Palestine solidarity activists protest outside the BBC’s headquarters.(Palestine Solidarity Campaign)
The BBC has upheld a complaint by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and other activists that an online feature focusing on the lives of Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank breached its guidelines on accuracy.
However, despite the fact that the article only gives the perspective of settlers and not the Palestinians whose land they’re living on, the BBC Trust decided it was not biased. A complaint by two activists that the article breached the BBC’s guidelines on impartiality was not upheld.
The article, titled “West Bank: Why do some UK Jews settle in Israeli occupied land?,” includes interviews with Samuel Lebens and Daniel Cohen, who left England with their families to live in the West Bank.
Despite the questioning nature of the headline, this is not a critical analysis or examination of illegal colonization.
The piece, by BBC journalist Samantha Dalton, is much more basic than that. Her line of enquiry, if it can be called enquiry, is summed up in the opening paragraph, when she asks: “What is life like for the West Bank Britons?”
What follows is a 1,000 word hymn of praise to Israeli settlers.
“We are not obstacles to peace,” says Lebens, who is, Dalton tells the reader, the holder of a PhD in metaphysics and logic from the University of London.
“We shop and eat among Palestinians,” he adds disingenuously, and without challenge from Dalton.
Basically, Lebens is saying, using the BBC as a medium, the settlers are misunderstood: “The media stereotype of settler is racist, against two-state solution, lawless, expansionist, extremist, but the reality is very different,” he says.
Cohen chips in to explain how settlers see “the reality.” They are, he says, people who “contribute to civil society.” And rather than being motivated by a religious ideology to claim the West Bank for Israel, he says his family simply “looked at the best place to settle and this was it.”
If only it was that simple for the Palestinians, who have seen their land steadily disappear under Israeli settlements, who face daily harassment and violence at the hands of settlers, and whose livelihoods are under constant threat by settlers who kill their livestock and uproot or burn their olive groves.
Four days before this article appeared on BBC Online, the UN Human Rights Council published a report examining “the implications of the Israeli settlements” on the West Bank, including occupied East Jerusalem.
Rather than publishing self-serving falsehoods made by settlers, the UN report was based on a thorough investigation of the impact of settlements and settlers on the Palestinian population.
Among the UN’s stark findings was that “the motivation behind violence and intimidation against the Palestinians and their properties is to drive the local populations away from their lands, allowing the settlements to expand.”
Yet even the smallest detail of this violence and intimidation is absent from the BBC article, the timing of which — coming four days after the UN Human Rights Council’s unreserved condemnation of settlements — is, to say the least, interesting.
And despite Lebens’ claims to the contrary, the settlements and the 500,000 plus settlers who live in them are an obstacle to peace. UN Resolution 446, which says that settlements “have no legal validity,” also categorically states that they “constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East.”
On this basis alone, a soft BBC feature on the lives of settlers, whose very presence in the West Bank contravenes international law, is hugely irresponsible.
But added to this is the complete and utter lack of any Palestinian voices. Not a single Palestinian is interviewed, not a single Palestinian, whose family home may have been occupied by settlers or whose olive trees may have been torched, is asked to relate his or her experience of settlers, to balance Lebens’ claim that settlers are not “lawless, expansionist, extremist.”
Once again, the BBC has managed to render Palestinians invisible. Even though the settlers are living on stolen Palestinian land, the BBC does not consider the Palestinian perspective on those who have stolen it to be significant enough for inclusion. They are spoken for by the settlers, who, unchallenged, distort the truth: “We shop and eat among Palestinians.”
This claim, from Lebens, disappears into the void which characterizes Dalton’s report. With no context provided, and the settlers free to make any claim they wish, the reader remains unware that Israel operates an apartheid system in the West Bank. Palestinians are not allowed to live in the settlements and they are barred from driving on the high speed roads which have been built to connect the settlements to Israel. And while Palestinian movement around the West Bank is restricted by checkpoints and permit systems, settlers are free to come and go as they please.
But to have provided any of this information, or to include Palestinian voices, would have meant writing a balanced article incorporating the Palestinian experience of the occupation and exposing the reality of Israeli apartheid. And the BBC is not in the habit of doing that.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) wrote a lengthy email to the BBC asking why such a one-sided article, devoid of any real facts or context, which gives no sense of the reality of settlements and their impact, had been published by a supposedly impartial broadcaster.
The BBC defended the article, saying it “reflected a perspective on the issue which is less commonly heard.”
While the appropriateness of the BBC providing a platform for the proponents of an illegal occupation to expound at length, and without challenge, is debatable, the poor quality of the journalism is not. It is so selective and so gushing in its treatment of settlers as to render it nothing more than pro-Israeli puff.
And what was the BBC’s excuse for ignoring the Palestinian perspective? This reply was given by the BBC Trust: “This particular report was about … two British families who had moved and why they had made that decision. It would be hard to find a comparable case study on the Palestinian side.”
Not hard, actually, but impossible. Israel controls Palestinian entry in and out of the West Bank, and issues the identity documents and permits which determine who can live where. It is not in the habit of issuing permits to Palestinians living outside Palestine, who do not already have them, which would allow them to return and settle.
The answer from the BBC Trust is not only nonsensical, but in its failure to give a serious and valid answer, reveals its dismissive contempt for concerns that the Palestinian viewpoint was missing from this article.
And while the BBC believes it needs to give a voice to a perspective “which is less commonly heard,” so long as that perspective is Israeli, it shows no desire to give any space to a perspective which is even less commonly heard in the mainstream media — that of the Palestinians.
Rejecting complaints that the article was one-sided, the BBC did uphold one point on accuracy. This related to the following quotation from Cohen: “About 90 percent of settlements are right on the border of the Green Line [the 1949 armistice line]. It is relatively rare to find a hilltop settlement.”
Eleven months after the initial complaint from the PSC and other activists, BBC Online removed the quotation in November, having accepted that the majority of Israel’s settlements are built on hilltops and cut deep into Palestinian territory. What is extraordinary is that BBC editors saw fit to publish the lies of an illegal settler in the first place.
All about Israel
The BBC has form in running lengthy features about illegal Israeli settlers, interviewing them about their hopes, their concerns and their trials and tribulations in “settling the land.”
Over three days in August 2003 — the days of the “roadmap to peace” — BBC Online ran what it called “a series of articles examining attitudes among Israelis towards the future of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.”
That’s right — “attitudes among Israelis” about the settlements. Not the attitude of Palestinians. In the three articles, the BBC journalist interviewed members of the public in Israel, “ideological settlers” and “secular settlers.”
Not a single Palestinian was interviewed for any of the articles. Palestinian views on the settlements which are destroying their lives were obviously not considered important by BBC editors, Palestinian involvement in the “roadmap” not deemed worthy enough to seek a Palestinian opinion on the issues involved.
Then, as now, only the Israeli perspective mattered to the BBC. Then, as now, the lives of illegal settlers were considered more important and newsworthy than the lives of the occupied Palestinians.
For the BBC, it’s all about Israel.
Sympathetic to settlers
As well as the airbrushing of Palestinians from the picture, the common feature of all three articles is the sympathetic way in which they portray the settlers.
In the article titled “Israeli settlers who seek way out,” we find this observation about a settler family, the Widers:
“For years the Widers lived happily in this growing, secular close-knit community and never looked back.
“But, in 2000, life for Jewish settlers in the West Bank fundamentally changed with the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, and for some it became too hard to bear.”
The unbearable life of Palestinians living under brutal Israeli military occupation is not mentioned, of course. Instead, there follow quotes from the Widers about attacks by Palestinians on settlers, and their resultant emotional trauma.
The author of all three articles is Raffi Berg. In August 2013, he was promoted to the position of BBC Online’s Middle East editor. That same month, it was revealed that he had sent emails to BBC journalists during Israel’s assault on Gaza in November 2012, urging them not to “put undue emphasis” on Israel for starting the attacks, and asking that they downplay Israel’s siege on Gaza.
On both past and current form, with Berg as its Middle East editor, it looks likely that BBC Online’s one-sided reporting on Israel and its illegal settlements will continue, and that it will continue unchecked by the body responsible for ensuring fairness and balance in BBC reporting — the BBC Trust.