PRESS RELEASE: CAMERA Study Challenges Media “Groupthink” on Arab Building in Jerusalem

BOSTON—Citing pervasive misinformation in the media as well as in US policymaking circles about Arab building in Jerusalem, CAMERA today released a study documenting extensive housing construction in Arab neighborhoods of the city. Authored by former Jerusalem city planner Israel Kimhi, Arab Building in Jerusalem: 1967-1997 finds that Arab home construction has actually outpaced Jewish building since Israel unified the city in 1967. Aerial photographs comparing neighborhoods in 1968 and 1995 dramatically underscore the statistical evidence.

"The reality that Jewish building has actually proceeded more slowly than Arab construction is contrary to the near universal claims of reporters," said CAMERA Associate Director Alex Safian. "Unfortunately, such mistaken reports may influence policymakers. When, for example, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other administration officials call on Israel to observe a ‘time-out in building’ do they know there’s an Arab building boom underway? Do they expect only the Jews to desist from constructing homes? This is a perfect example of the way distorted media coverage can have a distorting impact on policy."

Safian noted that reporters are often unwilling to deviate from an established story line and tend to ignore any conflicting information. "In this case," he said, "the story line claims Israel has seized Arab land, built Jewish neighborhoods on it and prevented Arabs from constructing their own residences. Wherever Arabs attempt to build, Israeli authorities demolish the structures." None of this, Safian declared, is true.

He said that while Israel has, indeed, built numerous Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem since 1967, Arab residents have been more effective in their campaign to create facts on the ground. The number of flats in the Arab sector has grown by 122%, while the number for the Jewish population has grown by just 113.5%.

Safian also challenged the claim that Arabs are not awarded enough building permits. He pointed out that the Arab sector has actually received permits for more square meters of residential construction than a demographically similar group—in terms of family size and total proportion of the city’s population—the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.

Prominent media accounts of home demolitions are also frequently misleading, according to Safian. While Israel may have tried to control the extensive unlicensed Arab building with periodic efforts to remove illegal construction, neither the municipality nor the national government has been prepared to withstand the inevitable onslaught of world criticism that ensues when houses are demolished. What has happened as a result is that the Arabs have very successfully raised the political cost of demolishing housing so that only an insignificant percentage of illegal building is removed.

Safian noted that in many cases the illegal building violates all principles of city planning. Sometimes the structure has no access to city services such as water, sewer and electrical facilities. At other times new structures would be too close to adjacent buildings. But such obvious and mundane requirements of any municipality are typically dismissed by the media and any action by Israeli authorities is treated like a political attack on the Arab community.

"Try to build an unauthorized structure or put an addition on a house without a permit in Cleveland or San Diego or London or Vienna—and see what happens," said Safian.

Safian cited CNN’s Walter Rodgers and National Public Radio’s Mike Shuster as examples of reporters who chose the sensational over the accurate when covering construction in Jerusalem. He described a March 1997 meeting in Israel with CNN’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief Walter Rodgers in which the extensive Arab building was discussed. "We told him the most authoritative person in Jerusalem, Israel Kimhi, a former city planner for many years under Mayor Teddy Kollek, had done an analysis that showed vast Arab building in the city. We gave him Kimhi’s phone number and address. We also asked why, since he lives in Jerusalem himself, he had not looked around him at Arab neighborhoods where new construction is obvious. Beautiful, large Arab houses are everywhere, single-family and multi-family."

Rodgers was skeptical, wanting to know why we had this information when he had not seen it. We said the key findings of the study had, in fact, been disseminated.

Rodgers never called Kimhi. CNN never reported the Arab building boom. On the contrary, it continued to invert the truth, presenting Israel as suppressing Arab growth in Jerusalem.

The same refusal to examine information that contradicts fixed journalistic notions was apparent in a long March 12 broadcast by National Public Radio which upbraided Israel for its policies in Jerusalem. Although NPR’s Mike Shuster was provided a copy of the Kimhi study he too ignored the evidence and filed a report marred by severe factual errors and pervasive bias.

Shuster interviewed six critics of Israel at length, but gave only a few sentences to two Israeli officials. At one point the reporter declared, "Some critics of the municipality have called these policies, taken all together, ethnic cleansing."

The Kimhi study makes clear that, as with construction, the Arab population of Jerusalem has also grown at a significantly faster rate than the Jewish population since 1967 (163% versus 113%). The only population that had been ethnically cleansed in the area was the Jewish population between 1948 and 1967 when Jordan expelled or killed every Jew in the eastern part of the city.

NPR’s disregard for factual information violates not only basic journalistic standards, but also the network’s additional, mandated obligation—as a recipient of taxpayer dollars from the American public—to present "objectivity and balance" in its coverage.

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