Addition and long division

***image1***The readers’ editor on… fact, figures and terms of reference in the Middle East

The Guardian’s coverage of the Middle East has been questioned on two particular points this week. One is its reporting of the release by Israel of 339 Palestinian prisoners (the Israeli figure as I write is 334). The other is the name used for the structure being erected by the Israelis across Israeli and Palestinian territory and called by Israel the “security fence”.

On the first point, the Guardian is criticised for reporting, on August 5, this remark by Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian president: “They say they are going to release 400, and then they turn around and arrest 800…” and the comment by the Guardian’s corrspondent that “Hundreds more have been arrested in the meantime.” This has excited the attention of the pro-Israeli lobby Honest Reporting, whose followers poured hundreds of emails into the Guardian letters queue this week.

They were responding to an email communique that concluded: “Honest Reporting encourages readers to challenge the Guardian to provide evidence for its claim that ‘hundreds’ of Palestinians have recently been arrested - a claim used by the Guardian to downplay, in cynical fashion, the significance of Israel’s large-scale prisoner release.”

The paper was chastised in many emails for a report of August 7, headed “Joy and anger as Israel frees 339”, in which its correspondent said, “the Israelis have arrested almost as many Palestinians since the beginning of the ceasefire five weeks ago.”

This appears to me to be a perfectly defensible statement. Our Jerusalem correspondent was told by the Israeli army that it had arrested 237 “wanted Palestinians” since the declaration of the ceasefire on June 29, of whom 72 were arrested in the first week of August.

He says that this total is solely for Palestinians who were on the army’s wanted lists and who remain in custody. It does not include Palestinians arrested, for example, for stone throwing, or those arrested and still held for failing to have the necessary passes, or those detained by the police.

Only the Palestinian leadership is talking of a figure of 600-800 arrests. The liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz has said that “an examination of the records since the ceasefire was declared on June 29 shows that the army has arrested nearly as many Palestinians since then - 320 - as the number it freed on Wednesday.”

In the absence of definitive figures it seems to me that the Guardian, through its correspondent, has erred on the side of caution.

To turn to the “security fence”. A spokeswoman for the Israeli embassy in London said: “Over the past 30 months, a sustained campaign of Palestinian terror attacks has killed more than 800 Israelis and injured many more thousands in more than 18,000 terror attacks … A security fence is being constructed in order to impede the terrorists’ access to Israel. This measure is being taken to save lives and not to annex territory.

“The first stage of construction, completed last week, measures 115 km (approximately 71 miles) …The fence, which will be between 50 and 70 metres wide, will be enhanced with hi-tech equipment to prevent infiltration into Israel. Underground and long-range sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles, trenches, landmines and guard paths would all be used to prevent terrorists from infiltrating into Israel.”

She added: “It is important to note that this fence has no ideological or political significance. Its only rationale is to prevent terror attacks against Israeli civilians, and the physical route is determined solely by Israel’s security needs … After almost three years of Palestinian terror, the fence is the only way for Israel to defend its people and to reduce the intolerable price in blood that has been paid with the lives of innocent Israelis …”

The Palestinians call it the apartheid wall. It is also called the Berlin Wall, the dividing wall, the separation wall. The fact is, it is a wall in some sections and a fence in others. The headline on a long discussion of the terminology by the pro-Palestinin ian website Electronic Intifada ( /v2/article1775.shtml) seems to state the reality fairly: “Is it a fence? Is it a wall? No, it’s a separation barrier.”

Finding terminology that favours neither one view nor the other is not easy. The Guardian approach is to quote the term “security fence” and to attribute it to the Israelis. The paper’s Jerusalem correspondent also tends to refer to it as a “fence and wall”, or sometimes “barrier”. The latter, for something the size of a motorway, seems closer to the mark.

· Additional research: Isabelle Chevallot

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