BBC coverage of prisoner release amplifies narrative of ‘political prisoners’

The BBC’s coverage of the release of twenty-six convicted Palestinian murderers on the night of October 29th – 30th includes a filmed report by Yolande Knell – broadcast on BBC news programmes – and a written article. Both those reports appeared on the BBC News website’s home page as well as on its Middle East page.

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In her filmed report from Ramallah Knell says:

“There’s a big fanfare as the Palestinian president has welcomed back twenty-one Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails to the West Bank, along with their families here and many supporters. They’re among twenty-six Palestinians that have been released tonight; the other five were sent back home to the Gaza Strip. All of these men were convicted of killing Israelis before or just after the 1993 Oslo peace accords were signed and they’re seen here as political prisoners.” [emphasis added]

In fact, not “all” of the released prisoners were convicted of “killing Israelis”: Fatah member Tsabbag Mohammed was convicted of the torture and murder of three Palestinians, but as usual the BBC does not appear to be overly interested in the subject of violence directed at Palestinians by fellow Palestinians.  

As she once again repeats and amplifies the politically motivated Palestinian narrative of convicted murderers as “political prisoners”, Knell makes no attempt to inform her audiences why that claim is invalid by clarifying that these prisoners were imprisoned for violent crimes – not because of their political opinions – or that the Council of Europe’s  definition of political prisoners specifically excludes those convicted of terrorist acts from that category.

“Those deprived of their personal liberty for terrorist crimes shall not be considered political prisoners for having been prosecuted and sentenced for such crimes according to national legislation and the European Convention on Human Rights.”

Knell continues:

“Israel agreed to release a total of 104 long-term detainees in July as part of a deal with the Palestinians to get peace talks restarted and this is the second batch. But the decision to release these men has proved very unpopular with the Israeli public, who see them as terrorists and there have been large protests too against these releases, including protests by relatives of their victims.”

Ironically, just as Knell is informing audiences that Israelis “see” the murders of civilians by members of terrorist organisations as terrorists, the filmed footage shows a plethora of flags belonging to the PFLP – a terrorist organization proscribed by the US, Canada, the EU and Israel – in the welcoming crowd.  

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In the written article (titled “Israel frees new batch of 26 Palestinian inmates“) it is erroneously stated that:

“All but one of those released on Thursday were imprisoned for murders committed before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords.”

In fact, two of the prisoners committed murders after the signing of the Oslo Accords on September 13th 1993: Amawi Halmi murdered 22 year-old Yigal Vaknin on September 24th 1993 and Shabir Hazam murdered 67 year-old Holocaust survivor Isaac Rotenberg with an axe in March 1994.

The report also repeats Knell’s promotion of the notion of terrorists as “political prisoners” and “heroes of the Palestinian cause”:

“The BBC’s Yolande Knell reports from the West Bank that those who have been freed are seen there as political prisoners and heroes of the Palestinian cause – but that the decision has been hugely unpopular with the Israeli public.”

Neither in the article itself nor in the ‘on the scene’ side box written by Knell is any analysis offered to audiences with regard to the Ramat Shlomopotential effects on the peace process of the public displays of glorification of terrorism by the Palestinian Authority. In contrast, the report implies that the announcement of the construction of apartments in the Jerusalem suburb of Ramat Shlomo (described in political terms by the BBC as a “settlement”) could endanger the future of talks and repeats its now habitual misrepresentation of the reason for the cessation of the last round of talks in 2010.

“Shortly after the prisoners were freed, Israeli media reported that the government had announced that it would build 1,500 new homes in the east Jerusalem settlement of Ramat Shlomo.

The move was seen as an effort to mollify government hardliners. Talks between Israel and the Palestinians were suspended in 2010 after an Israeli freeze on settlement construction expired.”

Notably, the BBC once again fails to inform its audiences that before that ten month-long building freeze expired, the Palestinians refused to come to the negotiating table for 90% of its duration. 

Throughout this report just one brief mention is made of the actual crimes committed by the men released.

“The longest serving prisoner, Isa Abed Rabbo, was convicted of murdering two students while they were hiking south of Jerusalem in October 1984.”

In the side box, Knell describes and quotes the murderer’s mother, whom she also promoted in one of her Tweets.

“A prisoner’s elderly mother, Amuna Abed Rabbo, had come from Bethlehem in a wheelchair wearing her traditional embroidered dress. “Thank God my son returned back to me before I die. I have all the happiness in the world,” she said.”

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Apparently in an attempt to present impartiality, Knell’s side box continues with a short second-hand quote from the wife of one of the murdered Israelis – although in this case BBC audiences learn no engaging details about her age, dress, medical condition or place of residence.

“Esther Caspi, the widow of an Israeli taxi driver murdered by a Palestinian man who was set free, told Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper: “We shouldn’t release prisoners who have committed murder because they will do it again.” “

An additional BBC article included in the coverage of this event is titled “Profiles: Palestinian prisoners released by Israel” produced by BBC Monitoring on October 29th.

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There, as was the case in a previous similarly themed article published in August, short profiles of a few (nine out of twenty-six) of what are bizarrely termed “the better known prisoners” are provided.

The article repeats the inaccurate claim that:

“All but one were imprisoned for murders committed before the signing of the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords. This is the second of four batches to be freed.”

Whilst the inclusion of references – albeit sparse and partial ones – to the crimes committed by the released prisoners is an improvement on previous BBC coverage of the subject of Palestinian prisoners, the lack of balance in coverage is still very apparent, with no BBC reporter on the spot to cover the demonstrations against the release and the reactions of the victims’ families. 

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