A guest post by CAMERA intern Aron White
20 years ago today, on January 17th 1997, Israel and the Palestinian authority signed an agreement dividing control of Hebron. Prime Minister Netanyahu agreed that Israel would pull out of much of Hebron, leaving it under the control of the Palestinian Authority, and Israel would maintain control over a second part of the city. This anniversary is a good time to analyse UK media coverage of Hebron, a city which is often featured in the UK media. Much of the coverage of Hebron in the UK media suffers from serious flaws, and sometimes worse than that.
Ignoring of Palestinian terrorism in Hebron
The first systemic flaw in media coverage of Hebron is that it often overlooks or ignores the history of Palestinian terrorism in Hebron, and the role that has in the situation of the city. To understand this, one has to zoom out from a myopic focus on Hebron’s Jewish population, and look at its Arab residents.
Hebron is the second largest Palestinian city (following Gaza City) and is the largest city in the West Bank, with some 200,000 residents according to a 2015 census. However, it can cogently be argued that Hebron’s population is particularly hard-line and radical – and election results here are significant. In the last Palestinian legislative election, contested between Fatah and Hamas in 2006, 66 of the 132 seats were awarded by district – so for example, there were five seats contested in Ramallah, six seats contested in Nablus and four seats contested in Jenin. In Hebron, there were nine seats up for grabs – and all nine went to Hamas. (Hamas won the election overall with 74 seats, with Fatah coming second with 45). Hebron is the Hamas stronghold of the West Bank.
Hebron has also seen much Palestinian violence and terrorism over the past two decades. During the Second Intifada, numerous Israelis were killed in terrorist attacks in Hebron. On December 8th 2000, two Israelis, Rina Didovsky and Eliyahu Ben-Ami were killed when a gunman opened fire on their car just outside Hebron. In the year 2001, five Israelis were killed in Hebron – included in this was one of the most painful of terrorist attacks during the intifada, when a Palestinian sniper killed a ten month old baby, Shalhevet Pass. (Although this is not the UK media, that story is a reminder that poor headlines about Israel have been around for a long time – the Associated Press ran that story under the headline “Israeli toddler dies in the West Bank.”)
Over the past few years, Hebron has also been at the centre of terrorist attacks against Israel. The kidnap and murder of the three boys in 2014 which lead to the Gaza war was carried out by two residents of Hebron. One of them, Marwan Qayasmeh was a member of one of Hebron’s main clans, the Qayasmeh clan, whose members have perpetrated many terrorist attacks against Israel over the years, killing tens of Israelis. (Their attacks include the “children’s bus” bombing in 2003, the number 14 bus bombing, and the number 37 suicide bombing in Haifa in 2003.) The wave of stabbings and terrorist attacks that began in October 2015 also included numerous terrorist attacks in and around Hebron – the UN Coordinator for Middle East peace described Hebron as the “epicentre” of the violence.
This history has had an impact on Israeli security policy. Since the year 2000, Hebron`s Old City, which was once a bustling centre of Palestinian business and shops, has frequently been blocked off by the IDF due to security concerns – it was closed frequently during the Intifada, as well as more recently since October 2015. But let us see how the UK media presents the facts. Here is how Harriet Sherwood at the Guardian describes the rationale behind IDF policy of closing off the Old City: “The barricades were to allow hardline Jewish settlers to reach their houses without having to encounter their Palestinian neighbours.” This description simply beggars belief. To ignore tens of terrorist attacks and murdered Israelis, and to state categorically that it is Israeli racism and insensitivity that leads to this policy is an open lie, and a flagrant flouting of any journalistic standard. “Hamas terror is strong” is put in quotation marks, and in the mouth of an Israeli official, in this Independent article – rather than present Palestinian terrorism as a fact, make it less believable by saying its an Israeli claim. On a separate note, one also has to wonder by what standard the Jewish residents of Hebron are considered “hardline,” by Harriet Sherwood, and the Palestinian residents are not. In general, it does not seem good policy to generalise about large groups of people and to describe them as radical – but if the Guardian are going to go down that route, then a population who unanimously voted for Hamas fit the bill as a group of “hardliners” for me. IDF policies in Hebron are frequently scrutinised, but the terrorism and radicalism that lead to them receive scant attention – often warping the story.
The missing history
The second flaw in media coverage of Hebron is the failure to properly provide the proper historical context for the contemporary events in the city.
The Jewish connection with Hebron goes back millennia. Hebron is the burial-place of the Jewish patriarchs, and was King David`s first capital city in the 10th century BC. Hebron was part of the Judean Kingdom, the Hasmonean Kingdom, the Jewish revolt against Rome, and then continued to live there after the end of Jewish sovereignty, under Byzantine, Mamluk, Crusader and Ottoman rule. Jews lived uninterrupted there for millenia right until modern times, until the riots of 1929. On Friday August 23rd 1929, Arab riots against the Jews of Hebron broke out on the Jewish Sabbath. 67 men, women and children were killed, with many others injured and raped. Those who survived left the city for safer places – the end of Jewish settlement in what was probably the oldest Jewish community in the world.
However, coverage of Hebron often downplays or overlooks this Jewish history. The Guardian writes that “both religions (Judaism and Islam) have had a presence in Hebron for centuries”, which is a somewhat odd way to refer to a Jewish connection that dates back to Abraham, who lived in around the year 1,500 BC. Josephus’ account of Jews in Hebron around the beginning of the Common Era is probably more accurately described as being “millennia” than centuries ago. It is clear that agenda of this line was to equate the Jewish and Muslim connections, despite the fact that King David lived fully fifteen hundred years before the birth of Muhammad – political correctness getting in the way of a fair historical account, with the sense that saying the true history of the Jewish connection to the city is somehow offensive to Muslims. The Jewish connections are sometimes not merely downplayed, but ignored. In a map of Hebron in another Guardian article, the Tomb of the Patriarchs is referred to exclusively by its Muslim name, the Ibrahimi Mosque, and its Jewish name is not mentioned at all.
But equally egregious, and more commonly, is the misconstrual of the history of modern Hebron. “Hebron is the second largest, and most contentious city in the occupied West Bank. It is home to about 600 Jewish settlers and 170,000 Palestinians. The settlers arrived just after the 1967 war,” writes the Guardian. The Telegraph writes that Israeli settlers “arrived in the centre of Hebron in 1979” and another Telegraph article says Hebron is a “settlement in the midst of a Palestinian city.” None of these descriptions are untrue, but all of them miss a vital part of the story. Whilst Jews did come to Hebron in 1967, the only reason there were not Jews there already was because the millennia old community had been massacred by Arab riots in 1929. To simply describe Hebron as a “Palestinian city” is totally disingenuous – it is central to the Jewish tradition, and its lack of Jewish population for a brief forty year period due to violence and terror should not be used to erase a three thousand-year connection. There is a double crime here from the media – the murder and expulsion of the ancient Jewish community of Hebron is ignored, and then the return of Jews to Hebron is portrayed as some foreign invaders invading land to which they have no connection. I do not make a political argument here, but a journalistic one – that vital context is being ignored or downplayed, and thus the story is not being presented accurately.
There is much more that can be said about how Hebron is misrepresented in the media – for example, the unique situation that exists in Hebron is often conflated with the very different realities in other parts of the West Bank. Basic journalistic standards have been flouted in much of the coverage of Hebron, and it should stop as soon as possible. Hebron is an important city to Israelis and Palestinians, to Jews and to Muslims, and the situation there is complex. The UK media should reflect this complexity, rather than warping a story to fit premade ideological outlooks.