Desert Island distortions on BBC Radio 4

The June 15th edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Desert Island Discs’, presented by Kirsty Young, featured Raja Shehadeh in the guest seat. The programme can be heard here.

Desert Island Discs

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the programme is its across the board erasure of Palestinian and Arab violence over the decades, but other parts of the context-free political narrative it promotes and amplifies are also notable.

After the introduction, in which she mentions Shehadeh’s role as co-founder of Al Haq but fails to inform listeners of that organisation’s political agenda, its use of ‘lawfare’ and its support for BDS, Kirsty Young says:

“You have chosen to stay living in Ramallah. You’ve written a lot – very successfully – about the changing landscape around you. What does it look like now?”

Raja Shehadeh: “The way it looks now is rather sad because many of the lovely hills have been destroyed by settlements and also expansion of Ramallah into the hills, but mainly the settlements which are literally on every hilltop.” [emphasis added]

A quick look at the map is sufficient to be able to appreciate the lack of accuracy in Shehadeh’s statement – or perhaps his misunderstanding of the word ‘literally’.

Map Ramallah

He goes on:

“And it has caused me a lot of pain to see this change, but I don’t want to sound heroic for living in Ramallah and under occupation….”

Under the terms of the Oslo Accords Ramallah – which is of course in Area A – was passed over to full Palestinian Authority control in 1995. In other words, Shehadeh has lived under Palestinian rule – rather than ‘occupation’ – for nineteen years already.

Explaining his first musical choice, Shehadeh tells his host:

“…we used to go to the Dead Sea […] this was before the occupation of course […] the Dead Sea was not a border as it is now between Israel and the West Bank and Jordan…”

Conveniently, Mr Shehadeh neglects to mention that at the time of his childhood trips to the Dead Sea it, along with the rest of the area, was under a Jordanian occupation unrecognized by the international community. His host of course refrains from clarifying that point to listeners too.

Later on, Shehadeh opts for the ‘Israel denial’ option.

KY: “So tell me Raja Shehadeh a little bit about the importance and meaning of land; and I’m talking here not just about negotiations over pieces of land and incursions and so on; I’m talking about the land around you – the land you walk in…”

RS: “Well first of all the land in Palestine in general is a very attractive land…..We have in essence one of everything. One real mountain – which is in Syria actually – one major river and one lake – Lake Tiberias. I’m talking of historic Palestine…” […]

“But more recently, because of the colonization essentially of these hills by the settlers who claim a greater love for the land and are in the process of destroying it by cutting through the hills with roads, putting settlements where the land should not be disturbed really…”

Shehadeh goes on to complain that Israeli counter-terrorism and security measures (made necessary of course by the terrorism neither he nor his host mention throughout) disturb his country walks.

RS: “More recently it’s become better to walk in larger groups because of the possible unfortunate encounters that you can have.”

KY: “These are military encounters?”

RS: “Military encounters – yeah. […] Well, it destroys the poetry of the thing.”

Later, Shehadeh gives his version of the story of his family’s decision to leave Jaffa for their second home in Ramallah.

RS; “Jaffa it’s very hot and humid in the summer and so they had a summer-house in Ramallah. When hostilities began they decided it’s safer in Ramallah because it was getting rather dangerous actually – physically dangerous – so they decided, towards the end of April, to take that short drive down to Ramallah – short drive from Jaffa – and my father always thought that if the worst happens – that is the partition – Jaffa was going to be on the Arab side so they will always be able to go back. And they took very few things with them and they were never able to go back.”

Beyond the fact that by late April 1948 a full five months had passed since the Arabs rejected the partition plan, Shehadeh’s euphemistic description of “hostilities” of course conceals from audiences the Arab violence which both preceded and followed the UN’s recommendation of partition in November 29th 1947. Kirsty Young further muddies the waters by then coming up with the following bizarre and inaccurate statement:

KY: “Because of course this was a displacement that led up to the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948. They were never allowed to go back.” [emphasis added]

The declaration of the State of Israel a couple of weeks after the Shehadeh family decided to travel to their summer home in Ramallah of course had nothing whatsoever to do with the “displacement” of those who decided to leave their homes. 

Young’s subsequent cameo of the Six Day War is no more accurate.

RS: “…just before ’67 things started heating up because there was feeling that war was imminent…”

KY: “We should just remind people, of course; it was the Six Day War that took place in 1967. Jordan lost control of Ramallah, which was then occupied by Israel.”

No context is given regarding the attack on Israel by surrounding Arab states and particularly Jordan’s decision to enter that war despite the Israeli request not to do so.

Shehadeh then goes on to describe his father’s post-war plan for what he describes as a “two state solution”.

RS: “He became very active politically. He managed to get quite a good number of people from all around the West Bank and Gaza who, together with him, submitted and were ready to do this but the Israeli government was uninterested.”

No mention is made of the Arab League’s Khartoum Declaration in response to Israeli offers  of peace immediately after the war.

Shehadeh later whitewashes terrorism by implying incorrectly that it began after – and because of – the war in 1967 (the PLO was of course formed three years before any ‘occupation’ existed).

RS: “However, what was happening to most people was that they were dealing with the indignity of defeat by having thoughts of resistance and a lot of armed resistance….”

Two further instances of whitewashing of Palestinian violence come towards the end of the programme.

RS: “In 2002 there was another invasion of Ramallah by the Israeli army and we were stuck at home for months….”

The missing context is of course the PA-initiated second Intifada and specifically the Park Hotel massacre which led to Operation Defensive Shield.

KY: “You got married in 1988 in what you call an Intifada wedding.”

RS: “We enjoyed our wedding, which was a simple wedding. Everything was complicated; there were curfews.”

Again – the context of Palestinian violence and the first Intifada is erased from the picture.

Whether or not Kirsty Young and her producers actually intended this programme to be an exercise in the Sunday morning promotion and amplification of Raja Shehadeh’s well-worn context-free politically motivated narrative, it certainly turned out that way. So much for editorial standards on accuracy and impartiality. 

Related Articles:

‘Comment is Free’ contributor claims 1967 Six Day War was act of Israeli aggression

Guardian interviewee casually suggests Israel is attempting to ethnically cleanse Palestinians

The Guardian, PalFest and the ‘culture’ of anti-Israel activism



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