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 & Angus Roxburgh promote the Church of Scotland narrative on the Middle East

Timing – so they say – is everything, and so it is with interest (more on that later) that one notes the BBC’s broadcast and publication of a feature by Angus Roxburgh on the Scots Hotel in Tiberias. 

As well as appearing in the Magazine section of the BBC News website, the piece was also broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, October 31st (produced by Caitlin Smith) and promoted by its writer/narrator on Twitter.

First, let us take a look at the online version of the article, in which Roxburgh uses a story supposedly about the Church of Scotland’s white elephant on the shores (rather than “banks” as he stated in the radio broadcast) of the Sea of Galilee as a convenient method of advancing a political narrative. 

Roxburgh informs us that:

“Churchmen were acutely aware that if they sold the property it would be bought by Israelis, which would be a blow not just to Christianity in the region but also to the Palestinians, whose cause the Church of Scotland strongly supports.”

The potential purchasing of property no longer needed by the Church by Israelis would be a “blow to Christianity in the region”? No doubt many of us would very much like to hear an expansion of the ‘logic’ behind that statement. 

Perniciously, Roxburgh manages to class the second Intifada terror war – which, as well as resulting in the murders of over 1,000 Israeli citizens of all faiths and the injury to thousands of others, also had a detrimental effect upon the tourism industry in Israel – as “civil unrest”.

“The hotel has been dogged with problems ever since the decision was taken to upgrade it. Civil unrest led to a slump in tourism.”

Equally bizarre is Roxburgh’s claim that:

“Rooms here cost as much as £200 ($320) a night, which puts it out of reach of most local people. Certainly few Palestinians, who it was originally hoped might come here to rub shoulders with Jewish people, could stay here.”

Obviously, Roxburgh (and, apparently, his hosts) have never travelled the ten minutes up the hill to Upper Tiberias where Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and members of other faiths rub shoulders every day at the ‘Big’ shopping centre, and in particular at the local branch of the Rami Levy supermarket, without needing to pay £200 for the pleasure of doing so. All the same, it is interesting to note that Roxburgh stereotypically assigns lower and higher economic abilities to certain sectors of the population.  

Later, Roxburgh goes for a drive with the Church of Scotland Minister in Tiberias, Colin Johnston.

“In the village of Reineh, near Nazareth, Father Samuel Barhoum tells me how proud he is of the links with the Kirk. “We are a forsaken minority here,” he says, alluding to the fact that outside the Middle East many people are unaware that there are Palestinian Christians as well as Muslims.”

There are indeed Palestinian Christians in the wider region, and there are also Arab Israeli Christians, including Father Barhoum’s Anglican congregations in Reineh and Nazareth. In fact, around 80% of over 150,000 Christians living in Israel are Arabs. Strangely, Roxburgh elects to identify the latter as ‘Palestinians’, whilst neglecting to mention that Israel is the only place in the Middle East in which the Christian population is safe and growing

Roxburgh chooses to interpret Fr Barhoum’s use of the phrase “forsaken minority” in a very specific manner. Had he dug a little deeper – having first taken note of the fact that forsaken and forgotten are not the same – he might perhaps have addressed the subject of some members of the Christian Church’s abandonment of Christians in the wider Middle East to their fate of harassment by Islamist extremists and the resulting mass emigration.

Whilst Arab Israeli Christians are protected by the state – unlike many of their co-religionists elsewhere in the Middle East as a whole and including Palestinian Authority-controlled regions – here, for example, are photographs taken last year outside a Christian church in Nazareth which raise an area of discussion which neither Roxburgh nor his hosts seem keen to address.

But instead of investigating that story, Roxburgh chooses to go down the well-trodden route, faithfully parroting his Church of Scotland hosts’ political line, but without actually delving too much into what interpretations the Church gives to the phrase “Palestinian cause”. 

“The Church of Scotland is fiercely supportive of the Palestinian cause. But ironically the existence of the Scots Hotel – which relies to some extent on Israeli goodwill and receives hefty Israeli tourism grants – is said by some to tie the Church’s hands.

Last year the General Assembly abandoned a motion calling for a boycott of goods from illegal Israeli settlements in Palestine because the Israeli government was proposing legislation that would make such calls a criminal offence.

Speakers condemned what they felt was Israeli “intimidation”. “My view,” says Johnston McKay, “is that the Church has not been as seriously critical of Israel’s policies as it ought to have been… it is compromised because it needs the support of Israel’s government for this hotel.” “

Like the Church of Scotland as a whole, its mission in Tiberias did not always mix politics and religion and in fact, had Angus Roxburgh bothered to speak to any of the local population, he would probably have come across voices nostalgic for the old days in which relations were cooperative, mutually respectful and warm. 

In recent years, however, those relations have changed, as politics and an often willfully blind reading of the Arab-Israeli conflict (as reflected in many of the posts upon the blog of the Minister in Tiberias since 2009, Colin Johnston) took a more prevalent place on the church’s agenda. 

As stated in Angus Roxburgh’s article, the Church of Scotland has, unfortunately, pinned its colours to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions mast, and despite its protestations at being supposedly “intimidated” by Israel, still managed to pass a resolution which: 

 “instruct[s] the Church and Society Council to work with ecumenical and civil society partners to continue to lobby for the introduction of labelling of products in the UK which clearly identify whether they are from an illegal Israeli settlement.”

Currently, the Church of Scotland is promoting “an Advent journey with the Palestinian people” on its website, which includes the incredibly insensitive graphic below and promotion of the BDS-supporting, one-state-promoting and theologically problematic 2009 Kairos Palestine document

In 2011, the authors of the Kairos Palestine document saw fit to reprimand the Archbishop of Canterbury when he gave his views on the subject of the exodus of Christians from Bethlehem to BBC Radio 4. 

The Church of Scotland is also currently sponsoring a conference to be held on November 2nd at the Quaker Meeting House in Edinburgh. The Balfour Project, as it is named, purports to contribute to justice, peace and reconciliation in the Middle East, and in particular the resolution of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians”. A look at the project’s organisers, however, indicates that this is just yet another anti-Israel campaign. 

And so, the Church of Scotland will now collaborate with – among others – Mary Grey; a patron of ‘Friends of Sabeel UK, Anne Clayton of the same group, (the organization with which they are ‘friends’ is headed by one of the Kairos document’s co-authors, Naim Ateek),  Ilan Pappe, Abe Hayeem, Massoud Shadjareh of the Iranian regime-backed, Hizballah-supporting Islamic Human Rights Commission and Anglican vicar Stephen Sizer, who just recently became the subject of an official complaint by the Board of Deputies of British Jews due to his anti-Semitic rhetoric. 

The timing of Angus Roxburgh’s article and broadcast – whilst not necessarily intentional – is, therefore, significant. As the Church of Scotland heads off even further into the realms of anti-Israel activism coloured with more than a tint of racism and supersessionism, the BBC sees fit to unquestioningly advance that organisation’s political narrative on the subject of ‘Palestine’ in an ostensibly whimsy travel piece – rather than asking more difficult questions about the real threats to Christianity in the Middle East (excluding Israeli property developers, of course) or even what is going on inside the Church of Scotland itself.