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The ABC gets settlements wrong, again

Aug 23, 2023 | Ahron Shapiro

Pnei Kedem outpost
Pnei Kedem outpost

Several months ago, the ABC’s Middle East correspondent Allyson Horn spent some three hours with a camera crew interviewing Australian-Israeli Michael Lourie, a co-founder of the settlement outpost of Pnei Kedem, in eastern Gush Etzion on the West Bank.

Only a few sentences of that interview ending up being used in a larger anti-settlement story framed around him that appeared in an ABC TV 7:30pm news segment and in an article published on the ABC website on July 30.

Horn’s report had numerous factual errors, misrepresentations of history, half-truths and other important omissions and examples of unprofessional journalism.

The fact that the stories contain these deficiencies despite their extended lead time (which became clear after I personally tracked down Mr. Lourie and fact-checked his part of the story myself), ironically means the reports say more about the ABC’s lack of objectivity in assembling them than anything worthwhile and informative about the subject matter the ABC is attempting to report on.

The purpose of this blog is to address some of what I see are the key failures contained in the reports.

 

Authorised settlements vs settlement outposts

Israel’s West Bank settlements came into existence with the authorisation of the Israeli government. By contrast, settlement outposts are smaller unauthorised makeshift communities, illegal under Israeli law, very often consisting of prefabricated trailers, usually set up in areas near official settlements. Outposts have been established by settler activists since the 1990s, without government approval.

It is not unusual for outposts to pop up practically overnight, get torn down by the IDF (seen as recently as August 14) only to be later rebuilt by activists, then torn down again in a cycle that may play itself out many times over.

There is no shortage of in-depth news stories about settlement outposts, people who live in them, and the legal and political aspects that surround them (especially in the Hebrew media). Horn’s piece, however, addresses them only superficially and cynically, and largely conflates the separate issue of settlements and outposts in the interests of deeming them all as illegal anyway.

Pnei Kedem’s main gate, according to Google Maps, is a six-minute walk from the main gate of Metzad, a government-sanctioned settlement established in 1984, and there are no Palestinian homes between the two. As such, the ABC’s digital editors should have paid closer attention to the Ha’aretz news article they link to about the legalisation of Pnei Kedem, which better illustrates the nearness of Pnei Kedem to Metzad – an important detail.

As Ha’aretz wrote, “apart from [former settlement outpost] Mevo’ot Yericho, which [was founded as a settlement in 1999 but] was [officially] declared a settlement three years ago and is only now being legalized, the other outposts will be legalized as neighborhoods of existing settlements despite being administered separately.”

While the ABC’s reports describe Pnei Kedem as a “recently legalised settlement”, on August 9, a story on Israel Hayom’s Hebrew website revealed that, in fact, despite government announcements of intention to legalise, the legalisation process for Pnei Kedem and eight other settlement outposts still hasn’t happened.

 

International law still not settled on settlements

The ABC’s journalists and newsreaders repeatedly drove home the point that settlements “are illegal under international law,” stating this as accepted fact.

Horn’s ABC website article states: “under international law, [Lourie’s] home is illegal”.  The ABC links to Amnesty International’s website giving that politicised NGO’s interpretation.

In both the TV and online versions of the story, Dror Sadot, a spokesperson for the left-wing Israel NGO B’Tselem, asserts: ”The international law is very clear. You cannot take… citizens of an occupier and move it to an occupied territory.”

But Sadot has no relevant background to serve as an expert on what international law has to say about anything. Her resume includes having served as the spokesperson for Joint List party leader Ayman Odeh, of the extreme-Left Hadash party faction, before working as a spokesperson for B’Tselem.

Defence of the legality of Israeli West Bank settlements has been made many times over the years by both legal scholars and international statesmen and women, and is well-documented.

In a separate document, I have linked to a few recent and older examples of both.

Laypeople, like B’Tselem’s Sadot, who reduce it to slogans and claim it’s all “very clear”, are simply peddling politics as law. The same applies to ABC journalists.

 

ABC’s unbalanced reporting on settlements not shared by SBS or its broadcast partners

The ABC would like you to believe that its dogged insistence on presenting it as incontrovertible fact that settlements are illegal under international law is a defensible, mainstream position for a public broadcaster to have.

In truth, the ABC staking itself to an absolute position on this controversial and disputed issue contrasts sharply with how the issue is handled at Australia’s other taxpayer-funded broadcaster, SBS.

For example, an SBS TV “World News” (June 20) report noting that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is “deeply alarmed by the Israeli Government’s decision to speed up the construction of settlements in the West Bank” included the important qualification, “many countries deem the West Bank to be occupied territory, while Israel considers it to be disputed.”

On June 22, 24 and 27, SBS TV “World News” again was careful to ensure the different perspectives were heard.

In stark contrast to the ABC report, a report on SBS TV “World News” (July 1) noting Australia, Britain and Canada had criticised an Israeli announcement that 5,700 units will be built in West Bank settlements, also included a statement from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, saying, “it is critical to understand that a Jewish civilian presence in the disputed territories has never been the cause of the conflict. It is a symptom of it. This conflict will endure until the Palestinians can come to terms with Israel’s legitimacy and permanence.”

SBS reporter Gareth Boreham added, “Settlement expansion is one of the most contentious issues in the region. Many countries deem the West Bank to be occupied territory, while Israel considers it to be disputed territory.”

The ABC’s one-sided approach to the legality of Israel’s West Bank settlements is also not shared by other public broadcasters in other Western democratic countries, such as the UK’s BBC, US-based National Public Radio (NPR) and Germany’s Deutsche Welle.

In 2020, for example, the BBC used this language: “The vast majority of the international community considers the settlements illegal under international law, though Israel and the US… dispute this interpretation.”

In an article last December about the Netanyahu Government’s policies on the settlement issue,  NPR wrote, equivocally: “Most of the international community considers Israel’s West Bank settlements illegal and an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.”

Even in Germany – a country whose government itself has claimed Israel’s settlements to be illegal under international law – the public broadcaster Deutsche Welle went to great lengths to help readers better understand Israel’s perspective in an article from February 2023, writing: “The Israeli government has argued with this characterization [of settlements being illegal under international law], saying it disregards history and ignores the unique legal circumstances of the settlement situation,” and linking to a relevant position paper on the Israeli Foreign Ministry website.

Finally, the ABC itself has been inconsistent with its handling of the legality of Israel’s West Bank settlements depending on whether the story was taken from the wires, for example, or produced by ABC staff.

In 2019, the ABC ran an article from Reuters on its website that at least made space for Israel’s perspective: “The Palestinians and many countries consider settlements to be illegal under the Geneva conventions that bar settling on land captured in war. Israel disputes this, citing security needs and biblical, historical and political connections to the land.”

In December 2016, in an online story attributed to “Wires”, the ABC reported that “Israel disputes that settlements are illegal and says their final status should be determined in talks on Palestinian statehood”. Though an unattributed “explainer”-themed article written by the ABC that ran five days later used much more definitive terminology, claiming, “The Israeli settlements are considered illegal under international law, which is something Israel denies.”

Yet in 2017, an ABC article reporting on then-Australian Labor leader Bill Shorten’s criticism of settlements, written by two of the ABC’s Australian political reporters passed no judgement over their legality at all.

 

Horn’s misdirection on “Judea and Samaria”

In both versions of Horn’s ABC story, she says “Judea and Samaria is how religious Jews refer to the parcel of land recognised internationally as the West Bank.” While neither the first half nor the second half of this sentence are completely wrong, they’re both half-truths that leave out important context.

This may appear to be a small point, but it’s an important part of Horn’s introduction that portrays Lourie essentially as a religious zealot, and it also casts doubt on claims by Jews to have rights to live in Judea and Samaria/West Bank as a once-exiled people indigenous to the land.

Firstly, it isn’t only religious Jews who refer to the area as Judea and Samaria. Colloquial Modern Hebrew has never used the direct Hebrew translation of the term West Bank (hagada hama’arvit) to refer to the area, but rather Yehuda v’Shomron (Judea and Samaria). Whether an Israeli is religious or secular, they all use these place names when referring to this region.

Secondly, and what’s more important in the historical context, is that Judea and Samaria were the accepted English place names for these regions worldwide until the Jordanian Army occupied territories on the west bank of the Jordan River in the course of the 1948 war.

Indeed, the gradual adoption of the capitalised placename “West Bank” didn’t happen overnight and early on required additional clarification to explain the new terminology (for an example, see this  December 1955 article for the New York Times about unrest in Amman by journalist Osgood Caruthers [State Library of Victoria library card required]).

Before this time, Australians called the region by no other names than Judea and Samaria, too.

For example, during World War I, The Kia-Ora Coo-ee – the official magazine of the Australian and New Zealand Forces in Egypt, Palestine, Salonica and Mesopotamia – published an article titled “The Samaria Smash”, reporting from the field about ANZAC successes over the Turkish army.

A passage from the story reads: “Flying over Samaria you appreciate the opportunities which this retreating army offered to the airmen.”  The report continued, “The stony hills are not so rugged as in Judaea.”

 

Horn puts words in Lourie’s mouth

In the TV report, Horn says, “Jews like Michael Lourie believe the land was given to them by God” – but she doesn’t show Lourie on camera actually saying this.

What Lourie does say is, “The Arabs can stay here as long as they understand that the Jewish people have come home.” Hardly the same thing.

 

Other factual inaccuracies in the report

Claim: “Israel is rapidly expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank”…

“This year already a record number of housing units have been approved in the West Bank, in line with the Netanyahu government’s plan for massive settlement expansion.”

Fact: While planning approvals were increased, because of high interest rates, soaring inflation and dramatic increases in the cost of living, actual housing starts in the settlements – the only statistic that truly reflects whether a settlement is expanding or not – is at the slowest pace in 13 years, with no recovery in demand in sight.

Claim: “new settlements have been approved year on year.”

Fact: No new settlements were approved by any Israeli government from 1999 until 2017, when, in a deal with settlers to evacuate the illegal Amona outpost, the Netanyahu Government of the time agreed to resettle the evacuees on nearby state land, in a settlement that was to be named Amichai. This ABC story, like so many others in the past, absurdly conflates the term “settlement” to apply to every approved housing unit.

 

The Ahmed Abu Shanab incident: Trigger a security check, get a security check

A significant part of the Horn story is the apparent staging of Israeli soldiers carrying out a security check of a Palestinian, Ahmed Abu Shanab, who has come to work his field near a settlement. In the TV report, Horn says a settler summons the IDF to come to the area, and the Palestinian is questioned “despite Mr. Abu Shanab doing nothing wrong.”

The online story elaborates slightly: “The settler calls the Israeli Army, who do not accuse Mr Abu Shanab of committing any offences but demand to see his identification papers.”

What Horn does not explain is that any Palestinian who tends fields directly adjacent to a settlement holds a permit from the Civil Administration (COGAT) to work that field (not merely “identification papers”). While later on, Horn mentions a story of settlers being shot at by Palestinian gunmen, she does not make the connection between the security risk of an unidentified Palestinian approaching a settlement and the questioning of Mr Abu Shanab. Ironically, in her story, the security system worked perfectly. An unidentified Palestinian approached the settlement, triggering the security response, Abu Shanab’s permit was checked, and he was then free to continue tending to his trees.

Horn failed to carry out due diligence as a journalist by giving only the Palestinian reaction to the incident, and noting only that the IDF patrol that showed up to do the security check refused to comment.

Surely, by now, Horn cannot be unaware that soldiers on duty are forbidden under IDF regulations to give interviews.

 

Conclusion

Lourie told AIJAC that he felt he was portrayed unfairly, the few words that the ABC used were taken out of context. Even if that weren’t the case, to portray settlement outpost resident Lourie as the typical settler – and the only Australian living in the West Bank that they chose to interview and defend the settlement movement as a whole despite the fact he never claimed to be a spokesman for anything – is unfair to not only Lourie but the ABC’s audience.

Like the settlement outpost it superficially centred the story on, by following the playbook of left-wing NGOs like B’Tselem and Peace Now, this ABC story isolated its reporting from key facts about settlements.

By leaving out facts that don’t fit the story’s narrative – such as the current settlement housing slump and the socially diverse populations living in settlement blocs close to the Green Line that typify the vast majority of settlers – the ABC avoided showing its news audience the reality that is far more complex than the simplistic morality play the segment would suggest.

Disclaimer: In the above story, I’ve provided useful context for the ABC report’s focus on the settlement outpost of Pnei Kedem. However, it should be stated here that AIJAC takes no stance on West Bank settlements, other than to point out that it is one of the Oslo Accords’ final status issues that are to be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians.

AIJAC has certainly never supported settlement outpost building activity, which is contrary to Israeli law. Such activity also undermines Israel’s valid claims in regard to the fate of its settlement blocs in future final status negotiations with the Palestinians.

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