BBC: Obstacle to Understanding on Jerusalem

The BBC News Web site has posted “a series of articles about the attempts to achieve peace in the Middle East and the main obstacles.” The many cliched distortions, errors and critical omissions in the five-part series by Martin Asser, which includes sections on water, refugees, Jerusalem, borders and settlements, and the history of peace talks, renders the feature itself an obstacle to understanding. Tellingly, BBC does not deem “terrorism” or “incitement to genocide” as main obstacles to peace worthy of discussion. Instead, in each section, Asser heaps blame on Israel and exonerates the Palestinian side. The cumulative impression is that Israel is the obstacle to peace. Period.


Right from the beginning, BBC’s section on Jerusalem amplifies Islamic history and minimizes the more ancient Jewish ties to the city. Thus, the section begins vaguely: “Ancient Jerusalem has changed hands many times, its religious significance exerting a powerful pull on Jewish, Christian and Muslim conquerors.” Were Asser to provide more details, such as dates of each group’s reign, it would be clear that the Jewish kingdom was established 1600 years before Muslim Arabs arrived.

While Asser neglects to mention King David, who established Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish kingdom in 1000 BCE, and his son King Solomon, who built the first Jewish Temple in 940, he does single out two Muslim rulers, writing:

Religious writer Karen Armstrong has observed that those who held [Jerusalem] longest are those who showed the most tolerance to devotees of other faiths.

She cites two Muslim leaders — Caliph Omar and Saladin — as exemplars of this approach . . .

First, Asser’s reliance on Karen Armstrong, the author of Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths, a book riddled with factual errors that repeatedly derides the Jewish attachment to Jerusalem as based on “myths and legends” and “cult,” is itself revealing. Armstrong is the only Jerusalem “expert” that Asser cites. Second, Caliph Omar was not as benevolent as Armstrong suggests, having limited the Jewish population in Jerusalem to just 70 families.

Echoing Armstrong, Asser casts Israeli policy in Jerusalem as misguided and damaging:

History has yet to decide if Israeli rule over the city is a doomed enterprise that will founder – on Karen Armstrong’s analysis – because of the very measures taken to make Jerusalem Israel’s “eternal and indivisible” capital.

In doing so, he disregards every fact which contradicts his narrative. For instance, he mentions the 1967 capture of East Jerusalem, but neglects to note that Israel had sent a conciliatory message to Jordan’s King Hussein during the Six-Day War saying if Jordan halted its shelling Israel would not counterattack. Hussein responded by bombing Israel.

Likewise, Asser gives a deceptively sanitized version of Jordan’s 19-year rule over the city, stating:

Under Arab control since 1948, the Jewish holy places had been tantalisingly out of reach to Israelis – in violation of the Israel-Jordan armistice agreement.

Repressive measures during Arab rule of eastern Jerusalem far exceeded tantalising the Jews by barring them from their holy sites. The Jordanians shelled the Jewish Quarter with mortars, reducing much of it to rubble, then expelled the Jewish population and desecrated or destroyed entirely 35 synagogues. They burned tens of thousands of religious books and systematically dug up thousands of Jewish tombstones from the thousand-year-old Mount of Olives Cemetery, defacing or smashing them. Many were used to pave roads and build latrines.

Yet, Asser ignores all these facts, implicating the Israelis as the intolerant party:

Nothing was going to stop the 1967 leaders from creating facts on the ground that made it impossible for Muslim Arabs to reclaim the eastern half of the city.

“We have returned to our holy places . . . And we shall never leave them,” said Gen Moshe Dayan as he stood before the timeworn stones of the Western Wall.

Contrary to Asser, Israel’s resolve to return to its ancient holy site was not tantamount to a decree barring another people from reaching their holy site. Indeed, this is the same Moshe Dayan who decided immediately after the war that the Muslim Waqf was to retain control of the Temple Mount, the holiest site for Jews, and who joined 4,000 Muslim worshippers for Friday prayers at the al-Aqsa Mosque.

Asser ignores the remarkable decision to forfeit Jewish control over its own most sacred site in the interests of peace, instead lambasting Israel:

Indeed, a raft of UN resolutions and international conventions outlawing the change of status of occupied territory conquered by military means have had little impact on Israeli thinking.

Within days Israel had annexed east Jerusalem, drawn new, greatly expanded municipal boundaries (that cut out some heavily populated Palestinian areas) and demolished an entire Arab quarter of the city in front of the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism [sic; Judaism’s holiest site is the Temple Mount, which contains the Holy of Holies].

Jerusalem’s expanded boundaries in the aftermath of the 1967 war incorporated 28 Arab villages to the north and south of the city, in addition to eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City.

In addition, Asser suggests that Jerusalem’s Jewish population is on the rise, with the extensive building of Jewish neighborhoods housing “hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers [who] have moved to the occupied east of the city,” while the Arab population is “hemmed in,” “squeezed,” “fac[ing] discrimination; restrictions on building or renovation, disregard by the municipality even though they pay taxes,” etc.

What he ignores is a phenomenon that made front-page news in the New York Times ea rlier this month – that Jerusalem is today more Arab and less Jewish than it was in 1967. As Greg Myre reports:

In a 1967 census taken shortly after the war, the population of Jerusalem was 74 percent Jewish and 26 percent Arab. Today, the city is 66 percent Jewish and 34 percent Arab, with the gap narrowing by about 1 percentage point a year, according to the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.

As for being “hemmed in,” Arab building has boomed in eastern Jerusalem since 1967. Professional analysis of aerial photographs reveals that from 1968 to 1995, the number of Arab houses in eastern Jerusalem has doubled. In addition, the number of households in the Arab sector increased by 146 percent during this period, from 12,588 in 1967 to 31,000 in 1995. As Khalil Tufakji, the leading Palestinian building and demography expert, and obviously no friend of Israel, stated on CNN:

We can build inside Jerusalem, legal, illegal — rebuild a house, whatever, we can do. Maybe we lose ten houses, but in the end we build 40 more houses in East Jerusalem. (CNN, Sept. 19, 1998)

In his book Illegal Construction in Jerusalem: A Variation on an Alarming Global Phenomenon, Justus Reid Weiner reports that in the mid-1990s, Faisal Husseini, the late Palestinian official most associated with Jerusalem, published a 23-page booklet in which he predicted that by 2010, the Arab population would require 26,200 new housing units. The Jerusalem municipality has more than met that perceived need, by granting permits for 33,000 housing units.

From 1974 to 1995, “Jerusalem’s Arab community received building permits for more square meters of residential construction than did the demographically similar [in terms of population and family size] Jewish ultra-Orthodox community,” Israel Kimhi points out in Arab Building in Jerusalem 1967- 1997, a monograph published by CAMERA. (The Jerusalem municipal planner from 1963 to 1986, Kimhi also heads Jerusalem research at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies.) Specifically, the Arab sector was granted permits for 1.1 million square meters of residential construction, while the ultra-Orthodox Jewish population received 954,000 square meters

In short, Asser considers tolerant Caliph Omar’s policy of limiting Jews to just 70 families in Jerusalem, while Israel’s policies, under which Arab households grew by some 17,500, he stigmatizes as restrictive, illegal, discriminatory and potentially disastrous.

Asser concludes by noting:

Many observers see the possibility of disaster in Israel’s unyielding pursuit of its policies in Jerusalem.

They argue that resolution with the Palestinians, and the wider Arab an Muslim world, will not be possible without compromise on the holy city.

What he ignores is that Israel has consistently compromised – from 1967 when it relinquished control over the holiest site in Judaism (where the Waqf has since carried out massive construction destroying Jewish archeological treasures), to 2000 when it offered to compromise at Camp David. As President Clinton, who hosted the Camp David talks, recounted:

I think it is fair to say that at this moment in time, maybe because they had been preparing for it longer, maybe because they had thought it through more, that the [Israeli] prime minister moved forward more from his initial position than Chairman Arafat on – particularly surrounding the questions of Jerusalem . . .(July 25, 2000 press conference)

Likewise speaking about Palestinian intransigence on Jerusalem at Camp David, U.S. envoy Dennis Ross noted that Arafat “did offer one new idea, which was that the [Jewish] Temple didn’t exist in Jerusalem, that it was in Nablus,” (Jerusalem Post, May 15, 2002).

Thus, while Israel relinquished its most holy site to Muslims, despite the systematic Muslim desecration of Jewish sacred places for 19 years, Palestinian leaders deny that Israel has any historic connection to that site. Just whose policy is an obstacle to peace?
Note: Analyses on the water, refugees, borders and settlements, and history of negotiations sections of “Obstacles to Peace” will be published shortly.

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