Al Jazeera shows its true colours in coverage of the Trump peace plan


No one who has followed for any time the Qatari government-controlled media organisation Al Jazeera should be deluded by its boast to offer “incisive analysis” and “stories … built on a foundation of honesty, fairness, balance, independence, and diversity” – yet too many seem inclined to buy the network’s spin about itself. This includes the ABC, which uses Al Jazeera content frequently.

The recently released Trump peace plan provides another opportunity to witness the hollowness of Al Jazeera‘s claims of unbiased professionalism in relation to both its coverage of Israel/Palestine, and to the journalists it continues to employ.

The unveiling of the plan, formally titled “Peace to Prosperity: a Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People”, naturally gives rise to a great many perspectives and judgements. Unsurprisingly, Al Jazeera chose to focus almost entirely on the negative ones. Its online news dedicates individual articles to the plan’s rejection by, for example, the Palestinians (of course), the Arab League, the EU, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and Iran (which got in early in June last year), whereas its reporting on those Arab League members and other states which expressed openness or even positivity towards the proposals was far less prominent.

Opinion highlights Al Jazeera‘s extremism

But it was in analysis and opinion that Al Jazeera‘s biases and basic lack of professionalism really made themselves shiningly obvious. While it’s acceptable for opinion pieces to be robust and one-sided, it hardly enhances Al Jazeera’s reputation for balance when its senior political analyst Marwan Bishara could easily be mistaken for an activist issuing a call to arms:

“Israel may continue to use brutal force against the Palestinians, but like every colonising power in the past century, it will not be able to subdue a determined indigenous population with violence. There is a demand for a change of vision … that transcends fetishist archaeology and sacred sites to honour sacred human rights for all. It is time for David to face up to Goliath, for liberty to overcome occupation, for democracy to beat fanaticism, and for justice to defeat and uproot racism. Thirty years after apartheid was dismantled in South Africa, it is time it is done away with in Palestine as well.”

Incidentally, someone should have reminded Bishara that David was a Jew and Goliath the Philistine.

Days earlier Bishara had penned an op-ed that dubbed the plan “farcical”, its name “pompous”, its substance “absurd”, its author a fanatical, “unfit”, “ambitious man boy”, and regurgitated the standard tropes of Palestinian propaganda by labelling Israel as “repressive” “inhumane”, and “apartheid”. Writing as apoplectic as this undermines any claim to be analytical, whether incisive or otherwise.

Even worse was the contribution of his colleague, TV anchor Jamal Rayyan, who, almost unbelievably, took to Twitter in a tweet (since deleted) which suggested the formation of hit squads to target those Arab leaders not sharing his level of disdain for the plan. He asked “would you be in favour of forming Palestinian militias, highly trained ‘special squads’ to deal with Arab figures who undermine Palestinian National Liberation Movement, and deter their countries?”

Rayyan has form. In September 2018 he tweeted the myth that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who removed Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi from office in a coup, was the son of a Jewish mother and therefore “is a first-class Jew and this explains his betrayal of his boss”.

On February 1 this year he tweeted in English, “Thank you @realDonaldTrump for the ‘Deal of the Century’ which awakened and reunited the feelings of Arab and Islamic peoples towards Jerusalem and Palestine, and revealed masks about the faces of treacherous Arab regimes such as Saudi and the UAE, deceived us over decade.”

In 2018, Rayyan had uploaded a clip on Youtube of himself praising the terrorist organisations Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and calling for the ethnic cleansing of all of Palestine of “Zionists”. He proclaimed: “Palestine will return. Palestine is like the sea. It will spew out that which is foreign. That is what we have been taught by nature. The Zionist entity is a foreign body on Palestinian and Arab land – foreign in terms of culture, language, religion, and traditional customs. They will never succeed in changing our identity. They are foreigners, and foreigners are destined to be expelled by their surroundings. They will go back to where they came from.”

Despite Al Jazeera’s staff code of professional ethics and conduct forbidding staff to establish blogs “to express… views and opinions in contradiction to Al Jazeera’s standards, ethics or values”, it seems the organisation has no problem with such tweets or videos and has continued employing Rayyan.

As his Twitter account reveals a prolific, possibly obsessive, habit of posting pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel and anti-US tweets often several times a day, one can only conclude that his employer does not regard this behaviour as breaching its code of ethics. And this is perhaps not as surprising as it may seem, since Al Jazeera serves Qatari foreign policy, and the Qatari monarchy is pro-Muslim Brotherhood, pro-Hamas, and involved in an extended conflict with other Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. (This is not to say that nothing the Qataris do can be helpful – earlier this week the influential former Qatari Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, raised the possibility of a non-aggression pact between Israel and the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, plus Egypt, Jordan and possibly Morocco.)

News is often just wrong

Returning to its online news coverage of the peace plan, Al Jazeera coverage is often just factually wrong. The network  published an article on February 1 which referred to the Trump plan’s statement on Jerusalem’s holy sites, which seemed pretty clear with respect to the retention of the status quo:

“Given [Israel’s] commendable record [safeguarding the religious sites of all and maintaining a religious status quo] for more than half a century, as well as the extreme sensitivity regarding some of Jerusalem’s holy sites, we believe that this practice should remain, and that all of Jerusalem’s holy sites should be subject to the same governance regimes that exist today. In particular, the status quo at the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif should continue uninterrupted. Jerusalem’s holy sites should remain open and available for peaceful worshippers and tourists of all faiths. People of every faith should be permitted to pray on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, in a manner that is fully respectful to their religion, taking into account the times of each religion’s prayers and holidays, as well as other religious factors.”

Yet despite quoting from the above, in her misleading and at times factually inaccurate article, Arwa Ibrahim interviews several Palestinians, all of whom are afforded space to misrepresent the plan as one designed to deny them access to Al-Aqsa Mosque, atop the Temple Mount.

But even more egregiously, Ibrahim provides blatantly false information as background to the story writing “in 1947, the United Nations drew up a plan to divide Palestine between Jews and Palestinians, leading to the creation of Israel. Since then, the Al-Aqsa compound has been under UN administration.” This claim is just wrong. The Partition Plan did propose the creation of not one but two new states – one Jewish, one Arab – in the region formerly part of the Ottoman Empire, with  Jerusalem was to be a separate entity international regime administered by the UN. However, Arab nations rejected the Partition Plan, invaded the new Jewish state in 1948, and as a result of the war they initiated, Jerusalem was divided, with Jordan taking control of east Jerusalem including the Old City. No UN role in Jerusalem was ever established.

When Israel captured the Old City in 1967, it allowed the Islamic religious trust (generally referred to as the Waqf), funded by Jordan, to continue its administration of the compound. The UN does not play any part in this, and never has.

One of those quoted by Ibrahim, student Noor Abdellatif, ridiculed the US President for mispronouncing the Mosque’s name. What, then, would she make of Al Jazeera’s sloppy coverage, which illustrates an article about angry worshippers at Friday prayers, sub-titled “Palestinians at Al-Aqsa vow to fight Trump’s plan”, with two photos not of Al-Aqsa Mosque but of the more familiar second shrine on the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock?

Meanwhile, a staple of misinformation campaigns about Israel is a series of maps, sometimes dubbed “the maps that lie”, that fabricate a narrative of shrinking Palestinian land ownership at the hands of Israel, based on the lie that all of British mandate Palestine was “Palestinian land”, and any land now either controlled by Israel or owned by Jews is therefore stolen from Palestinians.

Despite this mendacity having been debunked numerous times elsewhere, Al Jazeera continues to use versions of the maps to illustrate its coverage of the Trump peace plan. For example in its online story “What does Trump’s plan propose for Palestinian territories?”, published on January 29, a series of five maps purports to show “Palestine: land loss since 1917”. The first map depicts present-day Israel and the Palestinian territories as having been entirely under “Palestinian control” in 1917, even though marked as “British Mandate Palestine”. This is undoubtedly meant to falsely suggest that the people who today call themselves the Palestinians had complete control/ownership of the land. In fact, at the time, the Arabs who then lived in the land had very little ownership of it, and even less control. The untruths contained in this illustration are too numerous to outline here but, as mentioned, have been dealt with elsewhere.

A similar sleight of hand is attempted in Arwa Ibrahim’s piece “’A joke’: Palestinians slam Trump’s proposal for new capital”, published on January 31, which links to a video version of the series of maps with Al Jazeera assistant program editor Alexi O’Brien intoning:

“When we look at President Trump’s proposed plan, it’s important to remember how Palestinian territory has vanished over the past century, and if we wind back to before the British Mandate for Palestine in 1917 this was the map, just 3% of the population were Jews, but over the next 30 years of British rule Jewish immigration increased. And when the Mandate expired in 1948 the State of Israel was created, and its military expelled at least 750,000 Palestinians from their homeland. Then during the 1967 war, Israel expanded its territory into the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, occupying all of historic Palestine…”

The Ottoman Empire, First World War, UN Partition Plan, 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and any factual demographic and landowning details are just a few of the trivial details omitted from this false “history” – on top of a false claim vastly underestimating the Jewish population of Palestine in 1917 by more than half.

Far from telling stories “built on a foundation of honesty”, when it comes to Israel and Palestine, Al Jazeera and many of those in its employ revert time and again to presenting not news, but propaganda, myths and lies. Yet many, including the ABC, close their eyes to the obvious and continue to treat this government-controlled network from an authoritarian monarchy with a poor human rights record as a source of professional news coverage.