UPDATED CAMERA ALERT: Inaccurate Terms in Coverage of Bush Statement

Update–Correction follows.

Many news reports about Bush’s April 14 statements regarding refugees and settlements in the West Bank and Gaza include prejudicial, distorted and/or inaccurate language.

 Please contact the news outlet to ask for a correction if you notice any of these inappropriate terms:
1) “Millions of Palestinian refugees” or “millions of refugees and their descendants”

For example, “Sharon Coup: U.S. Go-Ahead,” by James Bennet, New York Times (April 15), includes “…millions of Palestinian refugees from the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and their descendants…”
Also, “Bush’s tone may hinder Mideast plan,” by Barbara Slavin, USA Today (April 15), includes: “…giving all 4 million refugees the ‘right of return’…”

More accurate terminology would be: “hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees and their millions of descendants.” 

There were hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees (estimates range from 400,000 – 750,000) and these refugees have millions of descendants.  Lumping them together in a phrase such as “millions of refugees and their descendants” is misleading; readers cannot easily decipher whether “millions” refers to refugees or refugees and descendants. And they would have no way of learning that the refugees numbered in the hundreds of thousands, not millions.
The New York Times acknowledged this in their April 2, 2004 correction:

An article on Saturday about Israel’s promotion of its plan for a withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank misstated the estimated number of Palestinians who fled their homes when Israel was established in 1948.  It is about 700,000, not in the millions.

2) “Illegal settlements,” or “illegal under international law,” or “U.S. policy has long viewed settlements as illegal”
For example, “Bush steers US policy toward Sharon,” by Farah Stockman, Boston Globe (April 15), incorrectly states: “Since the 1967 War…US policy has regarded settlements in those territories as illegal under international law.” 
Also, “Bush Backs Israel on West Bank; In Policy Shift, President Says Some Disputed Settlements Should Remain,” by Peter Slevin, Washington Post, (April 15) includes:  “some large Israeli settlements long considered illegal by American and international diplomats ….”

A. No administration since the Carter administration has considered Israeli settlements illegal. This position was based on an opinion from its legal advisor, Herbert Hansell, who cited a 1959 article by international law expert Prof. Julius Stone. But Stone, in 1980, asserted that the effort to designate Israeli settlements on the disputed territories as illegal was a “subversion … of basic international law principles.” The Reagan administration reversed the Carter position.  [See Note Below.]

B. Israeli settlements are not “illegal under international law.”  Stating Israeli settlements are “illegal under international law” is a false Palestinian claim that grossly misrepresents U.N. Resolution 242, on which all Mideast initiatives since the ’67 War have been based.

Res. 242 clearly avoids stating Israel must withdraw from all of the territories gained in this war. The resolution stipulates rather that Israel withdraw from some of the disputed territory, but not necessarily all. Former U.S. Undersecretary of State Eugene Rostow, one of the drafters of the resolution, has commented on the this fact relative to the resolution’s wording:

Motions to require the withdrawal of Israel from “the” territories or “all the territories” occupied in the course of the Six Day War were put forward many times with great linguistic ingenuity.  They were all defeated both in the General Assembly and in the Security council.

Those who maintain that the settlements are illegal also rely on Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, August 12, 1949, which states:

Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power or to that of any other country…are prohibited…

and in the sixth paragraph:

The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

They interpret this to be applicable to Israel’s settlement of the West Bank and Gaza, understanding Israel to have become a “belligerent occupant” of this territory through entry by its armed forces, though Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran, expelled UN peace-keeping troops from the Sinai Peninsula and massed troops on Egypt’s border with Israel while Syrian troops moved into the Golan Heights, bombarding Israeli communities with mortars, and Jordan attacked Israel despite a warning from Israel not to get involved.

Those who argue that the settlements are legal point out that the Geneva Convention does not apply to the West Bank or Gaza, for, under its Article 2, the Convention pertains only to “cases of…occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party” by another such party. The West Bank and Gaza were never the territory of a High Contracting Party; the occupation after 1948 by Jordan and Egypt was illegal and neither country ever had lawful or recognized sovereignty. The last legal sovereignty over the territories was that of the League of Nations Palestine Mandate, which stipulated the right of the Jewish people to settle in the whole of the Mandated territory. According to Article 6 of the Mandate, “close settlement by Jews on the land, including State lands not required for public use” was to be encouraged. (Article 25 allowed the League Council to temporarily postpone the Jewish right to settle in what is now Jordan, if conditions were not amenable.) Article 80 of the U.N. Charter preserved this Jewish right to settlement by specifying that:

nothing in the [U.N. Charter’s chapter on the administrat ion 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. (This updated version of the quote corrects an earlier typographical error.)

Furthermore, even if the Geneva Convention would apply, it would not outlaw Israeli settlements, since the relevant Article 49 was intended to outlaw the Nazi practice of forcibly transporting populations into or out of occupied territories to death and work camps, and cannot be applied to Israel because Israelis were not forcibly transferred.  More than a year after Israel gained control of the territories as the result of an act of self-defense in 1967, Jews moved there of their own volition because of the historical and religious connection they felt, in some places reestablishing Jewish communities that had been destroyed in 1948 by Arab aggression. Arabs continue to live in these territories and their population continues to grow rapidly.

3) Settlements on “formerly Arab land” or “Palestinian land”

For example, “Bush Backs Israel on West Bank; In Policy Shift, President Says Some Disputed Settlements Should Remain,” by Peter Slevin, Washington Post, (April 15) includes: “[Israel erected] tens of thousands of roofs on formerly Arab land …”

It should be described as “disputed land” or “disputed territories.”  See the above section 2 for detailed explanation.

Furthermore, through Ottoman, British, Jordanian and Israeli administration, much of the territory has been held as state lands. The new Jewish communities have been built largely on previously uninhabited property, and virtually no Arab residents have been displaced and certainly not from “formerly Arab land.” In fact, the Arab population and Arab construction, legal and illegal, have boomed since 1967.

4) “Pre-1967 borders”

For example, “Bush Backs Israel on West Bank; In Policy Shift, President Says Some Disputed Settlements Should Remain,” by Peter Slevin, Washington Post, (April 15) includes: “…a host of experts have long concluded that the pre-1967 borders could never be reestablished…”

Bush correctly referred to “the armistice lines of 1949,” not to a “border.” Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries were not permanent borders but temporary armistice lines. They were temporary in part because the Arabs in 1949 refused an Israeli offer to make them international borders in exchange for recognition and peace.


Please contact the news outlet to ask for a correction if you notice any of the above inaccurate terms.  For media contact addresses, click on “Contact the Media.”

Update: New York Times Corrects

In response to correspondence from CAMERA, the New York Times printed a correction April 17 concerning James Bennet’s April 15  misrepresentation of the number of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war.
Note: May 6, 2010: One element of this article has been clarified. It previously stated that only the Carter Administration has declared the settlements illegal. In fact, no administration since the Carter Administration has declared the settlements illegal. Moreover, no chief executive aside from former President Carter has personally declared them illegal.

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