Media Err on Jerusalem and Israel

June 5, 1997 marked thirty years since Israel won the Six Day War and the anniversary prompted a rash of news stories about a victory that brought the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem under Israeli control. CNN’s Walter Rodgers took the occasion to describe a newly-released Israeli proposal for dividing that territory between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. In a segment devoted largely to deploring the plan, the reporter made several false assertions.

He said the net effect of the government plan would be to keep Palestinians on "reservations" and, embellishing his analogy to United States treatment of Native Americans, he claimed the proposal would isolate Jerusalem’s "dwindling Arab population." Dwindling?

  • The Arab population is burgeoning, outpacing Jewish growth in the city. While Jews remain a significant majority of the population, as they have been for more than a hundred years, their numbers have grown just 114% in the thirty years since the city’s unification. The Arab population, in contrast, has expanded by 163%. At 30% of the total, Jerusalem is now more Arab than it was in 1967.

  • As with demographic increase so in construction the Arab sector has outpaced the Jewish sector. Impressive single and multi-family structures have sprung up in Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Issawiya, A-Tur, Silwan, Ras al-Amud, Beit Hanina, Shuafat, Dafr Aqab, Arab A-Shahra, Sur Baher and Um Tuba.

  • Finally, if CNN considers the Palestinian autonomous areas comparable to "reservations" Walter Rodgers should indicate which American "reservation" has a parliament, army and flag, in addition to UN representation, as the Palestinian Authority does.

The British Broadcasting Corporation, perhaps the most prestigious news outlet in the world, also flubbed the facts in a story on the anniversary of the Six Day War. Like many reporters, the BBC’s Stephen Sackur cast the Israeli victory as a mainly lamentable event, exemplified by the story of an Arab said to have been robbed of his Jerusalem home.

Mohammed Burkhan is quoted saying, "I hate the Israeli government because it took my house." As with many such anecdotal stories, however, this one doesn’t stand the test of fact-checking.

  • Burkhan’s claims were debunked nineteen years ago with evidence revealed in a case before Israel’s High Court. During the proceedings, a letter by Burkhan was uncovered which contradicted his claims both that he owned the land in question, and that for many years he had owned and lived in the house situated there.
  • Other disclosures in the court case also contradicted Burkhan’s claim that the home had always been owned by Muslims. According to Land Registry documents dating back to the British Mandate, the land and home in question were owned by a Jewish family who were driven out during the Arab riots of 1938.

The Burkhan case is well known in Israel, suggesting the BBC did no checking with authorities who might have set them straight.

The recent statement by Palestinian Justice Minister Frei Abu Meddein invoking the death penalty for those Arabs selling land to Jews, and the subsequent killings of Arab land dealers, have prompted a rash of media reports drawing attention to Israeli land policies. Many of these stories have suggested that, while not as draconian in meting out penalties, Israeli officials nevertheless discriminate severely against Arabs in land matters.

The Associated Press wire service, for example, said in a May 22nd report that, "…about 15 percent of Israeli land is owned by the Jewish National Fund and cannot be bought by non-Jews, even by citizens such as Israeli Arabs."

Indeed, JNF land cannot be bought by non-Jews and Israeli Arabs, but it also cannot be bought by Jews. It can’t be bought by anyone. The land is leased out by the Israel Lands Authority. The ILA also leases "state land" which is available to Israeli Jews and Arabs alike. Some figures show 50% of the land used by Israeli Arab farmers is leased from the Israel Lands Authority.

The AP also reported (May 21, 1997) that "Arabs who live outside Israel cannot own land anywhere in the Jewish state even if it was once their property."

  • Not true. Non-Israelis can, and do, purchase property in Israel. Ironically, another AP story the same day filed by a different correspondent reported that "Palestinians have been buying land from Jews inside Israel."

Fortunately, AP takes seriously the accuracy of its reports. Apprised of its misstatements by CAMERA, the wire service issued a correction on June 5th saying, "The Associated Press erroneously reported on May 21 that Arabs who live outside Israel cannot own land any-where in the Jewish state even if it was once their property. Israel does allow foreigners, including Arabs, to purchase private land in Israel for building purposes. Private land accounts for 6.5 percent of the total land in Israel." The correction is important for many reasons, not least that the accurate information will now appear in news databases used by other journalists, students and researchers.

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