Three BBC articles on US aid promote an irrelevant false comparison

As was noted here at the time, the BBC News website’s January 16th report on the withholding of part of the United States’ annual donation to UNRWA – “US holds back $65m aid to Palestinians” – included a nugget of unrelated information under the sub-heading “How much aid does the US send to Palestinians?”:

“The US’s $370m dwarfs the amount given by other donors – in 2016, the second-largest donor, the EU, gave less than half as much to UNWRA, which runs educational, health and social programmes.

The US also donated $260m in bilateral aid, with much of it going towards projects administered by the US Agency for International Development (USAid).

Those projects are run by non-governmental organisations involved in humanitarian assistance, economic development, democratic reform, improving water access and other infrastructure, healthcare, education, and vocational training.

By contrast, Israel receives more than $3bn in military aid per year from the US.” [emphasis added]

The following day an additional article on the same topic appeared on the website – “UN alarmed as US cuts aid to Palestinian refugee agency” – and there BBC audiences were told that:

“Ms Nauert [US State Dept spokesperson] explained that the US would “like to see some revisions made in how Unrwa operates”, to ensure that the money was “best spent” so that people got the services they needed.

She did not mention whether US bilateral aid to the Palestinians was also at risk. That amounted to $260m in 2016, with much of the money going towards projects administered by the US Agency for International Development (USAid).

By contrast, Israel receives more than $3bn in military aid per year from the US.” [emphasis added]

On January 26th the BBC News website published a report titled “Trump threatens to stop aid to Palestinians” in which readers were informed that:

“The US announced earlier this month that it was withholding more than half of a tranche of funding for the UN agency supporting Palestinian refugees, amounting to about $65m (£46m).

But the US state department later confirmed this was not the aid Mr Trump was referring too. He was instead talking about bilateral funding for economic support and some security training.

US bilateral aid to the Palestinians amounted to $260m in 2016. By contrast, Israel receives more than $3bn in military aid per year from the US.” [emphasis added]

Obviously the amount of military aid the US chooses to give to Israel has nothing whatsoever to do with either of these stories.

Moreover, despite having introduced the topic, in none of those three articles did BBC journalists bother to clarify that Israel is a longstanding US ally or that currently some 74% (set to rise to 100% in 2019) of that military assistance is conditioned on it being spent on purchases from American companies: an arrangement described in the Washington Post as follows:

“In other words, U.S. foreign military financing is essentially a way of subsidizing its domestic defense industry while strengthening the military capabilities of its strategic allies.”

The promotion of a false comparison between the level of US donations to the PA and UNRWA and the amount of US military aid to Israel obviously contributes nothing to audience understanding of the stories the BBC purports to tell in these three articles. And yet, BBC journalists continue to repeatedly shoehorn that irrelevant information into reports supposedly about US donations to a UN agency and to the Palestinian Authority.

Related Articles:

BBC News report on UNRWA funding story omits relevant background

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BBC WS listeners get a homogeneous view of US aid to Palestinians – part one

The December 6th US proclamation recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city made it very clear that nothing in that announcement was intended to define the boundaries of the city.

“Today’s actions—recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announcing the relocation of our embassy—do not reflect a departure from the strong commitment of the United States to facilitating a lasting peace agreement. The United States continues to take no position on any final status issues. The specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final status negotiations between the parties. The United States is not taking a position on boundaries or borders. Above all, our greatest hope is for peace, including through a two-state solution, if agreed to by both sides.”

That key part of the announcement has not been featured widely in BBC coverage of the story’s various chapters and indeed audiences have been led to believe that the US announcement somehow compromises or negates final status talks on Jerusalem.  

Despite the US statement having specifically clarified that it does not define boundaries or borders, presenter Julian Marshall introduced an item (from 30:05 here and billed as examining the question of “who would lose out the most if President Trump followed through on his threat to cut funding to the Palestinians?”) aired in the January 3rd edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour‘ as follows:

[emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Marshall: “And now, Jerusalem – or rather the way in which President Trump’s recognition of the entire city as Israel’s capital has poisoned Washington’s relations with the Palestinians. The December the 6th declaration led Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to say that the United States could no longer play any role in the Middle East peace process. This week President Trump threatened to cut off the more than $300 million in aid that the United States gives to the Palestinians because of what he said was their lack of gratitude and unwillingness to talk to Israel. But the Palestinians say they won’t be blackmailed and have reiterated their position that East Jerusalem should be the capital of a future Palestinian state. Hanan Ashrawi is a senior Palestinian politician.”

Listeners were not told of the relevant fact that Hanan Ashrawi is also a member of the PLO executive committee and heads its department of culture and information.

Ashrawi: “They’re buying us in the same way as they threatened the rest of the world: if you vote against us we will stop assistance to you. Yes, the US has been paying hundreds of millions here and there, mainly spent on American [unintelligible] companies. But still, we can survive without American aid and there is no way in which we can accept or allow Trump to be…not just to be complicit in Israel’s illegal annexation of Jerusalem but to sabotage the basic requirements of an agreement that will have any claim to legitimacy and permanence.”

Marshall: “So if Mr Trump was to carry out his threat, how reliant are the Palestinians on US aid? Hugh Lovatt is a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations – a think tank – specialising on Israel and the Palestinian territories.”

That introduction obviously gives listeners the impression that they are about to hear from a neutral commentator but Hugh Lovatt has advocated for FIFA sanctions against Israeli football teams, has recommended that the EU support the compilation of a blacklist of “unlawful business activity related to settlements” and recognise “the State of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza based on the 1967 border” [sic] and believes that there are “moderates” within Hamas.

Lovatt: “So the US provides the Palestinians with about $700 million per year. That sum is split between UNRWA, which is the UN agency that provides relief and services to Palestinian refugees and about just under $400 million goes to that. And then the rest is actually sent to the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah and then that…the majority of that goes to USAID projects which provide humanitarian and development works and activities and then a rather small amount of that, which is I think $36 million, is provided to train PA security forces.”

Marshall: “And what percentage of the overall international aid that the Palestinians receive is the American funding?”

Lovatt: “So it depends how you count it but it’s…I would say it’s probably just under about 30, 40%. But what I think is important to say is actually, the EU and its member states are equally large if not a slightly larger donor of aid to the Palestinian Authority and to UNRWA.”

Marshall: “And do you think that the European Union would make up any shortfall were the Americans to withdraw aid?”

Lovatt: “I think if you look at the short-term there would certainly be an effort within the EU to look at how the unit’s member states can buttress the PA budget which is currently running at a bit of a deficit. But, you know, given the vast amounts of US aid that we’re talking about, you know, over the mid to long-term it’s not imaginable that the EU could fully replace that sum of money.”

Marshall: “So the Palestinian Authority should be rather worried at the moment?”

Lovatt: “They should be but I think we should also be worried. I mean after all, there is a reason that we provide such vast amounts of aid to the Palestinians and it’s not just benevolence. It’s because it also suits our geo-political interests. So, you know, Europeans, Americans, it helps stabilise to a certain extent the Palestinian territories and it has been accused by Palestinians of fragmenting Palestinian civil society and mobilisation aimed at the occupation. It has also, you know, been credited rightly or wrongly with actually having laid the foundation for a Palestinian state. So I think if you take away this aid then it’s not just a Palestinian issue. It actually calls into question the whole basis for international engagement in the Middle East peace process.”

Marshall: “Hugh Lovatt from the European Council on Foreign Relations.”

If listeners were expecting to hear a view reflecting a different angle on the story at that point, they would have been disappointed – as we shall see in part two of this post.