BBC Derails on Jerusalem Tram Story

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.

Distorting History

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“.)

Again, in 1967, Israel gained control of the eastern parts of Jerusalem as a result of self-defensive actions. Israel had appealed to Jordan to stay out of its war with Egypt and Syria, but despite this appeal, Jordanian forces tried to take advantage of Israel’s compromised situation to fire artillery barrages toward Tel Aviv and western Jerusalem. Although Israeli forces did not respond initially, not wanting to open up a Jordanian front in the war, Jordan continued to attack and occupied UN headquarters in Jerusalem. Israeli forces fought back and within two days managed to repulse the Jordanian forces and retake eastern Jerusalem. (For more details, see “Six Day War: Jordanian Front“).
On June 7, 1967, IDF paratroopers advanced through the Old City toward the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, bringing Jerusalem’s holiest site under Jewish control for the first time in 2000 years. Unlike Jordan, which illegally denied Jews access to their holy sites, Israeli leaders immediately indicated their peaceful intent and pledged to preserve religious freedom for all faiths in Jerusalem.
The religious freedoms enjoyed by Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the reunified Jerusalem had been unheard of during Jordanian occupation of the city, prompting even a former Jordanian ambassador to the United Nations, Adnan Abu Odeh, to acknowledge that “the situation in Jerusalem prior to 1967 [under Jordanian rule] was one of … religious exclusion” whereas post-1967, Israel seeks “to reach a point of religious inclusion …” (The Catholic University of America Law Review, Spring 1996).

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

The author presents as fact that “international law defines” the  Jerusalem neighborhood of Pisgat Ze’ev as “an illegal settlement.”  Of course, there is no international law that so definitively makes this determination. While the UN partition plan called for Jerusalem to become a corpus separatum, an international city administered by the UN, this was supposed to be for just an interval of just 10 years, after which the city’s status was to be redetermined in a referendum.  And during that period, Jordan essentially nullified the corpus separatum proposal by illegally occupying  eastern parts of Jerusalem. 
The international jurist Stephen  Schwebel, former judge on the Hague’s International Court of Justice, ruled that

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.

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