BBC’s Yolande Knell ditches critical journalism to promote EU and NGO campaigns

The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip (Oslo II) signed by the PLO as “the representative of the Palestinian people” twenty-five years ago placed the parts of Judea & Samaria defined as Area C under Israeli control, pending permanent status negotiations on issues including Jerusalem, settlements, Palestinian refugees and borders. Such negotiations have of course yet to take place and in the meantime, Israel remains responsible for planning and zoning in that area.

In 2019 the Palestinian Authority reportedly began issuing building permits for Area C in defiance of that agreement. Similarly disregarding the Oslo Accords, the European Union has since 2012 been funding unauthorised construction in Area C which continues to this day.

None of that relevant context was provided to BBC World Service radio audiences listening to a report by the BBC Jerusalem bureau’s Yolande Knell which was aired (from 18:22 here) on the afternoon edition of the ‘Newshour’ programme on December 12th and repeated in the same programme’s evening edition (from 18:13 here).

Indeed, presenter Julian Marshall managed to avoid the term Area C altogether:

[emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Marshall: “Now 2020 has seen a dramatic increase in Palestinian homes being demolished by the Israeli authorities. Some 900 people have lost a place to live: the biggest number in years. Palestinians often build in occupied East Jerusalem and parts of the West Bank under full Israeli control without permits, saying these are almost impossible for them to get. Among the buildings still facing demolition orders there are many Palestinian schools. Our Middle East correspondent Yolande Knell reports.”

Knell began by returning to a story she unsatisfactorily reported last month.

Knell: “Within seconds a home is gone as an Israeli bulldozer moves in. And then, another. This has been a record year for demolitions, with all the misery they bring. But in the Bedouin village of Khirbet Humsa they’re re-building. Last month more than 70 people here were given just 10 minutes to leave their makeshift homes.”

Once again Knell refrained from informing BBC audiences that the said encampment was the subject of several court cases throughout the past decade and so the “10 minutes” claim is not what it seems. In 2019 the Supreme Court ruled that its residents have no property rights in the location (i.e. the land does not belong to them), which was declared an army training zone in 1972. The court further stated that the Bedouin are infiltrators on the land and that building there is unauthorised and illegal. Yolande Knell however found it appropriate to amplify the totally unevidenced ‘belief’ of an interviewee:

Knell: “One of them, Harb Suleiman [phonetic], believes Israel wants to drive all Palestinians out of the Jordan Valley, which they want as part of their own independent state.”

Voiceover: “This turned our lives into hell. We had a two-day-old baby. Even that family’s shelter was demolished. They spent one full night under the rain. And this is all because of the Israeli occupation.”

Knell: “The families have now moved into donated tents and rounded up their sheep which lost their pens. Israel’s military says all the structures destroyed here had been put up without permits and that because this area is a firing range, it’s not safe for Palestinians to live in. In total, hundreds of Palestinians have lost their homes this year: all in places that are especially sensitive in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Hagai Elad is from the Israeli campaign group B’Tselem.”

Elad: “There has been an acceleration in the scope of demolitions of Palestinian homes and it’s the worst it has been in a number of years. But if we take even a bigger picture perspective, this has been going on for decades. Eventually it’s always the same projectory [sic]: advancing demolitions for Palestinians and expansion of settlements for Jewish settlers.”

Clearly Knell’s description of the political NGO B’Tselem as a “campaign group” does not meet the BBC editorial guidelines requirement to inform audiences of contributors’ “affiliations, funding and particular viewpoints”. That information is particularly relevant in this case because not only does B’Tselem run its own related campaign but one of its foreign donors is the European Union: the same body financing illegal construction in Area C.

Indeed Yolande Knell’s next stop (with or without B’Tselem’s help) was a school constructed with EU and UK funding for which – as reported by the Times of Israel – planning permission was not even requested: “Ras al-Tin’s residents do not deny that they lack a permit. In fact, they did not even apply for one…”

Knell: “In another village I visit, tensions with nearby Jewish settlements run high. The new Ras al-Tin school is the best chance local children have to study and they’re keen learners. ‘I’m proud to say the name of my school’ says 14-year-old Nur. She explains that at her age most girls used to stop studying as their families didn’t like them going on the long walk to the school they previously attended in another village. In wet weather all the children used to stay home. This class is about the struggle for Palestinian statehood but the school itself could soon be history. It has a demolition order as it was built without an Israeli permit. Nora al Azhari is the head teacher.”

Voiceover: “We were worried about the future of the school from the start but if we dwelled on that, we’d never have made progress. We carried on so that we could give these children the chance of an education, which is a basic right.”

Failing to clarify that the “many countries” she cites includes the UK which helped finance the unauthorised construction in Ras al Tin, Knell went on:

Knell: “Many countries say destroying this school would violate international law. In response to my inquiry about the demolitions, Israeli defence officials sent a statement. It read:”

Voiceover: “The Civil Administration supervision unit carries out enforcement against planning and building violations as part of its commitment to maintain public order and the rule of law.”

She closed her report with a simplistic portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian sub-conflict and erasure of the fact that Palestinians living in Area C who do not engage in unauthorised construction do not face “uncertainty”.

Knell: “At its heart the conflict here is over land and so as long as it’s unresolved, Palestinians in the most bitterly contested areas live with constant uncertainty.”

Just as the BBC erased all mention of UK funding for the illegally built structures at Khirbet Humsa in its report last month, Yolande Knell has once again withheld similar information concerning EU and UK government funding for the school in Ras al Tin. The fact that their government is involved in ‘facts on the ground’ funding of unauthorised construction that defies the Oslo agreements is a point which may well have been of interest to many UK tax-payers (who also of course fund the BBC) listening to this report.

Yolande Knell has clearly taken it upon herself to unquestioningly promote the campaigning run by the EU and assorted political NGOs on this topic. Her talking points are identical to those used by such bodies and there is no evidence of a critical journalistic approach to the subject, such as examination of the part played by EU funding of unauthorised construction in the alleged rise in the number of demolitions.

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