The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported last month (5/31/02) that at the behest of a Likud party minister, the Israel Broadcasting Authority has banned its editorial departments from using the terms “settlers” or “settlements” on radio and TV. According to Ha’aretz, “it is not clear if the editors will obey the order,” which was seen as an attempt by the new IBA director to curry favor with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. 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. Direct 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, honestreporting.com 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 recent suicide bombings which killed 26 Israelis 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.
A close reading of some of the New York Times‘ recent coverage of settlements illustrates the politics that may be at work in such cases. In a May 29 article about Palestinian attacks on Israelis, 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 is illegal under 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.
Again, Gilo’s status as an illegal settlement does not justify the Palestinian killings 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, is a gross distortion– especially since the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, which has claimed so many thousands of lives, is at bottom about who should control the land. Settlements have been a central point of contention throughout.
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 East Jerusalem). In a May 13 report, “Land Grab,” B’Tselem argues 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 in fact, settlements control a full 41.9 percent of West Bank land.
Struggles and shrieks
The New York Times certainly isn’t the only or worst offender in terms of inaccurate coverage of settlements, but some of its recent articles are instructive in how poor attention to detail on settlements can muddy the waters in an outlet’s coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as a whole.
Kifner’s May 30 Times article about 6 Israeli civilians killed by Palestinians does consistently use the term “settlement” where appropriate. But the article’s lead seems crafted to give the impression that the legality of settlements is simply a matter of perpective. Kifner described one of the people killed as “a 17-year-old yeshiva student in what he believed to be the land of Israel who was killed by a Palestinian gunman who believed the land was his.” The question of legality is not clarified elsewhere.
The sympathy shown throughout the article for the Israeli victims and their loved ones is perfectly appropriate. What’s less appropriate, however, is Kifner’s failure to contextualize the complicated and deadly issue of settlements in a framework of international law.
Kifner repeated this “he says, she says” approach in a June 4 article. He described the construction of an Israeli multi-million dollar luxury development on Palestinian land as something that would be “a neighborhood to Jews, a settlement to Arabs.” Explaining the enormous growth in the settler population since the 1993 Oslo accords, Kifner noted that settlements have “generated Palestinian anger and frustration.” Again, this gives the impression that there’s no arbiter in the controversy, only the emotional claims of competing ethnic groups.
The sources cited in the Times article give additional insight into how U.S. cultural affinities may be influencing the slant of American reporting on settlements. Canvassing local perspectives on the luxury development, Kifner spoke with both Jews and Palestinians. Or rather, he spoke with those that he shared a language with.
Jerusalem’s mayor is quoted explaining that the new construction is a sign of the positive influence of “diligent private entrepreneurs that know how to make economic considerations,” and one of the developers “proudly” extolled the amenities of the “neighborhood” being built. In a striking contrast, the Arabs quoted by Kifner are presented as simply shrieking garbled objections– because they didn’t speak English:
An old woman, dressed in a traditional embroidered garment, shrieked at a passing bulldozer.
It seems that in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, a lot can get lost in translation.