In recent weeks BBC audiences have seen plenty of partial (in both senses of the word) portrayals of the property dispute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem which the corporation has chosen to frame as one of the causes of escalated violence.
That framing continued last week with an article by Paul Adams – “Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah: The land dispute in the eye of a storm” – that was published on the BBC News website’s ‘Middle East’ page late on May 25th (UTC time).
Adams also made an audio version of his report which was aired on the BBC World Service radio programmes ‘Newsday’ (from 05:36 here) and ‘Newshour’ (from 14:05 here – presented as “the latest on the Palestinian families threatened with expulsion from their homes in East Jerusalem by Jewish settler groups”) on May 26th and on BBC Radio 4’s ‘World at One’ (from 31:59 here) on May 27th.
Both versions of the report perpetuate the Palestinian narrative whereby that the long-running property dispute in Sheikh Jarrah was one of the causes of the recent uptick in violence. Newsday listeners were told by presenter James Copnall (who is apparently unaware of what went on in southern and central Israel in the past few weeks) in the introduction that:
[emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]
Copnall: “As the dust settles on another Gaza war, the disputes that helped to ignite it remain unresolved. One of them concerns the fate of Palestinian families living in Arab East Jerusalem who find themselves threatened with eviction because Jewish settler groups claim the land belongs to them.”
Adams himself opens that report with a description of a garden in Sheikh Jarrah as:
Adams: “…a place of shade and calm at the centre of a furious incendiary dispute which helped to trigger a war.”
In the written article Adams states:
“Tempers flared in Sheikh Jarrah during the recent fasting month of Ramadan.
A dispute decades in the making exploded into violence.”
He then presents support for that narrative from a source portrayed – also in the audio version – only as “an Israeli lawyer”, failing to inform audiences that Daniel Seidemann founded the foreign funded political NGOs ‘Ir Amim’ and ‘Terrestrial Jerusalem’.
“”It is not an accident that the Temple Mount and Sheikh Jarrah were the triggers of this convulsive violence,” says Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli lawyer who has been charting Jewish settlement activities in East Jerusalem for 30 years.”
Despite the existence of BBC editorial guidelines stating that the “particular viewpoint” of contributors should be made clear to audiences, Adams makes no effort in either the written or audio versions to clarify Seidemann’s political agenda and links to campaigning NGOs before audiences go on to read or hear that contributor’s hyperbolic statements.
“There is a concerted effort to displace the Palestinians who live there, and to replace them with biblically motivated settlers. That’s what’s happening.”
Jews and Arabs were both displaced in 1948, he says, but there the similarity ends.
“You have one city, one war, two peoples, both losing property.”
“One can recover the property; the other cannot. That is the original sin of Sheikh Jarrah.”
Mr Seidemann says the targeting of four Arab areas – two in Sheikh Jarrah and two in Silwan, to the south – represent Israel’s first effort at large-scale displacement of Palestinians in Jerusalem since the immediate aftermath of the 1967 war.
And he says the process is incendiary.
“We’re taking the radioactive issue of Jerusalem and the radioactive issue of displacement and we’re uniting them,” he says.”
In neither of his reports does Adams make any attempt to properly explain why a private property dispute that has been going on for decades should only now “trigger” violence from Hamas. Neither does he bother to clarify to BBC audiences that a claim promoted in both reports concerning the Israeli government is simply untrue and that this is – and remains – a property dispute between owners and tenants.
“Adel says it’s not a fair fight.
“It’s become very clear that we are not battling with settlers. We are battling with the government,” he says.
“We don’t have the strength to battle with the Israeli government.””
Notably, Adams made no effort to ask his interviewees from Sheikh Jarrah why they compromised their court-endorsed status as protected tenants by failing to pay rent. In fact the only mention of the highly relevant topic of rent in both reports comes from interviewee Fleur Hassan Nahoum and in the written report Adams signposts that as “controversial”.
“”These families are going to be evicted for non-payment of rent,” says one of Jerusalem’s deputy mayors, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, referring to a controversial 1987 court decision which recognised the ownership of the Jewish associations but defined the Palestinians as protected tenants.”
The historical background to the property dispute is framed by Adams as follows in the audio report:
Adams: “Israeli officials like Fleur Hassan Nahoum – one of Jerusalem’s deputy mayors – say the law favours the settlers. Jews owned land here before Israel came into being, she says, and are just claiming it back.”
In the written report readers find an account that does not include an explanation of the status of the land in question before it was illegally occupied by Jordan in 1948:
“In the 1950s, the UN funded a Jordanian project in Sheikh Jarrah to build homes for displaced Palestinians. But some of the land involved had been owned by two Jewish associations before the creation of the state of Israel.
After Israel captured East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Six Day War, the two associations took legal action to recover the property.
The disputed land, close to the tomb of Shimon HaTzadik (Simon the Righteous), a Jewish high priest from antiquity, is being claimed by settler groups, who argue that the Palestinians are, in effect, squatters.
It should be added here that pretty much everything about this whole tortuous story – the land and its ownership – is the subject of furious dispute.”
Contrary to that latter claim from Adams, the ownership of that land has been repeatedly established in court and the facts are clear.
That passage is accompanied by a partial map sourced from the politically partial NGO B’tselem in which once again the BBC portrays the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem – a place where Jews lived for centuries until they were ethnically cleansed from the location by Jordan for a period of nineteen years – as a “settlement”.
It is amply obvious that Paul Adams’ reports – like those of other BBC journalists before him – are not intended to provide audiences with an accurate and impartial picture of the property dispute and related legal cases in order to enhance their understanding of that news story. Rather, his reports aim to amplify the political narrative to which the BBC has chosen to self-conscript by means of a half-told story and the use of politicised – rather than legal – terminology such as “settlers” and “settlements”.