Jeremy Bowen’s olive harvest feature fails to offer BBC audiences anything new

As readers are aware, the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen’s audio report titled ‘Olive Wars’ was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on December 7th. The programme is available here from 01:25.Bowen olives audio

In order to appreciate the rationale behind Bowen’s report it is useful to look first at his closing remarks.

“Now, in its own way, what’s happening in this valley is a microcosm of the entire conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. One fundamental aspect of it – not the only one, but a vital thing to understand – is the fact that there is one piece of land and historically there have been two peoples who want it. The whole point of the peace process – now collapsed, of course – was to find a way to divide it between them. Travelling around the harvest I’ve seen that what they have instead is no kind of acceptable status quo. Ask Bassem and Naja Rashid; the couple whose olive trees were cut down by settlers. Or in Israel, the olive producer Yaniv Zaban; looking on uncomfortably as he sees Palestinian farmers’ trees being destroyed. Jewish settlers like Avraham Herzlich in Tapuach seem fairly content under the current Israeli government: the force is with them. But the way things are there isn’t just a risk of more bloodshed: it’s certain. That’s not good for any Palestinian or Israeli and – at a time when the whole world can feel the impact of the tumult in the Middle East – that’s not good for the rest of us either.”

The take-away message for BBC audiences is therefore that the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is all about land, that it can be solved by the division of that land and that as long as it remains unsolved, it will affect “the rest of us” negatively because the Middle East’s mess is spreading beyond the region.

Leaving aside Bowen’s obviously specious linkage between events such as the Syrian civil war, the rise of ISIS and other Islamist Jihadists and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict – and his transparent attempt to inflate the latter’s regional and global significance – the obvious question is why did Bowen seek to convey his take-away message through the medium of the olive harvest? The answer to that is found in the opportunities it presents for framing the story in a manner which advances an already well-worn political narrative.

One very dominant theme in Bowen’s report can be summed up as old versus new, ‘authentic’ versus modern, ‘traditional’ and ‘artisan’ versus industrial. In his opening sentence he informs listeners that “the olive harvest is all about tradition”. Two and a half minutes into the item he goes to visit “the oldest olive tree in these parts”, located near “ancient terraces” and there he – and of course BBC audiences – are told that the supposedly four thousand year-old tree:SONY DSC

“…stands as a symbol to the Palestinian people – the history and civilization.”

The report’s opening message is clear: like their olive trees, the Palestinians have been there since time immemorial, with no history worth mentioning having existed beforehand – or indeed since.

Bowen next visits the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane where he links the local olive trees to Christian tradition and the New Testament. At no point are listeners told what the original Hebrew name for Gethsemane – Gat Shmanim – means or that olive oil production was integral to ancient Jewish culture. Bowen tells listeners:

“…and from up here on the Mount of Olives you get the classic view of old Jerusalem but you can see the modern parts of the city  as well, including the settlements for Jews that Israel has built on the territory it captured during the 1967 war. That’s forbidden by international law and it’s taken big chunks out of the land that the Palestinians want for an independent state.”

Bowen’s partisan representation of “international law” of course breaches BBC editorial guidelines by not informing listeners of the existence of alternative legal opinions on the issue and his claim that the Jerusalem neighbourhoods he chooses to brand “settlements” were built “for Jews” is inaccurate: residents of other faiths (or none) and ethnicities also live in those districts.  

Later on listeners are told by Bowen that:

“Palestinian farmers get a quarter of their incomes from olives but it’s about more than money. The trees are the most powerful symbol of Palestinian attachment to the land.”

Bowen also visits an olive farm at Moshav Sde Uziahu in the Be’er Tuvia district where he compares farming methods.SONY DSC

“I’ve crossed from the West Bank to Israel and it’s a very different approach here in the olive harvest. The farm here’s called The Olive People; they have seven thousand trees. Flat land – not mountainous like the West Bank – and they’re using a machine to harvest the olives: an extraordinary sight. The machine grabs the trunk of the tree, gives it a good shaking. Some of the workers hit the branches as well to get the olives off. It is a very, very big contrast to the old, artisanal methods they use in Palestinian areas.”

Bowen’s travels also take him to another unnamed area:

“I’ve come from Israel into the occupied West Bank to a beautiful area of hills. But this is a controversial place because up over to my right are a number of Jewish settlements – quite radical, ideological ones – and here on the adjoining hill there is a timeless area of terracing and olive trees and Palestinians farming them.”

An additional theme promoted by Bowen is the contrast between the physical Palestinian attachment to the land symbolized by their “ancient” and “timeless” connection to the olive trees and Israeli claims to the land – which are framed exclusively by Bowen in terms of intangible religious belief.

“I’m at the home of Bassem Rashid and his wife Naja and they’re harvesting their olives here. […] Now, this couple have other trees up near the settlement of Tapuach where there are Jews that believe that this land should belong to them. And they are not able to get to those trees and worse still, they heard only a couple of days ago that those trees up there – some they say are a hundred years old – have been cut down by the settlers.”

Note how later on in his closing words (see above) Bowen transforms something the Rashid’s have heard – but has obviously not been independently verified by the BBC – into fact. Significantly, Bowen refrains from making any direct reference to instances in which Palestinians have caused damage to Israeli agriculture. Quoting the highly partisan UN OCHA, he unquestioningly informs listeners:

“According to the UN office for humanitarian affairs, attacks by Jewish settlers in the last five years on Palestinians and their property have destroyed around fifty thousand fruit trees – mainly olives. […] The Israeli occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, breeds violence. Jewish settlers and Palestinians attack each other. Some Jewish settlers moved to the occupied territories to get cheap housing but extremists in ideological settlements believe the land is theirs alone and the trees are a legitimate target.”

Interestingly, Bowen later on uses the term “settlers” in a different context.

“The first Jewish settlers – the early Zionists – were mainly secular. Their conflict with the Palestinians was first of all about possession of land. But religion is more prominent now on both sides. Some Jewish settlers, like Avraham, believe that God gave the land to them and Islamists on the other side are a big part of Palestinian nationalism. If you think you’re doing God’s will, there isn’t much room for negotiation.”

Of course the pre-state conflicts between Jews and Arabs were by no means limited to disputes about land, as the fact that the riots of 1929 were directed particularly at the ancient Jewish communities in Hebron, Jerusalem and Tsfat indicates. Bowen downplays the long-standing influence of religion on the conflict and elects not to explain to listeners the concept – in particular relevant to Islamists such as Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood – according to which ‘Muslim lands’ cannot be given up or negotiated away.

But what is most noticeable about Bowen’s framing of the issue is that it completely erases from audience view the very relevant subject of the Mandate for Palestine and the fact that the area designated for the creation of the Jewish National Home included Judea and Samaria – later conquered (with more than a little help from their British friends) and belligerently occupied by Jordan for the nineteen years between 1948 and 1967. Of course any reference to that key point would have undermined Bowen’s use of the term “Palestinian land”, which features in another of the themes he promotes in this item: the anti-terrorist fence.

Apparently describing the terror attack of October 22nd, Bowen tells listeners:

“Tension’s always high around here and in this part of Jerusalem there’s just been an attack on some Israelis so the police, the military are out in force. You can see guns, there are sirens, there’s confusion. Palestinians argue that if there wasn’t an occupation there wouldn’t be attacks.”

He refrains from informing audiences that, inter alia, the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip long since disproved that claim and continues:

“The Israeli government disagrees and insists it must protect its people by building walls and fences: the so-called West bank separation barrier. But that doesn’t follow the boundary Israel had before it captured the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967. It cuts through Palestinian land and separates some Palestinian olive farmers from their trees.”

Along with his misrepresentation of the 1949 Armistice Line as a “boundary” (the Armistice Agreement specifically states that it is no such thing), Bowen refrains from informing listeners of the fact that the “Palestinian land” he describes was previously occupied by Jordan, administered by Britain and prior to that, controlled by the Ottoman Empire for five hundred years. He also avoids mentioning the campaign of terrorism during the second Intifada which brought about the construction of the anti-terrorist fence as a result of public pressure on the Israeli government and, significantly, he fails to clarify that the terror initiated by Arafat came after Israel had handed over control of Areas A and B to the Palestinian Authority, indicating once again that the evacuation of land by Israel does not prevent terror attacks. Later on Bowen even egregiously and entirely unnecessarily promotes the defamatory and inaccurate term “apartheid wall”:

“I’m right up against what the Israelis call their security fence. Palestinians call it an apartheid or segregation wall and the problem for the people of Anin – the farmers here – is that yes; they do get access during the harvest and the gate is only open even then for limited periods during the day, but for the rest of the year when they want to maintain the land, look after the trees, they can’t get at it. It’s a once a year visit that they do to harvest the olives themselves.”

Bowen later meets the owner of the Canaan olive press, Palestinian-American Nasser Abu Farha, although Mr Abu Farha’s American citizenship apparently did not fit in with his promoted themes. Neither apparently did the tanks used to store the olive oil at Canaan Fair Trade (see related articles below) – in contrast to similar ones seen at Moshav Sde Uziahu which Bowen took the trouble to describe as “modern stainless steel vessels”. Bowen alleges:SONY DSC

“Now, not far from here there are Jewish settlements which are known for mounting raids on the trees, cutting them down, burning them, sometimes stealing the finished oil. From your point of view, what does that say to you about the situation here?”

Abu Farha: “I wouldn’t blame it all on the settlers. I think the settlers are more encouraged in the areas where the government have fenced these areas as security buffer zones for their settlements. Somehow this fencing and barring the farmers from regularly tending their farms becomes a perception to the settlers that maybe this farmer shouldn’t be there in the first place. I would put more blame on the system.”

Notably, the issue of Palestinian responsibility for bringing about the construction of the anti-terrorist fence does not arise because in this entire report Palestinians are portrayed as weak, passive and without any agency whatsoever.

 Bowen’s report is very obviously tailored for his British Radio 4 audience. “Authentic”, “traditional” Palestinian farmers engaged in Fair Trade production of olive oil from ancient trees pushes a lot of sympathetic buttons. So too does the notion that these farmers have to grapple with violent, religiously motivated extremist settlers and an “apartheid wall” to get to “Palestinian land”.

In his introduction to this item Bowen states:SONY DSC

“The olive harvest is about politics. Everything is politicized here and it’s the politics of the struggle for land between two peoples who want it. And in that struggle, the olive tree has become a very potent symbol and the olive harvest has at times become a very serious flashpoint.”

Of course much of the annual politicization of the olive harvest is attributable in no small part to the mutually beneficial collaboration between Western media outlets and local political actors, with this report being no exception. Whilst Bowen made it clear right from the beginning that BBC audiences were not going to learn anything about the non-political aspects of the olive harvest, his report is nothing more than a tediously predictable collection of well-worn clichés which do not contribute anything new to deeper audience understanding of the real political issues behind his subject matter and merely retread the routes taken by Bowen and his colleagues on countless previous occasions.

BBC audiences have already been told hundreds of times about ‘illegal settlements’ and their supposedly belligerent residents. The ‘evils’ of what the BBC mistakenly calls the ‘separation barrier’ have been done to death and audiences are already more than used to the BBC’s inflation of the Palestinian Israeli conflict into the major issue in the Middle East. In fact, apart from the licence fee payer-funded opportunity for Jeremy Bowen to purchase some cheap olive oil and the chance for yet more transparent promotion of the BBC’s chosen political narrative, there appears to have been no journalistic point to this exercise whatsoever.   

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