Media agencies annex 200,000 settlers
Jonathan Cook, The Electronic Intifada, 3 June 2009
Talks between US President Barack Obama and the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships over the past two weeks have unleashed a flood of media interest in the settlements Israel has been constructing on Palestinian territory for more than four decades.
The US president's message is unambiguous: the continuing growth of the settlements makes impossible the establishment of a Palestinian state, and therefore peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
It is one he is expected to repeat when he addresses the Muslim world from Cairo tomorrow.
The implication of Obama's policy is that, once Israel has frozen the settlements, it will have to begin dismantling a significant number of them to restore territory needed for a Palestinian state.
Understandably, in an era of rolling news many media outlets have been scrambling for instant copy on the settlers, relying chiefly on the international news agencies, such as Reuters, the Associated Press (AP) and Agence France-Presse (AFP).
These organizations with staff based in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv churn out a stream of reports picked up by newspapers and broadcasters around the globe.
So, given their influence on world opinion and the vital importance of the settlement issue in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, can readers depend on the news agencies to provide fair coverage? The answer, sadly, is: no.
Even on the most basic fact about the settlers -- the number living on occupied Palestinian territory -- the agencies regularly get it wrong.
There are about half a million Jews living illegally on land occupied by Israel in the 1967 war. Give or take the odd few thousand (Israel is slow to update its figures), there are nearly 300,000 settlers in the West Bank and a further 200,000 in East Jerusalem.
Sounds simple. So what is to be made of this fairly typical line from a report issued by AFP last week: "More than 280,000 settlers currently live in settlements dotted throughout the Palestinian territory that Israel captured during the 1967 Six Day War"?
Or this from AP: "The US considers the settlements -- home to nearly 300,000 Israelis -- obstacles to peace because they are built on captured territory the Palestinians claim for a future state"?
Where are the missing 200,000 settlers?
The answer is that they are to be found in East Jerusalem, which increasingly means for agency reporters that they are not considered settlers at all.
In many reports, East Jerusalem's settler population is left out of the equation. But even when the news agencies do note the number of settlers there, they are invariably referenced separately from those in the West Bank or described simply as "Jews."
Worse, this misleading approach has had a trickle-down effect. Major newspapers' own staff make the same basic errors.
Thus, The New York Times blithely reported last week that the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, had made a "brusque call on Wednesday for a complete freeze of construction in settlements on the West Bank."
In reality, she had said that the US president wanted "to see a stop to settlements -- not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions." The implication was that the White House wants a freeze on all settlements, including in East Jerusalem.
This is not linguistic nitpicking.
Israel's attempt to differentiate between the status of the West Bank and that of East Jerusalem, even though these adjacent territories are equally Palestinian and were both captured by Israel in 1967, lies at the heart of the conflict and its resolution.
Israel's official position, accepted by its politicians of the left and right, is that in 1967 Israel "unified" Jerusalem by annexing its eastern, Palestinian half, and made the city the "eternal capital of the Jewish state."
The 250,000 Palestinians of East Jerusalem -- given a status of "permanent residents" rather than Israeli citizens -- are not regarded by Israelis as living under occupation.
Further, after 1967, Israel redrew the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem to incorporate a huge swathe of the West Bank stretching almost down to the Jordan River. Annexation became a way not only to grab East Jerusalem but also to build settlements on a much larger area of land to sabotage Palestinian hopes of statehood.
Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, declared recently of East Jerusalem that it "is not a settlement and we'll continue to build there."
That view was shared by Ehud Olmert, who ordered thousands of homes for Jews to be built in the Palestinian part of the city in his final months in office, despite commitments he made for a settlement freeze at the Annapolis peace conference in late 2007.
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