In a series timed to coincide with the run-up to Israel’s March 17th elections, NPR’s Morning Edition broadcast a week-long series purporting to “track the struggle for Mideast land” because, according to NPR reporter Steve Inskeep, “the question of land touches” all the election issues. Instead of providing a balanced presentation of the positions of both sides, the NPR reporters promote the Palestinian narrative that Israel’s settlements are illegal under international law, that Israel’s claims to the disputed territory are illegitimate compared to those of the Palestinians, that Israelis are seizing Palestinian land and resources, and that Palestinians are just hapless victims who bear no responsibility for their misfortunes.
From the start of the first segment which aired on Wednesday, March 11, (“In The West Bank, Living Side By Side – But Agreeing On Nothing,”) it was evident the series would provide NPR listeners with neither an objective, accurate exploration of the factors at play in the conflict, nor a fuller understanding of its background.
Subsequent Morning Edition segments (“Like the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process, Area C is Complicated,” on March 12, “Two Israeli Candidates Struggle with the Nation’s Uncertain Future,” on March 13, “A Rail Line That Crosses Jerusalem’s Divide, But Can’t Unite It,” on March 16) confirmed that much of the series consisted of misleading and unchallenged accusations against Israel.
Misrepresenting Israel’s Defensive War in 1967 as a War of Conquest
Morning Edition host and reporter Steve Inskeep states, “Israel captured East Jerusalem in the Six Day War against Arab nations almost half a century ago,” without further explanation.
Middle East correspondent Emily Harris similarly declares:
This half of the city was captured by Israel in the 1967 war, the same war where they captured the West Bank, the west bank of the Jordan River. And this is the place that Palestinians want as the capital of their future state, East Jerusalem. They also want the West Bank as their future state.
Elsewhere she asserts, “Here’s the big picture. Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, almost 50 years ago.”
Neither reporter clarifies that Israel’s capture of eastern Jerusalem and the West Bank in the Six Day War was the result of a defensive war and not a war of conquest. The history they obscure is important; the circumstances of the war in which Israel gained control of the territory have a decided impact on its legal status under international law.
Soon after the outbreak of the Six-Day War, Israel sent a message to Jordan’s King Hussein on June 5, 1967, promising no consequences should Jordan desist from joining the Arab aggression against Israel. But Hussein chose to disregard the request, launching attacks in Jerusalem and sending planes to bomb Israeli airbases (Hussein of Jordan: My “War” with Israel, by King Hussein). Israel fought to defend itself so successfully that it not only repelled the Jordanian attack, but recaptured eastern Jerusalem and captured the West Bank from Jordan.
In determining the legal status of captured territories, international jurors differentiate between aggressive and defensive conquests. For example, Professor Stephen Schwebel former judge on the Hague’s International Court of Justice, wrote:
A state acting in lawful exercise of its right of self-defense may seize and occupy foreign territory as long as such seizure and occupation are necessary to its self-defense..
…Where the prior holder of territory had seized that territory unlawfully, the state which subsequently takes that territory in the lawful exercise of self-defense has, against that prior holder, better title.
In regards to the specific territories in question, Schwebel has also written that “Jordan’s seizure [in 1948] and subsequent annexation of the West Bank and the old city of Jerusalem were unlawful,” arising as they did from an aggressive act and that Israel’s title is therefore superior.
Misrepresenting Israel’s Control of the Disputed Territories as Illegitimate
Two and a half million Palestinians live on the West Bank. After Israel captured it in the 1967 Six-Day War, the United Nations Security Council said Israel should withdraw from those territories. That was supposed to be part of a larger peace deal, but peace hasn’t come, and Israel’s army has remained for almost half a century.
Elsewhere he asserts:
The United Nations Security Council said Israel should withdraw [from eastern Jerusalem] as part of a peace deal. Peace didn’t come. Israel annexed heavily Palestinian East Jerusalem, declaring it part of Israel.
Contrary to what Inskeep repeatedly implies, the UN Security Council did not order Israel to withdraw from those territories it gained control of during the 1967 war. Rather, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 242, which was carefully worded to require that Israel withdraw from “territories” rather than “the territories.” This formulation was intentional, so that Israel would not be required to withdraw from those territories it had captured and return to its vulnerable pre-war borders.
The British UN Ambassador at the time, Lord Caradon, who introduced the resolution to the Council, explicitly stated that, “It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial.”
The US Ambassador to the UN at the time, former Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, similarly stated that, “The notable omissions – which were not accidental – in regard to withdrawal are the words ‘the’ or ‘all’ and the ‘June 5, 1967 lines’ … the resolution speaks of withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawal.” In other words, the expectation was “less than a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied territory, inasmuch as Israel’s prior frontiers had proved to be notably insecure.”
Eugene Rostow, a legal scholar who as US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs had helped draft Resolution 242, subsequently recounted:
Five-and-a-half months of vehement public diplomacy in 1967 made it perfectly clear what the missing definite article in (UNSC) Resolution 242 means. Ingeniously drafted resolu
tions calling for withdrawals from “all” the territories were defeated in the Security Council and the General Assembly. Speaker after speaker made it explicit that Israel was not to be forced back to the “fragile” and “vulnerable” Armistice Demarcation Lines, but should retire once peace was made to what Resolution 242 called “secure and recognized” boundaries, agreed to by the parties…
Inskeep also fails to explain why a “larger peace deal” has not materialized and why “peace didn’t come.” Thus he omits mentioning the “Three Nos” issued by the Arab League in Khartoum in the wake of the 1967 war:
1. No peace with Israel.
2. No recognition of Israel.
3. No negotiations with Israel.
Nor does he discuss the role Yasir Arafat played in the collapse of talks at Camp David, the role of the Palestinian Authority in encouraging violence during the second intifada and afterwards, or the refusal of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to accept a two-state solution recognizing the right of Jewish self-determination in a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one.
The series recounts that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was “a left-leaning Labor prime minister who tried but couldn’t quite reach that agreement” with Arafat in 2000-2001. What the series fails to disclose is that Barak’s offer to the Palestinians was remarkably forthcoming. The Israeli Prime Minister offered the Palestinians all of the Gaza Strip and most of the West Bank, no Israeli control over the border with Jordan or the adjacent Jordan Valley, a small Israeli annexation around three settlement blocs balanced by an equivalent area of Israeli territory that would have been ceded to the Palestinians. According to the chief US negotiator at the time, Ambassador Dennis Ross, Palestinian leader, Yasir Arafat, turned it down and did not even bother to make a counter-proposal.
Also avoided in the series is the fact that even Arafat’s colleagues have acknowledged that the second intifada following Arafat’s abandonment of the negotiations was a deliberate act, planned as a way to pressure Barak (and later Sharon) and force them to yield further to the Palestinian leader.
The reporters seem reluctant to hold the Palestinians responsible in any way for the lack of a “peace deal,” instead focusing singularly on Israel’s military occupation “for almost half a century” and its establishment of Jewish communities there, what Inskeep calls “dotting the land with scores of settlements.” He emphasizes that “the first thing to know about the settlements” is that “Israelis have been building them for so long” that there are “second-generation residents” who live there, again absolving the Palestinians of any responsibility with the implication that the lack of a peace deal during this time is due to Israeli settlements.
Misrepresenting Israeli Settlements as Illegal Under International Law
Inskeep declares that “The United Nations calls the settlements illegal,” as if this constitutes an authoritative and explicit ruling on their legal status. He repeats this notion again in a segment about Jerusalem’s light rail built to serve both Israeli and Arab residents of Jerusalem, where he asserts that “Israel was building a train into occupied territory, serving Jewish settlements that the United Nations called illegal.”
He does not indicate, however, that such pronouncements are rooted in the toxic anti-Israel politics of the UN, where the 57 member Organization of Islamic Conference ensures that Israel is under constant assault, rather than in any definitive international law.
In fact, there are differing opinions regarding the legal status of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the establishment of Jewish neighborhoods in eastern Jerusalem. Many prominent jurists and legal scholars argue that they are perfectly legal. The late Professor Julius Stone, a widely respected legal theorist, maintained that the effort to designate Israeli settlements as illegal was a “subversion… of basic international law principles.”
Those who maintain that Jewish settlements in the West Bank are legal point to Article 6 of the British Mandate, which granted the Jewish people the right to settle in the whole of the Mandated territory. And although Article 25 of the U.N. Charter says that, “The Members of the United Nations agree to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council in accordance with the present Charter,” this cannot invalidate Article 80 which says that “nothing in the [U.N. Charter’s chapter on the administration of Mandate territory] shall be construed… to alter in any manner the rights whatsoever of any states or peoples or the terms of existing international instruments.”
Such nuance and complete explanation is missing from the NPR program. Inskeep excludes the perspective of Israelis who point to Palestinian violations of previous peace accords and their rejection of Israel as a Jewish state for the lack of a peace deal, and omits the perspective of jurists who argue that Israelis should be allowed to live in the West Bank and in all of Jerusalem. Yet, he emphasizes the perspective of a Palestinian who claims Jews stole his land, that Israeli restrictions are mainly responsible for keeping Palestinians poor, and that the Jewish or Zionist lobby’s control the White House prevents the world from helping Palestinians.
Misrepresenting Jerusalem’s Holy Sites
Consistent with the pro-Palestinian narrative, the reporters demean Jewish holy sites while exalting Muslim ones.
According to Steve Inskeep, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is “one of the holiest sites in Islam.” Emily Harris adds a description of the mosque’s golden dome “shining in the springtime sun against blue sky,” leaving listeners with an image of holiness and brightness.
By contrast, they characterize the Jewish holy site, the Western Wall, as “a retaining wall for the old Jewish temple – the ancient Jewish temple,” “dusty, sandy-colored, ancient…” Neither reporter mentions the fact that the Temple Mount upon which the Muslim mosques were built is actually Judaism’s single holiest site (in contrast to the Muslims’ third holiest site). In fact, they do not even bother to include the word “holy” at all in connection to Jewish sites, leaving their audience with the image of an ancient, decaying relic of the past.
Referring to the struggle over the holy sites, Inskeep explains only that “strict rules govern where Jews and Muslims may pray. Activists sometimes push for a wider access, provoking violence…a microcosm of a larger struggle.”
But listeners learn nothing about the crux of the conflict over holy sites. Among the relevant information omitted by the reporters is that:
*Judaism’s holiest site is the Temple Mount. According to Jewish tradition, it is the site of the foundation stone upon which the world was created, and is considered the epicenter of Judaism, where the Divine Presence rests, where the biblical Isaac was brought for sacrifice, where the Holy of Holies and Ark of the Covenant housing the Ten Commandments once stood, and where two Jewish Temples were erected.
*Jewish reverence for the Temple Mount site long predates the building of the Muslim Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque in the 7th century CE, and even predates the construction of the two Jewish Temples there.
*Muslims chose to build their two mosques on Ju
daism’s holiest site, and turned it into Islam’s third holiest site, following Islam’s two holiest sites in Saudi Arabia. (Islam’s holiest site is the Kaaba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, around which Islam’s most sacred mosque, Al-Masjid al-Haram, was built. And Islam’s second holiest site is Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Medina.)
*Prior to the recapture of the Temple Mount and surrounding area, it had been occupied by Jordan for 19 years, in an occupation considered illegal by all countries, save Pakistan. Under Jordanian occupation, Jewish synagogues and holy sites in the area were vandalized and destroyed in violation of Article 8 of the 1949 Israeli-Jordanian Armistice Agreement and Jews were barred access to their holy sites. Upon its recapture, Israeli leaders immediately promised freedom of worship to all, and, as a gesture of peace, turned over administrative control of the Temple Mount to the Jordanian Waqf while retaining security control over the area.
Referring to the struggle over the holy sites, all that Inskeep offers is that “strict rules govern where Jews and Muslims may pray. Activists sometimes push for a wider access, provoking violence…a microcosm of a larger struggle.” What is missing from the picture is that:
*Since 1967, there has been a growing attempt by Palestinians to marshal the religious fervor of the Arab and Muslim world in order to wrest Jerusalem from Israeli control. To that end, they have increasingly denied Jewish connection to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount and have attempted to gain world support against Jewish sovereignty over the area.
*Although Jews were theoretically granted freedom of worship at their holy sites after 1967, Israeli authorities have banned Jews de facto from praying on the Temple Mount as a security measure for fear of violent Muslim protests. Some Jewish activists have tried to assert their rights to worship there.
Misrepresenting Area C in the West Bank
Area C, which comprises about 60 percent of the West Bank is depicted as Palestinian land from which Arabs have been dispossessed. In fact, the vast majority of this territory was never possessed or titled to Palestinian Arabs. It is unallocated land that has passed from Ottoman to British to Jordanian and now Israeli control.
Inskeep declares that “when Israel seized to the ridgeline to build Ariel, Palestinians sued” and that “individual Palestinians said much of the land belonged to them, but they failed to stop the settlement.”
His incomplete handling of the topic fails to provide any information on what transpired in subsequent legal proceedings. On what grounds did the courts rule against these individual Palestinians? Did the plaintiffs have their day in court? Did they provide sufficient legal proof of their ownership of the territory in question? Was the land taken under eminent domain with compensation to landowners? Did the plaintiffs appeal? The journalist don’t answer any of these pertinent questions, preferring to let readers mistakenly conclude that Israel operates lawlessly in disposing of private Palestinian land.
In a similar vein, Emily Harris interviews a Palestinian whose home is undergoing demolition by the Israelis. Here is the exchange:
BANIFADEL: (Through interpreter) They come with their bulldozers, and they destroy our life.
HARRIS: What’s your sense of why?
BANIFADEL: (Through interpreter) I don’t know why.
HARRIS: Since Israel has full control in this part of the West Bank, Israel decides what is built here and what is destroyed. The Israeli military uses a lot of Area C, limiting Palestinian access.
Harris does not investigate the reason for the demolition of the house. Was it built illegally? Did the builder have proper permits and adhere to building codes? Listeners have no idea, because she does not provide the Israeli side of the story. According to Israel’s Foreign Ministry web site, the reason for most home demolitions in Area C is that they were built illegally without permits.
Harris injects examples of supposedly adverse Israeli actions devoid of context. In the middle of a discussion of Israel’s reasons for holding on to disputed territory, Harris suddenly interjects, “Israelis frequently destroy Palestinian crops.”
What are listeners to make of this accusation? How frequently does this happen? To which Israelis is the reporter referring – the government, a community, a group of vandals? The listener is left with the perception that these are gratuitous actions by Israelis to bully Arabs.
Harris recounts a tale of an elderly Arab who “claims he is waiting here to collect rent from Israel for land the military took over in 1967 and still uses.” He goes on to say, “Some people, they think you sell it when you rent it. But when we rent it, means we take rent – not sell.”
The reporter explains, “He says collecting rent proves that Israel knows this land is his.”
It is unclear to listeners whether Harris has made any independent effort to verify these claims. What is clear, and what Harris conceals, is that only a tiny fraction of Area C land was ever privately owned by Palestinians. Most of the territory was classified as “state-owned” lands, a legacy of the Ottoman Empire. Since the Ottoman Empire no longer exists, the title to the land passes to the “state” that administers it.
Cloaking the Second Intifada in the Mantle of Liberation Rhetoric
The second intifada is mentioned, but not presented as the orgy of violence it truly was. It is described as the situation where “Palestinians rose up against Israeli control” when it would be more accurate to recall that this was a time when Israelis were terrorized by random suicide bombings of dance halls and pizza parlors.
In one segment, there is mention of Israel expanding security barriers across the West Bank “after years of terror attacks;” another includes a brief reference to the West Bank as the place where Palestinians who attack Israel come from and yet another segment refers to “a Palestinian” who set off a bomb in a restaurant, “killing 11 people” during the second Intifada. But none of these references sufficiently inform listeners of the relentless campaign of suicide bombings that occurred from 2000-2005, taking the lives of nearly 1,100 Israelis, mostly civilians and maimed thousands more.
By failing to communicate the true nature of the second intifada, NPR manages to obfuscate that Israel’s continued military presence in the West Bank is a direct result of the horrendous violence in which Palestinians from the West Bank launched attacks against civilians inside Israel’s Green line.
That this unbalanced presentation of key elements in the Arab-Israel conflict was recorded to be aired in the run-up to Israeli elections raises questions. Was this series intended to influence public opinion at a critical time? With all the effort it clearly took to produce this series, it is a shame that Morning Edition was unable or unwilling to address the underlying issues accurately and comprehensively.