BBC WS radio promotes Avi Shlaim’s historical misrepresentations – part one

Visitors to the BBC News website’s Middle East page on June 1st were presented with an article in its features section by Owen Bennett-Jones titled “Middle East map carved up by caliphates, enclaves and fiefdoms“. There, they found the reasons for the past four or so years of violence and turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa explained as follows:OBJ written

“There are many explanations for the winds of change sweeping through the Middle East.

Depending on their point of view, analysts cite the failure of Arab nationalism; a lack of democratic development; post-colonialism; Zionism; Western trade protectionism; corruption; low education standards; and the global revival of radical Islamism.” [emphasis added]

Readers who ventured to the end of Bennett-Jones’ piece discovered that it is based on an edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour Extra’ – titled “Borders, Oil and Power in the Middle East” – which he hosted on May 31st. What they are not told in the written article is that the main reason for the bizarre appearance of Zionism on his list of “explanations” for the ongoing violence in the Middle East is the inclusion of Oxford University’s Avi Shlaim on Bennett-Jones’ guest list for that programme.

According to its synopsis the fifty-five minute programme supposedly set out to discuss the following topics:

“The map of the Middle East, established after World War One almost 100 years ago, is crumbling. Islamic State militants now control large parts of Iraq and Syria including the border region that divides the two countries, and their territorial ambitions have not ended there. Is Islamic State permanently re-drawing the map, or can the traditional regional powers retain their dominance? What are the consequences for the people who live within those borders and for control of the region’s vast mineral wealth?”

Those familiar with Avi Shlaim’s political activism (albeit often thinly disguised with an academic veneer) will not have been surprised by his ability to repeatedly bring the focus of the programme back to his pet topic of Israel. Listeners may have been equally unsurprised to find that the programme’s host and editors indulged his hobby, particularly after the tone was set in Bennett-Jones’ introduction.

“…this week looking at the future of the Middle East. Syria, Yemen, Libya and parts of Iraq are in violent chaos. The status of Gaza and the West Bank remain contested. The Arab Spring has failed. Some of its leaders face the death penalty and the forces in the ascendant: theocrats, rebels, nationalists, gangsters, arms dealers and opportunists. What on earth is going to happen?”

From around 04:30 listeners heard the following supposedly objective and academic account of the background to the topic under discussion from Avi Shlaim.

“…Britain’s behavior during the First World War is a prime example of pure opportunism because in the course of fighting the First World War, Britain was desperate to gain allies and it made three major promises that were contradictory and couldn’t be reconciled and this should have been clear during the war. The first promise was to Hussein the Sharif of Mecca – to support an independent Arab kingdom under his rule in return for mounting an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks. The second promise […] is the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. This was a secret agreement between Britain and France to carve up the Middle East between themselves at the expense of the Arabs. And the third and most famous promise was the Balfour Declaration of 1917 in which Britain undertook to support the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. So Palestine was the twice-promised land – first it was promised to Hussein the Sharif of Mecca and then it was promised to the Zionists. And after the end of the war the chickens came home to roost. The Arabs demanded an independent Arab kingdom – not a system of mandates – and the Zionists, who at the time of the Balfour Declaration were only 10% of the population, laid a claim to the whole of Palestine. So Britain – through its imperialist diplomacy – created a new order, a new political system – territorial system – which lacked legitimacy. The borders lacked legitimacy, the rulers who were imposed on the local Arabs by the colonial powers lacked legitimacy. So the whole mark of the post-World War One territorial and political system was that it was illegitimate….” [emphasis added]

No attempt was made by Owen Bennett-Jones to balance Shlaim’s predictably selective presentation of events by mention of all-important additional factors such as the creation in 1921 of the Emirate of Transjordan (ruled by one of Hussein’s sons) out of land previously designated for the Jewish National Home. Neither was it clarified to listeners that no mention was made of Palestine in the Hussein-McMahon correspondence or that as was reported in The Times in 1937 – Sir Henry McMahon later clarified:

“I feel my duty to state, and I do so definitely and emphatically, that it was not intended by me in giving this pledge to King Hussein to include Palestine in the area in which Arab independence was promised. I also had every reason to believe at the time that the fact that Palestine was not included in my pledge was well understood by King Hussein.”

The most striking aspect of Bennett-Jones’ failure to relieve listeners of the misleading impressions provided by Shlaim, however, is that the BBC had every reason to be capable of anticipating exactly how he was going to frame the issue because he had done it before on BBC Radio 4 in October 2013. No less interesting is the fact that despite Shlaim’s obvious and repeatedly expressed enthusiasm for Kurdish independence as promised in 1920, Bennett-Jones refrained from asking him why in his opinion the Treaty of Sèvres should be considered any less “illegitimate” than the Balfour Declaration or the Sykes-Picot Agreement.OBJ radio

From around 16:35 listeners were further misled by the following statement from Shlaim:

“It seems to me that the post-World War One territorial order, for all its shortcomings and limitations that I talked about before, had one merit and that is it set out very clear international borders and despite all the turmoil of the last century, all the violence, all the conflicts, these borders still stand – with one exception: the border between Israel and Palestine. But all the other borders are almost sacrosanct.”

Of course it is inaccurate and misleading to suggest that a “border between Israel and Palestine” existed under “the post-World War One territorial order”.

Towards the end of the programme (at around 41:30), Bennett-Jones informs listeners that the discussion will “look ahead to what’s going to happen to various groups in the Middle East”. If listeners thought that they were finally going to get to hear some information about the situation of Christians, Yezidis, Druze, Armenians, Baha’is or any of the many other Middle East minorities unmentioned so far, they would have been disappointed. Instead, a full five minutes is spent discussing the topic introduced by Bennett-Jones at the start of that segment.

OBJ: “…on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute; is it right to say that when we talk about borders changing  – Professor Shlaim made the point that the Israel-Palestine situation is one of the few fluid situations in terms of borders – but does it connect with the rest of the Middle East or is that dispute….”

At that point Bennett-Jones is cut off – apparently by some over-enthusiastic editing – but listeners do hear BBC regular Rosemary Hollis telling them that:

“…having a number of Palestinian scholarship students as I do, they see this chaos in Iraq and Syria and this hideous machine called IS as potentially the only game changer that might ultimately call all the borders into question in a way that might benefit the Palestinians. Otherwise they see their future as miserable and they see Gaza as a place where you die slowly and, as of 2020 when life is unsustainable in Gaza according to the UN, you die more quickly – if there’s not another Israeli-Palestinian war in the meanwhile.”

According to the CIA World Factbook, life expectancy in the Gaza Strip in 2014 was 74.64 years – higher than that in one hundred and thirteen other countries or territories and higher than that for males in Blackpool or Glasgow, which BBC audiences would of course be unlikely to hear described as places “where you die slowly”.

Following that (from around 45:25), listeners hear Avi Shlaim telling them that there will be no peace or stability in the Middle East until Jews lose their right to self-determination.

“To answer your regional question, I don’t think that Israel-Palestine is a separate discrete conflict. It’s part of the whole Middle East set-up and it’s the most fundamental and lasting and enduring conflict in the region and there can be no peace, no stability and no security in the Middle East until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved. How can it be resolved? I used to be a great supporter of the two state solution but […] it is no longer viable. Why is it not viable? Because Israel, under right-wing governments, has systematically destroyed the basis for a two state solution. And therefore today I support and advocate a one state solution: one state which is for all its citizens with equal rights for all its citizens be they Arab or Israeli, Muslim, Christian or Jewish.”

No attempt is made by the programme’s host to inform listeners of the significance and consequences of the ‘solution’ to all the Middle East’s troubles as put forward by Shlaim and likewise no effort is made to relieve them of the ridiculous notion that ISIS jihadists are slaughtering Yezidis, Kurds and Christians (among others) and Bashar al Assad is killing his own people because the Arab-Israeli conflict has yet to be resolved.

Amazingly, this is what passes for objective, impartial, factual and accurate analysis of the Middle East as far as the BBC World Service is concerned, but Avi Shlaim’s historical misrepresentations had not finished there – as we shall see in part two of this post.

BBC coverage of the Har Nof terror attack on Radio 4’s PM – part two

As was noted in part one of this post, the final interview (available here from 16:14) in the long segment reporting on the terror attack at the Kehilat Ya’akov Synagogue in Jerusalem earlier that day which appeared in the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘PM’ on November 18th, featured Rosemary Hollis – Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at City University, London.PM 18 11

As an academic, Professor Hollis’ contribution to the report was presumably intended to provide UK audiences with the type of context and analysis which would enable them to enhance their “awareness and understanding” of this particular “international issue”. However, basic inaccuracies and omissions in Hollis’ account in fact diminished the possibility of better audience comprehension.

The interview with Rosemary Hollis came directly after a previous one with the cousin of Avraham Goldberg who had been murdered in the terror attack just eight hours or so before the programme went on air. Presenter Eddie Mair opened his conversation with Hollis thus:

“We asked you in to talk about the status of Jerusalem. Just before we do that, we just heard the view of Israel and its place in the Middle East from a grieving relative. It’s a view that will be contentious.”

Hollis: “Yes; it was a beautiful tribute to Mr Goldberg and I think you would find that for many individual Palestinians, equally beautiful tributes could be paid for their awareness of the issues, for their innocence, for their devotion to family and to religious values and so on. One has to be careful here. If Mr Goldberg’s cousin is worried about a mind-set in the killers, that needs to be dealt with on a specific level in terms of where these young men were coming from, what their experience of life and occupation had been, and not to tarnish all Palestinians with some characteristics which may or may not be appropriate to apply to some individuals. It’s a classic problem in conflict and there is no justice in the killings that take place. To find it in the evilness of the perpetrator is a natural instinct but it’s not conducive to ending the kind of conflict that we’re in here.”

Yes, the BBC really did bring in an academic in order to promote to audiences a narrative of equivalence which, inter alia, suggests that hacking a man in his seventh decade to death with a meat cleaver for no other reason than his being a Jew should be seen in the context of the terrorist’s “experience of life and occupation” and where he was “coming from”. Hollis continued:

“Now, at the moment the tension in Jerusalem can be traced back to the beginning of the summer before the Gaza war. The tension started with the abduction and killing of Jewish students and then a revenge killing of a Palestinian.”

The BBC has of course also used those events as part of a menu of factors it promotes as ‘explaining’ the latest surge in violence and terrorism. Notably, neither Hollis nor her host bothered to point out to audiences that, crucially, the kidnappings and murders of the three Jewish teenagers were carried out by a Hamas cell from Hebron or that the attack was financed by Hamas in Gaza: the same Hamas which is partner to the Palestinian unity government which had been sworn in ten days before the three teenagers disappeared. Likewise, no attempt was made to clarify to listeners that the “Gaza war” (apparently nothing happened in Israel during July and August 2014 which BBC audiences need to know about) was instigated by that same terrorist organisation.Whilst those inconvenient facts would of course spoil the narrative of equivalence, facts they are and BBC audiences should be made aware of their existence. 

Hollis then went on to inaccurately represent the topic of the status of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.

“It’s also worth remembering that the status of the Palestinians living in East Jerusalem is unique in the pattern of the conflict. The East Jerusalem areas captured by Israel in 1967 – captured from Jordan who controlled them between the date of the foundation of Israel in ’48 and 1967 – that area of Jerusalem was annexed to Israel.”

Listeners not familiar with Middle East history would of course be unlikely to appreciate from that account that the euphemistically termed Jordanian “control” of parts of Jerusalem for 19 years came about after Jordan attacked the fledgling Jewish state and belligerently occupied and later annexed the areas concerned in a move not recognised by the international community. Hollis continued:

“The Israelis say it is their eternal unified capital and their sovereignty is indisputable. Of course the Palestinians who live there do dispute that sovereignty and the East Jerusalem Palestinian population are not citizens of Israel like the Arab citizens of Israel that Mr Goldberg’s cousin was describing. They have what they call laissez-passer: they have an East Jerusalem ID. They’re supposed to be lucky in the scheme of things compared with other Palestinians because they are not subject to direct occupation. But they are subject to security control and over the last few months hundreds of them have been arrested on suspicion – not on trial.”

Rosemary Hollis’ portrayal is of course factually incorrect. Arab residents of the areas of Jerusalem which came under Israeli control after the Six Day War are entitled to apply for Israeli citizenship – and many have done so – which affords them the same rights as any other citizen of Israel of whatever religion or ethnicity. This was not the first occasion upon which this issue has been misrepresented to BBC audiences: the same inaccurate claim was made in a report by Yolande Knell on BBC World Service radio earlier in the month. Hollis also of course failed to point out to audiences that the vast majority of Palestinians  live under the administration of the Palestinian Authority in Areas A, B and the Gaza Strip and that the minority living in Area C where Israel still has civil and security control do so because their representatives agreed to that arrangement under the terms of the Oslo Accords and then subsequently sabotaged permanent status negotiations by instigating the second Intifada. Hollis’ reference to the arrest of “hundreds” of Palestinian residents of Jerusalem over the past few months of course erased from audience view the fact that there have been countless incidents of violent rioting and terror attacks during that period of time.  The conversation continued with presenter Eddie Mair saying:

“Can we step back even further than the summer to before any of us were alive? How did Jerusalem come to be a place that’s so important to people of different faiths?”

Hollis: “Well you can go back a couple of millennia if you like. [laughs] It is obviously of importance to Muslims, Christians and Jews. And I think I would say that there’s not a square inch of Jerusalem that isn’t contested and religious sites are as contested as others. And it’s a little bit confusing to start talking about freedom of worship because an aspiration since the beginning of the twentieth century – which saw the fall of the Ottoman Empire and originally the occupation of Jerusalem by the British and under the British mandate there – was to talk about what should be the future sovereign arrangement for Jerusalem. And there’s always been talk about it should be an international dispensation because of its importance in religious terms.”

This is of course also not the first time that we have seen the BBC promoting the idea of Jerusalem as a corpus separatum – see previous examples here and here. What Hollis of course did not tell listeners to Radio 4 is that the proposal was conditioned on the acceptance of the Partition Plan by the relevant parties and was rejected by the Arab side, and that in any case, the corpus separatum plan was conceived with a ten-year time limit, after which residents of the designated area were to vote in a referendum to determine its status. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see how Hollis used the redundant argument for a corpus separatum to deflect attention from the progressive issue of equal prayer rights for all at Jerusalem’s holy places. 

No less inaccurate was Rosemary Hollis’ portrayal of what she terms “Jewish doctrine” (as though there were one approach alone) on the subject of Jewish prayer rights at Temple Mount.

“What we’ve had in the Israeli context is an interpretation of Judaism on the part of religious nationalists – the bedrock of the settler movement – err…who are effectively contesting some positions traditionally adopted in Jewish doctrine which says that one should not wish to pray on the Temple Mount because that area is not to be treated as an area of worship until the coming of the Messiah. But the Religious Nationalists are talking about land which they consider both the national birth right of Jewish people and of religious importance. And that combination leads them to challenge most directly latterly the Palestinian and Palestinian Muslim position on some of these sites.”

Hollis’ misrepresentation of the topic of “traditionally adopted […] Jewish doctrine” of course not only confused the issue of differing approaches to equal prayer rights on Temple Mount with the separate subject of some strains of thought according to which the building of the third Temple is conditioned upon the appearance of the Messiah, but also erased the fact that different schools of thought on the topic of Jewish entry to and prayer at Temple Mount existed even before the appearance of the “settler movement” she clearly sought to portray as the root cause of the current tensions.

Once again, rather than providing listeners with accurate factual background intended to aid their understanding of the context of that morning’s murders of five Israelis in a terror attack not described as such by the BBC, this programme busied itself more with promoting a view of the issue framed by specific political motivations. And yet again, the issue of Palestinian incitement remained outside of that BBC framing.