BBC Panorama Distorts the Facts About Jerusalem

“Finding a route to peace in [Jerusalem] is not exactly a walk in the park,” says Jeremy Vine in a play on words to introduce the January 18th segment of BBC’s “Panorama,” entitled “A Walk in the Park.” The segment presents alleged attempts by Israeli Jews to “change the demographics of East Jerusalem” and the title refers to the green areas being developed to link communities around Jerusalem. But viewers learn far less about the difficulty of “finding a route to peace” in Jerusalem than they do about the difficulty of finding objective information on the BBC.

Narrator Jane Corbin takes viewers on a “walking tour” of “what is happening on the ground” in eastern Jerusalem, scurrying from one “stop” to another to report on Israel’s alleged misdeeds. Omitting essential facts and context that explain Israel’s position, she provides a one-sided perspective that establishes Israelis as the villains and the Palestinians as their innocent victims.

In his analysis of the program, Robin Shepherd, director of international affairs at a British think tank and former London Times bureau chief, correctly points out:

The slipperiness of the tactics employed, the unabashed censorship of vital historical context, and the blatant pursuit of a political agenda constituted a lesson in the techniques of modern day propaganda.

Corbin misleads viewers throughout the various stops on her walking tour about such topics as the demolition of Arab homes and “ethnic cleansing,” Israeli archeology, the history of Jerusalem, Jewish habitation in eastern Jerusalem neighborhoods, and Israeli-Palestinian violence.

Demolition of Homes and “Ethnic Cleansing”

Corbin’s bias is evident from the start as she introduces the “battlefield,” as she terms it. Those wielding “the weapons” are “the Israeli authorities,” while the victims are the Palestinians whose homes are being demolished.

Bulldozers are seen dismantling a structure as Arab women cry, and Corbin breathlessly informs viewers that “demolitions have been increasing in recent days.” She confides that she has gotten hold of “a list that shows there’s another forty to go before the end of the year” and absurdly suggests that the reason for this is that the Jerusalem municipality “has a budget it has to use up for demolitions.” Shockingly, she makes no mention of why these homes are being demolished, leaving viewers with the false impression that it is an official Israeli policy — complete with mandatory budget — to render Arabs homeless.

In fact, Jerusalem authorities demolish only structures that are built illegally — something Corbin does not bother to inform viewers until halfway through the program when she revisits the topic of home demolitions.

Of course, there is no arbitrary quota of houses to demolish or a “budget” that must be “used up.” Stephan Miller, Foreign Media Spokesperson for Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, has confirmed this, stating:

The [number] of demolitions carried out by the Jerusalem Municipality every year is determined solely by the number of illegally constructed buildings erected by those residents who flouted the law. The number of structural demolitions conducted in eastern Jerusalem by the Jerusalem Municipality actually decreased in 2009–from 86 in 2008 to 65 in 2009, a 25% decrease. Further, there is simply no connection whatsoever between the annual budget of the Jerusalem Municipality and the number of demolitions conducted.

Miller also challenges Corbin’s implication that forty more homes were demolished by the end of 2009:

It would be prudent to ask Ms. Corbin what happened to her alleged list of 40 planned demolitions since her filming in late 2009. You’ll easily find yet another one of her distasteful distortions.

Corbin portrays the demolitions as stealth operations by Israeli authorities that suddenly and without warning force Arabs out of their homes. But in fact, such demolitions are subject to rigorous guidelines and procedures. According to the Israel’s Planning and Building Law, a demolition order can be issued only after a municipal engineer or architect signs an affidavit stating that:

a. the structure was built without a permit or does not conform to building standards

b. the building is not yet finished or was completed within the last 60 days

c. the building is not yet inhabited or has been lived in for 30 days or less.

According to Justus Reid Weiner’s study, Illegal Construction in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem municipality requires five signatures before such a demolition order can be carried out. Asked about the demolition process, the Jerusalem mayor’s office informed CAMERA:

The first notification of an impending demolition is a sticker on the door that alerts the owners to contact the courts in 30 days. Then, if contact is made, the process can take many years before a demolition is decided and implemented. If no legal appeal is made, the courts decide after the original 30 days how long before the demolition must be completed.

Corbin either did not bother to clarify this or chose not to share it with viewers.

When Corbin finally does get around to mentioning Arab illegal building at the Silwan “stop,” she presents the demolition of these structures as a move to harm Palestinians under the pretext of building a “tourist park.”

She does not discuss why municipalities have the right to demolish illegal structures that threaten delivery of public services, provision of green spaces, and preservation of archeological, architectural and historical heritage. Governments all over the world regularly demolish structures that violate zoning laws or housing codes, do not meet planning standards, or stand in the way of urban renewal. The Palestinian Authority itself has demolished Palestinian homes that were built illegally on what it considers to be its state property.

Nor does Corbin discuss how illegal structures in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods threaten the city’s Arab residents. Indeed, many Arab residents of Jerusalem negatively affected by illegal building by their neighbors have issued formal complaints to the Jerusalem municipality. In his book, Illegal Construction in Jerusalem (Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, 2003), Justus Reid Weiner provides specific examples of complaints by Arab-Israeli residents who alerted the municipality to the illegal building of their neighbors.

Corbin instead reports:

Silwan is poor and overcrowded; many homes here were built without planning permission. As I arrived, the police and bulldozers were moving in to demolish three Palestinian buildings. The Israelis plan to demolish 88 houses to create a tourist park here. Jawad Siyam is a local Palestinian activist, documenting what Israel is doing.

Siyam’s “documentation” of what Israel is doing includes the following:

They are demolishing the houses because they want to. It’s ethnic cleansing for Silwan, for east Jerusalem. … It’s the most racist state in the world, you see. See this state? It’s the most racist state in the world. [To Israeli police:] You are the most racist people in the world!


From Jerusalem: Facts and Trends 2007 / 2008, Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies. (Click on image to enlarge)

This allegation of “ethnic cleansing” is also broadcast in the introduction to the program, with the voiceover adding credence to the charge by immediately adding, “Palestinians are being thrown out of their homes, Israelis are moving in.” That the documentary not only allows this most egregious and false charge of “ethnic cleansing” to go unanswered, but also directs viewers toward believing that it is true, is disturbing evidence of the staff’s disrespect for its audience and journalistic ethics.  

Far from being ethnically cleansed of Arabs, Jerusalem has since 1967 seen a large increase in its Arab population, which has actually outpaced the growth of the Jewish population. As a result, notes a study by the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies:

The proportion of Jews in the city’s population dropped from 74% in 1967 to 72% in 1980, and to 65% in 2007. There was a concomitant rise in the proportion of Arabs in the city’s population, from 26% in 1967 to 28% in 1980, and to 35% in 2007.

As to Corbin’s reference to the pending demolition of 88 houses in Silwan, which she portrays as part of the supposed “ethnic cleansing,” essential keys to understanding are kept from viewers. This missing context can be found in an article by Ha’aretz journalist Nadav Shragai:

Progress has brought troubles along with it to the King’s Valley. For hundreds of years floodwaters drained into the garden of the kings of Judea, east of the Shiloah Pool in Jerusalem. In winter it was a swamp, but in summer it became a blooming garden.

With a bit of imagination and with the help of varied historical sources it is possible to imagine King David strolling in the royal garden with its abundant greenery and water among the olive, fig, pomegranate and almond trees, singing Psalms.

According to one tradition, this is where the Book of Ecclesiastes was composed.

About 20 years ago, the Jerusalem municipality shored up the water runoff there, and in the open green area (al Bustan, in Arabic), which the Turks and the British took care to preserve for hundreds of years as a public area intended for preservation and development of parks and tourism, an illegal Palestinian outpost arose.

Within 18 years 88 buildings went up there, under the noses of mayors Teddy Kollek and now outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Under former mayor Uri Lupolianski, the construction was halted, after the municipality confiscated tractors and heavy machinery from the lawbreakers.

Last summer the director general of the Antiquities Authority, Shuka Dorfman, noted in a kind of “post mortem” that the construction in the King’s Garden caused significant and irreversible damage to antiquities.

Representatives of the municipality and Dorfman admitted that they had no good explanation for what has happened in this lovely garden, which is described in the Books of Nechemiah and Ecclesiastes, in midrashim (rabbinic Biblical homiletics) and in many historical sources. Dorfman stressed that together with Tel David, the garden constitutes the only complete archaeological garden of first-rate importance.

Likewise, a UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs document, which itself strongly tilts toward the Palestinian narrative, makes clear Israel did not suddenly decide to “create” a tourist park — and a pretext to displace Arabs — in Silwan, as the BBC suggests. “Since the late 1970s,” the document explains, “the Jerusalem municipality has designated all of the Al Bustan area of Silwan as an ‘open’ or ‘green’ area, where all construction is prohibited.” The illegal homes slated to be demolished were all built after the sensitive area was officially protected.

Corbin not only credulously accepts false claims by the Palestinian activist she interviews, but presents, in her own voice, partial statistics that distort the facts about Israeli policy.

Jawad Siyam: They say to you, you can apply for permission, but you know you will never ever be able to get permission. And if you want to get permission, you have to go through 11 committees in the municipality — one of the committees say ‘no’ to you, then it’s no.

Corbin: Last year, only 133 permits were granted to Palestinians in the whole of east Jerusalem. Nearly ten times more were given to Israelis in west Jerusalem.

Corbin to Barkat: They can’t expand naturally, they’re just not given the permission to build, they have to often build illegally.

Corbin’s assertion that Palestinians are “just not given the permission to build” unquestioningly echoes Siyam’s false claim that they “never ever” get permission to build in east Jerusalem.

Corbin further promotes the narrative of wildly discriminatory Israeli policies when she asserts that Palestinians in eastern Jerusalem were only granted 1/10 the number of permits given to Israelis in the western sector. What the BBC journalist leaves out, though, is as important as what she shares. The figures reflect not discrimination, but the discrepancy in numbers of applications on each side. The 133 building permits granted to eastern Jerusalem residents represent 55 percent of the 244 permit requests from that sector. By contrast, there were 1,950 requests — nearly 10 times more — to build in western Jerusalem. The municipality approved 1,236 — or 63 percent — of them. In other words, a very similar proportion of requests were approved in the eastern and western sectors of the city.

Israeli Archeology

While Corbin accepts as fact the false allegation that Palestinians are “not given permission to build,” she challenges the Jewish connection to the land, framing it as yet another settler claim meant to harm Palestinians:

[The settler organization Elad is] accused of undermining the Palestinians, by digging under their houses, and by emphasizing that it’s Jews who have lived here for thousands of years.

The BBC’s language bias is striking. At no point in the documentary does the journalist delegitimize Palestinian assertions by prefacing them in this way. Were she consistent, Corbin would have introduced the Palestinian narrative by asserting that Palestinians are “accused of undermining” the Jewish bond to eastern Jerusalem by illegally building in sensitive areas and opposing any Jewish presence in their historic, cultural and religious heartland.

This type of bias continues throughout the documentary. Corbin asks one Israeli:

But do you understand the Palestinians when they say you’re erasing their history, and that you’re putting Jewish history before theirs? They feel very sensitive about this.

 Elsewhere she states:

Israeli archeology has raised Arab suspicions of a Jewish takeover of the Muslim holy sites.

Why did she not ask Palestinians if  “they understand the Israelis” when they raise concerns about the Palestinian destruction and denial of Jewish history, or examine Jewish “suspicions” about Arab statements and actions?

Palestinian leaders, including Yasir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, have repeatedly denied that the holy Jewish temples ever existed in Jerusalem. Arafat noted, for example, that there is not “a single stone proving that the Temple of Solomon was there, because historically the Temple was not in Palestine.” Likewise, Ikrima Sabri, until recently the Palestinian Authority-appointed mufti of Jerusalem and the highest ranking Islamic clerical authority in the PA, insists Jews have no connection to any part of the Temple Mount, including the Western Wall. In 1997, he proclaimed:

The Al-Buraq Wall [Western Wall] and its plaza are a Muslim religious property. … The Jews have no relation to it.

Still today, Sheikh Tayseer Tamimi, the chief Islamic judge of the Palestinian Authority, teaches that there is no Jewish connection to Jerusalem.

Although such assertions are clearly relevant to the documentary, in part because they help explain why many Jews cannot envision turning over their holy and historic sites to Palestinian control, Corbin ignores them. Likewise, she ignores other provocations in eastern Jerusalem that give Jews across the world cause for concern, such as the “grave harm to archeology” caused by reckless digging by Palestinian on the Temple Mount, which is Judaism’s holiest site, the Palestinian attack on the holy site known as Joseph’s Tomb and the destruction of Jewish holy sites in Jerusalem under Jordanian occupation. (For more details on the denial and destruction of Jewish heritage in Jerusalem, see “The Battle Over the Temple Mount.” )

Not only does the BBC ignore Palestinian historical revisionism, it also engages in some of its own. The documentary casts the Western Wall as the “holiest place in the world for Jews,” even though the BBC had recently investigated and acknowledged that the Temple Mount, and not the Western Wall, is the holiest Jewish site. Meanwhile, Corbin tacitly denies any Jewish connection to the Temple Mount when she asserts that Palestinians rioted after rumors that Israelis were coming to pray on “the compound surrounding the holy mosques.” Viewers are never told that this “compound” is the most sacred ground in Judaism.

Distorted History

Corbin imparts the following radically abbreviated version of history to provide context for viewers:

When the State of Israel was born in 1948, the West of the city became part of Israel and the East was controlled by Jordan. In 1967, Israel annexed East Jerusalem after seizing the West Bank following war with its Arab neighbours.

There is no mention of Arab rejection of the United Nations partition plan, nothing about Jordan’s illegal occupation of eastern Jerusalem from 1948-1967 nor the forcing of Jews from the part of Jerusalem Jordan occupied, nothing about the Arab Legion’s destruction and desecration of Jewish places of worship, no mention of the barring of Jews from their holy sites in contravention of international law, and of course, there is no mention of Jordan initiating hostilities in 1967 which ultimately led to eastern Jerusalem coming under Israeli control (see “History of Jerusalem“).

Viewers learn nothing about the history of eastern Jerusalem, where Jews formed a plurality as far back as the mid-19th century. A New York Times article on May 29, 1948 — the day after the Arab Legion took control of what was then Jewish Jerusalem — reports how Jewish demographics were changed at that time:

Thus the Jews have been eliminated from the City of David for the first time since the sixteenth century. Except for sixty years in the sixteenth century, they are believed to have been there continuously since the return from the Babylonian captivity.

Instead, Corbin leads her audience to believe this is a historically Arab area that is only now being taken over by Jews.

Silwan, which Corbin describes as an Arab area threatened by Jewish usurpers, was home to Jewish families as early as 1882. Silwan’s Jewish residents were driven from their homes by Arab attacks in the late 1920’s. The City of David, where Corbin decries “the Israelis are strengthening their claim,” is 60 percent Jewish-owned, including the sections purchased by Baron de Rothschild in the early 1900’s.

But none of this fits Corbin’s version of history where Israel “seizes,” “annexes” and absorbs land to which it is not entitled. Thus, the only references to “illegal occupation” and forcing native residents from their homes come in the reporter’s description of Jews moving to Arab neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem.

Jewish neighborhoods in Sheikh Jarrah and Ras Al Amud

Corbin announces that “Palestinian houses in Sheikh Jarrah have been taken over by Israeli settlers” who “believe they have the right to live anywhere in the biblical land of Israel.” She interviews family members who assert that they “own the house” and presents footage of a Palestinian woman screaming, “We’re not able to stand up to you — only Allah can help us.” The BBC journalist again oversimplifies the facts, painting a false picture of Israelis seizing and appropriating Palestinian properties in stealth, with no possible recourse by the victims.

What Corbin neglects to tell viewers is that the Jewish neighborhood of Shimon Hatzaddik (Simon the Righteous) in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood was established in the mid-19th century. In 1876, the Committee of the Sephardic Community purchased property near the tomb of a Second-Temple era Jewish sage, which had been the site of Jewish pilgrimage for hundreds of years. Dozens of Jewish families lived there until Jordan captured the area in 1948. Under Jordanian occupation, the neighborhood’s Jews were prohibited from returning to their homes and their property was handed over to the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property.

In the mid-1950’s, Jordan and UNRWA settled 28 Arab families on this property. After the area reverted back to Israeli control, the Sephardic community began the legal process to re-assert their claim to the land and re-register it with the Israeli Land Administration, based on 19th-century Ottoman-era documents. The Arab families living there were considered “protected tenants” as long as they continued to pay rent. However, many of the families stopped paying rent and thus lost their “protected” status.

The questions of legal ownership and tenants’ rights were battled out in Israel’s courts for almost four decades. The court ruled the Committee of the Sephardic community to be the legal owners of the property and the Arab families were told that eviction notices would be served if they did not pay rent. In the case of the Hanoun family, which Corbin highlights, eviction orders were postponed again and again while appeals were heard and even while the Hanoun family was not abiding by the courts’ previous rulings. When the family was finally evicted from the property in Sheikh Jarrah in August, it was not an unanticipated event, as it might have appeared from the footage.

Corbin similarly neglects to inform viewers about the history of Maaleh HaZeitim, which she refers to as “the big Jewish settlement at Ras Al Amud” where Israelis are buying up Arab property or else forcibly evicting Arab homeowners in the dark of the night.

The land on which the neighborhood is built was purchased in 1990 by Jewish philanthropist Irving Moskowitz from the Chabad and Volhyn Kollels (rabbinical seminaries). The plot was originally purchased from the Turkish authorities by two Jewish benefactors, Moshe Wittenberg and Nissan Bak, who held it in trust for the two seminaries because of an Ottoman law which prohibited corporations from holding land in this area. For decades, the land was leased to an Arab wheat farmer. In the 1920’s, when the British authorities changed land ownership laws to allow corporations to hold land, the plot was transferred to the seminaries.

From 1948-1967, the land was held by the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property, but in 1951, Ahmed Hassin al-Goll, an Arab resident of Ras Al Amud, fraudulently registered the property in his own name, dividing it up and leasing it or “selling” it to others. When the Jordanian Custodian discovered the fraud, it took steps to abrogate the registration in Goll’s name, but the Jordanian court rejected the Custodian’s attempts to rectify the situation.

After Israel regained the area in 1967, the Chabad and Volhyn seminaries appealed to the authorities to reinstate their claims to the property. After 20 years of legal proceedings, the Jerusalem District Court and Supreme Court determined that the seminaries’ original registry of the plot was still valid. Even after Moskowitz purchased the plot and drew up plans for construction, it took time to obtain the appropriate building permits from the Israeli government which was concerned about Arab opposition to Jews moving into the neighborhood.

Israeli individuals can legally purchase properties from Arab residents, but they cannot “forcibly evict” them from their homes. The only way Arab residents can be evicted from their homes is if they are illegally squatting there — i.e. living in a property owned by someone else and not paying rent or taxes. They must be served notice first and then have the right to appeal. Ownership, as well as tenant status, must be legally established, as evidenced by the long drawn out court cases described above.

Corbin ignores this, choosing instead to create a false scenario of lawless “forcible evictions” of Arabs from homes they own.

Israeli-Palestinian violence

Predictably, Corbin ignores attacks against Israeli Jews by Jerusalem’s Arab residents. She makes no mention any of shooting and stabbing attacks by Arabs against Jews in Jerusalem. (See, for example, here and here.) Nor does she reference the larger, more spectacular attacks perpetrated by eastern Jerusalem Arabs. For example, she ignores the March 6, 2008 massacre of schoolboys at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva by an Arab resident of Jerusalem’s Jabel Mekaber neighborhood. The gunman broke into the school and opened fire indiscriminately, killing eight teenagers and wounding 10 others. She does not mention two recent bulldozer attacks in which three people were killed and dozens wounded. (See, for example, here and here.)

Instead, she devotes a lengthy section of the program to an eastern Jerusalem Arab who recounts how he was shot by an Israeli “settler.” While the circumstances of the event are unclear, Corbin slickly portrays, yet again, the Israeli as the aggressor and Palestinians as innocent victims. The segment, which can be viewed here, is comprised of the following statements by Corbin and Palestinian Ahmed Qaareen:

Corbin: The Palestinians say what happened to this man, Ahmed Qaareen, is a warning of how bad things can get. Last September, CC TV recorded a scuffle between some Arabs and two Israelis. One of them was armed. They backed off up the street, out of sight of the camera. Ahmed says he heard his kid screaming, and ran outside. A bystander took this picture, Ahmed in a white T-shirt, no gun, facing the Israelis.

Ahmed Qaareen: I asked him, why are you doing this to the children. Suddenly his friend told him to shoot me. I was only half a meter away. He shot me in the right thigh, I fell to the ground. Then he stepped over me and started shooting wildly. He shot a child.

Corbin: The Israeli shot Ahmed a second time, as he lay on the ground. His thigh bone was shattered. He nearly bled to death. Ahmed’s still unable to work. The Israeli was released without charge, claiming he’d been attacked and was acting in self defense.

The camera then turns to Ahmed’s son, said to be returning home from a therapy session and crying about the incident. He concludes: “They want us out of here, but I will stay.”

The documentary’s casting of this incident as a Jew who goes on a wild shooting rampage because he wants Palestinians out of the Silwan neighborhood is belied by a closer examination of the footage, as well as by news reports of the incident.

The closed-circuit television footage shows an Israeli as he is being violently shoved by Palestinians. Six Palestinian youths surround the two Israelis, waving their fingers toward the Israelis, who are backing away. One of the Palestinians attempts again to lunge at the Israeli. The subsequent scene is a still image of the stocky Ahmed “in a white t-shirt” and a menacing posture, facing the scrawny, armed Israeli. The other Palestinians are not seen on camera, but a Jerusalem Post article noted that the shooting occurred during a continuation of the confrontation.

Why does the BBC seem to dismiss the Israeli’s assertion that he fired in self-defense while confronted and outnumbered by a gang of Palestinians? And why does the broadcaster at the same time state as fact the claim that Ahmed was shot “a second time as he lay on the ground,” apparently after a wild shooting spree by the Israeli? The entire segment focuses on the Palestinian account of what happened, based almost entirely on interviews with Ahmed and his son. Why is there no Israeli voice to provide the other side of the story? One news report stated that the Israeli “was released to house arrest on Saturday night, following an agreement that was reached between the parties involved.”

But Corbin shows little interest in relaying anything aside from the Palestinian accusations. It is no wonder that the Jerusalem mayor’s office described the program as “a completely and utterly false representation of the facts and a distasteful distortion of reality.”

For a discussion of building in Jerusalem that in just a few minutes supplies the balance and nuance so glaringly absent from BBC’s half hour presentation, see the video below:

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