One of the (many) infuriating features of TV news is the he-said-she-said nature of US journalism. Our news reporting isn't about trying to discern what's true in any particular story, it's about briefly airing what "both sides" have to say, and leaving it at that. As if separating fact from fiction is always so difficult and so controversial that journalists are better off not trying, sticking instead to some mythical "middle ground", even though the middle ground between someone who is telling the truth and someone who is telling a lie is also a lie.
For all its high reputation in this country, BBC News does the same thing in its I-P coverage. Whenever one of its reports touches on the issue of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the BBC always inserts a disclaimer along these lines: "The international community regards all Israel's settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this". And that's it. That's all the BBC will tell you about the subject. It leaves the viewer (or reader) with the impression that these are two valid arguments, and that the truth must be very complicated and probably lies in some grey area between the two.
Poor old BBC. If only there were some kind of legal framework it could refer to so that its viewers could be sufficiently well-informed to evaluate the competing claims over the legality of the settlements. If only there were some kind of international law that could tell us whether it's legal for an occupying power to settle its citizens in territory it holds under military occupation... like, for example, Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which unambiguously prohibits such an action. And if only there existed some kind of clear legal guidance about how this prohibition applies specifically to Israel's settlements... like for instance the International Court of Justice's ruling of 9 July 2004, which unambiguously confirmed that the territories occupied by Israel in June 1967 have the legal status of occupied territory, and that "Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, are illegal and an obstacle to peace and to economic and social development [... and] have been established in breach of international law."
If only such things existed, the BBC could refer to them when Palestinians and Israelis make competing claims about the legality of the settlements, and viewers could plainly understand whether the truth lies somewhere in the middle of two equally valid claims or whether someone is, you know, making stuff up.
BBC News showed the same weaselly determination to cling to some imaginary "middle ground" when it published a report on the refugees and the right of return last week:
The Israeli narrative of 1948 says the Palestinians left of their own accord; the Arab narrative says they were forced out.
The Israeli historian Tom Segev says the truth is somewhere in between."About half of something like 750,000 Arabs left and about half were expelled - so in a way both narratives are right," he told me.
Phew, thank goodness everyone is right and the BBC can report on the Palestinian refugees without having to dip its toe into anything controversial. Unfortunately, they manage to do it only by misrepresenting what the issue of Palestinian refugees is about. Regardless of how the BBC chooses to frame it, the Palestinian refugee question is not about what proportion left their homes because they were directly compelled to by Zionist militants as opposed to what proportion left because they feared what might happen if they stayed to face Zionist militants. That's a distinction that is meaningless in defining who is a refugee and what rights they have. Civilians who flee their homes in a time of armed conflict are guaranteed their right to go home, by international conventions that make no distinction between those who left because they personally experienced violence and those who might have left because they "only" feared it, e.g.:
Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.
Differentiating between these two refugee experiences would be of some use if international law also differentiated between them, i.e. if it gave refugees from one group the right to go home, but not the other. But it doesn't. They all have the right to go home. It's a right that we in the U.S. recognized and insisted upon in the case of East Timor and, quite explicitly, in Kosovo. It's a right that was taken for granted by Israelis who fled their homes in northern Israel in the Lebanon war of 2006. Those same Israelis would think you were insane if you told them that in fleeing their homes out of fear of Hizbullah rockets, they had forever relinquished their right to return. Yet for more than 60 years, the state of Israel has denied Palestinians who fled their homes the right to go back, in contravention of a body of international law which guarantees each of them the right to do just that.
- The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 10 December 1948, Article 13(2)
Everyone shall be free to leave any country, including his own… No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country.
- The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of 1966, Article 12, paras 1 & 4.
(The Nov 1999 Human Rights Committee General Comment on the ICPPR makes clear that in Article 12 “his own country” applies to … individuals whose country of nationality has been incorporated in or transferred to another national entity, whose nationality is being denied them.)
International protection for a refugee ceases only when he has …voluntarily re-established himself in the country which he left or outside which he remained or he is …able to return to the country of his former habitual residence
- (Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 1C, 28 July 1951)
[This Assembly] Resolves that the refugees [i.e. from Palestine] wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbours should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible…
- United Nations General Assembly Resolution 194 (III) of 11 December 1948.
The key issue in the Palestinian refugee problem is not about the immediate motivation of each refugee. It is that the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine made refugees of three-quarters of a million people, whom Israel has refused to allow home ever since - in contravention of international law - SIMPLY BECAUSE THEY'RE NOT JEWISH. The controversy's over whether Palestinian refugees have the same rights as any other refugees in the world, or whether Zionists enjoy the unique privilege of being allowed to displace and exclude people from land they currently control solely because those excluded are the wrong ethnic-religious "type" of people to be allowed to live in an artificially created, homogeneous "Jewish state". You wouldn't guess it from the BBC's coverage, but that is the heart of the Palestinian refugee issue.
So, well done to the BBC on managing to find some happy middle ground on the right of return, even if you have to resort to false framing of the refugee issue to manage it. Really, when your search for middle ground leads you so far off the subject that you end up missing the point altogether, maybe it's time to ask yourself what the middle ground is actually worth.