” and juxtaposes the principle that every state in the area is entitled to live in peace within “secure and recognized boundaries.” …

The notable omissions in language used to refer to withdrawal are the words the, all, and the June 5, 1967, lines. I refer to the English text of the resolution. The French and Soviet texts differ from the English in this respect, but the English text was voted on by the Security Council, and thus it is determinative. In other words, there is lacking a declaration requiring Israel to withdraw from the (or all the) territories occupied by it on and after June 5, 1967. Instead, the resolution stipulates withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawal. And it can be inferred from the incorporation of the words secure and recognized boundaries that the territorial adjustments to be made by the parties in their peace settlements could encompass less than a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territories.”

Former British Foreign Secretary George Brown, who also helped draft the resolution, said: Baron George-Brown

“[Resolution 242] does not call for Israeli withdrawal from “the” territories recently occupied, nor does it use the word “all”. It would have been impossible to get the resolution through if either of these words had been included, but it does set out the lines on which negotiations for a settlement must take place. Each side must be prepared to give up something: the resolution doesn’t attempt to say precisely what, because that is what negotiations for a peace-treaty must be about.”

And:

“I have been asked over and over again to clarify, modify or improve the wording, but I do not intend to do that. The phrasing of the Resolution was very carefully worked out, and it was a difficult and complicated exercise to get it accepted by the UN Security Council.

I formulated the Security Council Resolution. Before we submitted it to the Council, we showed it to Arab leaders. The proposal said “Israel will withdraw from territories that were occupied,” and not from “the” territories, which means that Israel will not withdraw from all the territories.”

(All sources in the link above, all emphasis added.)

There are many other examples which also clarify the fact that the wording of resolution 242 was in fact deliberately very precise and intended. It is therefore unfitting that the BBC should chose to misrepresent it in this disingenuous manner and the fact that it does so clearly contravenes BBC guidelines on accuracy and impartiality as well as deliberately misleading BBC audiences.

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