Harriet Sherwood does her bit for BDS

Placing herself in such none too illustrious company as Press TV, Electronic Intifada and a couple of minor regional Australian dailies, Harriet Sherwood apparently had no qualms about rehashing the September 3rd press release from Al Haq concerning its latest ‘report‘ and producing an article which, for the most part, parrots the anti-Israel NGO’s outlandish claims. 

The sub-header of Sherwood’s September 3rd article on the subject of the Dead Sea mineral resources describes Al Haq as a “Palestinian human rights organisation” and ten paragraphs of her report uncritically repeat that organisation’s claims, whilst just one paragraph and a sentence are given to the point of view of the company ‘Ahava’, and one paragraph to the Israeli foreign ministry. 

“However, in a letter circulated in 2010, Ahava said: “The mud and minerals used in Ahava’s cosmetic products are not excavated in an occupied area. The minerals are mined in the Israeli part of the Dead Sea, which is undisputed internationally.” “

…..

“In a statement, the Israeli foreign ministry said that, under the Oslo accords, Israel had territorial jurisdiction that includes land, subsoil and territorial waters in Area C. It “therefore would be entitled to licence a company to excavate mud in that area if it chose to do so”. “

In other words, there should not be much of a story here. A company, located in Area C under the terms of the Oslo Accords, is doing what it is perfectly entitled to do.

Packaging department, Ahava, Mitzpe Shalem

But in choosing to ignore the highly flawed reputation of Al Haq – an NGO notorious for its employment of ‘lawfare’ against Israel, for its part in the disgraced ‘Durban I’ anti-Israel circus and for employing a director whom as recently as 2008 was considered by the Israeli Supreme Court to have connections to a terrorist organization – Sherwood displays a typical lack of critical thinking.  

Not only has she elected to give disproportionate balance to the unfounded claims of a politically motivated NGO seeking to advance the cause of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (one of Al Haq’s board members is American-born Lisa Taraki – also a founder and steering committee member of PACBI – the Palestinian Campaign for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel), but her final paragraph even promotes the BDS stance. 

“The al-Haq report calls on the European Union to adopt restrictions on the import of Israeli products originating from settlements, and urges cosmetic retailers to provide clear information about the origin of products they sell to allow consumers to make an informed choice about purchases.”

A critical viewing of the Al Haq report would place it in the context of the ongoing attempts by various parties (including the Palestinian Authority, assorted NGOs and – sadly – some EU officials who should know better) to create facts on the ground whilst avoiding the final status negotiations which are supposed to determine the eventual agreements on key subjects such as borders and settlements. The BDS campaign’s aim is to eliminate Israel as a Jewish state and to sabotage the internationally accepted model of the two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Part of that campaign is the promotion of memes such as ‘Palestinian territory’, ‘occupation’, ‘Palestinian natural resources’ and so forth. 

In order to engage in balanced critical thinking on any subject, it is of course vital to look at more than half a story. When that story includes claims about “Palestinian natural resources” or Palestinians “dispossessed… of extensive portions of the Dead Sea land”, it is necessary to delve back into history and look into less well-publicized and less frequently promoted elements which are integral to the whole story – something Sherwood has obviously not bothered to do. 

As early as 1907, a mining engineer from Siberia named Moshe Novomeysky approached the Ottoman authorities of the time for permission to extract minerals from the Dead Sea. In 1920 Novomeysky emigrated to what was by then post-First World War Palestine and spent several years carrying out surveys and trying to persuade the British Mandate authorities to grant him the tender for mining in the Dead Sea area. 

His application was eventually accepted towards the end of the decade, provoking a lively – and at times, anti-Semitic – debate in the British House of Lords. Novomeysky’s company – the Palestine Potash Company, or PPC – was granted a seventy-five year concession in August 1929. Novomeysky had already, in 1922, purchased some disused huts on the northern shore of the Dead Sea where the main production plant was situated. Initially, the plant’s workers commuted from Jerusalem, but with British permission marshland near the factory was drained and the co-operative community of Kaliya was established.

In 1939, a kibbutz named Beit HaArava (after a biblical village in the same area) was established on the factory’s lands nearby.  By 1943 one hundred Jewish families, including many who had escaped Nazi Germany, were living there. After having gone to great lengths to wash the salt out of the land – as shown in the film below (unfortunately only available in Hebrew) they began to grow agricultural crops and supplied fresh food to the potash plant’s workers. 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyFTjrc3iPQ&feature=related]

Novomeysky’s company also recognized the potential of the Dead Sea as a tourist attraction and in 1934 the first hotel was set up at Kaliya, with a new, modern facility added in 1940 and even, two years later, a golf course – which proved very popular with the British officers stationed in Palestine at the time. In the winter of 1944, the Kaliya hotel became a stop-over point for BOAC’s hydroplane flights to India, with guests including Winston Churchill. 

When the British Mandate was terminated and the War of Independence broke out, the isolated communities of Beit HaArava and Kaliya, together with the hotel and the potash plant, became difficult to defend. After 43 workers from the power plant at Naharyim were taken prisoner by the Iraqi army, it was decided to evacuate the residents of the northern Dead Sea area on May 19th and 20th 1948. On May 22nd the advancing Arab Legion destroyed the two kibbutzim, the hotel and the factory. 

Memorial at Beit HaArava. The kibbutz’s original graveyard was desecrated after the residents’ evacuation.

Novomeysky’s company also had facilities in the southern part of the Dead Sea which did not come under Jordanian occupation during the War of Independence and in 1953 Kibbutz Ein Gedi was established just south of the armistice line. 

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRoNd7Zhe60&feature=player_embedded]

Between 1948 and 1967, whilst the area of the northern shore of the Dead Sea was under Jordanian occupation – along with the rest of Judea and Samaria and eastern Jerusalem, and including places where Jews had lived for many years – there were of course no Palestinian claims of ‘dispossession’ or theft of ‘Palestinian natural resources’. 

The Jordanian decision to join in the 1967 war of annihilation, despite Israeli pleas to the contrary, resulted in the defeat of the Jordanian army and Jordan’s loss of control over the areas it had occupied in 1948. Kaliya was re-built in 1968, Beit HaArava in 1980, and in 1971 Mitzpe Shalem was established.  

The future of those three kibbutzim, as well as other communities in that most inhospitable part of the world, is a very serious subject: one which must be resolved in final status negotiations leading to a lasting peace agreement. The ugly dehumanisation of the people who live in those communities as ‘war criminals’ and ‘pillagers’ does nothing to bring peace any closer. 

But of course the wish for peace and co-existence is not shared by the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and its rejectionist partners such as Al Haq.

Precisely for that reason, such delegitimising rhetoric should be spurned by sober observers who do wish to see a peaceful two-state solution to the conflict. It should certainly not be parroted blindly and uncritically on the pages of any newspaper which aspires to be taken seriously, by a journalist who apparently cannot even be bothered to learn the historic background of the region, but is prepared to act as a pawn for the BDS campaign. 

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