Did the BBC adequately explain the Temple Mount ‘status quo’?

For anyone trying to understand the events ostensibly related to new security measures at entrances to Temple Mount in the latter half of July, familiarity with the history and terms of the ‘status quo’ operating at that site is obviously of prime importance. Without that information, it is impossible to make sense of Palestinian and Israeli claims or to reach informed conclusions about the story.

The history of that ‘status quo’ of course began in June 1967 when Jordan’s 19-year occupation of parts of Jerusalem ended after it lost the war it had launched together with Egypt and Syria.

“Within hours of Israel’s victory in Six-Day War and the unification of Jerusalem, the Minister of Defense at the time, Moshe Dayan, arrived on the Temple Mount and began to formulate the arrangements that would eventually be labeled “the status quo on the Temple Mount.” Dayan ordered the Israeli flag that had been raised at the site to be lowered and Israeli forces on the Temple Mount to be withdrawn to a position in the northern sector of the compound. […]

The new order that Dayan formulated on the Temple Mount was crystallized on the basis of Dayan’s belief that this was the correct formula of action to prevent the national-territorial conflict from spilling over into a religious one, since a religious war would be much more dangerous.

The historical status quo on the Temple Mount included the following key components:

  1. The Waqf, as an arm of the Jordanian Ministry of Sacred Properties, would continue to administer the site and would be responsible for the religious and civil arrangements concerning the Temple Mount.
  2. Jews would not be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount, but they could visit there. (This right – freedom of access to the Mount – was even anchored in the framework of Israel’s Protection of the Holy Places Law, 1967).
  3. The Israeli Police would be responsible for security within the holy compound, the interior area and its outskirts, the wall and the gates.
  4. Israeli sovereignty and law would apply to the Temple Mount, as in the other parts of Jerusalem where Israeli law applied after the Six-Day War. This ruling was upheld by the Israel Supreme Court more than once.
  5. Later on, it was decided that the only gate by which Jews would be allowed to enter the Temple Mount would be the Mughrabi Gate (Moors’ Gate), located in the middle of the Western Wall, while Muslims would enter the Mount through all the other gates. Tourists would be permitted to enter via three gates: the Mughrabi Gate, the Chain Gate and the Cotton Merchants’ Gate. In practice, today tourists are able to enter the Mount only via the Mughrabi Gate.
  6. Over the years, it was prohibited to wave flags of any kind on the Temple Mount.”

While some of those components have changed over time (for example, visiting hours for non-Muslims have been reduced and Muslim prayer areas have been expanded), the basic division of responsibility between Israel and the Waqf remains unchanged – as summed up concisely by the Times of Israel (which also has some good background on the history of the Waqf here):

“The Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism and is revered as the site of the biblical temples. It is also the third-holiest site in Islam, after Mecca and Medina, and is known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif. Under an arrangement in place since Israel emerged victorious in the Six Day War in 1967, non-Muslims are allowed access to the site but are forbidden to pray there. Under this status quo, Israel is responsible for security at the site while the Jordanian trust — the Waqf — is in charge of administrative duties.”

So how well was that crucial background communicated to BBC News website audiences during the last two weeks of July? In all, eighteen reports (16 written and two filmed) relating to stories connected to the tensions surrounding security measures installed after the terror attack on July 14th were published on the website in the fifteen days between that date and July 28th.

Only just over half (55.5%) of those reports included any sort of mention of the issue of the ‘status quo’.

Four reports cited the ‘status quo’ – or “arrangements” – without bothering to explain it.

East Jerusalem: Palestinians killed as holy site tensions soar 21/7/17:

“In the wake of the killing of the police last Friday, Israel installed metal detectors at entrances to the holy site. The move, however, drew an angry reaction from Palestinian and Islamic leaders who say it is a violation of the status quo. […]

Israel has repeatedly pledged to maintain the status quo – a delicate set of arrangements in place at the site for the past 50 years. Any changes there are often regarded by Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a sought-after state, as a violation of these arrangements.”

Jerusalem: Israel installs security cameras near holy site 23/7/17:

“But Palestinians strongly object to the installation of metal detectors. They see it as a move by Israel to assert more control over the sacred site and as a violation of longstanding access arrangements. […]

Meanwhile, the Muslim authorities overseeing the Al-Aqsa mosque say they reject any change to the status quo.

Israel insists the measure does not alter the delicate set of arrangements governing the site for the past 50 years.”

Jerusalem holy site tensions ‘must ease by Friday’  24/7/17:

“But Palestinians strongly object to the installation of metal detectors. They see it as a move by Israel to assert more control over the sacred site and as a violation of longstanding access arrangements.”

Jerusalem holy site measures fail to halt clashes  28/7/17:

“Palestinians said Israel’s new security measures upset the delicate status quo, which Israel has repeatedly pledged to maintain since occupying the area in the 1967 Middle East war.”

Three reports mentioned Jordan’s role in the arrangement.

Israeli ‘kills attacker’ at Jordan embassy 23/7/17 :

“Jordan, which occupied East Jerusalem from 1949 [sic] to 1967, is the custodian of the site, which is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and Jews as the Temple Mount.”

Israel and Jordan in diplomatic standoff after embassy deaths 24/7/17:

“The incident comes at a time of heightened tension in the region over a Jerusalem holy site, where Jordan has an historical role as custodian. […]

Jordan, which occupied East Jerusalem from 1949 [sic] to 1967, funds the upkeep of the site, which is known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and Jews as the Temple Mount, and runs the Waqf, the religious trust which administers the compound.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah calls for Israel trial over embassy deaths 27/7/17:

“There were also protests against the security set-up in Jordan, which occupied East Jerusalem from 1949 [sic] to 1967, funds the compound’s upkeep and runs the Waqf, the religious trust which administers it.”

Only three (16.6%) of the total of eighteen reports actually made an effort to clarify the division of responsibility at the site.

Israeli police killed in attack near Jerusalem holy site 14/7/17:

“The site is administered by an Islamic authority (Waqf), though Israel is in charge of security there.”

Israel removes flashpoint metal detectors at Jerusalem holy site 25/7/17 and Palestinian-Israeli contact to stay frozen, says Abbas 25/7/17:

“For Palestinians, their [metal detectors] installation symbolised what they saw as an attempt by Israel to assert further control over the site of their holy shrine in occupied East Jerusalem – the mosque that also acts as a powerful symbol of their national aspiration. […]

The site is hugely politically sensitive and has been subject to a delicate set of arrangements – commonly referred to as the “status quo” – governing access, security and administration, for the past 50 years.

Under the arrangement, Israel is responsible for security and a Jordanian-funded religious trust, or Waqf, looks after the day-to-day running of the site.

Palestinians said the placing of the metal detectors upset the status quo, which Israel has repeatedly pledged to maintain. Israel said Palestinians were using the issue as a pretext to spread hostility against the Jewish state.”

In other words, visitors to the BBC News website would have to have been lucky enough to stumble across one of three reports published on two separate days over a fifteen day period in order to get some inkling of what this story is really all about.

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BBC reporting on Jerusalem violence low on background, high on messaging

On Friday July 21st pre-planned rioting took place in Jerusalem as well as at additional locations after yet another ‘Day of Rage’ had been called by Palestinian leaders. The BBC News website covered the day’s events in two reports – one written and one filmed.

The filmed report by Yolande Knell is titled “Clashes in Bethlehem over holy site” and its synopsis links to the written report, telling viewers that “[i]t follows tension over the place known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif, and to Jews as the Temple Mount”.

In the first part of that report Knell describes the Israeli security forces’ response to what she terms “protests”.

Knell: “Now those unusual prayers are turned into protests very quickly. Already there’s been skunk water fired – a very stinky liquid – by the soldiers. They’re using stun grenades and tear gas as well.”

After the caption “How did we get here?” appears on screen, the report then goes on to show footage apparently filmed some time earlier, with Knell telling BBC audiences that:

Knell: “Palestinian worshippers across the West Bank aren’t praying inside their mosques today but they’ve come outside. Here in Bethlehem they’re on the streets, under the hot sun with their prayer mats. And this is a very symbolically important location because just along there, that’s the road to Jerusalem and it’s now blocked by Israel’s separation wall. You can see the Israeli military watchtower that’s just over there.”

Knell refrains from informing viewers that the anti-terrorist fence (which of course has nothing at all to do with the story she is supposedly reporting) had to be constructed because of Palestinian terrorism. Her claim that the road to Jerusalem is “blocked” is misleading: the checkpoint there is open 24 hours a day. She then goes on to uncritically parrot Palestinian messaging.

Knell: “And the Friday sermon has been about the need to protect the al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock that lies in the same compound. There’s a model of it here. Palestinians see themselves very much as the guardians of these places – the third holiest site in Islam – and emotions are really running very high.”

Knell does not bother to clarify to viewers that there is in fact no need “to protect” the Muslim holy sites on Temple Mount at all before giving an unchallenged platform to an unidentified interviewee who is allowed on camera while wearing a t-shirt with a politicised image that erases Israel.

Man: “The Palestinians now took a decision to fight for their capital [sic], for their dignity. All the people who are coming here came to raise their voice. Jerusalem is a red line. We will not allow the occupation to pass this red line.”

Footage seen later in the video suggests that the unnamed man is one of the leaders/organisers of the unrest but seeing as the BBC did not bother to identify him, audiences are of course unable to make their own judgements concerning his “particular viewpoint” – not least the claim that Jerusalem, which is of course subject to final status negotiations, is the Palestinians’ “capital”.  

That video was also included in the BBC’s written report on the same events – currently titled “East Jerusalem: Palestinians killed as holy site tensions soar“. The earlier versions of that report correctly informed readers that a ‘Day of Rage’ had been called in advance but that information was removed from subsequent versions.

The article explains the background to its subject matter as follows:

“Hundreds were injured in the violence, after days of friction over a Jerusalem holy site boiled over. […]

Tensions have soared since two Israeli policemen were killed a week ago.

Three Israeli Arab gunmen shot the officers near the holy site known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif and to Jews as the Temple Mount. The gunmen were shot dead after being pursued on to the site.”

And later on in the report readers were told that: [emphasis added]

“In the wake of the killing of the police last Friday, Israel installed metal detectors at entrances to the holy site. The move, however, drew an angry reaction from Palestinian and Islamic leaders who say it is a violation of the status quo. […]

Israel says the measure is necessary for security after the weapons used to kill the policemen were smuggled into the hilltop compound. […]

Israel has repeatedly pledged to maintain the status quo – a delicate set of arrangements in place at the site for the past 50 years. Any changes there are often regarded by Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a sought-after state, as a violation of these arrangements.”

However, the BBC did not bother to inform its audiences what the status quo entails or that, despite what “Palestinian and Islamic leaders” may say, the installation of security measures after terrorists had weapons delivered to them inside al Aqsa mosque does not violate the existing arrangements which include the following:

“The Waqf, as an arm of the Jordanian Ministry of Sacred Properties, would continue to administer the site and would be responsible for the religious and civil arrangements concerning the Temple Mount.

The Israeli Police would be responsible for security within the holy compound, the interior area and its outskirts, the wall and the gates.”

This is of course not the first time that the BBC has referred to ‘the status quo’ on Temple Mount without properly explaining to audiences what that term actually means.

Additional recent BBC reports also amplified Palestinian messaging without clarification or qualification. An article that appeared on the BBC News website on July 22nd under the headline “Jerusalem: Metal detectors at holy site ‘could be removed’” failed to inform readers that installation of the metal detectors came after firearms were smuggled into al Aqsa mosque.

“Israel installed the detectors after two Israeli policemen were killed near there earlier this month.”

It then unquestioningly amplified baseless Palestinian claims:

“The measures angered the Palestinians, who accuse Israel of trying to take control over a sacred place.”

Another article – published on July 23rd under the title “Jerusalem: Israel installs security cameras near holy site” – also amplified baseless claims while failing to provide readers with the information that would enable them to judge the validity of such allegations.

“But Palestinians strongly object to the installation of metal detectors. They see it as a move by Israel to assert more control over the sacred site and as a violation of longstanding access arrangements.”

The BBC is obliged to “provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them”. The unchallenged amplification of one side’s baseless allegations and the repeated failure to properly explain the issues behind such highly inflammatory subject matter obviously do not meet that obligation.

Related Articles:

BBC backgrounder on Palestinian ‘metal detector’ outrage fails to tell all

BBC’s Connolly fails to tell all about the ‘status quo’ on Temple Mount

BBC coverage of Succot Temple Mount riots – part one

Why the BBC’s failure to cover faux outrage in Jerusalem matters in the UK

More conspiracy theory amplification from BBC’s Yolande Knell – and why it matters

BBC’s Yolande Knell ditches any semblance of impartiality