International Herald Tribune Demolishes the Facts

When New York Times reporter Jayson Blair resigned amid controversy in May 2003, the Gray Lady sought to put its house in order by cutting down on factual errors. Evidently that new focus on accountability and accuracy has yet to rub off on the International Herald Tribune, which is owned by the Times and publishes material by its reporters and columnists.

On May 8, the Tribune printed a guest column by Cesar Chelala, an international public health consultant, entitled “Stop demolishing Palestinian homes: A way forward for Israel.” The column contains a number of material factual errors. For example, he claims:

Israeli soldiers are now demolishing whole towns and subdivisions. This is the case of Nazlat Issa in the West Bank and Rafah in Gaza. Demolitions are also carried out in Israel itself, such as a housing development in the Palestinian town of Kafr Kassem. The only accusation against the homeowners is that they lacked a building permit, which in any case is unattainable.

But a Jan. 22, 2003 article by New York Times correspondent James Bennet refutes Chelala’s claim that Israel’s demolitions in Nazlat Issa amounted to a “whole town” or even a “subdivision.” His report, entitled “Israel Destroys Arabs’ Shops in West Bank,” describes the commercial area of Nazlat Issa which was demolished as nothing more than “a ramshackle mall of corrugated metal sheds,”–hardly what one could consider a “town” or “subdivision.” Contrary to Chelala’s suggestion, no homes were even affected.

As far as Rafah is concerned, the number of homes that were demolished there in January 2002 is disputed. It is certainly not true, however, that the “only accusation against the homeowners is that they lacked a building permit.” Israel charged that these structures were being used for illegal arms smuggling from Egypt. (See, for example, AFP, Jan. 14, 2002).

Moreover, the claim that Israeli Arabs cannot obtain building permits is blatantly false. For example, according to Dr. Rimon Joubran, the Israeli Arab head of the District Town Planning and Building Commission for the largely Arab Bekaat Beit HaCarem district in northern Israel, in the 1994-96 period, the Arab towns of Sajar, Nahaf, Majdel Crum and Bana applied for 696 permits, 577 of which were approved (tables provided by District Town Planning and Building Commission Center for Strategic Planning and Economic Research). And in the 1997-2000 period, the number of permits that these towns were granted doubled. At an approval rate of 82.9 percent, how can building permits for Israeli Arabs be described as “unattainable”?

In eastern Jerusalem, another part of Israel with a large Arab population, the average number of permits issued to Arabs each year in the last five years is 183 (Charles Kohn, Principal City Planner, Department of Policy Planning, Jerusalem Municipality, as cited in Illegal Construction in Jerusalem: A Variation on an Alarming Global Phenomenon, Justus Reid Weiner, p. 158).

In addition, the International Herald Tribune ignored requests that Mr. Chelala provide any specific information about the alleged demolition of a housing development in Kafr Kassem. Lexis-Nexis searches did not turn up any reports about such an incident. However, CAMERA did find a United Press International report which stated:

An Israel Lands Administration spokeswoman told UPI they were planning to establish thousands of housing units [for Arabs] in Israeli-Arab villages such as Kafr Kassem northeast of Tel Aviv and Fureidis south of Haifa (July 7, 2002).

In addition, the Jerusalem Post reports that as part of a highway project, landowners in Kafr Kassem received compensation for expropriated land (Oct. 31, 2001).

Mr. Chelala also makes wildly inaccurate statements concerning water in the region. First, he writes: “80 percent of the West Bank’s water goes into Israel and the settlements.” He is most likely referring to the Western and Northeastern Aquifers of the Mountain Aquifer system, both of which straddle the Green Line which separates Israel from the West Bank. Most of the stored water in these aquifers, however, is under pre-1967 Israel, making it easily accessible only in Israel. Thus, even in the 1950s, Israel used 95 percent of the Western Aquifer’s water, and 82 percent of the Northeastern Aquifer’s water. Today, Israel’s share of these aquifers has declined to 83 percent and 80 percent, respectively (Eyal Benvenisti and Haim Gvirtzman, “Harnessing International Law to Determine Israeli-Palestinian Water Rights: The Mountain Aquifer,” National Resources Journal, Summer 1993). In other words, under Israeli administration the Palestinian share of these aquifers has actually increased. Moreover, Israel pumps over 40 MCM (million cubic meters) of water per year from sources within Israel over the Green Line for West Bank Palestinians (Gvirtzman, private communication, Dec. 8, 1998). Ramallah, for example, receives more than 5 MCM per year from Israeli sources according to the Arab water company, Jerusalem Water Undertaking (

Second, Mr. Chelala is wrong to report that “Palestinians cannot drill for water without Israeli permission and are not even allowed to build reservoirs to collect rain water.” More than 95 percent of Palestinians live in Area A, under the rule of the Palestinian Authority (PA). It is the PA which grants or does not grant permission for its Palestinians to drill wells or collect rain water. Israel simply has no say in that matter.

Finally, the Tribune did not respond to requests that Mr. Chelala substantiate his claims that since 1967, Israel has uprooted 500,000 olive trees. Given his other erroneous “facts,” it seems that editors ought to have taken seriously fact-checking here as well.

While New York Times editors were undertaking extensive investigations into possible factual errors over the years by their former employee, their colleagues at the International Herald Tribune refused to respond to the factual errors that CAMERA documented.

Comments are closed.