Myths and Facts: New York Times  Gaza Edition

The New York Times considers itself the world’s leading newspaper, boasts about its foreign bureaus in far flung corners of the globe, and spares no expense to cover the important stories no matter where they occur. With foreign reporting the underlying facts and background will be obscure for the vast majority of readers, so they have to depend on the paper’s journalists to be fair, honest and accurate.

Unfortunately, when it comes to Israel, readers of the Times will often know less than when they started, and this is especially true since Patrick Kingsley became Jerusalem Bureau Chief in January 2021.

The British-born Kingsley formerly reported for the Guardian, a paper not known for fidelity to the truth, especially when it comes to Israel, and the recent disturbances and fighting in Israel and Gaza have been the perfect opportunity for him to peddle Guardian-style agitprop to a new set of readers.

Consider Kingsley’s article of May 7, Evictions in Jerusalem Become Focus of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, which unfortunately included numerous false claims about a property dispute in Sheikh Jarrah, and related Israeli laws and procedures. According to Kingsley:

MYTH: Palestinians and their advocates consider the evictions — coupled with restrictions on building permits, which force Palestinian residents of Jerusalem to either leave the city, or to build illegal housing vulnerable to demolition orders — as a kind of ethnic cleansing.

FACT: There are no special “restrictions” on building permits for Palestinians in Jerusalem that would force them to leave the city or build illegally. On average, Palestinians who apply for building permits in Jerusalem receive them at about the same rate as everyone else in the city, after the same waiting period, and at the same cost. See, for example, Illegal Construction in Jerusalem.

The numbers for recent years bear this out. According to Israel’s State Party Report to the United Nations regarding the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights:

208.The Jerusalem municipality, via the local committee for planning and construction, issues building permits in the ENoJ similar to any other area in the city. Following the submission of building permits applications, these applications are examined and if they correlate with the approved outline plans, a permit is issued. In 2019 (until mid July), 102 construction permits were given in the ENoJ out of 173 applications. In 2018, 184 construction permits were granted out of 331 applications and in 2017, 115 such permits were granted.  (ENoJ = Eastern Neighborhoods of Jerusalem, or East Jerusalem, for short)

That is, the approval rate in 2019 (partial year) was 53%, while the approval rate in 2018 was 56%, meaning that Arab residents can and do apply for and receive building permits in the city, without any evident discrimination.

Kingsley also got it wrong about the ability of Arabs and Israelis to reclaim property, claiming that:

MYTH: Israeli law allows Jews to reclaim ownership of land they vacated in 1948, but denies Palestinians the right to reclaim the properties they fled from in the same war.

FACT: Property left behind by Arabs who fled during the fighting in 1948 (ie, absentee property) was turned over to Israel’s Custodian of Absentee Property, which transferred title to state or related bodies for public purposes, such as housing the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Arab countries who found refuge in Israel. The Custodian held the value of the property in trust for the registered Arab owner (with adjustments for inflation and interest). These actions were completely within international norms, and the office itself and its functions were inherited from the similar British Mandate office.

Those registered Arab owners who are citizens or residents of Israel (including Palestinians resident in East Jerusalem) are eligible to file for compensation from the Custodian, but they were pressured not to make claims, lest that legitimize Israel’s existence and sovereignty. Still, over the years at least 14,692 claims have been filed, claims have been settled with respect to more than 200,000 dunums of land, more than 10,000,000 NIS (New Israeli Shekels) has been paid in compensation, and more than 54,000 dunums of replacement land in Israel has been given in compensation. Israel has followed this generous policy despite the fact that not a single penny of compensation has ever been paid to any of the more than 500,000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries, who were forced by the Arab governments after 1948 to abandon their homes, businesses and savings.

West Bank Palestinians are not eligible to file with Israel for property they lost after 1948, but neither are Israeli Jews eligible to file for property they lost in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) after 1948. This has been the position of the Israeli government and was confirmed in the so-called Valero decision by Israel’s Supreme Court.

Israeli Jews are eligible to file for compensation (or return in rare cases) for land that was lost in East Jerusalem after 1948. Ownership of much of the land taken by the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property was transferred to the Jordanian government, which used it, for example, to construct government buildings in East Jerusalem, and to create the Dheisheh Refugee Camp – which is built entirely on Jewish-owned land. In addition, Palestinian refugee camps at Qalandia and Anata were built in part on Jewish land that had been taken by the Jordanian Custodian. (See Arab Building in Jerusalem: 1967—1997, Israel Kimhi, p48-49; for Dheisheh, see also, from the leaked Palestine papers, NSU Draft Memo Re: Rights of Jews Within the OPT Acquired pre-1967.)

None of the land used for refugee camps or government buildings in East Jerusalem can be returned to the original Jewish owners, but they can file for compensation. The land in Sheikh Jarrah was an exception because it was leased to the Jordanian government rather than taken by eminent domain, and was therefore still on the books of the Jordanian Custodian as Jewish land and could be returned to the successors of the original Jewish owners.

Kingsley’s errors continued in his May 15 report After Years of Quiet, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Exploded. Why Now?, which repeated some earlier errors and added new ones.

Rehearsing Palestinian grievances, Kingsley claims:

MYTH: First was the looming eviction of the six families from Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem. With a final court decision on their case due in the first half of May, regular protests were held throughout April — demonstrations that accelerated after Palestinians drew a connection between the events at Damascus Gate and the plight of the residents.

FACT: As noted above, the evictions are because the Palestinian residents are violating their lease, especially by refusing to pay their rent.

No refusal to pay rent, no evictions — it’s as simple as that.

Once again amplifying the Palestinian narrative, Kingsley quoted the charges of a Palestinian resident of Sheikh Jarrah:

MYTH: “What you see now at Sheikh Jarrah or at Al Aqsa or at Damascus Gate is about pushing us out of Jerusalem,” said Salah Diab, a community leader in Sheikh Jarrah, whose leg was broken during a recent police raid on his house. “My neighborhood is just the beginning.”

FACT: The charge that Israel is “pushing [Palestinians] out of Jerusalem” contradicts the facts about population growth in the city and is an inversion of reality. Jerusalem’s population was 26% Arab after unification in 1967 and is today at least 38% Arab (Table III/4 Jerusalem Statistical Yearbook 2021). How are Palestinians being pushed out of Jerusalem if their population is growing much faster than the Jewish population?

Kingsley also expands on the charges from his previous article about allegedly discriminatory Israeli laws:

MYTH: And it highlighted a piece of legal discrimination: Israeli law allows Jews to reclaim land in East Jerusalem that was owned by Jews before 1948. But the descendants of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled their homes that year have no legal means to reclaim their families’ land.

FACT: As pointed out above, this is totally untrue. Jews cannot, for example, reclaim the Jewish-owned land in East Jerusalem that was used for refugee camps, and Jews cannot reclaim or even get compensation for Jewish-owned land in the West Bank. Also pointed out above, the Dheisheh Refugee Camp was built entirely on Jewish-owned land but Jews can’t reclaim the land or get compensation.

Jews can get compensation for land they lost in East Jerusalem, just as Palestinians can and do get compensation for land they lost in West Jerusalem in 1948.

The particular case of the Jewish land in Sheikh Jarrah is exceptional, since, as pointed out above, it was leased by the Jordanian Custodian to the Jordanian government to build homes for Palestinian refugees. After 1967 Jews were able to reclaim the land, since it is in Jerusalem and had stayed on the Jordanian books as Jewish owned.

That is, contrary to Kingsley, the law is not discriminatory.  

Kingsley also claims that:

MYTH: Most Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and later annexed, are not Israeli citizens by choice, because many say applying for citizenship would confer legitimacy on an occupying power. So they cannot vote.

FACT: If they chose not to become Israeli citizens they can’t vote in national elections, but they can vote in municipal elections – that is, they can vote in Jerusalem for Mayor and for the City Council. Since so much of these articles are about Jerusalem, it is especially misleading to omit this fact.

MYTH: In the course of his article Kingsley refers to Itamar Ben Gvir as an “extreme-right” Israeli lawmaker, but provides no such description while quoting Sheikh Ekrima Sabri: “This was the turning point,” said Sheikh Ekrima Sabri, the grand mufti of Jerusalem. “Their actions would cause the situation to deteriorate.”

FACT: First of all Sheikh Sabri hasn’t been the grand mufti of Jerusalem since 2006. But there’s more to be said about Sheikh Sabri, which Kingsley omits. For example, interviewed in an Italian newspaper Sheikh Sabri revealed himself to be a holocaust denier:

“Six million Jews dead? No way, they were much fewer. Let’s stop with this fairytale exploited by Israel to capture international solidarity. It is not my fault if Hitler hated Jews, indeed they were hated a little everywhere. Instead, it is necessary to denounce the unjust occupation endured by my people. Tomorrow I will ask John Paul II… to support our cause …” (Interview in La Republica, March 24, 2000, as translated by MEMRI)

And in an interview with the German newspaper Die Welt Sabri denied the presence of the Jewish Temples on the Temple Mount, denied any Jewish connection to Jerusalem, and said that the vast majority of Jews in Israel should go back to where they or their relatives came from, like Germany:

Sabri: There is not [even] the smallest indication of the existence of a Jewish temple on this place in the past. In the whole city, there is not even a single stone indicating Jewish History. Our right, on the other hand, is very clear. This place belongs to us for 1500 years. Even when it was conquered by the Crusaders, it remained Al-Aqsa, and we got it back soon afterwards. The Jews do not even know exactly where their temple stood. Therefore, we do not accept that they have any rights, underneath the surface or above it….

Sabri: It is the art of the Jews to deceive the world. But they can’t do it to us. There is not a single stone in the Wailing-Wall relating to Jewish History. The Jews cannot legitimately claim this wall, neither religiously nor historically. The Committee of the League of Nations recommended in 1930, to allow the Jews to pray there, in order to keep them quiet. But by no means did it acknowledge that the wall belongs to them.

Die Welt: In your July 2000 Fatwa you declared: “We insist on the Right of Return for all the 1948 refugees and prohibit them from getting compensations for [the loss] of the Holy Land, for it has no price. What are the borders of this Holy Land that you refer to?

Sabri: From an Islamic point of view, it stretches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan [River]. It is Palestine in its entirety.

Die Welt: And there is no place for the Israelis?

Sabri: For the Jews who lived here before, there will be a place, of course. But all those Jews who came here from all over the world, must return to the places from where they came. The Jews from Germany should return to Germany. (laughs) After all, you like them so much, don’t you? (Die Welt, January, 17, 2001, as translated by MEMRI)

Why would Kingsley quote Sheikh Sabri without mentioning his bigoted and anti-Semitic statements, his holocaust denial, and his extreme ideology that denies all of Jewish history and rights? Why, in contrast, is Ben Gvir characterized when he’s not even quoted in the article?

Kingsley also omits the religious significance to Jews of Jerusalem, and especially of the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, when he refers only to the holiness of the Al Aqsa Mosque, which he calls “one of the holiest sites in Islam”:

MYTH: Jewish nationalists typically mark the [Jerusalem Day] by marching through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City and trying to visit Temple Mount, the site on which the Aqsa Mosque is built.

FACT: Nowhere does Kingsley even mention that as the site of the First and Second Temples the Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism. It is precisely because of the holiness of the Temple Mount to Jews that Arab conquerors built the al Aqsa Mosque there. Kingsley makes it seem that Jews are intruders on the Temple Mount, with no history there. Sheikh Sabri would certainly agree with this aspect of Kingsley’s reporting.

MYTH: Most Israelis are harshly critical of their government and even their country.

FACT: This is the conclusion drawn from the roster of people Kingsley quotes in these interviews. Only one is supportive of Israel, government spokesman Mark Regev. All the rest are harshly critical. For example, Kingsley quotes biting criticism of Israel from Avraham Burg, identifying him as “former speaker of the Israeli Parliament and former chairman of the World Zionist Organization.” Yes, Burg did hold those offices, but after losing a race for leadership of the Labor party in 2001 Burg became a fringe figure in Israel, regularly denouncing the country in the foreign press. He advised all Israelis to take on foreign citizenship, taking French citizenship himself and moving there, though he may have since returned at least part time to Israel.

In other words, Burg is hardly a representative figure, and about as unlikely a person as one could imagine to interview for such a story.

Kingsley also quotes Anshel Pfeffer, described as a commentator and biographer of Netanyahu, expressing harsh criticism of the Prime Minister. The fact that Pfeffer’s biography trafficked in the most extreme calumnies against Netanyahu was somehow not worth mentioning.

Could Kingsley not find any experts – not just an official spokesperson — who might put forward a mainstream Israeli position? After all, Bibi Netanyahu is the longest-serving prime minister in Israel’s history, so somebody must support him. Would Kingsley have his readers believe all those supporters are racists and Islamaphobes?  No professors or intellectuals or retired generals or security experts or diplomats who might offer a more balanced picture of the country and the challenges it faces? There are such people among Netanyahu’s supporters and his opponents, but to the New York Times they apparently don’t exist.

What also doesn’t exist: the paper the New York Times used to be, when it earned the respect that it today does its best to debase in service of an extreme and partisan agenda.