BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” erases pre-1967 Jewish history in Jerusalem

Since we last visited the subject of the BBC’s four-part series of articles titled ‘Obstacles to Peace’, their presence on the BBC website has been extended. No longer accessible only via the ‘country profile’ for Israel on the Middle East page, the four articles now appear as links at the bottom of an item titled “Core Issues” in the standard collection of links coming under the heading “Mid East Crisis” which is appended to most Israel-related articles. 

Core Issues on profile page

The link titled “Core Issues” leads to an article titled “Middle East peace talks: Where they stand” which was amended in July 2013 and the links to the “Obstacles to Peace” series appear at the bottom of that. 


As we have previously pointed out here, despite being dated September 2010, all four of the articles were originally written in 2007 and were the subject of critique by CAMERA at the time. Their author – Martin Asser – has also recently undergone a change, moving from the BBC’s Search Engine Optimisation department to the post of Digital Editor at the BBC Arabic Service – possibly in the framework of the latest personnel changes at that beleaguered department. 

Asser linkedin

Previously we have discussed Asser’s articles on the subjects of water and refugees (see ‘related articles’ below). Another of Asser’s pieces is titled “Obstacles to Arab-Israeli peace: Jerusalem“.

Obstacles Jerusalem

Asser opens by citing Karen Armstrong – known for her partisan writings on the subject of Jerusalem.

“The ancient city of Jerusalem has changed hands many times, its religious significance exerting a powerful pull on Jewish, Christian and Muslim conquerors.

Religious writer Karen Armstrong has observed that those who held it longest are those who showed the most tolerance to devotees of other faiths.

She cites two Muslim leaders – Caliph Omar and Saladin – as exemplars of this approach, and the Crusaders as the city’s most blood-soaked ravagers.

More than 40 years ago, Israel’s army captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the June 1967 War.

The area fell in the heat of a deadly battle, but Israel did not massacre its Palestinian inhabitants or destroy its holy shrines like the medieval Christian knights.”

So we have “Muslim leaders” (not, one notes, imperialist conquerors), Crusaders and modern-day Israelis – but no mention of ancient Jewish Jerusalem, of six hundred years of Jewish sovereignty over the city before the Babylonian conquest in 587 BCE, of two Temples which were the focus of thousands of years of Jewish pilgrimage and prayer or of a Jewish majority in Jerusalem since the mid-nineteenth century. That airbrushing of Jerusalem’s Jewish history allows Asser to go on to write: SONY DSC

“From the Jewish perspective 1967 brought the “reunification” of the holy city, restoring a divine plan after centuries of interruption.

But history has yet to decide if Israeli rule over the city is a doomed enterprise, that will founder – on Karen Armstrong’s analysis – because of the very measures taken to make Jerusalem Israel’s “eternal and indivisible” capital.”

It is not made sufficiently clear to readers that Jerusalem had only been divided for the nineteen years of the Jordanian occupation between 1948 and 1967, or that both the division and the reunification of the city occurred due to the decision by surrounding Arab countries to wage war on Israel.

Asser’s unsourced claim of Jewish belief in the restoration of a “divine plan” deliberately implies that religious motivation lay behind the military operations which removed the Jordanian occupation in 1967. He coyly side-steps the very worldly subjects of the ethnic cleansing of Jews from parts of the city conquered by Jordan in 1948 (whilst at the same time taking the trouble to mention the demolition of the slum housing in the Mughrabi  Quarter) and the systematic desecration and destruction of Jewish burial grounds and places of worship by the Jordanians by stating:

“Under Arab control since 1948, the Jewish holy places had been tantalisingly out of reach to Israelis – in violation of the Israel-Jordan armistice agreement.”

Asser neglects to mention that Muslim holy sites were also out of reach to Israel’s Muslim population during the Jordanian occupation and that access for Israeli Christians was severely limited. His use of the sub-heading “Modern Fortress” to describe post-’67 Jerusalem conceals the fact that free access to – and self-administration of – the holy sites of all religions has only been guaranteed under Israeli rule.

Asser’s breaches of BBC editorial guidelines on accuracy and impartiality continue, coming to a head with his misrepresentation of the ‘corpus separatum’ issue.

“The international consensus has never recognised Israeli sovereignty in East Jerusalem – the city and its surroundings were designated a corpus separatum by the UN in 1947, to be given a special international status and government.”

In fact, the ‘corpus separatum’ proposal (limited to a ten-year period) was one of the non-binding recommendations (not, as Asser claims, a ‘designation’) which formed Resolution 181 – or the Partition Plan.  The Arab nations of course refused to accept the plan – including the aspects of it pertaining to Jerusalem – and in fact vowed to oppose its implementation by force.

Asser’s disingenuous attempt to resurrect the ‘corpus separatum’ issue and to suggest to BBC audiences that it (along with the rest of the Partition Plan) has any standing – legal or otherwise – is a blatant breach of BBC editorial guidelines. Revealingly, Asser makes no attempt to explain to his readers why, during the 19 years of Jordanian occupation of parts of Jerusalem, the ‘international city’ idea was not enacted.  SONY DSC

In the latter part of his transparent attempt to delegitimize Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, Asser focuses on what he terms the “precarious lives” and “strange half-existence” of the Arab residents of Jerusalem – so ‘precarious’ that the city’s Arab population grew from 26% of Jerusalem’s population in 1967 to 36% in 2009 and in 2010, whilst the city’s Jewish population rose by 1.4%, its Arab population grew by 3.3%.

Asser misleads his audience by not making it clear that Arab residents of Jerusalem can apply for Israeli citizenship (as increasing numbers are indeed doing) and that residency permits are provided to those who choose not to take full citizenship.

“Allowed special Israeli residency permits, they enjoy advantages over those in the occupied West Bank – but many feel their future in the city is not guaranteed.”

Replete with omission and inaccuracy, including on the subject of building, Asser’s portrait of Jerusalem’s Arab population makes no attempt to hide its political motivations.

“Israel has allowed the Palestinians of East Jerusalem to remain, but it has hemmed them in, squeezed them, left them in no doubt the city is no longer theirs.”

No less blatantly political is Asser’s portrayal of Jerusalem neighbourhoods as “settlements”.

“Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers have been allowed, or encouraged, to move to the occupied east of the city – an area the Palestinians hope to establish as the capital of their future state.”

Asser portrays what would be seen in the rest of the world as unremarkable procedure – border controls for foreign travellers from a hostile entity – as some sort of discrimination.

“Palestinians from outside the city – in the West Bank and Gaza – are rigorously excluded by a ring of roadblocks and Israeli military checkpoints.”

He also describes Israeli attempts to curb terrorism as “controversial”.

“In recent years, Israel has been building the controversial West Bank barrier around Palestinian population centres, a response to the suicide bombings of the 1990s and after 2000.” SONY DSC

 Asser even goes so far as to dramatically equate modern Palestinian political aspirations regarding Jerusalem with the millennia-old cultural and religious Jewish links to Jerusalem.

“They now find themselves experiencing the same sense of deprivation and longing for Jerusalem, and determination to make it theirs again, that the Diaspora Jews once did.”

It is, of course, bad enough that this one-sided political polemic has been allowed to stand on the website of an organization supposedly committed to accuracy and impartiality for well over six years. It is even worse that this misleading article and its accompanying ones in the same series are now being promoted by the BBC as additional reading for audience members seeking to learn more about the issues surrounding the talks between Israel and the PLO. That promotion comes in direct conflict with the constitutional basis according to which the BBC’s defined public purposes include building “a global understanding on international issues”.

Related articles:

BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” do not hold water – part 1

BBC’s “Obstacles to Peace” do not hold water – part 2

BBC’s ‘Obstacles to Peace’: wrong on right of return – Part 1

BBC’s ‘Obstacles to Peace’: wrong on right of return – Part 2

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