PBS and Israel: A Pattern of Bias

Over the last 17 years the taxpayer-funded Public Broadcasting Service has presented at least 25 documentaries that bear on the Arab-Israeli dispute, nearly all of them, including the two that aired in 1993, damning Israel with distorted or false charges. The latest, The Women Next Door, ran in August and features Palestinian women charging the Israeli army with torture and oppression of Palestinians, including the killing of children. Jewish mothers are seen weeping at the induction of their sons into the “evil” Israeli army. The pairing of Arab and Jewish mothers as victims makes clear that the film’s villain is Israel, which subverts Israeli youth into becoming the “oppressors” of the Palestinians.

Here, as in many PBS films, debunked charges are resurrected to underscore the theme of Israeli villainy. Thus, a Palestinian woman alleges that exposure to Israeli tear gas caused her miscarriage, an allegation for which there is no medical evidence. Even the U.S. General Accounting Office, asked by Congressman Ron Dellums to investigate, rejected such charges against Israel. The GAO found, among other things, no increase in miscarriages.1 Despite this, PBS allowed the charge to be recycled.

Michael Ambrosino’s Journey to the Occupied Lands, which aired in January, was guilty of similar distortions and omissions, as detailed in the Spring 1993 CAMERA Media Report. Since then, a closer analysis of the FRONTLINE documentary has revealed additional, more serious problems, including suppressed facts and even photographic fakery.

The problems begin with the centerpiece of Ambrosino’s film, a long and sympathetic account of the alleged plight of a West Bank Arab, a Mr. Sabri Gharib, said to be victimized by a ruthless Israeli legal system:

AMBROSINO: … Sabri grows olives, grapes and fruit trees around his house on a hill just north of Jerusalem. For 14 years he’s been fighting the Israeli government over a large piece of land that he says was in his family for generations, but was taken by the Israelis as state land…

SABRI GHARIB: [subtitles] Every year I’ve worked this land. I’ve always been here. I planted that land before 1967 and over there after ’67. I planted those olives in ’86, and these I put in this year. And inside the fence, up there — it was all cultivated. But I’m still fighting over that land in the courts.

AMBROSINO: Apparently the settlers fenced in more land that the government claimed. Sabri’s documents made no difference in court, even though there’s an old map of this hill clearly marked with his grandfather’s name.

SABRI GHARIB: [subtitles] If there were any justice, the government would say, “as long as the land is registered, then it’s yours, no problem.” But they saw that all our papers were in order and they still said it was state land.

AMBROSINO: Sabri Gharib, who had the barbed-wire fence around his house, did win an official decision to get most of his land back. Every month for the past two and a half years he’s asked the court to enforce the decision. Each time he’s told to come back next month…

No official of the Israeli government was given the chance to dispute Sabri Gharib’s story. No wonder. The case was decided by the Israeli Supreme Court in 1986, with Mr. Gharib’s claims demolished.2 Government investigators who searched the British Mandate records in London found a deed proving that the land had been bought by Jewish interests in the 1920’s. Even Jordanian records reveal that the property was Jewish owned – during Jordanian rule the property was controlled by the Jordanian Custodian of Enemy Property, thus putting the lie to Gharib’s claim that the land had been owned by his family for generations. With such evidence in hand the High Court concluded that Sabri Gharib “is nothing but a trespasser who tries to rob land from the state, a land which he never cultivated nor legally acquired.”

After this ruling, Gharib illegally refiled in lower courts, in 1989 and again in 1991, concealing the fact that the High Court had already spoken. Upon discovering this, the lower courts threw out Gharib’s action and fined him for wasting their time. Ambrosino’s claim that Sabri Gharib’s land was stolen, his claim that Gharib had won in the courts – both flatly untrue – are a shocking attempt to deceive viewers.

Compounding this deceit, Ambrosino interviewed – at length – Mrs. Plea Albeck, the official who represented the Israeli government in this case, but he contrived never to ask her about Gharib’s charges. She later expressed astonishment on learning that the discredited tales of Sabri Gharib had been a part of the film.

No less deceptive was Ambrosino’s interview of a West Bank town planner who alleged that, by supposedly not allowing expansion of towns or construction of buildings, Israel has forced the Palestinians to live in “ghetto” communities:

ABDULHADI: Since ’67 the Palestinians have been continuously preparing plans for development of towns and villages and submitting them to the authorities for approval. However, very few, maybe one or two plans, have been approved. What the Israelis are doing today is that they are drawing their own plans, which they call development plans, by simply just putting a line around already built-up areas of the communities which, to us, cannot be explained in any other form than an attempt to strangulate these communities by preventing their physical expansion in accordance with their needs and requirements.

ABDULHADI: It’s first for the Israelis to enforce their control over the entire situation and also to make sure that nobody gets out of the limits that they have actually drawn around these villages which they are trying to turn into a ghetto community.

The fact is, under Israeli rule there has actually been an unprecedented Arab building boom on the West Bank, thanks to greatly increased prosperity. Even though the Arab population on the West Bank has one of the highest rates of growth in the world, the number of persons per home has consistently declined. For example, between 1985 and 1991 the population grew by a remarkable 25%, but new homes were built even faster, so that the number of persons per home actually decreased by 1.4%.3 Even more revealing, on average, there are twice as many people per acre in the Jewish settlements on the West Bank than there are in the Arab towns and villages.4 So much for Ambrosino’s Arab ghetto.

The filmmaker is no more reliable in presenting the history of the region than he is in reporting more recent events; ignoring the record, he blames Israel for the sorry condition of modern-day Gaza:

AMBROSINO: … It wasn’t always like this. The port o
f Gaza used to be a bustling commercial center on the Mediterranean coast, open to the world. Occupation changed all that… It was citrus that used to be the backbone of the local economy… Since the occupation, the only direct [citrus] exports allowed go east to the Arab world via Jordan…

Gaza a “bustling commercial center”? According to a standard British geographical handbook published in 1943, the port of Gaza “affords no protection even to small craft, which are beached for safety during the winter. There are no piers or wharves.” The same source points out that in 1939, when 2,249 ships called at Haifa, and 1,593 called at Jaffa, and 51 called at Acre, the grand total of ships calling at Gaza was 7.5 Under military curfew during the entire 19 years of Egyptian occupation, things got even worse. According to a UN official writing in 1953, “To the newcomer, the Strip has the air of a worn out rural slum.”6

Ambrosino is similarly wrong in claiming that citrus used to be “the backbone of the local economy,” and that no direct exports of Gaza citrus are allowed. The fact is, thanks to modern farming methods introduced by Israel, Gaza’s citrus production has more than doubled. During the first year of the occupation Gaza produced just 91,000 tons of citrus, while in 1990 Gaza’s citrus production was 197,000 tons.7 And, while it is true that in the past Gaza’s citrus was exported only by the same government-owned-Israeli firm which handled Israeli citrus, since 1988 Gaza citrus has been exported directly to Western Europe.8

At another point in the film Ambrosino resorts to what can only be described as fraud. He presents three satellite photographs, allegedly taken in 1973, 1986, and 1992, which are said to show Jewish settlements in the West Bank growing like a cancer, progressively crowding out Arab villages:

AMBROSINO: All over the West Bank, the landscape has changed, so much so it’s clearly visible from satellites. Take this area north of Jerusalem — 1973: it’s open countryside with Palestinian villages; 1986: eight settlements have been founded; and by 1992, there’s twelve of them and they’ve grown.

Ironically, as the narrator utters these words, the alleged areas of encroachment in the photographs are colored in, indicating, contrary to Ambrosino’s claim, that the changes are not “clearly visible” by satellite. In fact, Ambrosino’s use of these satellite photos is bogus. The first photo supposedly presents an image of the territory in 1973 showing “open countryside with Palestinian villages.” The credits, however, indicate that Ambrosino got his satellite photos from the SPOT Satellite Image Corporation, which didn’t exist in 1973, and didn’t even launch its satellite until 1986! Where did the supposed 1973 photo come from? The executive at SPOT who dealt with Ambrosino confirmed to CAMERA that the earliest photos supplied by the company date from 1986. The same executive stated that Ambrosino did purchase three photos, but from only two dates: two photos from June 9 of 1986, and one from May 3 of 1992!9 Obviously the satellite images could not have revealed what he claimed. Nevertheless, exploiting public trust in high-tech visual evidence, Mr. Ambrosino simply told a low-tech lie.

It is unlikely that the numerous lapses in this film were inadvertent, since Ambrosino chose as his Senior Researcher Marty Rosenbluth, a virulent anti-Zionist whose credentials include a long association with Al-Haq, the self-styled “human rights” group based in Ramallah which is devoted to mendacious attacks on Israel. Rosenbluth’s fanatical personal enmity toward Israel is a matter of public record. He has repeatedly sponsored ads in the extremist British journal Return, which is dedicated to the “right of return” for Palestinians and to the destruction of Israel. According to the ads bearing Rosenbluth’s name Israel is “repressive and racist…a danger to the entire Middle East and to the whole world…and should be dismantled.”

Rosenbluth, who earned at least $42,000 for his labors on the film, performed various tasks for Ambrosino, including arranging the filmmaker’s interviews with Israeli settlers. Many of those settlers report that Rosenbluth misrepresented himself in this capacity, claiming that he was sympathetic towards Israel and that the film would be fair and balanced. One of the settlers, David Eichenbaum, recalls that Rosenbluth even asked him to carry a gun during the interview. Eichenbaum refused, saying he did not normally carry a gun. Only later he realized that Rosenbluth’s intention was to present him as a gun-toting settler, seemingly prepared to shoot innocent Arabs.

Journey to the Occupied Lands prompted a flood of complaints from individuals and from organizations such as CAMERA and the ADL. Ambrosino’s rebuttals to his critics are a remarkable window on the producer’s animus towards Israel and anger at being criticized. He repeatedly lectures them on their refusal to accept the “truth” he has presented. He writes in a typical reply that he “can understand that the film presented many facts you found disturbing, but to dismiss it is a disservice to the truth…” Other responses by the producer accuse the writers of arrogance and, because they have protested his film, of seeking “to censor an important, well-researched and thoroughly documented report…” He calls some of his critics “repugnant” and repeatedly claims that viewers who criticize his film are trying “to intimidate.” Needless to say, he urges viewers to ignore CAMERA’s criticism.

Ambrosino’s responses reveal not only his condescending attitude toward viewers who reject his “truth” but also his fringe political views regarding Middle East history. In response to the many complaints about the failure of his film to explain why Israel is in possession of the West Bank, or to describe Arab aggression against the state in 1967, he wrote, “Israel’s air attack on Egypt was the first act of hostility in 1967 – an item agreed upon even by Israeli historians – making Israel the technical aggressor in 1967.” Mr. Ambrosino is apparently unaware that “technically” Egypt’s blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba, an international waterway, created a state of war with Israel two weeks before the shooting started. Mainstream historians also cite as causes for the war the removal of UN peacekeeping forces from the Sinai at the insistence of Egypt, the deployment by Egypt of 100,000 troops and 1,000 tanks into the Sinai, and the general mobilization of Arab armies accompanied by frenzied calls for Israel’s destruction.

PBS’s continuing willingness to fund documentaries that breach every standard of journalistic ethics not only mocks its own ostensible purpose to educate and inform the public, it violates Federal statutes that require “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.” Congressional hearings into the abuse of taxpayer dollars by PBS may be the only means to expose the long pattern of bias.


1. Israel: Use of US Manufactured Tear Gas in the Occupied Territories, US General Accounting offic
e, GAO/NSIAD-89-128

2. Supreme Court of the State of Israel (1986) 40 (ii) P.D. 57 (277/84)

3. Statistical Abstract of Israel 1992, #43, Central Bureau of Statistics, Jerusalem

4. Meron Benvenisti, The West Bank Data Project: A Survey of Israel’s Policies, p 19-22, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1984

5. Palestine and Transjordan, Geographical Handbook Series B.R. 514, p 295, 315-317; Naval Intelligence division of the Admiralty, Great Britain 1943

6. James Baster, “Economic Problems in the Gaza Strip,” Middle East Journal, Volume 9, 1955, p 325

7. Statistical Abstract of Israel 1970, Central Bureau of Statistics, Jerusalem; Statistical Abstract of Israel 1992, Central Bureau of Statistics, Jerusalem

8. Ian Murray, The Times of London, 12 October 1988; Jerome Socolowsky, UPI, 19 December 1988. Even Marty Rosenbluth, Ambrosino’s Senior Researcher for the film, acknowledged this point in International Labour Reports, January/February 1990, pp 7-11

9. Telephone conversation with Gloria Tabyanian, SPOT Satellite Image Corporation, 24 August 1993

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