This week, Israel’s PR machine staged a masterclass in how to manipulate a willing media into whitewashing its stained reputation.
The easy puppets whose strings were being pulled were, of course, the reporters, editors and producers of the BBC.
On Monday 25 November, they ran an item on Radio 4’s Today program about an Israeli hospital treating 177 Syrian patients “in the northern Israeli city of Tzfat.” Introducing the broadcast, presenter Sarah Montague described this as “one of the more surprising sub-plots of the civil war in Syria.”
Correspondent Kevin Connolly then launched into a five-minute piece which, even to the average listener, can only have come across as pro-Israel propaganda. At best, if not viewed as propaganda, it was amateurish journalism from a program which the BBC promotes as being its “flagship” for news and current affairs.
In the context of the vast scale of the Syrian conflict, which has created more than two million refugees, most of whom have fled to the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Turkey, the question has to be asked: how does a mere 177 being treated in Israel warrant a story?
Who are these patients? In an accompanying online article, Connolly muses that they may be “jihadist rebels who in other circumstances would attack Israeli targets if they could.”
His message is loud and clear: look how good and kindly Israel is, helping those hostile Arabs and Muslims even though, given half a chance, they would attack their humanitarian neighbor.
The theme of Israel’s humanity runs through the radio piece and contrasts with Connolly’s depiction of the Syrians. He says he cannot name those he interviews at the hospital as this would place them “in danger” when they return to Syria, or “make them objects of suspicion at the very least.”
Syrians, the BBC’s flagship news and current affairs program is telling us, are hostile and suspicious towards Israel. What the Today broadcast completely fails to inform its audience is that Israel occupies Syrian land and has done so, in contravention of international law, since 1967. Syrians living in the Golan Heights live under Israeli occupation. Moreover, Israel has attacked Syria at least five times this year.
Listening to Connolly’s whitewashing of Israel (the phenomenon of Israel playing up humanitarian aid to burnish its image, as it did recently in the Philippines, has also been called “bluewashing”), however, one would come to the conclusion that the Syrians have an unfounded animosity towards a country which behaves only in a beneficent manner towards them.
The duplicity of Connolly’s reporting reaches an apex when he hands the propaganda microphone to Oscar Embon, the hospital’s director, so he can say this: “There are beautiful relationships starting between the staff of the hospital and the people that we treat.”
“Most of them, they express their gratitude and their wish for peace between the two countries. Of course I don’t expect them to become lovers of Israel and ambassadors of what we do, but in their interior, I expect they will reflect on what is their experience here and they will think differently about what the regime is telling them about Israel and Syria being enemies.”
This is accepted uncritically by Connolly, who appears to have swallowed the Israeli PR handbook whole. There is not even enough analysis in this disingenuous piece to consider the fact that Israel is the only country bordering Syria which has refused to take any refugees from the conflict.
Among the millions displaced, 235,000 Palestinian refugees in Syria — more than half of the total living there — have been displaced since the war began, according to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees. Many face a desperate plight, fleeing to Lebanon, or escaping to Egypt where they face even more persecution. Hundreds have drowned at sea. Yet none has been accorded her right by Israeli authorities to return home to Palestine.
Also being whitewashed, of course, are Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians and the occupation of their land. Connolly’s brush paints Israel as a benign country, as he describes the “extraordinary humanitarian chain” at the “Tzfat” hospital. (The BBC’s exclusive use of the Hebrew pronunciation “Tzfat” rather than the standard English-language and Arabic name “Safad” for this city whose overwhelming Palestinian majority was forced out in 1948 is another kind of whitewashing.)
His piece begins with the story of a Syrian woman in labor who is brought to this “brightly painted, breezily efficient place of safety” to give birth. Missing are the details of the Palestinian women forced to give birth in the dirt at checkpoints in the occupied West Bank, watched by despairing husbands and the inhumane Israeli soldiers who have refused them passage to hospital.
The medical journal The Lancet reports that between 2000 and 2007, 69 Palestinian women endured labor and childbirth at Israeli checkpoints, resulting in 35 infant deaths (more than half of the babies born) and five maternal deaths.
Nor was there any mention of how Israeli occupation prevents Palestinians receiving other kinds of life-saving medical treatment. This week, Nour Mohammad Afaneh, aged 14, died when the ambulance carrying her to a hospital in Bethlehem was not allowed through an Israeli military checkpoint, her father told Ma’an News Agency. Attempts to find an alternative route were futile, and the girl, who was in critical condition, died.This is the reality of Israel, and it is this reality – brutal, cruel and ugly – that the Today progam in particular and the BBC in general chooses to ignore over and over again.
An outstanding feature of the BBC’s selective reporting on Israel is its constant failure to report on the killing of Palestinian children and civilians by the Israeli army during the course of any year, while steadfastly running reports on every Israeli killed by a Palestinian rocket fired from Gaza.
When the Palestine Solidarity Campaign has written to Today to question the discriminatory nature of such reporting, it invariably receives this response from the assistant editor, Dominic Groves: “Even in the space of a three-hour program it is not always possible to cover every development in a story — especially one as long running and complex as the one in the Middle East.”
And yet, despite these alleged time constraints in their three hour program, Groves and his team managed find the time to broadcast what is essentially a pro-Israeli puff piece about a token 177 Syrians being treated in an Israeli hospital.
In another unusual move, the BBC has put a shortened, filmed version of Connolly’s report onto its website, meaning that it will be permanently available, unlike the radio version, which is only available for seven days after broadcast on the BBC’s online iPlayer.
Israel’s job well done
The use of BBC airtime to laud Israel for its charity towards a handful of Syrians comes in a week when the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Palestine told the world that the “situation in Gaza is at a point of near catastrophe“ and as Palestinians and internationals prepare for a “day of rage” on 30 November over the Prawer Plan.
Neither of these stories has merited even a mention on Today or across the BBC. In Gaza, Israel’s occupation and seven-year siege has reached a point where it is causing unprecedented suffering.
A shortage of industrial fuel means that Gaza’s power plant can only provide people with six hours of electricity a day. As the UN’s Special Rapporteur, Richard Falk, has pointed out, this is “severely disrupting the provision of basic services, including health, water and sanitation.”
In eastern Gaza City the lack of fuel has resulted in the stoppage of Gaza’s largest waste water treatment plant. Raw sewage has flooded the streets forcing children to wade through it to get to school. Silence from the BBC’s news programs.
The Prawer Plan, currently going through the Israeli parliament, will forcibly remove up to 70,000 Palestinian Bedouin from their ancestral lands in the Naqab (Negev Desert) and warehouse them in small, fixed towns. Israel will then take their land to build Jewish-only settlements. The Bedouin have neither been consulted about this plan, nor have they consented to it. It is being done to them.
This week, and especially on Saturday’s “Day of Rage,” Palestinians are holding mass demonstrations throughout the country against the Prawer Plan. Silence from the BBC’s news programs.
There was one reference to the Prawer Plan ten months ago in January, on BBC Two’s Newsnight and in a corresponding online article. The context of both reports was, of course, given from an Israeli perspective, focusing on Israel’s “push to fulfil its desert dream.” The Bedouin are portrayed as getting in the way of this “dream,” first envisioned by David Ben-Gurion, we are told, to settle the desert.
In keeping with the BBC theme of a kindly Israel, reporter Tim Whewell reports that “Israel has built towns specially for them [the Bedouin], and is now building more.”
Since that report in January, as international outrage has grown against what will be Israel’s single biggest act of ethnic cleansing against Palestinians since 1948, the BBC’s news programs have fallen silent on Prawer.
Israel’s lobbyists — in the Israeli government, its embassy in London, at BICOM (The British-Israel Communications and Research Centre) – must be rubbing their hands in glee.
This week they have watched the BBC, with its global reach, run a story about a supposedly humanitarian Israel, while simultaneously hiding from its audiences the current horrors of Israel’s siege on Gaza and the ethnic cleansing in the Naqab. For Israel, it’s a job well done.