Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Letter to Channel 9’s “60 Minutes” regarding the story “The Great Divide”

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The following is a letter sent by AIJAC on July 6 to the Executive Producer of Channel 9’s current affairs program “60 Minutes” - expressing concern about the segment “The Great Divide”, broadcast on June 25. We have yet to receive a reply:

 

I am writing to express our profound disappointment in the "60 Minutes" report “The Great Divide”, presented by Liam Bartlett, that was broadcast on June 25. 

A narrative that accuses Israel of refusing to end its control of the West Bank but never mentions Israel’s repeated offers that would do so and directly says Palestinian terrorism is a result of Israeli settlements – described as an “ongoing land grab” - amounts to distortion of facts and history unworthy of a distinguished current affairs program like “60 Minutes”.

Instead of taking the opportunity to inform your viewers of the real impediments to both peace and the creation of a Palestinian state, the report rested on a false intellectual premise and relied on easily disproved allegations to justify its lack of context and misleading assertions presented as fact. 

It is intellectually deceitful to give the impression that what viewers saw was the daily experience of Palestinians on 40 percent of the West Bank that is under Palestinian Authority administrative control.

For over 20 years, more than 95 percent of Palestinians have been ruled by their own leaders and Parliament – a Parliament which unfortunately has not seen fit to hold elections since 2006, led by a President, Mahmoud Abbas, whose four-year term ended in 2009. Viewers would have shaken their heads in horror at this shocking democratic deficit, if they knew about it – but of course they were told none of this by “60 Minutes”. 

The claims about the life of Bethlehem teen Laith Alayassa were in large part simply false. It is not true that “travel for Palestinian families between different places on the West Bank is severely restricted by Israeli checkpoints” and Laith “is confined mostly to the streets of Bethlehem”. There are few if any Israeli checkpoints between these cities at present. Indeed, in January, US documentary filmmaker Ami Horowitz posted a video of himself being driven “hundreds of miles” throughout the PA in a Palestinian registered car and never encountering a checkpoint. 

Also false was the claim that Bethlehem was “suffocated, surrounded by more than twenty Israeli settlements.” There are settlements near Bethlehem, but not 20, and it definitely is not surrounded. There are few settlements south or southwest of the city, only Arab towns and villages. 

Also false were many of claims made in the statement that Laith lives in “a world of deprivation. He can’t enjoy what other teenagers take for granted, like a trip to the beach or the movies. And he’s not allowed to cross the security barrier to go to Israel without Israel’s say so.” The claims about movies is simply false. There are at least half a dozen cinemas in Bethlehem, including an IMAX cinema. Further, as noted, he is also free to travel to other West Bank cities, which also have cinemas. 

As for the claim about the beach, and his inability to “to cross the security barrier to go to Israel without Israel’s say so,” this is true also of Australia. He cannot enter Australia without Australia’s permission either if he wishes to go to the beach. This is the normal situation for all countries – non-citizens wishing to enter need permission. Moreover, tens of millions of children worldwide live in landlocked countries where they cannot go to the beach without permission to cross the border into another country – no one regards these children as therefore living in “deprivation.” The attempt to present it as such in this case does not meet standards of elementary journalistic fairness. 

The report included obligatory shots of the small section of the security barrier made out of concrete to give the impression that it affects the daily lives of a majority of Palestinians, which again is false. Only about 3 per cent of the fence is constructed out of concrete slabs.

Similarly untrue or distorted were the claims made about settlements, such as “Fifty years after they captured the West Bank, Israel is digging in, building more and more settlements, carving up land where Palestinians had hoped to create their state.”

The claim that Israel is “building more and more settlements” is just completely false. Israel recently announced construction of the first new settlement in 25 years – in other words, no new settlements have been built in that time.

Similarly claims about an “ongoing land grab” and claims settlements are “carving up land where Palestinians had hoped to create their state” are also, at best, highly misleading.  

After 50 years of construction in the West Bank, Israeli settlements cover less than 2 cent of the West Bank. Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat admitted to this fact in an Arabic radio interview in November 2011. 

The BBC’s website also accepts this statistic, stating that “Since 1967, Israel has pursued a policy of building settlements on the West Bank. These cover about 2% of the area of the West Bank”. 

But, instead of the truth, viewers were shown a map of the West Bank with dots representing settlements spreading out cancer-like to give an incorrect impression that a Palestinian state is no longer viable. 

Moreover, the majority of those settlements are in blocs that even the Palestinian Authority has conceded in past negotiations (2000, 2001, 2007-8, and 2013-14) will be retained by Israel in any peace deals, with land swaps compensating the Palestinians. 

Those deals required the removal of many of the smaller outlying settlements. No new settlements have been built since those offers, so the map of settlements cannot represent a new barrier to statehood as claimed.

In 2015, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas admitted on TV that he rejected “out of hand” Israeli PM Ehud Olmert proposal in 2008 to create a Palestinian state made up of the equivalent of 100 per cent of the West Bank, Gaza and a share of east Jerusalem, with all settlements in areas of the new Palestinian state to be removed.

This is the same Palestinian leader who rejected peace talks in 2009/10 when Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu froze settlement construction as a goodwill gesture so peace talks could begin and ended peace talks in 2014 at the point that hard decisions needed to be made.

Why were viewers not told of the similar offers of a Palestinian state made in 2000 and 2001 that PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat also rejected and then responded to by launching the Second Intifada in which more than 1,000 Israelis were murdered? 

Why were viewers not told that many of the security measures, including the security fence, were only introduced during the height of the Second Intifada. In fact, the Second Intifada was not mentioned. In 2002, the year before construction on the fence began, 457 Israelis were murdered in terrorist attacks, the majority by terrorists coming into Israel from the West Bank. In 2009, 8 Israelis were killed in such terrorism. 

Does "60 Minutes" not accept that even now, 16 years after 9/11, that we in the West, not just Israel, have needed to adopt ever greater levels of security that negatively affect our daily lives? 

Also grossly unprofessional and misleading was the statement:

“Nearly forty Israelis have been stabbed to death around the country in the past 18 months. The deadly response from Israel has claimed 250 Palestinian lives.”

The fact is that the more than 40 Israelis who you identified as being stabbed by Palestinians were innocent victims. 

The overwhelming majority of the 250 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces were perpetrators stopped in the act of trying to kill, or in violent clashes they initiated with Israeli security forces. They were not killed by an Israeli “response” – implying this was some sort of revenge or retaliation - but in Israeli self-defence, in circumstances where virtually any security force around the world, including Australia’s, would likely do the same thing when faced with a religious-motivated attacker in the act of carrying out terrorist murders in which the attacker intends to be killed as well.

May we remind you that NSW police officers shot dead Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar in October 2015 after he had killed Curtis Cheng and launched an attack on Police HQ in Parramatta.

So the claim about the Palestinian deaths being an Israeli “response” was just incorrect, and the entire claim was completely misleading and unprofessional.

Most worrying was the tendency in the story to treat terrorism as understandable – as a reaction to Israel’s “ongoing land grab.”

Is "60 Minutes" going to broadcast a report that rationalises and justifies the Lindt Café siege or Manchester attack as justifiable attacks on the West in response to Western policy? No – but apparently this is acceptable with respect to terror in Israel. 

Completely absent from your report was any significant mention of the industry of terror in Palestinian society where religious leaders, politicians, even childrens’ television shows, promote a culture that endorses murdering Israelis and Jews as the highest form of patriotism and where compromise with Israel is treason. 

Maybe viewers would have benefitted from hearing the Palestinian Authority adviser Dr Zumlot being asked to explain why his government pays out millions of dollars to the families of terrorists who have killed Israelis. But of course, he was not asked.

Also questionable was the extensive time given to the paid professional political activist Yehuda Shaul from the radical left organisation “Breaking the Silence” without explaining his organisation relies on anonymous and unprovable allegations, many of which do not hold up under closer scrutiny.

For instance, Shaul strongly implied that Israelis can move freely throughout Hebron but Palestinians cannot. The reverse is true – Israelis are confined to a very few streets, but cannot enter the rest of Hebron. Palestinian entry to some of those streets is restricted, but they are free to move around the other 95% of the city, where Jews may not enter.

While a Hebron settler quoted in the segment did explain this reality, Bartlett had already characterised the settlers as “hardcore”, framing them as the problem and making viewers more likely to reject his absolutely true claim.

The religious significance of Hebron as the resting place of Judaism’s patriarchs and matriarchs went unmentioned. Also unmentioned was the history of a Jewish community in Hebron that dates back thousands of years before Israel’s foundation, but which was destroyed in a pogrom orchestrated by Arab leaders in 1929 on the completely false pretext that Jews were planning on seizing control of the Temple Mount. 69 Jews were murdered and the remainder of the community driven out.

We could go on but these are some of the more egregious examples in a segment that lacked historical context, nuance, and contemporary details that your viewers deserved to be told but which were denied. 
  
Bartlett’s online article on the “60 Minutes” facebook page was even less defensible than the broadcast. Accusing Israel of “practising apartheid” is not only factually untrue - all citizens of Israel, regardless of ethnicity or religion, have full, equal and democratic rights, and the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has recently made it clear he views such “apartheid” claims as destructive and untrue - but is the terminology of a political activist, not a reporter. 

With almost 500,000 Syrians killed in Muslim on Muslim violence in the last six years in a conflict that does not involve Israel, for Bartlett to further contend that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “is the axis upon which the majority of [Middle Eastern politics] revolves” fairly leads to concerns about the depth and accuracy of the coverage as a whole.  

We request that “60 Minutes” publish an on-air correction of the numerous factual errors in the report. We also request that “60 Minutes” explain what oversight measures will be put in place to ensure such unprofessional reporting does not recur.

Dr. Colin Rubenstein AM
Executive Director
Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC)

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