Sophie’s House of Cards

Sophie's House of Cards

Government authorities around the world demolish illegally built dwellings all the time.

Only when it involves Palestinians in east Jerusalem does it become a major news event – according to the ABC’s new Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill.

Reporting for ABC Radio “PM” (June 4), McNeill looked at the Jerusalem municipality’s demolition of a house built in east Jerusalem by Najat Abu Khalid for her recently engaged son.

McNeill’s story worked from a well-worn “script” that Israel on the one hand supposedly systematically demolishes Palestinian homes built illegally, whilst on the other refuses to issue building permits to Palestinians. It also strongly implied the unfairness of actions such as demolitions was the ultimate source of Palestinian terrorism.

Host Mark Colvin’s introduction to the story set the scene, claiming “there are few worse sources of friction in Jerusalem than the building and demolition of houses in the city’s east”.

Yet according to Colvin, “the mayor’s office says there have been 15 demolitions in east Jerusalem so far this year”. These numbers surely make the story an astounding beat up.

As Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat explained in a 2010 speech, there are an estimated 20,000 illegal buildings in east Jerusalem’s Arab neighbourhoods.

Over the preceding decade the municipality had carried out “about 100” demolitions each year. Of these, “forty per cent of the cases were of Jewish buildings and 60 per cent of Arab buildings”.

None of this easily locatable qualitative information was presented to listeners.

Much of the report was dedicated to an allegation that one resident was pushed by an Israeli police officer and knocked down during the demolition as seen on cellphone footage – in unclear circumstances and with little ABC effort to clarify them.

At the beginning of the story McNeill implied a permit to build was sought saying, “the family did not get approval to build from the Israeli-run Jerusalem municipality” (emphasis added).

Only towards the end did McNeill let us hear an Israeli spokesman explain the house was “erected on a path in an area where construction is prohibited and…without any reference to or proof of its stability” or let us know that the family had not even bothered to apply for the necessary approval because, as Najat’s brother-in-law said, “they don’t give us never.”

Of course, the truth about east Jerusalem building is quite different.

In a 2003 study, scholar Justus Reid Weiner explained that the Palestinian Authority “enforce[s a] boycott of the Jerusalem municipality” which is why “more Arabs do not file applications”.

Moreover, “the percentage of applications that result in the issuance of a building permit is virtually identical in Arab and Jewish neighborhoods.”

McNeill’s report concluded with Najat’s brother-in-law saying, “when my son sees you demolishing his house when he is just about to get married, then you are the ones who are going to be creating attackers”. The ABC emphasised this point with a sub-header on the story online “Demolitions ‘creating attackers'”

Apparently inconvenient facts must be ignored when you want to create a narrative that Israeli oppression is what turns Palestinians into potential terrorists.

Allon Lee