In the days leading up to the recent Israel-Hamas conflict, the mainstream media and various talking heads were provocatively reporting on the “eviction” or “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians from their homes in eastern Jerusalem in favor of “Jewish settlers.” Thus begins one of the most outrageous sagas of twisted journalism and media disinformation so far this century.
The New Yorker’s Steve Coll disingenuously put it this way: “For many Palestinians, the eviction cases evoked a long history of dispossession while presenting evidence of continued efforts to remove them from the city.”
Few journalists—and certainly not Coll—bothered to provide background beyond these breathless declarations, which at times bordered on incitement and anti-Semitism, and which are part of the wider battle against the legitimacy of Jews in their national, indigenous and ancestral homeland.
While the Palestinian Arab street is free to think what it wants, the Sheikh Jarrah case is neither a case of ethnic dispossession nor evidence of efforts to remove anyone from Jerusalem. In fact, it’s the evidence of nothing more than the rule of law—a seemingly unmentionable issue for mainstream journalists where Israel is concerned.
Coll and other commentators hid the fact that the Jerusalem neighborhood today known as Sheikh Jarrah is actually the site of the gravesite of Shimon Hatzadik, a prominent high priest of the Jewish Second Temple period and a pilgrimage site for many Jews. Shimon Hatzadik served from about 300 to 200 BCE, some 700 to 800 years before the arrival of Muslim invaders.
Most importantly, The New Yorker (and NPR in its coverage) failed to clarify that the properties in question were legally purchased in 1875 by two Jewish trusts committed to the development of the Jewish population of Jerusalem, as the Jewish community started to build neighborhoods beyond the Old City. During the War of Independence in 1948, the Jewish residents of these neighborhoods fled for their lives in fear of the attacking Jordanian army.
In 1956, the government of Jordan, which illegally occupied most of Jerusalem, in cooperation with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), arranged for the housing of 28 Arab families in the area of the abandoned residential compounds in the Shimon Hatzadik neighborhood. The families leased the apartments subsequently built from the government of Jordan, paying a nominal rent.
After Israel liberated these areas in the 1967 Six-Day War, the Jewish families who had had their homes and lands confiscated—and had the deeds to prove it—began proceedings to reclaim them. In 1972, these claims were accepted by the courts, and ownership was returned to the original owners.
An agreement was reached, according to which the Arab families recognized the Jews’ ownership and in return received the status of protected tenants. As part of the agreement, the families were afforded long-term rental rights and undertook to pay rent to the owners, as well as to maintain the apartments. In practice, despite agreeing to do so, no rent was paid, and the Arabs damaged and destroyed part of the buildings, including an old synagogue.
Like all tenants who refuse to pay their agreed rent and damage property, they were legally called to leave. Eviction notices were issued, but the tenants refused to leave, despite exhausting all legal avenues open to them. This is when the Palestinian Authority, possibly to deflect from the fact that its leader Mahmoud Abbas had canceled elections once again, decided to make an international campaign about an open-and-shut legal dispute.
Reading and watching the mainstream media, you would never have known these facts. How could respectable—honorable—journalists not have reported this critical, legally dispositive background?
Whenever Sheikh Jarrah was mentioned, it was to highlight the false story of unfair and illegal evictions of Arab tenants, who were constantly described as having lived there “for generations.” While this latter fact may be strictly true, it gives the false impression that these Arabs lived on their own property since time immemorial.
Reuters headlined the events as “East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah becomes emblem of Palestinian struggle” and proceeded to give a history of the neighborhood beginning in the 1950s, conveniently leaving out events preceding—and not providing a single Israeli voice.
Envoys of the Middle East quartet from the European Union, Russia, the United States and the United Nations released a statement noting with “serious concern the possible evictions of Palestinian families from homes they have lived in for generations in Sheikh Jarrah.” This was echoed by the U.S. State Department and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
Despite the truth of the matter, bloody riots soon erupted in Arab-Israeli towns in Israel to protest “Israeli theft of Palestinian land.” Many Jewish citizens were violently attacked by Arab gangs, and mobs lit buildings and vehicles on fire. Shortly thereafter, Hamas began an 11-day bombing campaign on Israeli civilians, unleashing more than 4,300 missiles.
The Palestinians have long understood the idiom, “If it bleeds, it leads”—meaning that the media only become interested when violence, conflict or death is involved. They have a willing international media, ignorant of or disregarding the conflict’s history and background, as well as the deeper context of the events they witness. They provide maximum space to the Palestinian narrative, which they broadcast frequently in its entirety, rarely providing context or complete facts, let alone an Israeli perspective.
It’s clearly time that American and foreign media commit to telling the whole story when conflicts between Israel and her enemies erupt. They should start by learning—and reporting—the millennia-old roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
If they did, it would mean the death of the Palestinian narrative. Likewise, the truth of Sheikh Jarrah/Shimon Hatzadik demonstrates that facts about current events are usually more complex than the media narrative—likely favoring Jewish legitimacy and destroying persistent Arab claims to the entire Land of Israel.
James Sinkinson is president of Facts and Logic About the Middle East (FLAME), which publishes educational messages to correct lies and misperceptions about Israel and its relationship to the United States.