DOES THE INTERNATIONAL NEWS MEDIA OVERLOOK ISRAEL´S LEGAL RIGHTS IN THE PALESTINIAN-ISRAELI CONFLICT? (JCPA-JERUSALEM CENTER FOR PUBLIC AFFAIRS) Jerusalem Letter / Viewpoints No. 495 By Dan Diker 04/01/03)
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs Articles-Index-Top
International news organizations covering the Arab-Israeli
conflict frequently refer to international agreements and resolutions
in ways that are prejudiced against Israel´s legal rights and claims.
Frequent references to Israel´s legal obligation to withdraw to
the pre-1967 borders are inconsistent with UN Security Council
Resolution 242 and the Oslo Accords.
Neither the Oslo Declaration of Principles of September 1993 nor
the Oslo II Interim Agreement of 1995 require either Palestinians or
Israelis to refrain from the construction of settlements,
neighborhoods, houses, roads, or any other similar building projects.
References in the news media to "occupied Arab East Jerusalem"
reflect an underlying assumption that eastern Jerusalem has always
been an Arab city like Damascus or Baghdad, ignoring the fact that
Jerusalem has had an overwhelmingly Jewish majority as far back as
the mid-nineteenth century.
Despite UN Secretary General Kofi Annan´s announcement on 25 July
2000 that Israel had fully implemented UN Resolution 425 when it
unilaterally withdrew from southern Lebanon, news organizations have
continued to refer to the Shaaba Farms, located on Israel´s side of
the border with Lebanon, as "disputed."
International news organizations covering the Arab-Israeli conflict
frequently refer to the international agreements and resolutions that
were intended to resolve outstanding issues between the parties.
Unfortunately, however, they frequently do this in ways that are
prejudiced against Israel´s legal rights and claims. In many cases,
correspondents misreport or even overlook the expressed intent of the
drafters of these resolutions. For example, Israel´s civilian and
military presence in the disputed West Bank and Gaza Strip and its
administration of a united Jerusalem and the northern Mt. Dov [Shaaba
Farms] region complies with international laws and resolutions, yet
some leading international news organizations have referred to these
areas as "illegally occupied lands or colonies."1
The basic story line reported by many Middle East-based news
correspondents is the Palestinian struggle to "liberate their
homeland" from "illegal Israeli occupation." The emotionally charged
Palestinian liberation story is, for many reporters, more compelling
than the dry, factual context of history, especially existing
international laws and resolutions that support Israel´s narrative.
Media and Legal "Lenses" on the Disputed Territories
On 16 February 2003, the BBC´s Dateline London program featured a
live, televised debate on the planned U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. The
program´s host, journalist Nick Gowing, and distinguished guests
including British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, top German and French
officials, and former White House Press Secretary James Rubin, all
agreed that "the conflict between Palestine and Israel" would have to
be solved as part of the overall peace prescription for the region.2
This premature reference to "Palestine" places Palestinian claims to
the disputed West Bank and Gaza Strip - over which Israel also has
longstanding claims - on an equal diplomatic and legal footing with
the claims of the State of Israel. In other words, it assigns a legal
status to the Palestinian claims that, in point of fact, they do not
have. There is no "State of Palestine" at present and there was no
Palestinian state controlling the West Bank and the Gaza Strip prior
to 1967. But reference to "Palestine" has become so commonplace in
recent years that even U.S. President George W. Bush has used the
term in his speeches. According to Alan Baker, Legal Advisor to
Israel´s Foreign Ministry, use of the language "Palestine"
contravenes the carefully crafted language in the Oslo Accords and UN
Security Council Resolution 242.3
The BBC program is not an isolated instance. Journalists often err
regarding essential facts of international law when reporting on
Israel´s presence in the disputed West Bank and Gaza Strip. New York
Times correspondent Steven Weisman reported recently on Israel´s
obligation to pull out of "occupied" territories according to the
U.S. "roadmap." Weisman writes: "Use of the word ´occupied´ is
considered significant because it implies, at least for some, a full
withdrawal by Israel from Palestinian territories it has occupied
since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war."4
An Associated Press article similarly asserted that: "Security
Council resolutions 242 and 338 call on Israel to withdraw from all
territory captured in the Arab-Israeli wars of 1967 and 1973."5
These frequent references to Israel´s legal obligation to withdraw to
the pre-1967 borders are inconsistent with UN Security Council
Resolution 242 and the Oslo Accords. UN Security Council Resolution
242 of 22 November 1967, which was the basis of the 1992 Madrid peace
conference and the 1993 Oslo accords, require Israel to withdraw
from "territories" to "secure and recognized borders," not from "the
territories" or "all the territories" captured in the Six-Day War.6
Lord Caradon, former British Ambassador to the UN and a drafter of
Resolution 242, told the Beirut Daily Star on 12 June 1974: "It would
have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of 4
June 1967 because those positions were undesirable and artificial.
After all, they were just the places the soldiers of each side
happened to be the day the fighting stopped in 1948. They were just
armistice lines. That´s why we didn´t demand that the Israelis return
to them and I think we were right not to."7
Israel´s former UN Ambassador Dore Gold also noted: "this deliberate
language was the result of months of painstaking deliberations." Gold
adds: "Since the Soviets tried to add the language of full withdrawal
but failed, there is no ambiguity in the meaning of the withdrawal
clause, which was unanimously adopted by the Security Council."8
In November 2002, a senior Reuters television producer participating
in a media panel discussing news coverage of the Middle East conflict
insisted that Reuters was "careful to maintain objective coverage of
the Palestinian territories." This author asked whether the foreign
news producer meant "Palestinian territories" that were ceded to the
Palestinian Authority as part of the Oslo accords. The Reuters
executive responded that she meant "all of the West Bank and Gaza."9
This pointed exchange illustrates another common reporting error on
the conflict. Arafat´s PLO was not mentioned in Resolution 242 and
had no legal status under that resolution.10 In fact, the drafters of
the resolution did not consider creating a second Arab state west of
the Jordan River. They therefore used the carefully chosen
term "refugee problem" to refer both to extant Arab (Palestinian) and
Jewish refugee claims stemming from the 1948 war and the additional
Arab refugee problem created by the 1967 war. Moreover, references to
the entire West Bank and Gaza as "Palestinian" territories also
contradict the Oslo agreement´s Declaration of Principles of
September 1993 and the Oslo II Interim Agreement of 1995. Neither
agreement requires either Palestinians or Israelis to refrain from
the construction of settlements, neighborhoods, houses, roads, or any
other similar building projects pending a peacefully negotiated final
agreement between the parties.11
All Israeli governments since 1967 have held that Israeli settlements
are legal according to the 1907 Hague Convention that permits the
administering authority to utilize public land and to enjoy
its "usufruct" ("fruits").12 Moreover, Israeli governments have
consistently argued that the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention,
especially Article 49 which deals with population transfer, has no
legal applicability to the West Bank and Gaza, where there was no
recognized sovereign power before the entry of Israeli forces on 5
The problem of inaccurate reporting of the correct legal context of
the conflict raised the ire of New York Times senior editor Joseph
Lelyfeld, who issued the following castigation of Times´ employees
soon after the outbreak of the armed conflict in September
2000: "Three times in recent months we´ve had to run corrections on
the actual provisions of UN Resolution 242, providing great cheer and
sustenance to those readers who are convinced we are opinionated and
not well informed on Middle East issues."13
"Occupied Arab East Jerusalem"
International news reporting on Jerusalem during the ongoing conflict
has centered on Arab and Palestinian claims regarding
the "Judaization" of Israel´s unified capital, whose eastern half,
captured from Jordan in the defensive Six-Day War of 1967, is
referred to by much of the international community, including the
news media, as "occupied Arab East Jerusalem."14 Indeed, the
underlying assumption in this reporting is that, historically
speaking, eastern Jerusalem has always been an Arab city like
Damascus or Baghdad. This ignores the fact that Jerusalem has had an
overwhelmingly Jewish majority as far back as the mid-nineteenth
century, well before the arrival of the British.
A recently released comprehensive study of urban planning and
demographic growth in Jerusalem by international human rights
attorney Justus Reid Weiner reveals a picture of the city that is
substantially different from the Jerusalem perceived by the media and
public. Between 1967 and 2000, Jerusalem´s Arab population increased
from 26.6 percent to 31.7 percent of the city´s total populace, while
the city´s Jewish population decreased accordingly.15 Arab housing
starts also heavily outpaced Jewish building during the same period
due in part to "the direct sponsorship of illegal construction by the
An October 2002 report by the BBC on its Internet website quoted the
reaction of 14 Arab and Muslim news media organizations that
were "enraged" over the U.S. Congress´s most recent vote to confirm a
1995 congressional decision to recognize united Jerusalem as Israel´s
capital. One of the quoted sources, Lebanese state television,
asserted that such a move would succeed in "´Judaizing´ the city´s
character and falsifying its true identity."17 The report failed to
mention that the U.S. congressional decision was based in part on
Israel´s Supreme Court decision of 1967 empowering the Eshkol
government to administer a unified Jerusalem, and in part on UN
Security Council Resolution 242, that did not mention Jerusalem as
part of "lands" from which Israel had been requested to withdraw.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Goldberg was one
of the drafter´s of the resolution and he asserted that: "Resolution
242 in no way refers to Jerusalem, and this omission was
deliberate....Jerusalem was a discrete matter, and not linked to the
In fact, news reporting on the conflict over Jerusalem almost
uniformly neglects Israel´s legal and historical claims to its
capital city. According to Israel´s former UN Ambassador Dore
Gold: "Israel´s legal position in Jerusalem originates in the
Palestine Mandate by which the League of Nations, the sole source of
international legitimacy prior to the United Nations, recognized ´the
historic connection of the Jewish people with Palestine´ and called
for ´the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish
People.´"19 The Mandate did not treat Jerusalem differently from the
rest of Palestine. Despite the fact that the United Nations, the
successor to the League of Nations, proposed that Jerusalem be
divided as part of a corpus separatum, in General Assembly Resolution
181 of November 1947, the Arab armies´ invasion of the fledgling
Jewish state in May 1948 rendered UN Resolution 181 a "dead
Israel´s legal claims to a united capital city are also grounded in
its being the victor in a war of self-defense against its Jordanian
neighbor who, according to the United Nations, violated international
law in 1967 by launching a war of "aggression" against the Jewish
state, including the bombardment of Jerusalem. Major international
legal experts such as former U.S. State Department Legal Advisor
Steven Schwebel, who also headed the International Court of Justice
at The Hague, further support Israel´s position. In 1970, three years
after the UN passed Security Council Resolution 242, Schwebel argued
that "Israel has better title in the territory that was Palestine,
including the whole of Jerusalem (emphasis mine - D.D.), than Jordan
In 1996, Israel decided to open up the Hasmonean archeological tunnel
near the ancient Temple Mount in Jerusalem´s Old City, and one year
later the government decided to approve existing plans to build the
Har Homa neighborhood in southeastern Jerusalem. Palestinian
spokesmen and a compliant international media vilified these moves as
violations of the Oslo accords.22 However, Daniel Taub, General Law
Director of Israel´s Foreign Ministry and part of the Oslo
negotiation team, asserted the legality of Israel´s
position. "Neither [Oslo´s] Declaration of Principles, nor the
interim agreement place any strictures on Israel concerning
Jerusalem. All questions concerning Jerusalem were left to the
permanent status negotiations, which have yet to be held." Taub added
that even if the above agreements did apply to Jerusalem, developing
archeological sites does not violate the agreements.23
The "Disputed" Shaaba Farms
Following Israel´s unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon to the
international "Blue Line" in May 2000, UN Secretary General Kofi
Annan announced on 25 July 2000 that Israel fully implemented its
part of UN Resolution 425. Despite Israel´s compliance with
international law, news organizations have frequently referred to the
Shaaba Farms, located on Israel´s side of the border with Lebanon,
as "disputed."24 One news report said in mid- 2002, "Hizballah
yesterday engaged Israeli troops in the disputed Shaaba Farms near
the Golan Heights, where the Israeli, Lebanese, and Israeli borders
converge."25 Anyone familiar with the actions of the UN Security
Council on the issue of southern Lebanon cannot define the Shaaba
Farms as disputed between Israel and Lebanon, since the UN formally
acknowledged that Israel had fully withdrawn from Lebanese territory.
The mistaken use of the term "disputed" by international news
organizations to refer to Mt. Dov/Shaaba Farms undermines Israel´s
legal position and legitimizes continued Hizballah attacks from
Lebanon as an acceptable form of "resistance."
The "Fighting" Reporters of the Foreign Media
Fiamma Nirenstein, Middle East special correspondent for Italy´s La
Stampa newspaper, characterized foreign news correspondents as
fighting journalists rather than reporting journalists with respect
to the armed conflict between the Palestinians and Israel.26 Many
foreign reporters, today in their 40s and early 50s, actively
demonstrated on European and U.S. college campuses against capitalist
hegemony in America and Western imperialism in Africa and South
America, and against Israel´s participation in the 1982 Lebanon war.
Today, these "fighting journalists" are active moral participants in
a still unfolding story of "Palestinian Davids" fighting to "liberate
their homeland" from the Israeli "colonialist Goliath." One Middle
East expert based in Britain emphasized that presenting Israel´s
legal and historical rights to European journalists would be viewed
as an extremist right-wing act, as it defies the European narrative
of the conflict.27
With over 17,000 terror attacks against Israel since September 2000
and nearly daily IDF anti-terror operations in the West Bank and
Gaza, the hundreds of journalists covering the Israel-Palestinian
story have little time to get up to date on background material,
including the complex history of the region and international
treaties and agreements. Therefore, they mostly rely on leading media
brand names to set the journalistic standard for accuracy and
Georges Malbrunot, correspondent for France´s Le Matin daily, called
the BBC his "living Bible."28 La Stampa´s Nirenstein also noted "the
extraordinary iconoclastic informal power of the media: sporty,
ironic, virtually all of one mind."29 The reporting of European
correspondents displays a far greater tendency to the "herd instinct"
than the reporting of their American counterparts. Europe has a far
smaller media market, fewer media outlets, and fewer opportunities to
express opinions differing from those of the far left European
The Influence of Media on International Law
The international news media wield great influence in shaping the
public´s understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Paradoxically, news reporting also impacts on the international
courts. True, international legal texts in the past have not cited
media reports as an acceptable source of international law, like
customary practice in bilateral treaties. Nevertheless, this is
beginning to change.
A Swedish lawyer, who recently filed a complaint of war crimes
against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for ordering last year´s
Defensive Shield operation in the West Bank, argued before a Swedish
court that media reports of Sharon´s alleged "crimes" should suffice
as evidence against him. Although the prosecutor ultimately rejected
the claim, TV pictures have an increasing value as admissible
evidence.31 According to international human rights attorney and
Canadian parliamentarian Professor Irwin Cotler, media reports can be
a "constituent feature" of a complaint to the International Criminal
Court at The Hague, as part of an effort to initiate a war crimes
trial.32 International news organizations, therefore, bear a heavy
responsibility for accurate reportage of the rights and claims of
both Palestinians and Israelis, in order to ensure optimal balance in
presenting this explosive and complex conflict to the public.
1. Dilip Hiro, "Land is the Issue," Guardian, 22 May 2001;
2. "The Crisis in Iraq," BBC´s Dateline London, with Nick Gowing, 16
3. Interview with Alan Baker, Legal Advisor to Israel´s Foreign
Ministry, 17 January 2003.
4. Steven Weisman, "US Joins Partners on Plan for Middle East, But
Not Timing," New York Times, 21 December 2002, p. A2.
5. Jeff Helmreich, "Journalistic License, Professional Standards in
the Print Media´s Coverage of Israel," Jerusalem Letter #460, 15
August 2001, p. 4.
6. Dore Gold, "From Occupied Territories to Disputed Territories,"
Jerusalem Viewpoints #470, 16 January 2002, p. 3.
7. Beirut Daily Star, 12 June 1974, as quoted by Leonard J. Davis in
Myths and Facts (Washington: Near East Report, 1989), p. 48.
8. Gold, p. 3.
9. This exchange was part of a panel on news coverage of the Israel-
Palestinian conflict in Jerusalem, 17 November 2002.
10. Moshe Landau, Yehuda Blum, and Meir Rosenne, "Arafat´s Web of
Lies," Ha´aretz, 3 January 2001.
11. "Har Homa, Legal Aspects," Israel Foreign Ministry web site, 3
March 1997; www.israel-mfa.gov.il.
12. Ibid. This is also the position of Alan Baker, Legal Advisor to
the Israeli Foreign Ministry and part of the Israeli team drafting
the Oslo Accords, as stated to the author at a meeting on 17 January
13. Jeff Helmreich, "Journalistic License," p. 11.
14. Justus Reid Weiner, Illegal Construction in Jerusalem: A
Variation on an Alarming Global Trend (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center
for Public Affairs, 2003), p. 7.
15. Ibid., p. 8.
16. Ibid., p. 10.
17. BBC Monitoring, "Arab Fury at Jerusalem Decision," 5 October
2002, p. 2.
18. Leonard J. Davis, Myths and Facts, p. 214.
19. Dore Gold, Jerusalem in International Diplomacy (Jerusalem:
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, May 2001), p. 23.
20. Ibid., p. 24.
21. Ibid., p. 26.
22. Alex Safian, "The Media´s Tunnel Vision," Camera Backgrounder, 6
November 1996, p. 3.
23. Ibid., p. 3.
24. See Ewen MacAskill, "Threat Grows of Second Front in Lebanon,"
Guardian, 4 April 2002, p. 2.
25. Ibid., p. 2.
26. Interview with Fiamma Nirenstein, Special Middle East
Correspondent, La Stampa, 27 January 2003.
27. Interview with Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, research fellow at Oxford
University, 19 January 2003.
28. Judy Lash Balint, "Palestinian Harassment of Journalists,"
WorldNet Daily and Emunah magazines, 25 February 2001.
29. Fiamma Nirenstein, "The Journalists and the Palestinians,"
Commentary Magazine, January 2001.
30. Interview with Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, 19 January 2003.
31. Interview with Alan Baker, 13 May 2003.
32. Interview with Professor Irwin Cotler, Member of the Canadian
Parliament and expert on international human rights law, 4 February
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