BBC Deceives on Bethlehem

If anyone was in doubt about whether the BBC still engages in agenda-driven reporting, the recent broadcasts from Bethelehem would put any such doubt to rest.

Barbara Plett Usher, notorious for her tearful eulogy of arch-terrorist Yasir Arafat  and her participation in BBC’s longtime campaign to delegtimize Israel, was sent to Bethlehem to report about Christmas there.  

There is an inverse relationship between the extent of Palestinian violence and the amount of tourism in Bethlehem. In 2015-6, at the height of the so-called Palestinian knife intifada, tourism plummeted. In the years since, violent attacks have decreased and tourism has picked up tremendously. For the past few years, there has been a steady rise in the numbers of tourists visiting Bethlehem, with this year topping even last year’s record high. The city is bustling with tourists and good cheer.

This, however, was not the story the BBC wanted to convey. The media network instead delivered a fairy tale about a Bethlehem diminished by an evil Israeli occupation. Barbara Plett Usher attempted to fit her Bethlehem 2019 tale into a rigid template of Palestinians suffering under “occupation” – even when the interviewees did not provide the answers she sought.

The story was introduced by Alex Ritson, who adhered to the same template.  He said:

Bethlehem, regarded as the birthplace of Jesus, typically sees a tourism boom at Christmas and this year looks like it could be one of the busiest years in recent memory. But as a Palestinian town in the West Bank, Bethlehem is also feeling the economic effects of the Israeli occupation. Israel has restricted movement out of the West Bank and confiscated some Palestinian land to build Jewish settlements. [emphasis added]

Plett Usher’s report  highlighted those unsupported allegations by claiming these were “dark times for the Palestinian economy” despite an obvious boom in tourism.

But contrary to the BBC claims, the Palestinian economy in the West Bank is reportedly flourishing, with Bethlehem one of the richest cities. Palestinian exports have  sharply increased over the past two decades from less than 16,000,000 USD in 2002 to over 90,000,000 USD during the past couple of years.  People working in the private sector — businessman, industrialists and merchants — are experiencing increasing prosperity. 

Those experiencing “dark times” are the civil servants paid by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Their salaries were sharply reduced as a political ploy by the PA to highlight its tax dispute with the Israeli authorities. The Palestinian Authority, furious that Israel had deducted “pay-to-slay” payments (money paid by the Palestinian government to terrorists and their families) from the tax revenues transferred to them, publicly blamed Israel for the reduction of salaries in the Palestinian public sector even while it covertly increased pay for its own ministers by some 67 per cent. 

The BBC, however, has no interest in exploring Palestinian responsibility for any problems in any sector of the Palestinian community– whether due to its leaders’ corruption and political ploys,  or whether due to the terrorism and violence they encourage that impacts tourism and prompts Israeli security measures.

Instead, the reporter tried to elicit negative responses about Israel’s security barrier, without mentioning the reason or providing any context for it. Plett thus forces the story into an artificial one about Palestinian suffering under Israel. She says:

Tourists vastly outnumber the Palestinian Christians. They roll into the little town of Bethlehem past what Israel calls its “security barrier” – the towering cement wall, as residents call it– as part of a system of controls that’s squeezing Bethlehem into an ever-shrinking space. [emphasis added]

What “ever-shrinking space”? The boundaries of Bethelehem are not decreasing. This pronouncement coming after Ritson’s allegation that Israel is confiscating Palestinian land to build settlements implies that Bethlehem’s residents are losing their land and property to Israeli settlers — an implication that is simply untrue. But truth is apparently of no matter to BBC journalists intent on delegitimizing and demonizing Israel.

While BBC journalists talk of dwindling Christian communities which they implicitly blame on the Israeli “occupation”  (i.e. the official Palestinian propaganda line), they don’t explain the truth about why Christians are leaving Bethlehem. They avoid discussing the PA attempts to appropriate Christian property in Bethlehem, as retaliation for the Orthodox Church selling land in Jerusalem to Jews.  And they never mention the hardships for Christians living under the Palestinian Authority,  which is the reason why more and more of Bethlehem’s Christian community is leaving.  These facts do not fit into their pre-determined narrative of Israeli malfeasance. (To learn more about Christians living under the PA, see here.)

Instead, Plett interviews Christian tourists who have come to celebrate the holidays in Bethlehem and asks them what they think of “the wall around Bethlehem”?  And when the tourists do not provide the answers she is pushing for (i.e. condemning Israel for the barrier), she dismisses them and sticks to her template, moving on to the Deheishe refugee camp until she does get the answers she seeks from a Palestinian resident offering the accepted propaganda lines. For example:

Plett (Interviewing a tourist)“What comes to mind when you come to Bethlehem? What’s the main impression?”

Tourist: “Oh, it’s overwhelming just because of just how, I mean it’s where our lord and saviour was born and, oh my goodness I mean this is it, where everything started.

Plett: “But what about the wall around Bethlehem? The big cement wall? What do you think of that?” 

Tourist: “Oh that was substantial, of course, and you can tell that people who lived in the old times, how protected they felt by the big wall and how amazing it is today.”

Plett: “It’s a new wall, but anyway…”

Tourist: “Oh that’s a new wall?”

Plett: “Yes, yes.”

Tourist: “Oh, OK. It’s a new wall then. So it’s about the future, as well.”

Plett:  “Not everyone can avoid the politics, or wants to.”

Moving on to interview a Palestinian host of an Airbnb in the Deheishe refugee camp, she finally elicits an answer that fits the narrative:

Plett: “It’s that connection with the world Ahmed  [Airbnb host] is looking for.”

Ahmed: “You know the people here, most of them are not allowed to go outside, and especially to the outside world.  And they see the outside world in your eyes.”

But this propaganda line is simply untrue. Contrary to Plett’s assertions, Bethlehem is not walled in. Israel’s security barrier, constructed to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers and other terrorists from crossing into Israel, rings the northern and western sides of the city, but does not encircle the city on the east and south. Even B’tselem, a critic of Israel’s which chronicles Israeli military actions and checkpoints in the West Bank  records no checkpoints on Bethlehem’s eastern and southern side.  In addition, the internal checkpoints into Palestinian areas of the West Bank that are located on the western and northern side and are almost always open and rarely staffed, allowing Palestinians to freely travel between Bethlehem and other areas of the West Bank. The only checkpoints that are more strictly staffed are those bordering Jerusalem and the Israeli town of Efrat. Those checkpoints limit entry to Palestinian residents of eastern Jerusalem or to Palestinians who have permits to enter. (These restrictions are due entirely to Israeli defensive measures to protect its citizens from the Palestinian terrorism that has targeted civilians inside Israel.)  But the barrier would not prevent Bethlehem Palestinians from travelling south without need for permits.  

Not willing to conclude her report by honestly acknowledging that Israel is not limiting or negatively impacting Bethlehem tourism and business, Plett is reduced to implicitly blaming Israel for some Palestinian misfortune that may hypothetically occur in the future. She says:

It’s a children’s choir now in Manger Square. Business is really booming here this year but you never know, next year can be a bust.  When you can’t control your own space, things are very fragile. 

This deceptive feature was part of BBC World Service Newshour  broadcast on NPR  on December 24, 2019.  For more about BBC’s deceptive broadcasts from Bethlehem, see here