NPR at War – with History

The fourth part of NPR’s Middle East series focused on the Six Day War of 1967, and, like previous segments, was marred by material errors and omissions, many of which portrayed Israel in an unjustifiably negative light. In contrast, there were no errors which portrayed the Arabs or Palestinians in an unjustifiably negative light.

Host Mike Shuster did begin by informing listeners that Israel was “surrounded by Arab states dedicated to its eradication,” and also described Syria as “constantly issuing threats to push Israel into the sea,” but the segment soon returned to the bias familiar from earlier installments.

The first guest expert in the segment, Rashid Khalidi, for example, explained the origins of the 1967 war with these words:

In a sense the Palestinian tail wagged the Syrian dog which wagged the Egyptian dog which dragged the region into a conflict, which Israel initiated but which had several triggers.

This is nonsense, for a number of reasons. First, the Palestinians had no direct involvement in bringing on the war – in no sense were they a tail wagging any dog, Syrian or otherwise. Second, it is misleading in the extreme to say that Israel initiated the war.

The first overt act of war in the crisis was Egypt’s blockade on May 22 of Israel’s southern port of Eilat and the Gulf of Aqaba, through which passed vital cargo including 80 percent of Israel’s oil imports. Blockading such an international waterway is recognized under international law as a casus belli, or act of war. That’s why, in a televised address the next day, President Johnson denounced Egypt’s menacing actions:

… the closing of the Gulf of Aqaba to Israeli shipping has brought a new and grave dimension to the crisis. The United States considers the gulf to be an international waterway and feels that a blockade of Israeli shipping is illegal and potentially disastrous to the cause of peace. The right of free, innocent passage of the international waterway is a vital interest of the international community. (New York Times, May 24, 1967)

Thus, before any shots were fired, Egypt had initiated the hostilities. Had NPR’s listeners been informed of this salient fact, had they heard, for example, an audio clip of President Johnson’s statement, they might have better understood the outbreak of shooting in June of 1967. Instead Shuster confused matters by acknowledging the blockade, but stating with no further explanation that Israel struck first:

Most historians now agree that although Israel struck first, this pre-emptive strike was defensive in nature.

Shuster’s misstating of other historical facts tended to absolve the Arab states of responsibility for the war, and instead to shift the blame to the Soviet Union. Thus Shuster claims:

In the spring of 1967, the Soviet Union misinformed the radical government in Damascus that Israel was planning an invasion of Syria. Syria shared this misinformation with Nasser, who responded with several threatening actions. He closed the Gulf of Aqaba to shipping, cutting off Israel from its primary oil supplies. He told U.N. peacekeepers in the Sinai Peninsula to leave. He then sent scores of tanks and hundreds of troops into the Sinai closer to Israel. The Arab world was delirious with support, says Michael Oren, author of Six Days of War.

It is true that the Soviets falsely told Syria that Israel was massing troops for an attack, and it is also true that this misinformation was shared with Nasser. But Nasser knew the information was false. According to one of the best histories of that period:

… the Egyptian chief of staff at the time of the crisis, General Fawzi, flew to Syria after the Russians had reported about the Israeli troop concentrations and reported back that there was no sign of any unusual Israeli activity and that the Russians must have been having hallucinations. (Nadav Safran, Israel: The Embattled Ally, p 391)

That is, Nasser knew the Russian reports were false, but chose to act as if they were true, and chose to set in motion the slide towards war. Shuster unfortunately leads listeners to believe that the Russians tricked Nasser into attacking Israel, which could not be further from the truth.

In addition, in the passage above Shuster grossly understates the Egyptian troop deployments arrayed against Israel, contending that Nasser sent “scores of tanks and hundreds of troops into the Sinai closer to Israel.” In fact, Nasser sent seven divisions into Sinai, totaling around 90,000 men and 1000 tanks, against which the Israelis, faced with war on three fronts, could marshal only 45,000 men and 650 tanks. (Safran, p 242-3)

And, again tending to absolve Arab states of blame for the crisis, Shuster also obscured crucial facts about Jordan’s hostile and reckless actions in this period, stating that:

On the second day, in response to shelling from Jordan, Israeli troops surrounded the Old City of Jerusalem, which had been part of Jordanian territory since the end of the war for independence in 1948.

In this single sentence Shuster illustrates what is so wrong with NPR’s Middle East coverage. First of all, there wasn’t just some shelling from Jordan, there was increasingly heavy shelling, using American-made 155-millimeter Howitzers (known as “Long Toms”). Jordan’s artillery barrage ranged from the center of Tel-Aviv all the way down to Jerusalem.

And, incredibly, Shuster keeps from listeners the fact that even after these attacks, Israel passed a conciliatory message to King Hussein stating that if he stopped, there would be no counterattack. As Israel’s then Foreign Minister Abba Eban put it, the Israelis hoped that “King Hussein was making a formal gesture of solidarity with Egypt,” in other words, that the artillery barrage was for show. But this was not to be – after the Israelis sent their peace message, the Jordanian attacks only grew in intensity. Indeed, as the King recounted in his autobiography, he responded to the peace offer by sending his British-supplied Hawker Hunter jets to bomb Israel:

… we received a telephone call at Air Force Headquarters from U.N. General Odd Bull. It was a little after 11 A.M.

The Norwegian General informed me that the Israeli Prime Minister had addressed an appeal to Jordan. Mr. Eshkol had summarily announced that the Israeli offensive had started that morning, Monday June 5, with operations directed against the United Arab Republic, and then he added: “If you don’t intervene, you will suffer no consequences.”

By that time we were already fighting in Jerusalem and our planes had just taken off to bomb Israeli airbases… (Hussein of Jordan: My “War” with Israel, by King Hussein)

After these aerial attacks Jordanian troops crossed the armistice lines and took Government House, the UN headquarters on a hill in the no-man’s land between the two countries, directly threatening Israeli positions, and finally provoking a counterattack. Again, quoting King Hussein, “At 12:30 on that 5th of June came the first Israeli response to the combined bombing by the Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians.”

That Israeli response eventually defeated all Jordanian forces west of the Jordan River, but had the King accepted the Israeli peace offer, the West Bank including the Old City would have continued under Jordanian rule. Because control of these areas is perhaps the most contentious issue in the peace process, NPR’s omission of these facts in an extended series on Middle East history is inexcusable.

One final note about Shuster’s sentence – he falsely states that “the Old City of Jerusalem … had been part of Jordanian territory since … 1948.” The Old City, and the rest of the West Bank, had not been part of Jordan, they had been illegally occupied and annexed by Jordan, and only Britain and Pakistan had recognized Jordan’s sovereignty there. Why did Shuster not refer to Jordan’s “illegal occupation,” when he and his NPR colleagues never hesitate to use such terms when referring to Israel’s presence in the same territories?

In the looking glass world of NPR, right is wrong, up is down, and Israeli peace offers which would have radically changed history are erased from memory.

For more of CAMERA’s critique on the series, click here.

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