|April 28, 2003||by Tamar Sternthal|
A & E's Blunder of the Year
Cable network A&E offers viewers a mix of fact and fiction–with news documentaries like “Investigative Report,” “American Justice,” and “Biography,” as well as dramas including "Murder She Wrote,” “Third Watch,” and movies. A recent installment of the documentary “Biography”–which according to A&E’s web site provides “depth, detail, and historical accuracy”–was itself a blend of fact and fiction.
In December, the series’ “Biography of the Year” highlighted, among others, Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat in a program marred by numerous factual errors, serious omissions, and confusions about cause and effect of events.
In a blatant factual error, host Harry Smith states: “In the early ’80s, when Sharon was defense minister, he led an unsuccessful campaign to drive Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians out of Lebanon.” In fact, Sharon’s campaign was successful. Arafat and the Palestine Liberation Organization were forced to leave Lebanon and flee to Tunis. John Wallach, one of the guests on the segment, wrote about Israel’s June 1982 success in exiling Arafat and the PLO from Lebanon:
Under the terms Philip Habib, President Reagan’s special Middle East envoy, worked out for the PLO’s withdrawal from Beirut, their 14,000 fighters could leave by sea or go to Damascus via the Beirut-to-Damascus highway. “We received all of them in Tartous, north of Tripoli,” says Nashashibi. Among the humiliated arrivals were George Habash and Nayaf Hawatmeh, the PFLP and DFLP leaders. “Like the rest, they were disarmed and sent to a special camp. Then they were released,” says Nashashibi, “but they were never given back their arms.” Arafat, the last one to leave, refused to go to Damascus. He sailed to Athens to show his contempt for Syria and to underscore his abandonment by the rest of the Arab world.
It was only a matter of weeks before Arafat began emerging from his latest exile, 1,500 miles away in Tunis. (“Arafat: In the Eyes of the Beholder,” by Janet Wallach and John Wallach, p. 236).
Of the recent fighting, Smith incorrectly reports: “More than 300 Palestinians and 19 Israelis were killed in April alone.” Smith grossly misstated the number of Israelis killed–there were actually 47. In just one incident in Jenin on April 9, 13 Israeli soldiers were killed. The next day a suicide bombing on an intercity bus killed eight more Israelis (http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/go.asp?MFAH0ia50). Also, Smith overstates the number of Palestinian casualties. According to the Palestinian Red Crescent Society, 245 Palestinians were killed (http://prcs.intellinetinc.com/). Likewise, B’Tselem (“The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories”), which is critical of Israel, reported 249 Palestinians killed in April, a figure very similar to that of PCRS and also much lower than Smith’s estimation.
In a third inaccurate statement, Smith editorializes that Arafat and Sharon are “inextricably linked, for if there was to be peace in their lands, it was these two men who would have to guide their people there.” Why does Smith state as fact his view that these two leaders are indispensable for guiding their respective people to peace when President Bush has said Arafat must go in order for peace to be possible? In a prominently reported speech, which the segment actually quotes towards the end, Bush stated on June 24, 2002: “Peace requires a new and different leadership so that a Palestinian state can be born.” Smith provides no evidence or authority for his view (peddled as fact), which contradicts that of the President.
Smith again seriously misrepresents facts when he reports without examination:
Many say it was Sharon’s provocative visit to a holy site in Jerusalem that prompted a return to violence. Palestinians rioted in protest and Israeli soldiers responded aggressively.
Although “many” may make this false claim, Smith neglected to report the well-documented view that Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount was just a pretext for pre-planned Palestinian violence. Statements by Palestinian officials themselves support the second, unreported view. Palestinian Authority Communications Minister Imad al-Faluji admitted that Sharon’s visit was not the cause of the violence:
Whoever thinks that the Intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque is wrong. . . . The Intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat’s return from the Camp David negotiations, where he turned the table upside down on President Clinton. (Lebanon’s Al-Safir, March 3, 2001, translated by MEMRI)
Moreover, the program fails to mention Israel’s offer at Camp David in July 2000 to withdraw from all of the Gaza Strip and almost all of the West Bank. This serious omission severely distorts “Biography”’s depiction of events. The lack of context is particularly damaging in light of Smith’s statement–“Any hope that 2002 would bring peace to the Middle East was soon extinguished by Israel’s continued refusal to withdraw from the West Bank”–and the program’s repeated portrayal of Jewish villages and towns as an obstacle to peace. For example, Edward Walker states:
Sooner or later, the Israelis have to come to grips with their radical settlement movement. I don’t think peace is possible if either of these two factors [terrorism and settlements] are still prominent.
In addition, Henry Seigman says about Sharon:
He is the granddaddy of the whole settlement movement and what has played a major role in the distrust, indeed the hatred, that exists between the Palestinians and Israelis.
What a different picture viewers would have gained had they been informed that Israel had in fact “come to grips” with this issue, having offered to leave many settlements and to cede to Palestinians lands within Israel in compensation for those settlements that stayed. Balance would have required pointing out that the PLO was founded before Israel controlled the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and that Arafat rejected a West Bank and Gaza Strip state in 2000 in part because it did not provide for masses of Arab “refugees” to “return” to Israel proper.
In its portrayal of Arafat as terrorist-turned-statesman, the program also ignores the Palestinian leader’s many actions which undermined the peace process from September 1993 to September 2000. Among Palestinian violations of the Oslo Accords for which Arafat was responsible are: incitement to violence, failure to curtail terrorism, failure to confiscate illegal arms, and an illegally over-sized and armed Palestinian “police” force. At the height of the peace process, on Jan. 19, 1998, Arafat gave a speech to a Palestinian audience in Arabic praising suicide bombers and their handlers:
Our collective goal is to continue in their path. Indeed we are all candidates for holy martyrdom, candidates for holy martyrdom, candidates for holy martyrdom. In memory of the noble and brave exalted martyrs. Abu Iyad, Abu Alhol, Abu Mohamed, and before them, Abu Jihad and before them Yihyeh Ayaash [a.ka. “The Engineer,” responsible for the murder of dozens], and after them Yihyeh Ayaash.
Smith is soft on Arafat, but exercises no such indulgence for Sharon. Smith inappropriately injects his own editorial opinion: “Despite calls for Sharon not to overreact to the [Passover] massacre [that killed 32], he went after Arafat personally.” If Sharon “went after” Arafat, it was Arafat the duplicitous leader of a Palestinian terror war. Even if Smith had an informed view as to what constituted a measured response to the massacre of worshipers at holiday festivities, his personal judgments have no place in a news program.
Smith also distorts facts by confusing cause and effect, stating that “Sharon’s aggressive response led Palestinian militant groups to declare an all-out war against Israel.” But the Palestinians launched an all-out terrorism war against Israel before Sharon even came into power in February 2001. Daily attacks included shootings, mortars, suicide bombings and car bombings. In an Islamic Jihad rally in December 2000, months before Sharon’s election, the secretary general of Arafat’s Fatah movement in Gaza, Ahmad Hilles, announced the party’s war goals: “Intifada will go on and will continue hurting Israelis, and causing their bloodshed everywhere. . . ” (Al-Hayat Al-Jadidya, Dec. 23, 2000, translated by Palestinian Media Watch).
Biography”officials have failed to broadcast corrections. Until these are made, the program’s pretension of “historical accuracy” remains a travesty.