A pro-Palestine demonstration at BBC Broadcasting House, London, 14 July 2014. (Photo via StoptheWar.Org.UK)
In the Middle East, people used to say “the BBC says” to adduce truth to their claims. Those days are now gone. For the majority of people in the Middle East, the BBC is now seen as parroting the official Israeli narrative in their conflict with the Palestinians.
The BBC’s reporting style, the structure of the story, terminological choice and contextual omissions are the main elements of deception in its coverage of the relentless Israeli onslaught on the Palestinians.
Dissatisfaction with the BBC’s reporting resurfaces whenever Israel wages a war on the Palestinians, Gaza in particular. Discontented people allude to the BBC’s “one-sided” coverage in favor of Israel. The BBC asserts that this discontent is unjustified because it has ‘reported on these issues [present attack on Gaza] in a fair and impartial manner’.
As a response to its critics, the BBC listed the following: “BBC News has reported extensively on Israel’s recent military actions in Gaza” (not attack, emphasis added), “detailed the series of airstrikes on Gaza”, reported on “civilian deaths and casualties”, “reported on the context of the conflict in light of Israel’s continuing blockade”, and “detailed the considerable differences between Hamas and Israel’s respective military capabilities”. It includes hyperlinks to specific articles: 1, 2 and3.
The above list is true. Neither the quantity nor the content of the reported material is in question here. Rather, it is the style with which the BBC reports on Israel-Palestine. This style strikes a chord with Israel’s ready-made public relations dictionary.
The most striking feature of the BBC’s style is the authority with which it near always depicts the Palestinians as the instigators of violence to which Israel reacts in self-defense. Indeed that is how Israeli spokespersons package the events for public consumption, an unsurprising colonial representation. However, it is eerie to find the BBC conducting itself in the same fashion, while claiming impartiality.
It is extremely unusual for the story to begin with notes on Palestinian suffering. Even then, the BBC hardly considers Palestinian suffering as a cause for violence and self-defense, let alone as resistance to Israeli settler-colonialism. Instead, Palestinian violence is always characterized as illegitimate, because unlike the Israelis they should only negotiate and never use arms. Implicitly this creates the impression that Israel is always defending itself, and the Palestinians attacking.
On 15 May, Israeli snipers callously killed two Palestinian teenagers in the West Bank town of Beitunia, 17-year Nadim Nuwara and 16-year Muhammad Abu al-Thahir, while they were commemorating al-Nakba (the catastrophe) Day. This incident did not make the BBC until several days later (20 May) and only after the footage spread over social and other media sources. Even then it was mentioned only in passing and with great reluctance, the viral nature of the story forcing the BBC to accept what it otherwise would not consider newsworthy.
Thus for the BBC the story about the recent Gaza conflict begins on 12 June 2014 when three Israeli teenagers were murdered near Hebron in Area C, which is under Israeli full control. Their names are not mentioned only because I assume that the amount of times they were mentioned in the media made them much more memorable than the hundreds of Palestinian kids killed in the last month, whose names are not allowed to be mentioned on Israeli radio and whose biographies do not receive front page coverage in the West. All are tragedies.
By devoting lavish coverage to these teens, the BBC contributed significantly to Israeli public relations and its media campaign casting their deaths as a national tragedy, which Israel then used to justify a severe crackdown on the Palestinians, first in the West Bank and then Gaza.
The BBC embraced the cynical and deceitful Israeli narrative of what had happened to the three young people. According to the German ZDF TV investigation, the Israeli government already knew that they were murdered straightaway, yet decided to capitalize on the tragic incident politically by inflicting violence on the Palestinians, first in Hebron, Jerusalem and then Gaza. Even though those murders were portrayed as an act planned by Hamas’ political leaders in Gaza, it is now widely acknowledged that this was a false misrepresentation used to build a pretext for war.
Further, the BBC grants Israeli spokespersons frequent opportunities and airtime to speak, while the Palestinians are denied the same opportunities. The BBC therefore cannot be impartial while simultaneously contributing to and propagating Israel’s hostile campaign.
The Israel-Palestine relationship is a typically colonial one, best epitomized by the appalling incidents of murder of three settler-teenagers and the Palestinian teenager who was burned alive, Muhammad Abu Khdeir. The Zionists who burned Abu Khdeir were guaranteed a trial. Conversely, the entire Palestinian population has been assumed guilty and subjected to “collective punishment” for the deaths of the teenagers, before the investigation was even over.
Israel uses teenagers at the forefront of its colonialism and occupation
Although the murder of the Israeli teenagers is tragic and unjustifiable, the motive of the murder is still unknown.
The BBC failed to mention that one of these teenagers is a settler and all three studied at a West Bank yeshiva. We should insist on this true categorization–“settler”–in order to understand the context in which the incident took place and to understand who is the victim and who is the victimizer. International law is clear: all Israeli settlers and settlements are illegal. They also constitute war crimes according to Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Article 8, 2, b, viii). International law endorses the right of the colonized to fight those who deny them freedom “by any means”, including violence. Israel is thus using children to break international law and continue its conflict with the Palestine.
It is both amoral and illegal of Israel to use teenagers at the forefront of its colonialism and occupation. Israel uses its civilians and military instrumentally to further a Zionist ideology. Zionism is a settler-colonial movement that has been working towards the replacement of the native Palestinian population with Jewish settlers in order to establish a Jewish state over the entirety of Palestine.
In 1948, Israel was established on 78 per cent of Palestinian land. Zionist forces expelled half of the Palestinian population then (700,000–900,000), expropriated their land and destroyed their villages or repopulated them by Israelis. For the Palestinians this was al-Nakba. Since the 1970s Israel has been settling its civilian population in the remaining land of Palestine —the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Now more than half a million settlers live in the Jewish-only settlements built on confiscated Palestinian land in a gross violation of international law.
Given this reality, the terms “occupation” and “occupied Palestinian territories” are a misleading cover for Israel’s settler-colonial policies. The BBC glosses over this context and uses the phrase “the Occupied West Bank” as an apolitical territorial designation (a name) without any meaningful bearing on the news content.
The latest Israeli hostility has escalated into a full-fledged attack on the Palestinians in Gaza, but yet again the BBC misrepresents the underlying conditions of the conflict. The BBC’s measured discourse articulates the conflict as one between Hamas and Israel, while the Palestinians in Gaza are caught in the middle. The Palestinians and Hamas in particular are always depicted as the cause and instigators of violence to which Israel “retaliates”, “responds” and “reacts” to in “self-defense.”
Two omissions should be emphasized: nothing is said about either the geographical boundaries of Israel’s right to self-defense or about the Palestinians’ right to self-defense against incessant aggression.
What is silenced in the story is far more far more important than what is said. Contextual omission and misrepresentation deceptively represent Israel as acting in self-defense. Describing the Israeli attacks as a form of self-defense is a distortion, which appears coherent only when the context is expunged.
Israel is targeting the Palestinian people, in Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem, Israel and those in exile. The bombardment and blockade are targeting the 1.8 million people in Gaza, including children, whom Israel already considers “potential terrorists”. It is worth mentioning that more than 70 per cent of the people in Gaza are refugees. Israel forced them to leave their homes in 1948, all of whom have theright to return and restitution according to international law.
The BBC’s policy plays its part in dehumanizing the Palestinians. Instead of judging Palestinian violence as a reaction to persistent and violent Israeli colonialism, the BBC frames Palestinian violence as irrational behavior.
The BBC’s reporting style demotes Palestinian suffering, clearly deeming it less worthy than Israeli suffering. Unless the BBC adopts a neutral style, its self-professed impartiality will continue to be dubious regardless of the amount of Palestinian-sympathetic reports it claims to produce.