BBC’s Knell and Shomali mislead audiences on basic Middle East history

On February 10th a report by the BBC Jerusalem Bureau’s Yolande Knell and BBC Middle East producer Yousef Shomali titled “Palestinian refugees’ suffering in Syria’s Yarmouk camp” appeared in the ‘Features & Analysis’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page. 

Knell Yarmouk article

In that article, readers are told:

“The unofficial camp [Yarmouk] was set up as a home for refugees who left or were forced from their original homes because of the 1948 war that led to the creation of Israel.”

Obviously, the average reader would take that sentence to mean that Israel was created after – and as a result of – the 1948 war. Clearly, that claim is inaccurate and actively misleads audiences with regard to the fact that the 1948 war began on May 15th 1948 – the day after Israel declared independence – when the nascent state was attacked by five Arab countries and an assortment of irregulars and foreign volunteers. 

Notably, Knell and Shomali’s version of events has that war appearing from nowhere, with no mention of the fact that it was initiated by Arab states and of course no reference to the League of Nations decision to establish a Jewish homeland in mandate Palestine twenty-six years earlier. The article goes on:

“Over time, it [Yarmouk] grew into a busy residential and commercial district of the Syrian capital where about 150,000 Palestinians lived alongside Syrians.

Although the Syrian authorities did not give citizenship to refugees, they had full access to employment and social services. Many say they had relatively good lives compared to their counterparts in other Arab countries.”

Knell and Shomali make no attempt to inform readers why Syria did not give citizenship to Palestinian refugees. They fail to mention the deliberate tactical stance which prompted the Arab League to adopt resolution 1457 in 1959 according to which:

“Arab states will reject the giving of citizenship to applicants of Palestinian origin in order to prevent their integration into the host countries”

That politically motivated refusal to absorb Palestinian refugees and their descendants as full members of society continued in Syria – as it did in other Arab countries with the exception of Jordan.

“The 1965 Casablanca Protocol, which Syria ratified, stipulates that Arab countries should guarantee Palestinian refugees rights to employment, residency, and freedom of movement, whilst maintaining their Palestinian identity and not granting them citizenship. This is echoed in the Syrian legislation (Citizenship Law no. 276, 1969), which stipulates that the granting of Syrian citizenship to a person of Arab origin normally depends on habitual residence in Syria and demonstration of financial support or livelihood, but that Palestinians, in spite of fulfilling this condition, are not granted citizenship in order to ‘preserve their original nationality’.”

Until 1968, Palestinian refugees and their descendants in Syria were not allowed to own property.

“After 1968, this law was changed so that Palestinians were allowed to own one house per person, but they are still not allowed to own farm land.”

While this article is about current events in the Yarmouk camp rather than Middle East history in general, that is no excuse for misleading BBC audiences with regard to the circumstances of the creation of Israel.

Equally, there is no justification for the whitewashing of the fact that Arab countries elected to go to war in 1948 with the aim of wiping out the new Jewish state, or for concealment of the fact that the decision to go to war resulted in the creation of a refugee population which has for the last 65 years deliberately been kept in limbo by those same attacking states for tactical reasons which are identical to those which prompted the war which created the refugees in the first place.


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