‘Tis the Holiday Season: Bethlehem Falsehoods in National Geographic

In time for Christmas, National Geographic publishes an interview with author Nicholas Blincoe which contains numerous factual errors about the holy city and surrounding area (“The Little Town of Bethlehem Has a Surprising History,” Dec. 23). A note at the bottom of the piece indicates that the interview “was edited for length and clarity.” Apparently, though, no effort was made to edit for accuracy. CAMERA’s Israel office prompted correction of some of the errors, but others remain uncorrected.
 

 
Blincoe, author of “Bethlehem: Biography of a Town,” fancies himself an Bethlehem expert — “facts about Bethlehem a speciality” he boasts on Twitter  — but in reality facts about Bethlehem are the author’s undoing. For instance, about Israel’s Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, which was launched in response to a deadly wave of Palestinian suicide bombings targeting Israelis, Blincoe tells Simon Warrall, curator of National Geographic‘s “Book Talk”:

In late 2001, the violence between Israel and Palestine escalated. In the course of it, the Israelis fired a missile at the building opposite my wife’s house. My mother-in-law, who was by then a widow, was living there. And the building opposite her house was blown up and the roof ripped off our house. We were panicky about how she was coping, so we went there at the earliest opportunity and began living in Leila’s home in Bethlehem in 2002.

Things got worse and worse. On the Monday after Easter Sunday 2002, the Israelis invaded, under Ariel Sharon, and occupied all of the cities of the West Bank, including Bethlehem. We were in the house as helicopters flew overhead, all very scared. The Israeli army eventually moved into the old souk area and surrounded the Church of the Nativity.

I was working with paramedics. There was an idea that ambulances would be able to drive around in the curfew if there were Europeans with them. By that point I felt very Palestinian. There was an attempt by militants to meet Israeli violence with violence but Palestinian cities got wiped out. For ten years there were no tourists! To live through that, you feel you are living as one of the defeated.

Beyond the fact that Blincoe casts the wave of deadly Palestinian terrorism of the early 2000s targeting Israeli civilians as “violence between Israel and Palestine” at best, and “an attempt by militants to meet Israeli violence with violence” at worst, the falsehoods are blatant. First, he claims that “Palestinian cities got wiped out.” This is a flat out lie. Jenin, which took took the biggest hit of all of the Palestinian cities as it was the scene of the most intensive fighting between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian fighters, did not “got wiped out.” 

 
‘Cities Got Wiped Out’
 
According to a July 2002 report by the United Nations’ Secretary General, in the Jenin refugee camp, the more limited part of Jenin in which the bulk of the fighting between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian combatants took place, 10 percent was “totally destroyed.” In addition, according to the report, “[T]he centre of the refugee camp has been totally levelled.” In 2004, National Public Radio was compelled to correct a much less extreme version of Blincoe’s false claim:

In a March 16 report on a Palestinian film festival, correspondent Julie McCarthy referred to the Jenin refugee camp as “largely destroyed in Israel’s incursion into the West Bank in 2002.”

A number of listeners wrote to object to that description, including Nigel Paneth:

In fact, as has been repeatedly demonstrated, the area of destruction in the camp during the March [2002] incursion constituted considerably less than 10 percent of the camp’s houses. Moreover, much of the destruction of buildings in the Jenin camp was a consequence of the booby trapping of houses by Palestinian terrorists, who bragged about their clever placement of bombs (24 Israeli soldiers were killed in that incursion) in interviews published later in the Egyptian press.

The listeners are correct and Morning Edition will air this correction later this week:

A correction: In a story about a Palestinian film festival last week, Julie McCarthy said that the Jenin refugee camp had been “largely destroyed” during an Israeli military action in 2002. A United Nations report noted that while the center of the camp had been “totally destroyed,” the extent of the destruction for the camp as a whole was 10 percent.

As for damage in other cities, including Bethlehem, the U.N. report notes only: “Non-refugee housing in Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jenin town and Tulkarm and a number of surrounding villages sustained damage ranging from minor to structural.” The U.N. cites not a word about cities which were “wiped out,” because none were. As of this writing, National Geographic has failed to correct this point.
 
No Tourists For 10 Years
 
In another blatant falsehood which editors did correct this week in response to communication from CAMERA, Blincoe had falsely claimed that after the Israeli incursion in 2002, “For ten years there were no tourists!”
 
But, as The Christian Science Monitor reported in 2008, six years into the supposed tourism drought:
Now, with record bus loads of Christian pilgrims filing through the Church of the Nativity and sleepi
ng at local hotels, Bethlehem is abuzz. …
 
The 1.3 million tourists expected for 2008 surpasses the pre-uprising peak nine years ago. The surge is filling hotels to capacity Рan encouraging sign as chains M̦venpick and Days Inn pursue plans to open in Ramallah.
 
Tourism contributed to a modest 2 percent growth rate in the overall Palestinian economy this year – a figure that would have been twice as high if it weren’t for the flagging economy in the Gaza Strip, which has been under a yearlong Israeli blockade.
 
In the Beit Sahour suburb of Bethlehem, hammers can be heard from hotel construction just up the road from Shepherds’ Field, the hillside believed to be the site from where the biblical Star of Bethlehem was sighted. Builders are adding to the Sahara Hotel to nearly triple its capacity to 52 rooms.
 
Owner Majed Banoura said he would open the hotel, closed for renovations, for Christmas to accommodate overflow from Bethlehem. “There is security and a sense of calm,” says Mr. Banoura, who says his family’s souvenir business took in a record $1 million this year. “We feel the rule of law. This is what we need.”  

Bethlehem’s tourism record was broken again in 2011, a year before the end of the decade during which, according to Blincoe, in which no tourists arrived. The Associated Press reported on Christmas that year:

Tens of thousands of tourists and Christian pilgrims packed the West Bank town of Bethlehem for Christmas Eve celebrations Saturday, bringing warm holiday cheer to the traditional birthplace of Jesus on a raw, breezy and rainy night.

With turnout at its highest in more than a decade, proud Palestinian officials said they were praying the celebrations would bring them closer to their dream of independence. …

By late night, the Israeli military, which controls movement in and out of town, said some 100,000 visitors, including foreigners and Arab Christians from Israel, had reached Bethlehem, up from 70,000 the previous year.

Indeed, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, at no point in that 10 years period was there a year in which “no tourists” arrived. At the lowest point, in 2002, West Bank hotels were at 11.3 percent room occupancy rate and hosted 45,249 guests (among them could have been business travelers or humanitarian workers).

In response to communication from CAMERA, which now states: “For ten years after the second intifada, in 2001, tourism to Bethlehem struggled, although today the number of visitors has increased again.”
 
Bethlehem’s Water for Jerusalem?

In another completely baseless claim, Blincoe, the self-proclaimed Bethlehem expert states:

The reason Israel has been so interested in Bethlehm is the same reason everyone’s always been interested in it: It’s still the source of water for Jerusalem. There’s a pumping station to supply water to Jerusalem, and settlements have grown up around it. The first Israeli settlement in Bethlehem was built in 1967. Now there are 22 surrounding the town.

When asked about the claim that Jerusalem’s water comes from Bethlehem, Prof. Haim Gvirtzman, a water expert at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, responded that the information is 2000 years out of date. During the Second Temple period, Jerusalemites did draw water from Bethlehem (as Blincoe told National Geographic), but that is certainly not the case today. While around six springs in the Bethlehem area provide a half million cubic meters of water per year (a negligible amount in comparison to Jerusalem’s needs), that water is used in the area of Bethlehem and surrounding Palestinian towns. None is pumped to Jerusalem.
 
First Israeli Settlement ‘In Bethlehem’
 
Blincoe’s hold on reality is just as tenuous when he claims that the “first Israeli settlement in Bethlehem was built in 1967.” First, there are no Israeli settlements “in Bethlehem.” Second, the first Israeli settlement built in the West Bank after the 1967 Six Day War started with a hotel in Hebron, not in Bethlehem. Third, the first Israeli settlement built near (but not in) Bethlehem was Kfar Etzion, built in 1970, and not in 1967. Kfar Etzion was, of course, one of the Jewish communities which existed in the area prior to 1948, at which point Palestinian Arabs expelled all of its residents.
 
In response
 
Open-Air Prison
 
One-Sided Accounts
 
But just like he ignores the more modern Jewish history in the Bethlehem area, omitting the pre-1948 presence of Kfar Etzion and other Jewish communities in the Etzion bloc, Blincoe completely ignores the city”s ancient Jewish history. So, while he recounts Bethlehem’s history as Jesus’ birthplace, and the fact that an ancient stone carving of a couple having sex was found in the city, he ignores Bethlehem’s importance in Jewish history as burial site of Rachel and the birthplace of King David, among other key biblical events.
 
It’s no surprise, then, that Blincoe’s account of more recent events is equally myopic. In Bethlehem,

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