More narrative-driven ‘history’ from the BBC World Service

The August 8th edition of the BBC World Service radio history programme ‘Witness‘ is titled “The Murder of Naji al-Ali” and it is described as follows in its synopsis:

“The acclaimed Palestinian cartoonist was gunned down in London in 1987. His attackers have never been identified. Naji al-Ali’s cartoons were famous across the Middle East. Through his images he criticized Israeli and US policy in the region, but unlike many, he also lambasted Arab despotic regimes and the leadership of the PLO. His signature character was called Handala – a poor Palestinian refugee child with spiky hair, who would always appear, facing away with his hands clasped behind his back, watching the events depicted in the cartoon. Alex Last has been speaking to his son, Khalid, about his father’s life and death.”

Despite that synopsis, listeners actually hear very little about the substance of Ali’s criticism of Arab regimes and the Palestinian leadership and even less about how that may have been connected to his murder. They do however hear promotion of the familiar context-free narrative of displaced Palestinians with no responsibility for or connection to the events that resulted in their displacement.

Erasing the essential words ‘British Mandate’ from his use of the term Palestine, presenter Alex Last introduces his guest:

Last: “Some fifty years earlier Naji al Ali was born in a village in Galilee in 1936 in what was then Palestine. Khalid al Ali is Naji’s eldest son.”

 Ali: “The village had Muslims, Christians and Jews and they’re all playing together and sharing things together, I mean, in the village square, so he had a happy life, a normal life.”

The 1931 census shows that the village concerned – al Shajara in the sub-district of Tiberias – had at the time 584 residents: 556 Muslims and 28 Christians – but no Jews. A similar demographic make-up appears in the 1945 census. In contrast to the idyllic impression created by Ali, the villagers of al Shajara frequently attacked their Jewish neighbours in the moshava Sejera (known today as Ilaniya) during the ‘Arab Revolt‘ that began in 1936.

Listeners then hear Last say:

Last: “But in 1948, following the creation of the State of Israel and in the fighting that ensued, at least three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs either fled or were driven from their homes. Naji, his family and the other Palestinian Arabs in their village were among them. They became refugees. Naji ended up in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon. It was an experience that would define him.”

Contrary to the impression given by Last, the fighting did not break out after and because of “the creation of the State of Israel” but had begun well before that event took place following Arab rejection of the Partition Plan in November 1947. Listeners are not informed of the all important context of the infiltration of the Arab League’s ‘Arab Liberation Army’ into the Galilee in early January of 1948 and the series of attacks it launched against Jewish communities in the region, including the moshava Sejera. The fighting in Naji al Ali’s village of al Shajara actually took place on May 6th 1948 – eight days before Israel declared independence.

The narrative of passive victims with no responsibility for the conflict that saw them displaced is then further promoted by Ali.

Ali: “Being used to your surroundings, being part of the family, the wider villages, this overnight ended completely and that was a great shock. And suddenly [they] became refugees in a tent. There’s no income. They lost their land. They’ve lost their businesses. No end of [in] sight in a way. It was imprinted on them. I mean my father, his main agenda is Palestine. For him, till the last day of his life he wanted to go back to his village, he wanted to go back to Palestine. It’s very straightforward, it’s very simple. He could not see why not.”

A similarly context-free representation comes at 05:05 when Last tells listeners:

Last: “In 1982 Naji was in Beirut during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps; events which, says Khalid, had a profound effect on his father.”

Audiences are not informed that – despite the impression they may very well have received from Last’s portrayal – the Sabra and Shatila massacres were carried out by a Lebanese Christian militia.

The programme ‘Witness’ purports to provide BBC World Service audiences with “the story of our times told by the people who were there”. All too often, however, we see that when the story relates to Israel, narrative takes priority over history.

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BBC WS history show ‘explains’ Camp David summit failure

h/t JB

The August 4th edition of the BBC World Service radio history programme ‘Witness‘ is described in its synopsis as follows:

“In 2000 the US led a major effort to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Bill Clinton brought the two sides together at the leafy presidential retreat in Maryland. The Israeli leader, Ehud Barak and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, failed to reach any agreement and the summit ended in failure. Farhana Haider has been speaking to the senior American diplomatic interpreter and policy adviser, Gamal Helal who attended the Camp David summit.”

Promotion of the programme on Twitter showed that it purports to inform BBC audiences why the Camp David summit failed.

So what do listeners hear on that topic and what conclusions would they reach? [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

After introducing the programme, presenter Farhana Haider tells audiences that:

“Israel had been pushing for this summit. Chairman Arafat for the Palestinians had argued there’s not been enough progress on earlier agreements to merit such a high level meeting but President Clinton had pressed ahead.”

Later on Haider tells listeners that the actual process of negotiation:

“…involved the negotiating teams meeting with each other and also separately with the Americans on most days. Face to face contact between Arafat and Barak was very limited. Mistrust was clearly running deep, says Gamal.”

Helal: “The main meal was dinner and all three parties were attended by the principals. So during dinner was the only time when they would sit together. […] Sort of like mingling. What did not happen was a bilateral Palestinian-Israeli talks or the trilateral talks at the principals level. That did not happen because Prime Minister Barak did not want it.”

Haider alleges:

“…both sides were clearly under pressure from some of their own supporters not to make concessions. The US and the Israelis had also overestimated Arafat’s willingness to bargain away sovereignty over Jerusalem. In fact, the city’s final status was as much of a red line for Arafat as it was for Ehud Barak.”

 Gamal Helal recounts how, in a one-on-one conversation with Arafat he tried to persuade him to seize the historic opportunity and that:

“…at the end he looked at me and he said ‘I can’t’. And I said ‘why can’t you?’ He said if I accept this they will kill me’.”

Listeners never find out who ‘they’ are and Haider asks “could you sense his frustration?” without clarifying whether she is referring to Arafat or Clinton. Helal answers:

“Yes and I think there was also a lot of frustration as a result of Prime Minister Barak’s behaviour and attitude during Camp David. For example he promised that there would be negotiations around the clock and the two sides would be meeting discussing all permanent status issues and none of that happened. He basically locked himself up in his cabin. He met only with President Clinton. There was no bilateral meetings with Chairman Arafat except a very short encounter but no actual negotiations between the two leaders. He was not engaged at all. The Palestinians, when they saw that they decided to withdraw and simply say no to everything.”

Haider sums up the story:

“After 15 days of talks, nothing was agreed. Though President Clinton came and went, leaving the parties to continue their discussions, the basic problem was that the maximum Israel offered was less than the minimum the Palestinians could accept. On July 15 2000 the parties left Camp David, blaming the other for the failure.”

The Camp David summit did not end on July 15th 2000 but actually took place between the 11th and 25th of July. Although this programme clearly steers listeners toward the view that the negotiations failed because of “Barak’s behaviour and attitude”, a report published in the New York Times the day after the summit concluded gives a different account.

“The president [Clinton] and other American mediators made clear that it was Yasir Arafat, the Palestinian leader, who balked in the end, and by all accounts the issue was Jerusalem, the Holy City both Israelis and Palestinians claim as their sacred capital.

Speaking at the White House, Mr. Clinton singled out the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, for his readiness to make hard compromises. ”I would be making a mistake not to praise Barak, because I think he took a big risk,” the president said. ”The prime minister moved forward more from his initial position than Chairman Arafat, particularly surrounding the question of Jerusalem.””

In an interview he gave to Ha’aretz in 2002, Ehud Barak cast light on the circumstances behind Helal’s claim that he “locked himself up in his cabin” and the allegation that the Palestinian delegation’s negative responses were the product of Barak not being “engaged”.

“The moment of truth at Camp David occurred when Clinton brought his ideas and put them on the table. Overall, Clinton’s ideas said that in return for ending the conflict and acquiescing to some Israeli security demands and leaving 80 percent of the settlers in Israeli territory, [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat would get a sovereign Palestinian state, demilitarized and contiguous, in ninety-something percent of the West Bank and a hundred percent of the Gaza Strip. Including exit points to the neighboring countries, a hold in East Jerusalem and the right of return to the Palestinian state but not to Israel. Israel would agree to accept a certain amount of refugees on a humanitarian basis but not a single one on the basis of the right of return.

For us these ideas are no simple matter. They are far from a simple matter. Especially when you try to go into a bit of detail about Jerusalem. But we held lengthy discussions and in the end we decided, because of considerations of historic responsibility, that we have to accept the plan as a basis for discussion. Arafat twisted and turned with it and effectively said no. Clinton went back to him and pounded on the table and Arafat again did not answer but effectively gave an answer that was no.

At this stage Clinton has to go to Okinawa, for a meeting of the G-8. So I say to him, Look, until you extract readiness from Arafat to accept your ideas as a basis for negotiations, there is nothing to discuss. It is hard for us, too, we also have reservations, these ideas are very close to the Palestinian position, but we accept them as a basis for discussion. When you get a positive answer out of Arafat, I’m here. You know where my cabin is.

Clinton goes off to Okinawa, leaving me with the impression that he understands that there can be no discussion. But he leaves a different impression with his staff and with the Palestinians. They understand that in the meantime the discussions can proceed with [secretary of state Madeleine] Albright. When I discover this, I find myself in an impossible position. That is the origin of the story that Barak locked himself in his cabin in a state of depression. But in fact I had no choice. I couldn’t undercut Albright but I couldn’t continue with the negotiations, either. So I told everyone to leave my cabin and I did some sports and I read the book `Five Days in London’ from cover to cover.”

As for Haider’s claims that “both sides were clearly under pressure from some of their own supporters not to make concessions” and her description of Jerusalem as “a red line […] for Ehud Barak”, Israel’s top negotiator at Camp David, Shlomo Ben Ami, has some interesting recollections.

“Question: I understand that there was a stage at which Barak astonished everyone by agreeing to divide the Old City of Jerusalem into two quarters under Israeli sovereignty and two quarters under Palestinian sovereignty. Did he do that on his own or was it a joint decision made by the entire Israeli team?

Ben Ami: “As I told you, I suggested that a special regime be introduced in the Old City. In the wake of that discussion, sometime later, the president put forward a two-two proposal, meaning a clear division of sovereignty. In a conversation with the president, Ehud agreed that that would be a basis for discussion. I remember walking in the fields with Martin Indyk [of the State Department] that night and both of us saying that Ehud was nuts. We didn’t understand how he could even have thought of agreeing. Afterward I wrote in my diary that everyone thinks that Amnon [Lipkin-] Shahak and I are pushing Barak to the left, but the truth is that he was the one who pushed us leftward. At that stage – this was the start of the second week of the meeting – he was far more courageous than we were. Truly courageous. Clinton told me a few times: I have never met such a courageous person.””

And Ben Ami also comments on why the Camp David summit failed.

“Camp David collapsed over the fact that they [the Palestinians] refused to get into the game. They refused to make a counter proposal. No one demanded that they give a positive response to that particular proposal of Clinton’s. Contrary to all the nonsense spouted by the knights of the left, there was no ultimatum. What was being asked of the Palestinians was far more elementary: that they put forward, at least once, their own counter proposal. That they not just say all the time `That’s not good enough’ and wait for us to make more concessions. That’s why the president sent [CIA director George] Tenet to Arafat that night – in order to tell him that it would be worth his while to think it over one more time and not give an answer until the morning. But Arafat couldn’t take it anymore. He missed the applause of the masses in Gaza.” […]

“But when all is said and done, Camp David failed because Arafat refused to put forward proposals of his own and didn’t succeed in conveying to us the feeling that at some point his demands would have an end. One of the important things we did at Camp David was to define our vital interests in the most concise way. We didn’t expect to meet the Palestinians halfway, and not even two-thirds of the way. But we did expect to meet them at some point. The whole time we waited to see them make some sort of movement in the face of our far-reaching movement. But they didn’t. The feeling was that they were constantly trying to drag us into some sort of black hole of more and more concessions without it being at all clear where all the concessions were leading, what the finish line was.”

Obviously the explanation of why the Camp David talks failed given in this BBC World Service ‘history’ programme is heavily tipped towards a particular politicised narrative that does not accurately reflect the whole story and therefore misleads BBC audiences.

BBC WS history programme dumbs down the story of a border dispute

The June 29th edition of the BBC World Service radio history programme ‘Witness‘ was titled “The Disputed Resort of Taba” and it was presented as follows in the synopsis.

“A dispute between Israel and Egypt over a tiny strip of beach on the Red Sea soured relations between the two countries for years. Israel captured Taba on the Sinai Peninsula during the Six Day War, but refused to return it until 1989 when the Egyptians bought the luxury hotel and beach-hut village that Israeli developers had built on it. Louise Hidalgo talks to former US judge Abraham Sofaer who helped negotiate the deal.”

Somewhat bizarrely given its focus on a political/geographical dispute, presenter Louise Hidalgo introduced the programme as “part of our series looking at the history of tourism” before explaining the story.

“It was 1985 and Judge Abraham Sofaer’s first experience of trying to mediate an agreement in a part of the world known for some of the most intractable disagreements on earth. This one was over a small spit of beach 750 yards long called Taba, in the top-most corner of the Sinai Peninsula and in the southern-most tip of Israel. The Egyptians said Taba was part of Sinai and theirs. The Israelis disagreed.”

Later on listeners were told that:

“Egypt and Israel had signed their historic peace treaty in 1979 and under the Camp David Accord Egypt recognised Israel in return for Israel handing back the Sinai Peninsula which it had captured during the 1967 Six Day War. The Israelis kept their promise and three years later withdrew from all of Sinai except for Taba. And in the years that followed the tiny enclave on the Israeli border had become a running sore in the peace between these two adversaries.”

Listeners then heard an unidentified recording – presumably from the BBC’s archive.

“The Israelis built their frontier post just north of the hotel. The Egyptians put up their post just to the south. And in between sits the hotel; run by the Israelis, lusted after by the Egyptians. To the Israelis it’s a matter of simple economics: Taba is a great draw for tourists. For the Egyptians it’s a matter of principle.”

All well and good, but then the programme got to the subject of the Sinai Peninsula’s old boundary, with Hidalgo saying to Sofaer:

“And something else that you found out during those negotiations was that the formidable Israeli politician and soldier the late Ariel Sharon who’d played a big part in capturing the Sinai Peninsula in 1967, after the war Sharon had had these pillars or posts marking the border around Taba moved, hadn’t he? This was the border that had been set decades earlier by the…by the British. What happened?”

Sofaer: “It was a feeling on Sharon’s part that the British had been deliberately unfair in determining the border and the border where the pillars were was not an advantageous border for Israel. And then he essentially ordered his people after the ’67 war to knock down the border pillars […] and the Egyptians said we’re sure they knocked down the border pillars deliberately. And the Israelis would tell me ‘yes; I was there’ said this general. ‘I was there and I saw him order that the pillars be knocked down’. So there was this sense among the Egyptians that the Israelis were just being willful.”

Whether or not that story is accurate is unclear but certainly BBC audiences are not given the full background to the story. No attempt is made to explain why or on what authority the British – who at the time had occupied Egypt since 1882 without any legal basis – set that boundary in 1906. In his book “The Boundaries of Modern Palestine 1840-1947”, Professor Gideon Biger explains:

In other words, the pillars that may or may not have been “knocked down” did not necessarily reflect the boundary defined in the agreement between the British and the Ottomans.

As the New York Times reported at the time of the dispute:

“The Israeli claim is based on the fact that when the Egyptians and the Turks marked the Sinai border, they said each border pillar could be seen from the one before it.

Israel contends that the border runs either through the ”granite knob” overlooking Nelson Village or through the cluster of palm trees at the end of the public beach – both of which afford a clear view of the previous pillar, even though today there are no border pillars at either place.

The Egyptians assert that the border is a few hundreds to the east of the Sonesta Hotel, where one can find atop a hill the remains of a supposed border pillar.

The only problem is that from the Egyptian spot it is impossible to see the penultimate pillar, which means no inter-visibility as the history books said.”

Towards the end of the programme Hidalgo told listeners that:

“An international panel was set up to arbitrate on the border, eventually ruling in favour of Egypt.”

The details of that panel’s deliberations and conclusions – including a copy of the original Anglo-Ottoman agreement and Professor Ruth Lapidoth’s dissenting opinion – can be found here.

Sadly for audiences, that complex story with its British colonial roots has been dumbed down by the BBC into a tale of an Israeli moving some posts. 

 

 

BBC World Service history programmes on the Six Day War – part two

The second part of an account of the Six Day War on the BBC World Service radio history programme ‘Witness‘ was broadcast on June 8th (and repeated in the World Service programme ‘The History Hour’ on June 12th).

Titled “The Six Day War – A Jordanian View“, the programme’s synopsis reads as follows:

“In 1967 East Jerusalem was under the control of Jordan and Captain Nabih El Suhaimat was stationed there. In early June he and his soldiers fought in vain against Israeli paratroopers. But they lost control of the Old City and he was forced to flee Jerusalem in disguise. He has spoken to Zeinab Dabaa about the Six Day War.” [all emphasis in bold added]

That inadequate and evasive portrayal of course fails to inform listeners that the reason Jordan ‘controlled’ parts of Jerusalem on the eve of the Six Day War was because 19 years earlier it had invaded – and subsequently occupied and illegally annexed – territories designated as part of the homeland for the Jewish people at the San Remo conference in 1920.

Zeinab Dabaa’s introduction to the programme was similarly uninformative:

“Today we are going back to June 1967 and the Six Day War in the Middle East. In the second of two programmes about the conflict, I’ve been speaking to a former Jordanian army officer who tried to defend East Jerusalem which at that time Jordan controlled.”

Likewise her subsequent reference to that topic:

“Ever since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, East Jerusalem – including the Old City which contains some of Islam and Judaism’s most holy sites – had been under the control of Jordan.”

Dabaa’s presentation of the background to the Six Day War included a vague and unexplained reference to “escalating tension”.

“It was on the 5th of June 1967 after months of escalating tension that the Six Day War began. The Israelis effectively wiped out the Egyptian air force on the first day of fighting. It was the beginning of a series of bitter defeats for Egypt, Syria and Jordan.”

A rare reference to the actions of terror groups was presented in partial terminology and without any explanation of what those groups were supposedly ‘resisting’ at a time when ‘occupation’ did not exist:

“By the mid-60s Palestinian resistance groups supported by Egypt and Syria were carrying out regular attacks on the Israeli border. This was followed by Israeli reprisals and a gradual build-up of Arab military forces around the border. Then, on the 30th of May 1967, King Hussein of Jordan and President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt signed a joint defence agreement. During the signing ceremony, Nasser said ‘our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel’.”

However, completely absent from this programme’s presentation of the factors that caused the Six Day War were Soviet disinformation, Nasser’s expulsion of UN peacekeepers from Sinai, the subsequent massing of Egyptian troops in the peninsula and Egypt’s closure of the Straits of Tiran.  

Moreover, not only was the Israeli prime minister’s appeal to Jordan not to join the conflict erased from the picture given to World Service listeners but the fighting in Jerusalem was inaccurately portrayed as having been initiated by Israel.

Dabaa: “On the day the war started Captain Suhaimat and his company did their best to defend the Mandelbaum Gate into all Jerusalem.”

Suhaimat: “The fighting began at 11:25 am. The Israelis attacked us with light weapons.”

Dabaa: “But on Tuesday the Israelis started to intensify their attack.”

In fact, as Jordan’s King Hussein documented himself in his 1969 book, the Jordanians had been attacking Israel for several hours before any Israeli response came.

“It was now 9 A.M. on Monday, June 5, and we were at war.

Riad [the Egyptian general who commanded Jordanian forces] increased our fire power against the Israeli air bases by directing our heavy artillery – long-range 155’s – on the Israeli air force installations within our line of fire. Our field artillery also went into action, and our Hawker Hunters [British-supplied fighter jets] were ready to take part in the combined operation with the Iraqi and Syrians. […]

… we received a telephone call at Air Force Headquarters from U.N. General Odd Bull. It was a little after 11 A.M.

The Norwegian General informed me that the Israeli Prime Minister had addressed an appeal to Jordan. Mr. Eshkol had summarily announced that the Israeli offensive had started that morning, Monday June 5, with operations directed against the United Arab Republic, and then he added: “If you don’t intervene, you will suffer no consequences.”

By that time we were already fighting in Jerusalem and our planes had just taken off to bomb Israeli airbases. So I answered Odd Bull:

“They started the battle. Well they are receiving our reply by air.”

Three times our Hawker Hunters attacked the bases at Natanya in Israel without a loss. And our pilots reported that they destroyed four enemy planes on the ground, the only ones they had seen. […]

At 12:30 on that 5th of June came the first Israeli response to the combined bombing by the Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians.”

Listeners also heard of displaced Palestinians – but not of the fact that the Arabs living in the areas occupied by Jordan in 1948 and illegally annexed in 1950 had been given Jordanian citizenship.

“On the 10th of June 1967 the war ended. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were either displaced from their homes or found themselves living under Israeli control. Israel now controlled much more territory including the Golan Heights, the Sinai desert, the West Bank and the Old City of Jerusalem.”

Both these BBC World Service history programmes supposedly provide audiences with information intended to enhance their understanding of historic events. Clearly the many omissions of important background in both these episodes, together with the second programme’s presentation of an inaccurate account of the timeline of fighting in Jerusalem, severely hinder listener understanding of the Six Day War.

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BBC World Service history programmes on the Six Day War – part one

 

 

BBC World Service history programmes on the Six Day War – part one

The edition of the BBC World Service radio history programme ‘Witness‘ that was broadcast on June 7th 2017 (and repeated in the same station’s programme ‘The History Hour’ on June 12th) is titled “The Six Day War – An Israeli View” and is described as follows in its synopsis:

“On 7 June 1967, Israel captured the whole of Jerusalem during the Six Day War, including its most holy site, the Temple Mount that is revered by both Jews and Muslims. Louise Hidalgo has been talking to Arik Achmon, one of the first Israeli paratroopers to enter the old city that day and reach the Western Wall.”

In among her conversation with Arik Achmon, presenter Louise Hidalgo provided listeners with background to the story, some of which – to the programme’s credit – BBC audiences rarely hear. However, other parts of that background information were incomplete and unhelpful.

Hidalgo opened the programme thus: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

“Today we go back to the Six Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbours: a war that reshaped the Middle East. During those six days, Jordan, Egypt and Syria lost control of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights. But perhaps the Israelis’ most symbolic victory came in Jerusalem: the city revered equally by Jews, Muslims and Christians. “

While one can question the use of the word ‘equally’ in that portrayal, Hidalgo’s subsequent presentation of the significance of Temple Mount was accurate.

“The old walled city contains one of the world’s most holy sites, the Temple Mount. Haram al Sharif in Arabic, Har Habayit in Hebrew.”

“…this [the Old City of Jerusalem] was home to this hugely revered site the Temple Mount; the Jews’ holiest site – the site of the first and second temples – and the Western Wall where, until then, Jews hadn’t been able to pray. And also so important to Muslims: the third holiest site after Mecca and Medina.”

Hidalgo’s presentation of the causes of the Six Day War included an important – yet rare – reference to the underlying Arab refusal to accept the existence of the Jewish state.

“By 1967 Israel had existed for almost 20 years but its Arab neighbours refused to accept it. The rhetoric was becoming more and more bellicose.”

While the Egyptian-Jordanian defence pact was mentioned by Hidalgo and Arik Achmon spoke of the build-up of Egyptian forces in Sinai, no mention was made of Nasser’s expulsion of UN forces from Sinai or of the casus belli – Egypt’s closure of the Straits of Tiran. Also absent from Hidalgo’s portrayal was Levi Eshkol’s appeal to Jordan not to join the hostilities which, had it not been rejected, would have meant that Jerusalem would not have been included in the fighting.

“On the 30th of May President [sic] Hussein of Jordan and the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser signed a defence agreement.”

“Early on Monday the 5th of June Israeli jets attacked the Egyptian airforce.”

Commendably, Hidalgo made a rare reference to Israel’s actions after the war ended:

“Those six days gave Israel not just control of the whole of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount for the first time, they also gave it control of territory many times larger than its own size. After the war the Israelis gave administrative control of the Temple Mount to the Jordanian Islamic Trust – or Waqf. Years later they’d also give back Sinai to the Egyptians.”

However, presentation of the relevant background information concerning the 1948 Jordanian invasion of territories designated as part of the homeland for the Jewish people at the San Remo conference in 1920 and the subsequent 19 year-long Jordanian occupation of parts of Jerusalem was – as is usually the case in BBC content – decidedly evasive and unhelpful to audiences.

“Since the formation of the State of Israel in 1948 it [the Old City of Jerusalem] had been controlled by Jordan but on Wednesday the 7th of June 1967, Israel captured it.”

“This city line since 1948 had divided Jordanian controlled East Jerusalem – which included the Old City with its maze of narrow alleyways and its holiest site Temple Mount – from the west of Jerusalem which the Israelis controlled.”

“No Israeli soldier had set foot in the Old City, had they? Israel had lost its only foothold there, the Jewish Quarter, in the 1948 war…”

The following day’s edition of ‘Witness’ – which also told the story of the fighting in Jerusalem during the Six Day War but from the point of view of a Jordanian soldier – will be discussed in part two of this post.

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BBC WS ‘Witness’ blames Israel for Iraqi nuclear weapons programme

h/t JB

BBC WS radio history programme ‘Witness’ describes itself as providing audiences with “the story of our times told by the people who were there”. Its June 9th edition – presented by Louise Hidalgo – was devoted to promoting the notion that the Iraqi nuclear weapons programme began after – and because of – the Israeli airstrike on the Osirak reactor in 1981.

The synopsis to the promoted podcast reads:

Witness 9 6 podcast

The synopsis to the online version of the programme reads:

“In June 1981 Israeli war planes destroyed Iraq’s new, French-built nuclear reactor. Two senior Iraqi nuclear scientists, who were in Baghdad that day, tell Witness how the world’s first air strike against a nuclear plant would trigger Iraq’s secret programme to acquire nuclear weapons.”

In Hidalgo’s introduction, listeners heard the following:WItness 9 6

“Today we’re going back to June 1981 when the Israelis attacked and destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor – Osirak – in the first preemptive airstrike on a nuclear facility that the world had ever seen. A few years ago ‘Witness’ talked to the Israeli pilot who led that raid. Today we talk to two Iraqis who were on the ground; both nuclear scientists who would be closely involved in the secret mission to acquire nuclear weapons that followed – and they say was triggered – by the Israelis’ action.”

‘Operation Opera’, which took place on June 7th 1981, was not “the first preemptive airstrike on a nuclear facility that the world had ever seen”: on September 30th the previous year, Iranian planes had bombed the same nuclear facility near Baghdad causing light damage.

Iraq’s nuclear programme had of course begun many years before Operation Opera and in September 1975 the then vice-president Saddam Hussein declared in a newspaper interview “that procurement of a French-built reactor represented ‘the first Arab attempt at nuclear arming'”.

Nevertheless audiences heard Hildalgo pose the following ‘questions’:

“Was the reactor about to become operational? Was it a threat to Israel? Dhafir Selbi insists it was not. Instead he says what happened that June made Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein determined that if Iraq couldn’t develop nuclear facilities openly without fear of attack, it would do so secretly.”

Listeners also heard Selbi make the preposterous claim that were it not for Operation Opera, the 1991 Gulf War might have been avoided. Hidalgo made no effort to remind audiences that the war was the result of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and totally unrelated to Israel.

“If the Israelis had not bombard us we wouldn’t have gone to a covert activity and everybody would have been happy. The IAEA inspectors are [were] there continuously; this is a prerequisite for the nuclear reactor […] and Iraq would maybe, maybe wouldn’t have gone through the 1991 war.”

Selbi also made the following unchallenged claim:

“This line of activity – enriching uranium – we did not even think about it before the bombardment.”

The second of Hidalgo’s two interviewees was self-described Fatah conscript Imad Khadduri (see page 38/39 here) to whom the BBC previously provided a platform for the promotion of similar claims in an interview ten years ago. Khadduri and Selbi are among the co-authors of a book they self-published in 2011 and among the protagonists of the historically problematic notion that the Iraqi nuclear weapons programme only came into being after – and as a result of – Operation Opera.

The unchallenged promotion of such distorted historical accounts cannot possibly be said to contribute to meeting the BBC’s remit of building “a global understanding of international issues”.

Erasing the word terror from a BBC WS programme about Hamas

The February 16th edition of the BBC World Service radio history programme ‘Witness’ – presented by Louise Hidalgo – was titled “The Attempt to Kill Khaled Meshaal” and its synopsis reads as follows:Witness 16 2

“In 1997 Israeli secret agents tried to kill a Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, in Jordan. But they botched their assassination attempt and a diplomatic scandal followed. In February 1998 the head of Israel’s secret service, Mossad, was forced to step down after an official inquiry into what went wrong. Hear from Mishka ben David, a former Mossad agent, who played a part in the events in Jordan.”

Throughout the nine minute-long broadcast listeners heard the head of the Hamas political bureau since 1996 described as:

“…the Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal…”

“…Hamas’ political leader in Jordan….”

“…this man Khaled Meshaal…”  

“…a leader of the Islamic movement Hamas…”

What they did not hear at any point was the use of the word terror to describe either the organization headed by Masha’al or the suicide bombings it carried out against Israeli civilian targets which are mentioned in this programme.

As this example shows, the BBC’s long running failure to distinguish between the means and ends of Hamas and other terror organisations – and the resulting compromises in accuracy and impartiality – is not only limited to news reports.  

Related Articles:

BBC News website does ‘one man’s terrorist’

BBC double standards on disputed territories

At the beginning of November the BBC World Service produced two items concerning a decades-old conflict involving an invasion, disputed territory, thousands of people living in refugee camps and more than twenty years of failed negotiations.Witness W sahara audio

However, BBC audiences did not hear the words ‘occupied’ or ‘illegal under international law’ as they so frequently do in content relating to Israel. In fact, what they did hear in those two programmes was a nostalgic and sympathetic portrayal of Morocco’s ‘Green March’ into Western Sahara in 1975.

The audio version of that episode of ‘Witness’ uses the term “disputed territory” in its synopsis.

“In November 1975, King Hassan the Second ordered hundreds of thousands of Moroccans to march into disputed territory in the desert. He wanted to claim the colony of Spanish Sahara for Morocco. The Green March led to a diplomatic victory for the King, but sparked a guerrilla war and decades of instability in the region. Witness speaks to a Moroccan who was on the march.”

The synopsis to the filmed version of the same programme uses the same term.Witness W Sahara filmed

“Forty years ago, the King of Morocco ordered hundreds of thousands of Moroccans to march into the Sahara desert to claim an area of disputed territory from Spain. The Green March, as it became known, was instigated in part to boost King Hassan the Second’s faltering support at home and sparked a long guerrilla war.
Moroccan TV journalist, Seddik Maaninou, was on the march and spoke to Witness about a turning point in North African history.”

The BBC Academy’s style guide entry for Western Sahara describes it as “[d]isputed territory administered by Morocco” and readers will not find terms such as ‘occupied’ or ‘international law’ in the corporation’s profile of Western Sahara.

 

 

BBC World Service misleads on Jewish immigration to Mandate Palestine

The November 26th edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Witness’ was titled “Britain’s Palestine Patrols” and its synopsis reads as follows:Witness Palestine Patrols

“In the 1940s the Royal Navy intercepted dozens of Jewish refugee ships trying to reach British-controlled Palestine. It was part of British government policy to limit Jewish immigration to Palestine. Witness hears from Alan Tyler who served as an officer onboard HMS Chevron, patrolling the Mediterranean sea.”

However, during the course of the programme, listeners were inaccurately led to believe by presenter Mike Lanchin that British restrictions on Jewish immigration to mandate Palestine were only implemented after the Second World War.

“In the years following the First World War the British had allowed mass Jewish immigration to Palestine, exacerbating tensions with the local Arab population. As the Second World War came to an end, tens of thousands of Jews were even more desperate to reach what many of them saw as the promised land. Zionist organisations helped them by hiring or buying boats to get there. But by that time, the British government – fearing further conflict in the region – was equally intent on stopping them.” [emphasis added]

Atlit 1

Atlit Detention Camp

In fact, of course, British-imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration by means of an annual quota began in 1922 – in the days of the first British High Commissioner.  The Passfield White Paper of 1930 and the 1939 White Paper also produced policy which can in no way be described as allowing “mass Jewish immigration.”

Later on in the programme listeners also heard the following context-free statement from Lanchin:

“Following the establishment of the State of Israel up to a million Palestinians fled or were driven from their homes. And by the mid-1960s up to a million more Jews had arrived to settle in Israel.”

Apparently Lanchin did not consider it necessary to inform audiences either of the war launched on the nascent Israeli state by its neighbouring Arab countries which was the reason why Palestinians were displaced or of the fact that a high proportion of those Jews immigrating to Israel in its early years were refugees from Arab lands.

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BBC WS radio’s ‘balanced’ account of the Six Day War excludes Israelis

Listeners to the June 14th edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘The History Hour’ were told by presenter Max Pearson that the next broadcast would include “the Israeli view” of the Six Day War.

“…we’re going to take a close look at one of the twentieth century’s defining events in the Middle East. In 1967 what quickly became known as the Six Day War broke out between Israel and the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. It resulted in a rapid redrawing of the region’s de facto borders and a significant humiliation for the Arab powers. Of course this is a deeply controversial topic with highly charged views on both sides. So, for obvious reasons, we’re going to hear from both sides – next week: the Israeli view. But right now Louise Hidalgo hears from two Palestinians about their memories of that time.”

However, by the time “next week” came around, “the Israeli view” had been side-lined and Pearson introduced the June 21st item (from 13:33 here) as follows:History Hour 21 6

“Next, as promised last week, we’re going to get a second personal view of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War in June 1967. We’ve already heard a graphic account of the Palestinian experience of the conflict which pitted the Jewish state against the armed forces of Egypt, Jordan and Syria so it’s only right and proper that we hear now from the other side and that other side doesn’t just mean those living in Israel. There was at the time a Jewish population scattered throughout the Middle East and beyond. Louise Hidalgo has been talking to someone from the Jewish community in Tripoli who was forced to flee when anti-Jewish riots broke out in Libya.”

Of course with the previous programme having been devoted to the stories told by two Palestinian interviewees, a truly balanced presentation of the Six Day War would have included accounts from Israelis equally affected by the war at the time. Such accounts could have included an explanation of the sense of impending disaster which gripped Israelis in the weeks preceding the outbreak of war and the feeling of fighting for their very existence. It could also, for example, have recounted the experiences of those who had been expelled from their homes in the Old City of Jerusalem or Gush Etzion nineteen years previously by Jordan and told stories of the first visits by Israelis to the holy sites from which they were barred throughout the years of Jordanian occupation.

But curiously, the BBC chose to tick its impartiality box by comparing apples to oranges. Whilst the story of the Libyan Jewish community is obviously important and interesting – and its airing a very rare event in BBC broadcasting – this is not “the other side” of the narrative heard the previous week by BBC audiences.

The same item by Louise Hidalgo broadcast on ‘The History Hour’ also appeared in the June 19th edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Witness’ – available here – where it was described as “…the second of two programmes about the effect of the Six Day War between Israel and the armed forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan”. Hidalgo’s presentation of the background to the outbreak of conflict is as follows:Witness 19 6

“The war started in early June. Tensions had been rising for months, as had anti-Israel rhetoric. Israel made the first strike – in self-defence, it said – and in six days had defeated the Arab armies. They were six days that would change the shape of the Middle East and have repercussions far beyond the borders of the countries actually involved in the fighting.”

Hidalgo’s very superficial and brief reference to “tensions” of course does nothing to inform listeners of the real background to the conflict and the build-up of Egyptian forces in Sinai – but notably it was deemed necessary to inform them that “Israel made the first strike”.

Hidalgo presents a brief history of the Libyan Jewish community but fails to mention that some Libyan Jews were also sent to Nazi concentration camps in Europe and that pogroms against Jews in Libya actually took place three years before the establishment of the State of Israel.

“Jews had lived in Libya since before the time of the Romans. At its height the community had numbered about forty thousand but during the Second World War thousands were sent to concentration camps in North Africa by Libya’s colonial ruler Italy and after the creation of Israel in 1948 many left after riots in which more than a hundred Libyan Jews were killed. By June 1967 there were only about four thousand Jews left in Libya. By the end of that month almost all of those too had gone.”

Hidalgo also makes the following claim, ignoring the already existing context of years of persecution and anti-Jewish violence long before the Six Day War broke out.

“Demonstrations in Arab capitals that started as shows of support for the Palestinians quickly turned in Tripoli and elsewhere into attacks on Jews.”

Towards the end of the item listeners are told that:

“By the end of June 1967 there were only around 200 Jews left in Libya and across the Arab world tens of thousands more left countries that many had lived in for generations.”

Unfortunately, the story of those tens of thousands – and the hundreds of thousands more who had to leave Arab lands before them – is rarely told by the BBC and whilst this account from a Libyan Jew is undoubtedly worthy of broadcast in its own right, it is however not a true representation of “the other side” of the story promoted in the previous week’s programme.