Sep 1 1997

What’s in a Name?

In Jerusalem story, terminology takes sides

“The forces of terrorism are in a coalition, engaged in an information warfare campaign against Israel, a campaign in which the American news media is serving as the witting or unwitting ally of Arafat.” So House speaker Newt Gingrich (R.-Ga.) told the cheering audience at AIPAC’s (American-Israeli Political Action Committee) national convention (C-SPAN, 4/8/97).

Democrats like Vice President Al Gore and House minority leader Richard Gephardt (D.-Mo.) had both given pro-Israeli convention speeches, but it was Gingrich who thrilled the crowd with his attack on the media.

Virtually the only example given by Gingrich with any basis in reality was that the media sometimes use the term “Arab East Jerusalem.” This is deemed objectionable by AIPAC since “Jews today are the majority in east Jerusalem.”

But why are Jews the majority there? After Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967, it illegally annexed the city, expanding the municipal boundaries by over ten times to include sparsely populated areas that had been associated with nearby Palestinian towns. By building Jewish-only settlements in these areas, the Israeli government has a Jewish majority in the expanded East “Jerusalem.” (See Jerusalem: An Occupation Set in Stone?,” Free Speech TV, 9/18/97.)

Much of the press has been lax in reporting the other half of the Israeli strategy of achieving a Jewish majority in East Jerusalem: minimizing the Palestinian population by denying building permits and demolishing houses. (See Edmund Hanauer, Newsday op-ed, 4/9/97). The Washington Post‘s Barton Gellman (5/5/97) was one of the first mainstream reporters to write about Israel’s forcing Palestinians from Jerusalem by confiscating their residency cards, but even in this story Jewish settlements were referred to as “home-building.”

Sidestepping Legality

The question of the legality of such settlements is typically skirted in reporting, or at best, put in the voice of Arabs. The New York Times, for example, headlined a story “Arabs, at U.N., Call New Israeli Homes ‘Illegal'” (3/13/97), even as country after country from all parts of the world denounced the recent construction on Mount Abu Gheim on the outskirts of Jerusalem—what the U.S. press, following Israeli government usage, calls Har Homa. The Times piece made the laughable understatement that “Israel has been less than attentive to UN declarations on relations with the Arabs”—just as the U.S. press has been “less than attentive” in reporting such U.N. votes, burying stories of U.S. vetoes on inside pages and relegating the first emergency session of the U.N. General Assembly in 15 years to a few column inches (New York Times, L.A. Times, 4/26/97) when it was reported at all.

Israel is in violation of dozens of U.N. Security Council resolutions, including 242, which emphasizes the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war,” and the 1980 resolution 465, which actually calls for the dismantling of settlements from “Jerusalem”—both East and West, since the U.N. envisioned Jerusalem as a joint international city. The international principle behind such condemnations is clear, and is codified in the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states: “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into territory it occupies.”

Even those U.S. pundits who criticized Israel’s “Har Homa” settlement seemed compelled to affirm its legality: Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen (4/3/97) wrote that “it is true, of course, that Israel had the legal right to press ahead with the construction” at Abu Gheim. The same day, the Post‘s Mary McGrory wrote that Leah Rabin “noted that Israel had the legal right to…build the houses.” Virtually the only time settlements are called illegal by the media is when they are built by settlers without the approval of the Israeli government (e.g., New York Times, 1/16/96).

Instead of the proper designation under international law of “illegal settlements,” the media refer to Abu Gheim as a “Jewish neighborhood” (e.g., NPR, 2/23/97), as if it were a natural extension of white picket fences, and not an exclusive Jewish-only building complex on an uninhabited hilltop.

In a shift that obscures the clear illegal status of colonial settlements like Abu Gheim, the phrase “occupied territory” is increasingly being replaced by “disputed territory” (e.g., ABC World News Tonight, 4/1/97). And much press usage goes farther, effectively conceding all of Jerusalem to Israel with headlines like “Violence Returns to Israel” (New York Times, 9/26/96), referring to Palestinians killed by Israeli troops in East Jerusalem. References to the West Bank town of Hebron as “the last city still under occupation” (USA Today, 1/15/97) likewise imply that East Jerusalem is not occupied.

Still, Gingrich and a whole pack of media figures—Charles Krauthammer, A. M. Rosenthal, George Will, Mort Zuckerman, William Safire, Cal Thomas and others—will press on, without a hint of irony, that “the media” are biased against Israel.