The BBC has had to defend its description of Israel as the “ancestral homeland” of the Palestinian people in response to a complaint by a viewer who criticised a presenter’s version of history as inaccurate.
The dispute started after BBC Middle East Correspondent Tom Bateman, reporting on confrontations between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian protesters at the nominal border of the Gaza Strip in May, said that the Palestinians were “also seeking a right to return to their ancestral homeland in Israel”.
Bateman’s description was challenged by Eric Alsbury, a 74-year-old retired engineer. Alsbury challenged the statement on the grounds of accuracy, saying that it was “incorrect” to call Israel the “ancestral homeland” of the Palestinians. “It may be that Palestinians have lived there in the past, as other nationalities have,” insisted Alsbury, “but it is not and has never been their ancestral homeland.”
Richard Hutt, director of the BBC’s executive complaints unit, defended Bateman’s description of Israel. He cited several references, including Encyclopaedia Britannica and the United Nations.
In its “Palestine” entry, Encyclopaedia Britannica chronicles the region’s history, population and the displacement of its indigenous population to make way for the creation of the state of Israel. At the turn of the 20th century, it explains, the population of historic Palestine was predominantly Arab. The total population of about 690,000 in 1914 was comprised of 535,000 Muslims, 70,000 Christians, most of whom were Arabs, and 85,000 Jews.
Despite large scale Jewish immigration supported and funded by wealthy philanthropists in Europe, the population of historic Palestine in 1946 was, with 1,269,000 Arabs and 678,000 Jews, still overwhelmingly Palestinian, the encyclopaedia points out. The Palestinians’ main political aspiration was to create an independent state on all of historic Palestine for all of its inhabitants, including Jews and Christians.
When war broke out in 1948 nearly 1,400,000 Arab Palestinians lived in historic Palestine according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. It claims that as many as 1,000,000 Palestinians may have been displaced from hundreds of villages by Zionist militias and the nascent Israel Defence Forces. Of those displaced, “between 160,000 and 190,000 fled to the Gaza Strip. More than one-fifth of Palestinian Arabs left Palestine altogether. About 100,000 of these went to Lebanon, 100,000 to Jordan, between 75,000 and 90,000 to Syria, 7,000 to 10,000 to Egypt, and 4,000 to Iraq.”