THE WEST BANK DISTORTIONS INDUSTRY
by Yochanan Visser and Sharon Shaked
There is no shortage of claims about alleged Israeli human rights violations in the West Bank.
Most of these claims originate from Palestinian sources and NGO’s and are part of a disinformation campaign that aims to delegitimize Israel.
This campaign of distortions, bias and, sometimes, outright lies is well documented by a host of bloggers and organizations – such as Honest Reporting and Camera.
One of the players in this campaign is the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), an organization that is supposed to be impartial and to provide humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees. UNRWA’s anti-Israel bias is not quite new but, until recently, has been limited to refugee related issues.
Now UNRWA has apparently decided to interfere in the already explosive situation in the West Bank and joined the general disinformation campaign against Israel.
Here’s how that campaign works.
Dutch orchestra attacked
At the end of July the Palestinian News Network published an article about a Dutch orchestra that was supposedly attacked by the IDF during a performance in the Palestinian village Kfar Qadum.
The PNN article was widely distributed among international media outlets. However, a member of the orchestra wrote a detailed account about the actual events. The orchestra had participated in the weekly “peaceful” demonstration against an IDF checkpoint in the vicinity of the village, he said.
According to another account on the Palsolidarity website a group of Palestinians approached the soldiers who responded by firing teargas grenades. The IDF, in response to our request for more information, said that the missing piece in the accounts was that the Palestinians started throwing stones at the soldiers.
So there was no performance and no peaceful demonstration.
Destruction of olive trees
Another claim that originated from a Palestinian source involved the alleged destruction of 200 olive trees in the village Al Walaja near Bethlehem. JAI, the Joint Advocacy Initiative, published a report about Na’el Khalid, a Palestinian farmer who claimed that 200 olive trees were destroyed when Israeli authorities started building the security fence on part of his land.
JAI also reported that Khalid would lose his land to Givat Ya’el – a planned Jewish community adjacent to Al Walaja.
We asked the IDF to comment on this report and received the following answer:
“In accordance with Israeli Supreme Court rulings regarding the rerouting of Israel’s security fence, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) transplanted trees from Mr. Na’el Khalil’s property to an adjacent plot, ensuring that he was able to continue working his land.
“The Israeli court authorities have previously denied several petitions seeking ownership of the land adjacent to the Palestinian village Al-Walajah by the Givat Ya’el community, a private building project in Judea.”
A field investigation in Al Walaja where we visited Na’el Whalid’s lands confirmed the IDF account of the situation.
Al Ahram and The Economist
A recent article in The Economist based on a report by left-wing Israeli watchdog group B’Tselem claimed Israel routinely arrests Palestinian minors at night, some as young as 11, and shows no mercy when they stand trial. To drive home its point, The Economist quoted Israeli settler Eran Segal as saying, “Israeli soldiers don’t maim enough Palestinians.” Asked to comment, Segal denied every saying such a thing. In fact he had told The Economist:
“If the IDF would have taken the incidents more seriously and had acted in a different way the stone throwing would have been a thing of the past.”
Egyptian paper Al Ahram outdid The Economist when it charged “Israel’s most aggressively racist government ever” with “prosecuting and imprisoning Palestinian children at will on bogus charges such as throwing stones.”
In a reaction, the Israeli Military Prosecutor’s Office stated that stone throwing is a criminal offense in Israel. Throwing stones can cause severe injuries and even – as has happened in the past – death.
Israeli law calls for the punishment of stone throwers, even if they are minors and regardless of their nationality or religion.
However, contrary to what was written in the Economist’s article, there are almost no cases where Palestinian minors under the age of 14 have been convicted for stone throwing.
The Military Prosecutor’s Office also stressed that a special court for minors has been established (Military Juvenile Court) which is meant to take care of the defense of the rights of minors. In addition, almost all suspects in the Juvenile Court are represented by counsel, which is contrary to the state of affairs in Israeli civil courts. Most of the trials take place within a rather short amount of time, and minors whose case has not been heard in a reasonable amount of time are often released.
The IDF tries to arrest the suspect as soon as possible after an incident has taken place. If this proves impossible, the military, for security reasons only, carries out arrests during night time. Minors are held in special wings of three prisons and their needs are met on an individual, case by case, basis. So there is no prosecution and imprisoning without due process, but, rather, a legal procedure that takes into account the age of the suspect.
The most shocking example of the distortions industry came from UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness during an interview with the Bethlehem-based Ma’an News Agency. Reacting to this interview, and a related UNRWA press release, we asked Gunness for additional data and information on the topic of home demolitions. UNRWA then sent us a report that only contained locations and dates of the West Bank demolitions. When asked for additional information about the demolitions, such as court orders, Gunness became extremely agitated, used crude language and demanded immediate publication of “the facts.”
Facts? Let’s examine this claim in the Ma’an interview:
“Many displacements are taking place where settlements are expanding and with it we are seeing an upturn in vicious attacks by Jewish settlers. Palestinians are being thrown off their ancestral lands to make way for settlers,” Gunness told Ma’an.
This suggests two things: First, that settlements are still expanding outside their municipal boundaries, and second that Jews are supplanting Palestinian Arabs.
As Gunness knows very well, since 2005 settlement expansion has only taken place within the existing zoning lines of the municipal boundaries. No Palestinian Arabs have been kicked off their land to be replaced by Jews. In fact, Gunness was referring here to Bedouins who are illegally squatting. An official with the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) told us that the Bedouin increasingly tend to camp in the vicinity of Jewish settlements and are often paid to do so by pro-Palestinian NGO’s.
In the same Ma’an interview Gunness claimed the following: “There is growing evidence that it (demolitions in Area C of the West Bank) is destroying the very fabric of these communities and ultimately contributing to a demographic shift which is changing the ethnic make-up of the West Bank.”
This suggests a slow “ethnic cleansing” of the Palestinian population on the West Bank.
Of course, Gunness is well aware of the fact that only 3% of the Palestinian population lives in Area C – most of them Bedouins, who mostly live in tents and are used to moving from place to place.
UNRWA’s own census from 2007 shows an average population growth of the Palestinian population on the West Bank of 2.5 percent per year.
But there was more. In an e-mail to Missing Peace Gunness wrote the following: “127 people expelled in Ma’aleh Nikhmas [sic] – displaced for settlement in the last few weeks. Is that enough?”
Really? The 127 Palestinians expelled from Ma’aleh Michmas “for [Jewish] settlement” were in fact Bedouins who decided to leave, as his own UNRWA press release states. There is no evidence that Ma’aleh Michmas residents took their place.
In fact, according to a report by the pro-Palestinian organization International Solidarity Movement, 16 Bedouin were evicted in the Ma’aleh Michmas area at the end of July.
This happened after they illegally camped within a closed military zone and received eviction orders two years ago.
This was not the first time Gunness was caught distorting the facts and engaging in an anti-Israel campaign. During the 2009 Gaza war he falsely accused Israel of firing at UNRWA convoys.
The new shocking aspect in this affair is that UNRWA now clearly interferes in politics and oversteps its current mandate, as defined by the UN:
“UNRWA’s contemporary mandate is to provide relief, human development and protection services to Palestine refugees and persons displaced by the 1967 hostilities in its fields of operation: Jordan, Lebanon, the Syrian Arab Republic, West Bank and the Gaza Strip.”
UNRWA’s mandate has been repeatedly renewed by the UN General Assembly. The current mandate runs till 30 June 2014.
What do the UNRWA investigations into West Bank building issues and violence between Jews and Arabs have to do with providing humanitarian services to displaced persons?
Gunness told us that UNRWA has a team of 12 investigators conducting research on settlement and building issues on a daily base. Got that? A UN organization designed to provide humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees is going after Israel’s building policies on the West Bank.
Instead of focusing on the plight of the refugees and their descendants in, for example, Lebanon, where the Palestinians living in refugee camps still are without basic human rights, UNRWA prefers to join the disinformation campaign against Israel.
It may be too late for Israel to repair the damage caused by this global disinformation campaign. That’s too bad because this is where many other campaigns like divestment and delegitimization start.
The Israeli government does not seem to grasp the severity of the situation and still doesn’t respond decisively to the endless flurry of distortions and outright false claims.
However, it is not too late to demand an immediate investigation into UNRWA’s participation in this cognitive war against the Jewish state. This affair, on top of earlier scandals in which UNRWA’s ties to Hamas were exposed, should finally lead to a complete overhaul of the way the UN deals with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Yochanan Visser is director of Missing Peace, an Israel-based public diplomacy organization operating in Europe. Sharon Shaked has a BA in Middle East Studies from the Hebrew University and is a researcher for Missing Peace.