National Geographic “Stands By” Its Errors

CAMERA has twice sent to John M. Fahey, Jr., President and Chief Executive Officer of National Geographic Society, a detailed enumeration of the errors, distortions and omissions in “Lines in the Sand – Deadly Times in the West Bank and Gaza,” by Andrew Cockburn in the October, 2002 edition of National Geographic magazine. Many, many readers have also written letters of protest to the editors.

Their response? In the Forum section of the February edition of the magazine, Geographic states:

The West Bank article generated a torrent of letters (the most received in response to any story since 1998). Most of them questioned the story’s facts and accused the author of an anti-Israel bias. The facts in every GEOGRAPHIC story are throughly checked before publication, and experts — representing different points of view — review texts for accuracy. We stand by the West Bank article. (emphasis added)

Notwithstanding the “torrent of letters” Geographic included only six of them in the Forum — four critical and two in support of the article.

In addition to various distortions, the article contains a number of outright errors that are not matters of opinion and which any publication committed to accuracy would promptly correct. The following are errors which require a published correction.

1. Writing about the 1948 war, Cockburn states: “Well armed and much better organized, Israel quickly gained the upper hand, repulsing the Arab armies …” (p. 108)

Nothing could be further from the truth. In 1948, Arab military resources far outweighed those of the Jewish state. Jewish military resources at the outset included 3 tanks, 35 aircraft and 5 field guns. (Arab-Israeli Waters, A.J. Barker, 1981, p. 174.) Arab arms, not including those of the Palestinian units, included 270 tanks, 300 aircraft and 150 field guns. (Id.) Jordan’s army alone posed a grave threat to Israel. “Armed, trained and commanded by British officers, this 10,000-strong force was organized in four infantry/mechanized regiments supported by some 40 artillery pieces and 75 armored cars.” (Essential Histories – The Arab-Israeli Conflict, The Palestine War 1948, Efraim Karsh, 2002, p. 27) With 35,000 to 45,000 armed troops, Egypt had the largest contingent to add to the assault.

David Gutmann, a member of the Haganah, the main Jewish defense force at the time, provides a vivid, first hand description of the condition of the Jewish forces:

Even before the war of independence began, the Yishuv was already war weary. A very significant percentage of the total Jewish population had recently served in the Allied forces during World War II; in addition there was the nerve-wracking struggle against the British, involving stern reprisals, which had continued ever since. (The Palestinian Myth,” Commentary Magazine, October, 1975, pp. 43 – 47)

Arms were extremely limited, as Gutmann reports:

…my own unit, consisting of more than 100 men, and presumably training as a commando unit of the elite Palmach, fielded in toto about fifteen weapons, a museum of antiquated pieces, and no mortars or heavy machine guns to back up even a modest attack. (Id., p. 45)

2. “Israelis consume five times as much water per head as Palestinians …” (p. 108)

This is false. Cockburn’s article is riddled with inaccuracies and unsupported statements about Israel’s water consumption and this one is representative. While Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, use more water per capita than Palestinians, the actual ratio is half that asserted by Cockburn. In 1995, for example, Israel’s annual per capita usage was 308 cubic meters (not including recycled water) and the West Bank Palestinians’ annual per capita usage was 124 cubic meters, for a ratio of 2.5 (based on Statistical Abstract of Israel, 1996). Not only is Cockburn’s statement wrong, it’s taken out of context. In the region, Israel has the second lowest annual per capita usage; Syria’s is 1069 CM, Egypt’s is 921, Lebanon’s is 444, and Jordan’s is 201 (World Resources, 1998-99). Cockburn also fails to note that although Israel brought running water to many Arab towns and villages that had none when it gained control in 1967, for political reasons some Palestinian villages and towns refused to be hooked up to the new main water system.

3. “The 1993 Oslo Accords sparked the first moves by Israel to alleviate, at least partially, the effects of the occupation.” (p. 108)

The “first moves” by Israel to help Palestinians under Israeli administration in the West Bank and Gaza came decades earlier, shortly after 1967. In fact, the Israeli administration of those areas between 1967 and the 1993 Oslo Accords dramatically raised the living standard of the Palestinian Arabs. For example:

  • between 1968 and 1985, total public and private construction starts in the West Bank rose from a little more than 50,000 square meters to over 700,000 square meters; for Gaza it rose from under 20,000 square meters to roughly 275,000 square meters. (Judea, Samaria and the Gaza District 1967-1987, 20 Years of Civil Administration, 1987, p. 14);
  • the number of households with electricity from 1967 to 1985 rose from 18% to 88% in Gaza and from 23% to 91% in the West Bank (Id., p. 84);
  • agricultural irrigation in Gaza between 1967 and 1987 from 0 dunams to 45,000 dunams. (Id., p. 37);
  • infant mortality between 1968 and 1985 dropped in Gaza from more than 80 per 1,000 live births to approximately 35 per 1,000 live births and in the West Bank from 35 in 1,000 to 25 in 1,000. (Id., p. 45); and
  • the number of polio cases between 1970 and 1993 in the Gaza area dropped from 14.3 per 100,000 to 0; for the measles it dropped from 605.3 per 100,000 to 6.3 per 1000,000. (Id., p. 12)

4. Referring to Israeli settlements Cockburn writes: “Such activity violates principles set down by the Fourth Geneva Convention, which forbids victors in war from colonizing foreign lands seized in battle.” (p. 109)

Although Cockburn fails to identify the specific provision he is referring to, it appears to be Article 49 of the Geneva Convention of 1949 and his interpretation is just that and not accurate. A distinguished authority on the topic states:

Article 49 provides that the occupying power ‘shall not deport or transfer part of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.’ But the Jewish settlers in the West Bank are volunteers. They have not been ‘deported’ or ‘transferred’ by the government of Israel, and their movement involves none of the atrocious purposes or harmful effect on the existing population the Geneva Convention was designed to prevent. Furthermore, the Convention applies only to acts by one signatory ‘carried out on the territory of anothe r.’ The West Bank is not the territory of a signatory power, but an unallocated part of the British Mandate. It is hard, therefore, to see how even the most literal-minded reading of the Convention could make it apply to Jewish settlement in territories of the British Mandate west of the Jordan River. (“Bricks and Stones,” Eugene v. Rostow, The New Republic, April 23, 1990, pp. 19 – 23)

5. “…the Temple complex’s exposed Western Wall is the holiest site in Judaism.” (p. 109)

Surely this is something which Geographic should have gotten right. The holiest site in Judaism is the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount itself, not the Western Wall. The Wall has been for many centuries the nearest accessible place of prayer to the Mount where a Muslim shrine was constructed atop the Jewish sites after the Muslim conquest.

Readers should continue to urge National Geographic to correct these material errors.

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