Writing for the BBC, freelance travel writer Matthew Teller veered sharply off-course in his article, “Jerusalem Tram Offers View of Other Side of Tracks,” about Jerusalem’s light railway.
The author demonstrates his shocking ignorance about the history of Jerusalem, about international law, and about present-day Jerusalem with passages that alternately suggest that Israel seized, settled and segregated Jerusalem.
Teller implies that Israel wrongfully seized the city from its Arab rulers, with his reference to the “western part of Jerusalem, captured by Israel in 1948,” and eastern Jerusalem which was” under Jordanian rule from 1948 until 1967 — when it, too, was captured by Israel.”
But this is a complete distortion of history. Jerusalem — whose Jewish presence dates back long before Arab rule and whose Jewish community has, since 1820, constituted a plurality of the population – was divided as a result of the 1948 war, in which Arab nations invaded the nascent State of Israel and the Arab Legion attempted to capture the entire city, both east and west.
If anything, the description of wrongfully “capturing” Jerusalem more aptly applies to Transjordan’s Arab Legion, which shelled and besieged the city, cutting off its Jewish residents from the coastal plain. It was the Arab Legion that seized eastern Jerusalem, expelling its Jewish residents, destroying Jewish property and religious sites, and creating a Judenrein area for the first time in over 1000 years.
In fact, Western portions of the city came under Israel’s control only as a result of Israel’s attempt to repel the Arab army and break the siege of the city. In the first four weeks of Arab attacks, 200 Jewish civilians were killed and over 1,000 were wounded in Jerusalem. Eventually, Israeli forces managed to force back the Arab army from some areas and gained control of suburbs and villages from the Arabs.
After 10 months of fighting, an armistice agreement was signed on April 3, 1949, dividing Jerusalem along the November 1948 ceasefire lines of Israeli and Transjordanian forces, with several areas of no-man’s land. The armistice line served as a temporary border between what had formerly been two mixed communities. Western Jerusalem became Israel’s capital city, while eastern Jerusalem, including the holy sites, was occupied by Transjordan, which in 1949 became the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The city was essentially divided between two armed camps separated by barbed wire, concrete walls, minefields and bunkers.
In contravention of the terms of the armistice agreement, the Jordanians destroyed and desecrated Jewish religious sites and denied Jews access to their holy sites and cemetery on the Mount of Olives, where Jews had been burying their dead for over 2500 years. The cemetery was ransacked; graves were desecrated; thousands of tombstones were smashed and used as building material, paving stones or for latrines in Arab Legion army camps. And in 1950, Jordan annexed Jerusalem in a move considered illegal by every nation, save Pakistan. The armistice lines were sealed as Jordanian snipers would perch on the walls of the Old City and shoot at Israelis across the lines. (For more details, see “Backgrounder: History of Jerusalem“.)
Unwilling to face the situation where Jews would again be cut off from their holiest sites, the Israeli Knesset passed a basic law in 1980 declaring reunified Jerusalem the eternal capital of Israel. The law provides for protection of and freedom of access to each religion’s holy sites.
Distorting International Law
Where the prior holder of territory had seized that territory unlawfully, the state which subsequently takes that territory in the lawful exercise of self-defense has, against that prior holder, better title. (“What Weight to Conquest,” American Journal of International Law, 64 (1970))
And there are still international jurists who contend that Israeli settlement in all the territory it captured, not only in Jerusalem but in the West Bank and Gaza were and are legal.
Distorting Present-Day Jerusalem
The BBC piece is not just marred by historical and legal misinformation. The article’s false premise is
that Jews and Arabs are strictly segregated in Jerusalem, and the author presents an anecdote to illustrate this mistaken thesis:
At the western terminus, as grandpas and Jewish seminary students disembarked beside forested hills at the city’s edge, I noticed a Muslim mother in a headscarf shepherding two small children out into the sunshine.
While I watched, they glanced around themselves, as if in a foreign country, then hurried across the platform into a tram waiting on the other side for the return journey back into the city.
But it is abundantly clear to anyone who has spent any time in grocery stores, shopping malls, public parks, streets and public transportation in the western part of Jerusalem — territory depicted as “foreign” to Arabs — that Muslim women in headscarves are a common sight in western Jerusalem and appear extremely comfortable shopping and picknicking alonside Jewish inhabitants of the city. (See, for example, the photos in this blog entry.)
That the BBC chose to run such an obviously misinformed article about Jerusalem and its inhabitants comes as no surprise to those who are aware of BBC’s bias and who have followed the news organization’s departure from its code of journalistic ethics to deliberately mislead about Jerusalem.