Aug 1 2002

Euphemisms for Israeli Settlements Confuse Coverage

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported in May (5/31/02) that the Israel Broadcasting Authority, at the behest of a member of the Israeli cabinet, has directed its editorial departments not to use the terms “settlers” or “settlements” on radio or TV. According to Ha’aretz, “it is not clear if the editors will obey the order.” What does seem clear is that settlements–housing built on land illegally seized by Israel after the 1967 war–are such a contentious issue within Israel that the Israeli government would like to stop reporters from even saying the word.

Nonetheless, the opinion pages of an Israeli paper like Ha’aretz often show a franker debate over Israel’s aggressive settlement policy than one can generally find in mainstream U.S. media. Government interference doesn’t seem to have been necessary to convince some major U.S. news outlets to avoid honest investigation of settlements, and sometimes even to avoid the word itself.

The “neighborhood” of Gilo

This may be partly due to campaigns by pressure groups within the U.S. Take the case of Gilo, an Israeli settlement that some pro-settler groups have used as a focal point for their campaigns to eliminate the term “settlements” in favor of “neighborhoods.” In September 2001, CNN changed its policy on how to characterize Gilo: “We refer to Gilo as ‘a Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of Jerusalem, built on land occupied by Israel in 1967.’ We don’t refer to it as a settlement,” said the order from CNN headquarters. CNN denies that its decision was a concession to outside pressure, but according to veteran Middle East reporter Robert Fisk (London Independent, 9/3/01), sources within the network said that the switch followed “months of internal debate in CNN, which has been constantly criticized by CNN Watch, and other pro-Israeli pressure groups.”

CNN is far from the only outlet that has trouble identifying Gilo. Media critic Ali Abunimah pointed out in a June 20 letter to NPR that the network’s coverage of the suicide bombings that killed 26 Israelis that day incorrectly asserted that the attacks took place in “Jerusalem.” In fact, they occurred in the settlements of Gilo and French Hill, both of which are outside of Jerusalem’s traditional city limits, on land illegally annexed by Israel. Abunimah explained that “while absolutely nothing can justify such attacks…geographical accuracy in reporting remains supremely important,” especially given the emotional intensity of the subject.

In a May 29 article about Palestinian attacks on Israelis, New York Times correspondent John Kifner reported the Israeli army’s efforts to erect fortified barriers between Bethlehem and Gilo, which Kifner described as “a nearby East Jerusalem neighborhood, where a sprawling Jewish area has been built on land seized after the war of 1967.” The sentence would have been a lot easier to parse if Kifner had called Gilo what it is: an Israeli settlement.

As Kifner indicated, Gilo is built on land seized by Israel after the 1967 war. What the Times left unsaid, however, is that this seizure violates international law. Gilo, like other Israeli settlements on “seized” land, was built in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 446, which states that Israeli settlements built on land occupied since 1967 “have no legal validity and constitute a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace.” Resolution 446 also calls on Israel to observe the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that an occupying power “shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Since 446 was passed in 1979, the U.N. has issued other resolutions “deploring” Israel’s failure to comply with it.

According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, the settler population in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) increased almost 100 percent between 1993 and 2000, and there are now 380,000 Israelis living in West Bank settlements (including those in East Jerusalem). In a May 13 report, “Land Grab,” B’Tselem argued that this illegal growth is a result of Israel’s policy of de facto annexing Palestinian land through a variety of mechanisms, including economic incentives for settlers so large that in the year 2000, “settlement regional councils received grants averaging 165 percent more than their counterparts in Israel.” B’Tselem found that while “the built-up areas of the settlements” constitute only 1.7 percent of the West Bank, the settlements’ broad municipal boundaries and their regional councils mean that settlements control nearly 42 percent of West Bank land.

Again, Gilo’s status as an illegal settlement does not justify the killing of civilians there, but it is central to understanding why Gilo is such a hot spot. For news outlets to report on Gilo simply as a Jerusalem neighborhood under attack, without explaining its legal status, confuses rather than clarifies the issues involved–especially since the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which has claimed so many thousands of lives, is at bottom about who should control the land.