New BBC style guide on ‘Israel and the Palestinians’

The BBC’s style editor Ian Jolly recently announced the publication of a new BBC News style guide which readers located in the UK (and only they) can view on the BBC College of Journalism website. The new guide has a section relating to “Israel and the Palestinians” which apparently replaces the old “Israel and the Palestinians: Key terms” document – available here Some of the entries in the new style guide have changed little or not at all in comparison to the former edition, but others have. The sections below are those which have been changed. The new entry for “East Jerusalem” says:

“Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967. A law in 1980 formalised an administrative measure tantamount to the annexation of land taken as a result of the 1967 War. The claim to East Jerusalem is not recognised internationally. Instead, under international law, East Jerusalem is considered to be occupied territory.

BBC journalists should seek out words that factually describe the reality on the ground and which are not politically loaded. Avoid saying East Jerusalem ‘is part’ of Israel or suggesting anything like it. Avoid the phrase ‘Arab East Jerusalem’, too, unless you also have space to explain that Israel has annexed the area and claims it as part of its capital (East Jerusalem is sometimes referred as Arab East Jerusalem, partly because it was under Jordanian control between 1949 and 1967). Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state of Palestine.

19th century Jewish Kfar Shiloah

The BBC should say East Jerusalem is ‘occupied’ if it is relevant to the context of the story. For example: “Israel has occupied East Jerusalem since 1967. It annexed the area in 1980 and sees it as its exclusive domain. Under international law the area is considered to be occupied territory.”

Do not call East Jerusalem the Palestinians’ capital. You can say that Ramallah is their administrative capital and that East Jerusalem is their intended capital of any future independent state. This position was endorsed by the findings of a BBC Trust complaints hearing published in February 2013.”

For comparison, the old entry on “East Jerusalem” is here. The new entry on the “Gaza Strip” states:

“The Gaza Strip was occupied by Israel when it captured it during the 1967 War. Under the Oslo Accords, approximately 80% of Gaza was handed over to the Palestinian Authority to administer. Its permanent status is to be determined through negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians.

Residents of Kfar Darom, 1948

In 2005, Israel unilaterally completed the withdrawal of all its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip .Israel refers to this move as ‘disengagement’ but the BBC should use the term ‘pull-out’ or ‘withdrawal’. Israel retains control of the airspace, seafront and all vehicle access. All movement into and out of Gaza is controlled by the Israeli authorities, except the pedestrian-only Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which is controlled by the Egyptian authorities.

Restrictions on access to Gaza were extensively tightened by Israel in June 2007, after Hamas violently forced out rival Fatah in the running of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli cabinet designated Gaza as ‘hostile territory’ and imposed economic sanctions including the restriction of movement and goods. Israel says this is in response to rockets fired from Gaza towards Israel. The restrictions came to be known as the blockade.

In 2010 the Israeli government eased some of its 2007 restrictions after international criticism against the developing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.”

The old entry titled “Gaza Strip” is here. The entry for “Intifada” in the old Key Terms guide has disappeared. The new entry for “Jerusalem” reads:

“The status of Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive and complex issues of the entire Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Its status is dependent on a final agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Hurva Synagogue 1948

Between 1949 and 1967, the city was divided into Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem and Jordanian controlled East Jerusalem. But Israel currently claims sovereignty over the entire city, and claims it as its capital, after capturing East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 War. That claim is not recognised internationally and East Jerusalem is considered to be occupied territory. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state of Palestine.

The BBC does not call Jerusalem the ‘capital’ of Israel, though of course BBC journalists can report that Israel claims it as such. If you need a phrase you can call it Israel’s ‘seat of government’, and you can also report that all foreign embassies are in Tel Aviv. This position was endorsed by the findings of a BBC Trust complaints hearing published in February 2013.”

The old entry for “Jerusalem” is here. The new entry for “Occupied Territories/Occupation” reads:

“The phrase ‘Occupied Territories’ refers to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and strictly speaking the Golan Heights. However, it is common usage for this phrase to refer to the West Bank as a whole and not the Golan Heights (unless it is in a story specifically on the 1967 War or Syrian/Israeli relations).

File:1948-Jordanian artillery shelling Jerusalem.jpg
Jordanian artillery bombardment of Jerusalem, 1948

This is our preferred description. It is advisable to avoid trying to find another formula, although the phrase ‘occupied West Bank’ can also be used. It is, however, also advisable not to overuse the phrase within a single report in case it is seen as expressing support for one side’s view.

Try not to confuse this phrase with Palestinian land or Palestinian Territories. See those entries for the reasons why.

The Israeli government’s preferred phrase to describe the West Bank and Gaza Strip is ‘disputed territories’ and it is reasonable to use this when it is clear that you are referring to its position.

Israel completed the withdrawal of all its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. See that entry for the use of language to describe the situation there.”

The old entry under the same name is here. The new entry for the term “Palestine” says:

“There is no independent state of Palestine today, although the stated goal of the peace process is to establish a state of Palestine alongside a state of Israel.

In November 2012 the PLO secured a vote at the UN General Assembly, upgrading its previous status as an “entity” so that the UN now recognises the territories as “non-member observer state”.

The change allows the Palestinians to participate in UN General Assembly debates. It also improves the Palestinians’ chances of joining UN agencies.

But the UN vote has not created a state of Palestine (rather, it failed in its bid to join the UN as a full member state in 2011 because of a lack of support in the Security Council).

So, in day-to-day coverage of the Middle East you should not affix the name ‘Palestine’ to Gaza or the West Bank – rather, it is still an aspiration or an historical entity.

But clearly BBC journalists should reflect the changed circumstances when reporting on the UN itself and at the Olympics, where the International Olympics Committee recognises Palestine as a competing nation.

Best practice is to use the term Palestine firmly and only in the context of the organisation in which it is applicable, just as the BBC did at the Olympics – for example: “At the UN, representatives of Palestine, which has non-member observer status…” “

The old entry for “Palestine” can be read here. A new entry for “Palestinian Territories” appears:

“Strictly speaking, the phrase ‘Palestinian Territories’ refers to the areas that fall under the administration of the Palestinian Authority (above). These are complicated to work out because of the division of the West Bank into three areas and because of the changes on the ground since the Intifada.”

The old entry under the title “Relative Calm” has disappeared and a new entry for “Ramallah” defines it as:

“The Palestinians’ administrative capital in the occupied West Bank.”

The section entitled “Settlements” has been considerably expanded and now appears to include the old entry entitled “Settler Numbers”, which can be read here along with the old entry for “Settlements”.

“The presence of settlements is one of the most contentious issues of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and is considered a ‘final status issue’. Settlements are residential areas built by the Israeli government in the territories occupied by Israel following the June 1967 war. They are illegal under international law – that is the position of the UN Security Council. Israel rejects this assertion.

File:Kfar Etzion 1947.jpg
Kfar Etzion, 1947

When writing a story about settlements, BBC journalists can aim, where relevant, to include context to the effect that ‘all settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this’.

It is normally best to talk about ‘Jewish settlers’ rather than ‘Israeli settlers’ – some settlers are not Israeli citizens. Settler motivations vary from financial to ideological reasons. Many Palestinians see the settlements as one of the most damaging aspects of the occupation and a way to prevent the creation of a viable future Palestinian state.

There are approximately 501,856 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank: 190,425 in neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem and 311,431 in the rest of the West Bank (source: Israel Central Bureau of Statistic [sic], the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, 2010). A further 20,000-odd are living in the Golan Heights.

Israel unilaterally withdrew from all of its settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank in 2005. It is best wherever possible to be precise about geography when putting a figure to the number of settlers because of disputes and sensitivity over the status of East Jerusalem.”

This new revised style guide provides no reason for optimism with regard to improvements in the accuracy or impartiality of BBC reporting on Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. As was the case with the old ‘Key Terms’ guide, it is based upon partial and politically motivated interpretations of “international law” and refuses to acknowledge the existence of any history before 1967.  The clear adoption of a specific political narrative is shown by the use of language such as “Israel says this is in response to rockets fired from Gaza towards Israel” in the section concerning the Gaza Strip and “[t]he presence of settlements is one of the most contentious issues of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict”. The notion that “[i]t is normally best to talk about ‘Jewish settlers’ rather than ‘Israeli settlers’ – some settlers are not Israeli citizens” is bizarre and the self-appointed quasi-divine authority reflected in the sentence “The BBC does not call Jerusalem the ‘capital’ of Israel” is frankly offensive. 

What a wasted opportunity on the part of a corporation supposedly committed to accuracy and impartiality. 

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