Novelist Nicholas Blincoe's Bethlehem Fiction in National Geographic


In time for Christmas, National Geographic published an interview with novelist 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. Over the last several weeks, CAMERA's Israel office prompted correction of some of the errors, resulting in an appended clarification, but other falsehoods remain, and the ongoing editing introduced new inaccuracies.
 

 
Blincoe, author of "Bethlehem: Biography of a Town," fancies himself an Bethlehem expert — "facts about Bethlehem a speciality" he boasts on Twitter, and in Christianity Today he presumptuously called himself Bethlehem's "biographer"  — but in reality facts about Bethlehem are the author's undoing. 
 
Bethlehem's Water for Jerusalem?

 In the original version of the interview, the self-proclaimed Bethlehem expert had told Simon Warrall, curator of National Geographic's "Book Talk":
The reason Israel has been so interested in Bethlehem 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at the Institute of Earth Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, responded that the information is 2000 years out of date.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.
 
Following communication with CAMERA about the water falsehood, National Geographic revised this passage, but still got the facts wrong. In the second, still false formulation, Blincoe had claimed:
The reason Israel has been so interested in Bethlehem is the same reason everyone's always been interested in it: It's still one of the main sources of water for Jerusalem. In 1967, the Israelis established a pumping station at Kfar Etzion in the Bethlehem governorate, which later became the site of a settlement.
But, as previously stated, no water from Bethlehem supplies Jerusalem. Moreover, according to Uri Shor, the spokesman for Israel's Water Authority, "there is no transfer of water from Judea and Samaria to Jerusalem or other parts of the State of Israel within the Green Line."
 
Moreover, the Dir Sha'ar pumping station at the Gush Etzion junction (not in Kfar Etzion), was built by the Jordanians, not the Israelis, prior to 1967. Shor noted that Israel drastically expanded the station, and the water that it pumps mostly serves Palestinians in the Hebron and Bethlehem areas. Thus, in short, while there is a pumping station near Kfar Etzion at the Gush Etzion junction (called Dir Sha'ar), it is not "at Kfar Etzion." Nor was it established in 1967; it was established earlier. Nor did Israel establish it. Jordan did. Most importantly, it does not supply any water for Jerusalem; it supplies water to Palestinians in the Hebron and Bethlehem areas.
 
After CAMERA shared this information with National Geographic, editors amended the passage for yet a second time. As of press time, the twice amended passage continues to err:
The reason Israel has been so interested in Bethlehem is the same reason everyone’s always been interested in it; the aquifer is still one of the main sources of water for Israel. In 1967, the Israelis took control of a pumping station near Kfar Etzion in the Bethlehem governorate, which later became the site of a settlement and today dispenses water to the Palestinians in the Hebron and Bethlehem area.
Blincoe's diversion of his focus from a pumping station to an aquifer still does not make true the false claim that Israel is interested in Bethlehem for its water. The aquifer under Bethlehem is not a main source of water for Israel. Bethlehem sits on the Eastern Aquifer, which, out of all the aquifers, provides the least amount of water for Israeli use. Most of the water from the Eastern Aquifer flows underground towards the Dead Sea, according to Uri Shor, the spokesman for Israel's Water Authority. According to the Israel-Palestinian Interim Agreement - Annex III of the Oslo Accords (Schedule 10, Data Concerning Aquifers), 40 mcm was extracted for Israeli users, and 54 mcm for Palestinian users, with the remainder 78 mcm to be developed for Palestinians. (Palestinians have since made little additional use of this resource.)
 
This compares to 103 mcm for Israeli users from the North-Eastern Aquifer, and 340 mcm for Israeli consumers from the Western Aquifer. Thus, at just 40 mcm, how could the Eastern Aquifer possibly be a "main source of water for Israel"? Of course, these figures don't even take into account the water that Israel receives from the Sea of Galilee (450 mcm) and the huge quantities of water that Israel has been generating from desalinization plants (amounting to 55 percent of Israel's domestic water use, over 480 mcm). Thus, based on these figures, the Eastern Aquifer, upon which Bethlehem lies, provides less than three percent of the water used by Israelis. That's hardly "a main source of water for Israel." Tellingly, previous National Geographic features on West Bank water issues don't mention Bethlehem as a "main source of water for Israel." "Pure fairy tales," said Uri Shor, the Water Authority spokesman of Blincoe's latest water allegations. "Total nonsense."
 
First Israeli Settlement 'In Bethlehem'
 
Blincoe's hold on reality is just as tenuous when he initially claimed 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, re-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. As The New York Times reported on Jan. 15, 1948 (70 years ago, to the day): "The Jewish colony [sic] of Kfar Etzion, thirteen miles south of Jerusalem, was besieged tonight by Arabs after twenty-four hours of raids on traffic along the main highway to Jerusalem."
 
Blincoe initially claimed in his National Geographic interview that 22 settlements surround Bethlehem. In Christianity Today, on the other hand, he took the liberty to claim there are 41 settlements around Bethlehem. When CAMERA pointed out this discrepancy to National Geographic editors, as an indication of Blincoe's fast and free relationship with facts, they simply revised the passage to state that "Now there are 42 settlements surrounding the town."
 
It's unclear how close a settlement needs to be to Bethlehem in order for Blincoe to deem it "surrounding the town." Yet, according to the United Nations' Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, "There are over 100,000 Israeli settlers residing in 19 settlements and settlement outposts across the  [Bethlehem]governorate, including in those parts de facto annexed by Israel to the Jerusalem municipality" ("Bethlehem Governorate: Fragmentation and Humanitarian Concerns," January 2015). When editors amended the number of settlements "surrounding" Bethlehem from 22 (already higher than the U.N.'s account) to the unsubstantiated figure of 42, editors appended a "clarification," stating:
This interview has been updated to more accurately reflect the source of some of the area's water, levels of tourism in Bethlehem in the years following 2001, and the number of settlements around Bethlehem, as counted by the author. (Emphasis added.)
Perhaps editors feel that the inclusion of the qualification – "as counted by the author" – exempts them from providing factually reliable information.
 
No Tourists For 10 Years
 
Tourism in Bethlehem was another point that Blincoe, Bethlehem's self-declared biographer, completely blundered, and which editors did correct 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 sleeping 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 – an encouraging sign as chains Mövenpick 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."
 
'Cities Got Wiped Out'
 
About Israel's Operation Defensive Shield in 2002, which was launched in response to a deadly wave of Palestinian suicide bombings targeting Israelis, Blincoe had originally averred:
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." 
 
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.
 
In response to repeated communication from CAMERA, editors finally removed this false charge. The improved text now states: "cities got hammered."
 
Open-Air Prison
 
In both National Geographic and Christianity Today, Blincoe refers to a so-called "settler-ring road" surrounding Bethlehem, and absurdly compares the city to an "open air prison." In Christianity Today, he says he based the final chapters of his book on "the settler-only road that surrounds Bethlehem." Only, there is no such road. On the western side of the city, Highway 60 extends north to Jerusalem and south to Gush Etzion and Hebron. It is completely open to Palestinian traffic until less than five kilometers before the southern entrance to Jerusalem at the tunnels checkpoint. Palestinian and Israeli (settler, and non-settler, Jewish and Arab alike) drivers frequent this route. There's no need to take CAMERA's word for it. B'Tselem, hardly soft on Israel's West Bank policies, notes that just 4.6 kilometers of Highway 60 is prohibited to Palestinian traffic, from the tunnels checkpoint to the Gilo entrance of Jerusalem. In other words, a small portion of Highway 60 is off limits to Palestinian traffic in a limited area next to Jerusalem, not Bethlehem, where it is completely open to Palestinians.
 
On the eastern side of the city lies the Tekoa highway. It too is completely open to Palestinian traffic.
 

Palestinian cars freely exiting Bethlehem on the southwestern side of the city last month and turning onto Highway 60, frequented by Israeli and Palestinian drivers alike. Highway 60 is blocked to Palestinian traffic only at the entrance to Jerusalem (Photo by Hanan Amiur)
 

 
One-Sided Accounts
 
In light of the fact that Blincoe so freely distorts present-day realities that are readily apparent, it's hardly surprisingly that he 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.
 
"Through the world’s best scientists, photographers, journalists, and filmmakers, National Geographic captivates and entertains a global community through television channels, magazines, children’s media, travel expeditions, books, maps," and more, boasts National Geographic. To this list of ostensible experts, National Geographic ought to add fiction writers, given that in this piece they favored a novelist over water experts on the very issue of water. So, while National Geographic may well be fulfilling in its mission to captivate and entertain, it is downright failing to deliver the facts.
 
For a version of this article in Arabic, please see CAMERA Arabic.

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