Just over a week ago, Israeli armed forces dragged a French diplomat out of an aid vehicle in the occupied West Bank. The international news agency Reuters released subsequent photographs of the woman, Marion Fesneau-Castaing, lying in the dust at the feet of Israeli soldiers, a gun pointed at her face. Fesneau-Castaing and others had been attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to the villagers of Khirbet al-Makhul, whose homes had been demolished by the Israeli army four days earlier, on 16 September.
The BBC responded with an online story headlined: “Diplomats protest over West Bank clash with Israel troops”
As is the norm with the BBC’s coverage of Palestine and Israel, the story was written without context or background. Israel’s presence in the West Bank, its military occupation, is illegal under international law. Its demolition of Palestinian houses and the displacement of their inhabitants are in violation of the Geneva Convention. In a feature on the demolition of Khirbet al-Makhul, the Independent quotes Bill Van Esveld of Human Rights Watch as saying, “All the criteria appear to be met for this to be considered forcible transfer, which is a war crime.”
None of this was reported by the BBC, whose headline reduced all of the above to “a clash with Israel troops”. In the BBC’s use of the word “clash” there is an implication that the diplomats were also at fault, that they waged some kind of battle against armed soldiers.
Khirbet al-Makhul is in the fertile Jordan Valley, a key area for Israeli settlement building. To obtain the necessary land for the illegal settlements, Palestinian villages have to be destroyed and the villagers moved on.
BBC Online’s story chose to put the process this way: “The homes in Khirbet al-Makhul were knocked down on Monday after Israel’s High Court ruled that they had been built without the correct permits.”
The fault, then, seems to lie with the Palestinians who appear to be attempting to operate outside the planning system. A planning system, the average reader will assume, is fair, open and transparent, but nothing could be further from the truth. Under the practices of Israel’s military occupation, it is a rarity for Palestinians to be granted a building permit, either to build new homes or extend existing ones.
The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem reports that the Israeli military refuses to give building permits to Palestinians in 99 per cent of Area C, which is where the Jordan Valley, containing the village of Khirbet al-Makhul, lies.
Oxfam reports: “Israel’s planning policy in Area C is used to maintain reserves of land for future development of Israeli settlements. Palestinians are often left with no choice other than to build without a permit, despite the ever present risk of demolition which threatens thousands of buildings and puts thousands of families at risk of forced displacement.”
Who, reading the BBC’s report, would know that? There was nothing in this report to provide a context for the events of a week of Palestinian house demolitions and the manhandling of European diplomats.
To add insult to injury, the Palestinians, who were presented as infringing Israel’s honest planning laws, are then depicted as being too intransigent to comply with the consequences. The article continues: “… the Bedouin villagers of Khirbet al-Makhul have refused to leave the land where they say they have grazed sheep for generations.”
The fact that the Palestinians have indeed been on this land for generations is furthermore presented as no more than a claim with the addition of two simple words: “they say”. The Palestinians’ existence on this land and their dispossession of it is not a fact for the BBC, it is merely a claim.
Why is the way the BBC presents Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land an issue? After all, it is not as if much of the mainstream media does any better on the subject.
There are several key reasons. According to the BBC’s own figures, BBC News reaches 81 per cent of the UK each week across all platforms (television, news, online). That’s a quite staggering percentage of the population consuming the BBC’s output, including what it has to say on Palestine and the occupation. No other news organisation can claim to be reaching and influencing the vast majority of the British population in this way.
Even more worrying, the BBC Media Centre reports that, “The BBC remains the news provider that the UK public trusts the most by far.” It quotes an Ipsos Mori survey, conducted in February 2013, in which 58 per cent of respondents said that the BBC was the “one source they would most likely turn to for news they trust”. This was significantly ahead of the nearest other provider, ITV, on 14 per cent.
So here we have a news organisation with a vast reach, commanding a high level of trust, publicly funded, which is failing to tell its audiences the ugly truth of Israel’s occupation.
As demonstrated by the article on Marion Fesneau-Castaing and Khirbet al-Makhoul, the BBC will leave out the facts and the context which, if included, would show Israel to be the rogue state it is. And, wherever possible, it will present its audience with the official Israel line only; in this report, for example, that the Palestinians allegedly had no legal right to build where they did. The Palestinian perspective, indeed the fact that Israel almost never gives planning permission to Palestinians, forcing them to build “illegally” is omitted.
Four days after publishing this article, BBC Online ran another piece, headlined “Israel ‘to act’ over West Bank diplomats scuffle“. This contained a video showing Fesneau-Castaing pushing an Israeli soldier in the face as she was lifted up from the ground and led away. The BBC reports that “…video emerged of her lashing out at an Israeli border policeman.”
The video that BBC audiences will not see is that of Israeli forces destroying the tents in which the homeless Palestinian villagers were sheltering, while they were still inside. Once again, the true extent of Israel’s aggression against the Palestinian people has been carefully hidden from those receiving their news via the BBC.
Through its massive omissions in reporting, the BBC is keeping its audience, 81 per cent of the British population, in the dark about the reality of Israel’s occupation. Where are the BBC’s reports on the arbitrary arrests and detention without trial of Palestinian civilians; the dragging of Palestinian children from their beds at night by Israeli soldiers to be thrown into jail; the destruction of Palestinian farmland and olive groves by armed Israeli settlers; the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from East Jerusalem in ever-increasing numbers; and the impact of the apartheid wall and the checkpoints which contain Palestinian movement?
They are not there in the BBC’s world; they are non-existent. Instead we have offerings from BBC Online such as, “West Bank: Why do some UK Jews settle in Israeli occupied land?”
The article begins: “Every year hundreds of British Jews make the life-changing decision to emigrate to Israel. A small number of these decide to join settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.” What follows is a 1,000 word paean to Israeli settlers. They are not an obstacle to peace, they tell BBC reporter, Samantha Dalton, they are in the West Bank to “contribute to civil society” and are simply misunderstood.
This cosy little article, given to us by a news organisation funded by our licence-fees, somehow seems oblivious to the fact that the settlers’ very presence in the occupied West Bank contravenes international law. It is not bothered by the fact that UN Resolution 446 says settlements “constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.” From that point of view alone, this feature on the “life-changing” experiences of those who would be settlers is incredibly irresponsible.
And where is the Palestinian perspective? Again, as so often with the BBC, there is none. Not a single Palestinian is interviewed about the impact of settlers and settlements on Palestinians in the West Bank. There is nothing about the land theft necessary for the creation of settlements; nothing about the violent extremism of settlers in Hebron and elsewhere; and nothing about the allocation of 70 times more water to illegal Israeli settlers than to Palestinians.
For the BBC to include that kind of balanced information would be to inform its huge audience of the Palestinian experience of occupation and to expose too clearly the horrors of Israel’s apartheid system. As we’ve seen, it’s not the kind of information that the BBC is in the habit of giving out. That the BBC chooses to withhold important information which is vital for its audience to understand what is happening in Palestine and Israel is something that should concern us all.
Amena Saleem is a journalist and activist, working closely with Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK. She has twice driven on convoys to Gaza with PSC. More information on PSC’s solidarity work is available at www.palestinecampaign.org
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.