Emanuel Miller – Five Must-Know Facts for Reporters in Israel
Being a journalist can often be a thankless task, and when reporting from a place as complex and fraught as the Middle East, it’s understandable that journalists occasionally make honest errors. However, with tensions already running high, reporters in Israel need to be consistently responsible and accurate. Factual errors – whether willful, careless or innocent – can fuel distrust, inflame extremism, and provoke real hatred.
Perhaps even more importantly, the media inform public opinion. The introduction and spread of inaccurate information leads to unfortunate misconceptions, and can end with people drawing severely unfounded conclusions.
In order to assist writers of all kinds, including journalists, bloggers and social media users, endeavoring to cover developments relating to Israel, here’s a useful list of five simple issues every writer should know about.
1. Israel’s capital – Jerusalem or Tel Aviv?
Jerusalem is one of the most well-known cities in the entire world. Revered by the three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, its status is hotly-contested between Israeli and Palestinians. In the 3,000 or so years of Jerusalem’s history, the city has only ever been divided into East and West for a 19-year period. The armistice which ended the War of Independence left Israel in control of the city’s western neighborhoods and Jordan in control of the city’s eastern, southern and northern areas.
Since its establishment in 1948, Israel’s seat of government, the Knesset, has been located in central Jerusalem. So too is the Prime Minister’s residence and office, and the Presidential complex. The High Court, Foreign Ministry, Bank of Israel, and numerous other national institutions are all situated in Jerusalem.
For 19 years, from 1948 until 1967, Jerusalem remained split in two, with a wall was erected to demarcate where Jordanian territory ended and Israeli territory began. All that changed in 1967 Six Day War, when the city’s eastern sector was captured by Israel in a defensive war. Although the Palestinians continue to claim east Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state, this aim has not been realized and is increasingly unlikely to occur with Israel strengthening its grip on the east, south and north sides of the city.
While reporters in Israel may understandably seek to remain neutral, it’s nonetheless fair to point out that every sovereign state in the world has the right to set the location of its own capital. Israel is no different. As much as Tel Aviv may be Israel’s most prosperous commercial hub, Israel has never designated it as its capital. Referring to Tel Aviv or any other place as Israel’s capital is demonstrably false.
2. What and where is the Green Line?
In the eyes of much of the international community, Israel should be separated from the West Bank (which is comprised of the biblical Judea and Samaria regions) by the Green Line.
Also known as the 1949 Armistice line, or mistakenly referred to as the “(pre-)1967 borders,” the Green Line is a ceasefire line that was originally hastily agreed upon by two commanders, Israel’s Moshe Dayan and Jordan’s Abdullah el-Tell, on November 30, 1948. The pair agreed on lines drawn with a green wax pencil on a map to indicate Israeli-controlled areas, while Jordanian-controlled areas were marked with a red line. In time, this 1949 Armistice Line between Israel and its Arab neighbors came to be known as The Green Line.
Crucially, neither party intended for the agreement to serve as a permanent border, and agreed that the armistice would only serve as an interim arrangement, with the Jordanians anticipating an Israeli defeat in the future, while Israelis hoped for a more concrete political agreement in the framework of a lasting peace treaty. To date, the Green Line has never been recognized by the United Nations as a border.
Interestingly, because the pencil line was relatively thick, the exact location of the armistice line was unclear, leaving contested territory and no-mans-land of as much as hundreds of meters in places. As such, in numerous places the exact line had to be later agreed upon between Jordan and Israel. To this day there are still two lines in Jerusalem and near Latrun.
According to the agreed 1949 armistice demarcation line, Israel’s territory encompassed about 78% of the area controlled by Britain’s Mandate for Palestine, while the other parts, namely the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, were occupied by Jordan and Egypt respectively.
3. What does ‘Palestine’ mean to you?
Over the centuries, Palestine has meant a number of things. Going back thousands of years, Palestine often appeared as a general term for an undefined region home to various tribes and nations. The term was first used to denote an official province circa 135 CE after the suppression of a Jewish revolt, Rome combined Iudaea Province with Galilee and the Paralia to form “Syria Palaestina”, a name derived from the traditional Israelite enemy, the Philistines, in order to insult the Jews.
After changing hands repeatedly over the centuries, the land ended up under being taken by the British as the Ottoman Empire crumbled towards the end of World War I.
With the award of the British Mandate for Palestine, the British were given the right to administer the land with a view to establishing a national home for the Jewish people in the land, alongside an Arab Emirate in Transjordan. During this period, the Christian, Jewish, or Muslim were served by British-issued identity papers, such as emergency laissez-passers, British passports, and Provisional Certificates of Palestinian Nationality.
The possibility of a sovereign Palestinian state first surfaced in 1947. Faced with a deterioration in Jewish-Arab relations the UN voted to partition the land and offered the Arab residents a state of their own alongside a Jewish one. Although the Jewish leadership accepted the plan, the Arabs did not.
With the dissolution of Mandatory Palestine on 14 May 1948, the State of Israel was proclaimed. By the war’s end, what used to be Mandatory Palestine was replaced with Israel, Egyptian-occupied Gaza, while Jordan occupied Jerusalem and the West Bank.
After the 1967 Six-Day War, the territories mentioned above came under Israeli control. From Israel’s establishment until the present day, Israel has not negotiated any final status conditions with any of the Egyptians, Jordanians, or the Palestinian Authority regarding the exact borders of a future Palestinian state.
Whether reporters in Israel personally support the Palestinian cause or not, referring to “Palestine” opens up a can of worms. This is because news reports tend to refer to towns, cities, or sovereign states. However, there is no sovereign state of Palestine today, nor was there ever a sovereign state by that name over the course of history.
As of the time of publishing this piece, Israel is the only sovereign state between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean sea. Israel controls all airspace, ports and borders, with the exception of the Egypt-Gaza border. Israel controls population registration, the currency in use is the Israeli Shekel, and the central bank is Israel’s. Even the land under Palestinian Authority administration is not fully independent of Israel, with the IDF routinely entering Area A on military operations when searching for terrorists after attacks.
4. Where are the settlements?
Reporters in Israel often refer to the settlements. But what are they?
Although some argue that the term “settlement” is not a defined term in the context of international law, Israeli communities situated in the West Bank and east Jerusalem are almost unanimously referred to as settlements by the international community, international human rights organizations and the media.
Approximately 500,000 Israeli citizens live in some 120 settlements. Many believe their presence is necessitated by Israel’s narrow borders and the need for “strategic depth”. With Israel having been repeatedly attacked over the decades and only 15km (nine miles) wide at its narrowest point along the middle of the country, security is at the forefront of most Israelis’ concerns.
The vast majority of these Israelis live close to the Green Line, thus providing Israel with a buffer region. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the area around Jerusalem. Others have elected to live in these communities as they are conveniently close to Israel’s biggest cities with cheaper property prices. For many, the history of the Jewish people in the land, and the Biblical promise that it will return to Jewish control, also serve as compelling reasons to live in the West Bank.
Situated to the East of the Green Line, the settlements are regarded by many as a barrier to any future Palestinian state. Many of them have been recognized as legal under Israeli law. Others, known as outposts, are illegal under Israeli law.
However, there is practically no debate that mainland Israeli cities, towns, villages and kibbutzim are not “settlements”.
5. Don’t blindly accept ‘facts’ provided by the parties involved
The best journalists are fearless, independent voices, who refuse to act as the mouthpiece of any cause or interest. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to meet this noble principle when reporting from this war-torn corner of the world.
It’s beyond the scope of most reporters in Israel or Gaza to independently confirm whether those killed in a given incident really were the casualties of Israeli attacks, as Gazan sources might (initially) claim, as opposed to an instance of a Hamas or Islamic Jihad rocket which fell short and killed Gazans.
At the very least, however, reporters in Israel should make clear what each side is claiming, rather than blindly repeating the assertions statistics provided by one side alone. This also includes the statistics provided by the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health about the number of civilians and terrorists killed. It’s not enough for reporters in Israel or Gaza to “cite” Palestinian health sources, UN agencies, or NGOs as their sources — journalists must make clear to readers that the figures should be treated with a dose of skepticism.
With the Ministry run by Hamas officials, it is not an independent body in the same way that the health ministry of a democratic state is. Similarly, a source from one side alone is not enough. journalists should make sure to include Israeli estimates, especially if they are later confirmed by the Palestinians.