WASHINGTON POST WATCH: Suppressing the Facts about Jerusalem, International Law

Marcus Brauchli became the Washington Post‘s executive editor last January and, among other things, reinvigorated the newspaper’s formal commitment to timely corrections. It reportedly has led to a reduction in the backlog of hundreds or more requests, months- and in some cases years-old. The paper’s July 16th correction of its June 26th description of Gilo, a Jerusalem neighborhood, as a West Bank settlement, was a welcome example.

But there are certain types of errors that are still typically left uncorrected — those that uphold the Palesitinian narrative. Editors often ignore or discount relevant facts that negate this narrative. Letters-to-the editor that point this out are not published — even when they were suggested or solicited by Post editors in the first place as alternatives to corrections. (It is noteworthy that Post policy calls for errors to be corrected by the paper itself.

(Journalism standards traditionally call for direct and timely corrections, frowning on factual errors being “corrected” by letters to the editor.)

Below are two cases in point:

Settlements ‘are illegal under international law’

1) In “Israeli Minister’s Visit Aims to Calm Settlements Dispute (June 2), Post staff writer and diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler reported that “there are more than 120 settlements in the occupied West Bank that are legal under Israeli law but not internationally.”

CAMERA requested a correction, pointing out that not only are Jewish communities built in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) since Israel gained control of the territories in the 1967 Six-Day War not illegal, but also that international law actually encourages them. In a June 2nd letter to Kevin Merida, Post national news editor, CAMERA pointed out that:

The still-relevant international law on the subject is the League of Nations’ Mandate for Palestine. Article 6 calls for “close Jewish settlement on the land, including State lands not required for public use.” This describes virtually all the Israeli-government authorized settlements built since 1967. Further, the mandate was continued by the United Nations, Article 80 of the U.N. Charter stating 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.” (This updated version of the quote corrects an earlier typographical error.)

CAMERA noted that the article in question attempted to support the assertion that West Bank settlements “‘are legal under Israeli law but not internationally'” by adding that “‘the Fourth Geneva Convention, which Israel ratified in 1951, forbids an occupying power from transferring ‘parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies,’ but Israel disputes that this provision applies to settlements.'”

But Israel did not simply “dispute that this provision applies to settlements.” Rather, prominent, non-Israeli legal scholars have pointed out the Fourth Geneva Convention’s inapplicability to the disputed territories. These have included Prof. Julian Stone, author of Israel and Palestine: An Assault on the Law of Nations; Prof. Stephen Schwebel, a former judge on the International Court of Justice, including in “What Weight to Conquest,” American Journal of International Law, 64, 1970; and former U.S. Undersecretary of State Eugene Rostow, in “Bricks and Stones,” The New Republic, April 23, 1990, and elsewhere.

Essentially, the Fourth Geneva Convention forbids forcible transfer of populations into or out of territories belonging to parties to the convention that were captured in aggressive wars. None of that applies to the West Bank. Israeli Jews were not forcibly transferred in nor Arabs out, the land was captured by Israel in a war of self-defense and it was not the sovereign territory of any country party to the Geneva Conventions. Rather, pending an agreement negotiated according to U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 and related documents, the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) is disputed territory in which, the sources noted, Jews as well as Arabs have claims.

The correction request was copied to Kessler, as well as to Managing Editor Elizabeth Spayd, Brauchli, Ombudsman Andrew Alexander and Assistant Managing Editor for Personnel Peter Perl, whose job also includes expediting corrections. No reply was received and no correction published.

More of the same

On June 28th, The Post‘s Outlook section published an 838-word article headlined “Want to Stop Israeli Settlements? Follow the Dollars.” Writer Ronit Avni claimed that Jewish West Bank “settlements are widely considered a violation of international law.” She added that “thirty years ago, a U.S. State Department legal adviser issued an opinion that called the settlements ‘inconsistent’ with the Fourth Geneva convention.”

“Outlook” is The Post‘s Sunday opinion, analysis and book review section. Avni was correct to note that “settlements are widely considered a violation of international law.” But accuracy on her part and The Post‘s required the observation that such consideration is erroneous and that the 1979 opinion by the State Department’s legal advisor was overturned two years later by President Ronald Reagan.

Since “Outlook” emphasizes opinion, CAMERA did not request a correction. Instead, in a June 29th letter to section editor John Pomfret it proposed a short commentary citing “specific relevant law, legal authorities and U.S. government statements, demonstrating the legality of the settlements under international law [and] the flaw in the 1979 State Department opinion ..”

Pomfret replied that “this sound like a letter to the editor” and suggested it be submitted as such.

The following day CAMERA submitted a letter to the editor. It pointed out that “regardless of assertions to the contrary, settlements are both legal and encouraged under the relevant international law.” Regarding the 30-year-old State Department opinion invoking the Fourth Geneva Convention, the letter stressed, among other things, that “Prof. Julius Stone, a leading legal theorist referred to in State’s opinion, maintained that the effort to designate Israeli settlements as illegal was a ‘subversion of basic international law principles.'”

CAMERA’s letter was not published. Post readers, relying only on the newspaper, could not learn that Israeli West Bank settlements are not illegal under international law and that the Fourth Geneva Convention is inapplicable.

Building permits ‘virtually impossible’ for east Jerusalem Arabs

2) Post reluctance if not refusal to contradict the Palestinian Arab “narrative,” facts be damned, manifested itself in a similar manner regarding the issuance of building permits in eastern Jerusalem. In May, CAMERA’s seven months’ effort to correct a simple but fundamental factual error was denied.

In “Jerusalem’s Mayoral Race Reflects the City’s Troubled Times,” in the Nov. 10, 2008 edition, special correspondent Linda Gradstein, (National Public Radio’s chronically pro-Palestinian Jerusalem reporter), substituting for The Post’s absent Jerusalem bureau chief, asserted, without attribution:

It is almost impossible to get an Israeli permit to build a home in East Jerusalem, and tens of thousands of homes have been ordered demolished.

CAMERA requested a correction, pointing out that according to the Jerusalem mayor’s office, “so far this year, 133 permits have been issued for eastern Jerusalem. This continues a trend since at least 2002, when the total was 159. Between 2003 and 2007, the number of permits issued ranged between 100 and 150.

Further, a study for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs “showed roughly 3,000 permits granted in eastern Jerusalem” between 1967 and 1997. It indicated “a virtually identical approval rate for applications for permits from [Jewish] western and [majority Arab] eastern Jerusalem.”

A separate clarification was requested regarding Gradstein’s statement that “tens of thousands of homes have been ordered demolished.” Relatively few demolitions of illegally built structures take place in either western or eastern Jerusalem, regardless of the volume of orders issued and even though the eastern section has experienced an epidemic of illegal building.

Scott Wilson, then foreign editor, responded. He ignored the information provided by CAMERA. Instead, adducing no facts in support, Wilson claimed that “Linda’s characterization is correct .. There will not be a correction.”

On December 4th, CAMERA responded that it had provided The Post with figures from an identified source in the Jerusalem mayor’s office indicating that the paper had erred and cited two relevant studies on permits and building and illegal construction and demolitions. It asked for the basis of the paper’s insistence that Gradstein was correct.

The foreign desk made no reply so on December 8th, CAMERA asked outgoing Ombudsman Deborah Howell to pursue the foreign desk’s refusal. She found that editors were adamant they would not correct Gradstein’s false statement “it is almost impossible to get an Israeli permit to build a home in East Jerusalem.”

In April, former Post Jerusalem bureau chief Griff Witte succeeded Scott Wilson, the latter being assigned to the White House beat. On April 22, 2009, CAMERA renewed the request, noting that the April 22 edition “carried two corrections to mistakes from 2006,” meaning “there’s no statute of limitations” on corrections. CAMERA also provided Witte with the latest figures from the Jerusalem mayor’s office on issue of building permits in the city:

For 2008: western Jerusalem, 2,439 permits requested, 1,278 granted; eastern Jerusalem, 346 permits requested, 152 granted.

For 2009, from January 1 to April 22: western Jerusalem, 266 requests, 230 granted; eastern Jerusalem, 29 requests, 26 granted.
CAMERA added that “the figures indicate, among other things, that it is not ‘almost impossible’ to get a permit from the municipality to build in eastern Jerusalem; that the approval/disapproval rates in the overwhelmingly Jewish western parts of the city and the majority Arab (40-percent plus Jewish residents) eastern neighborhoods are not too dissimilar. Most of the permits issued for construction in eastern Jerusalem have been to Arab, not Jewish residents [though a Post editor had implied the opposite], according to the mayor’s office.”

The letter also noted that a Post article (“Clinton Criticizes Israel’s Eviction, Demolition Plans,” March 5) echoed the original error, telling readers that “Israel says the houses were built without permits, but Palestinians say that permits are impossible to obtain ..” CAMERA pointed out as well that a follow-up dispatch (“Israeli Spurns Criticism From Clinton; Jerusalem Mayor Calls Comment on Park Imperiling Palestinian Homes ‘a Lot of Air’,” March 6) paraphrased Arabs as saying “Jerusalem city officials left them little choice over the years [but to build illegally] by failing to issue permits needed to accommodate natural population growth in Arab neighborhoods.”

Witte did not reply and The Post published no correction.

Backdoor ‘correction’

Then, without acknowledging the previous error, The Post‘s new Jerusalem bureau chief, Howard Schneider, in “U.N. finds 60,000 Palestinians Risk Eviction in East Jerusalem,” May 2, reported that “the number of building permits issued to Palestinians in East Jerusalem has remained stable at about 100 to 150 per year ..”

On May 5th, CAMERA wrote Deputy Foreign Editor Griff Witte. In a letter copied to Executive Editor Brauchli, Managing Editor Elizabeth Spayd, then Asst. Managing Editor for Foreign News David Hoffman, Ombudsman Alexander and others it pointed out that the paper’s May 2nd dispatch “implicitly rebuts The Post‘s November 10 claim that ‘it is almost impossible to get an Israeli permit to build a home in East Jerusalem.’ It implicitly supports our correction request ….

Therefore, CAMERA reiterates its request for publication of a correction noting that it is not impossible, or given approval rates in eastern and western Jerusalem, even unlikely for Arab residents of eastern Jerusalem who apply to receive building permits.  

Witte did not reply. CAMERA then asked Assistant. Managing Editor Perl to pursue the matter. He did, eventually telling CAMERA that, had he edited it, the original erroneous phrase, “it is almost impossible to get an Israeli permit to build a home in East Jerusalem” would not have been used. Nevertheless, he said The Post would not publish a correction. Perl suggested a CAMERA letter to the editor instead.

On May 22nd, CAMERA submitted a letter pointing out that The Post‘s May 2nd article, “U.N. Finds 60,000 Palestinians Risk Eviction in East Jerusalem” contradicted the Nov. 10, 2008 story “Jerusalem’s Mayoral Race Reflects the City’s Troubled Times” and its allegation that “it is almost impossible to get an Israeli permit to build a home in East Jerusalem ….” The letter also noted that the May 2 article by Schneider provided information that the November 10 story by Gradstein withheld: The tens of thousands of demolition orders notwithstanding, “of the few dozen [illegally constructed] buildings demolished annually in the past few years, about one-third have been in [overwhelmingly Jewish] West Jerusalem ….”
The Post did not publish the letter.

When it comes to the legality of Jewish communities in the disputed territories, building permits issued to Arabs in eastern Jerusalem, or actual demolition of illegal structures in east and west Jerusalem, The Washington Post — new emphasis on corrections regardless — has yet to inform readers accurately and fully of relevant facts that contradict the Palestinian Arab line.

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