It’s been almost two weeks since I wrote to National Public Radio’s senior Washington editor, Ron Elving, and to the network’s ombudsman, Alicia Shepard, to ask why Elving used an Israeli formulation – "disputed" area – to characterize East Jerusalem, instead of calling it "occupied," the term used by the U.S. government, the United Nations, the International Court of Justice, and virtually every other international body. So far, neither has replied.
While I wait, I’ve spent some time looking a little more deeply into NPR’s coverage of East Jerusalem since Israel’s announcement of plans to build 1,600 new housing units there put the area in the spotlight. The network posts transcripts of all its stories, interviews, and talk shows on the Middle East (and nowadays most other stories, too) on its website, and it has a pretty good search engine, so it wasn’t hard to review all 22 broadcasts that have discussed East Jerusalem since the controversy exploded. (NPR doesn’t transcribe its hourly headlines, so they’re not included. Neither are the Associated Press reports and Foreign Policy articles it posts on its website but doesn’t read over the air.)
Here’s some of what I found anyone depending on NPR for information about the issue would have gathered about East Jerusalem:
1. It’s part of Israel’s capital. Regular listeners have heard Jerusalem described that way in at least eight stories. In five of those cases the city was called Israel’s "undivided capital;" once the phrase was "unified capital." When NPR’s reporters say it (as opposed to when they’re quoting Netanyahu or Michael Oren, for example), they scrupulously precede these phrases with something like "the Israelis have proclaimed" or "Israel considers" the whole city their capital. But since NPR reporters hardly ever even hint that anyone except the Palestinians disputes this claim, these are essentially throw-away words. (The closest they come to questioning the Israel position is the statement, which I found in two stories, that "The international community believes that the final status of the city should only be determined through negotiations.")
2. Israel has a deep historical claim to all of Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s assertion in his AIPAC speech that "The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago" was quoted in three separate stories. Twice listeners have been told that Israelis consider the city – implicitly the whole thing – just as much theirs as Tel Aviv. On "Talk of the Nation" they heard an Israeli analyst explain that no government would agree to a construction freeze because Jerusalem is "the heart and soul of the Jewish people." Weekend news analyst James Fallows informed listeners that the Israeli public considers the government’s East Jerusalem policy "necessary for their survival."
3. Ramat Shlomo, the East Jerusalem settlement where the government plans to add the 1,600 new units, is an idyllic "neighborhood" (a word NPR reporters have used at least eight times in this context) or "community" on a hilltop. It’s "tranquil" or even "very tranquil," full of pious Jews who "focus on their religious studies and pay little attention to the outside world." Their only problem is that they have large families and therefore "housing needs;" this "housing crunch" explains the government’s decision to build the 1,600 units.
4. As for the Palestinians, including the roughly 250,000 who live in East Jerusalem, they are presented to NPR listeners not as people whose roots in Jerusalem go back millennia – who, legally, own East Jerusalem – but as people who, for some unexplained reason, lay claim to what Israel has: they "want" East Jerusalem, they "claim" it, they "hope" it will be part of their "future state," they "aspire" to make it their capital. In the meantime, unlike the "unfazed" Jewish residents of Ramat Shlomo, they can barely contain their emotions: they are "angry," "frustrated," "incensed." Some of them even think Israel wants to push them out of the city, but the Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem is promptly called upon to dismiss this charge, and he’s given the last word.
Now, some things NPR listeners have not been told about Jerusalem since the controversy flared :
1. Except Israel, no government in the world, even the U.S., recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Not a single country, even the U.S., has an embassy there. Under the U.N.’s 1947 partition plan, it was not to be part of Israel at all, but a separate entity – a "corpus separatum" – under U.N. administration.
2. In legal terms, East Jerusalem is considered occupied territory by the United States government, the United Nations, the European Union, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the International Court of Justice, including even the American judge who was the one holdout when the ICJ in 2004 ruled the separation Wall in East Jerusalem and the West Bank illegal. (In fairness, weekend host Guy Raz noted in passing on March 13 that East Jerusalem is "an area Israel has occupied since 1967," and in one report Garcia-Navarro said that Ramat Shlomo is "on land captured by Israel during the 1967 war.")
3. Under international law (specifically, the Hague Regulations of 1907 and the Fourth Geneva Convention) occupying powers are clearly prohibited from transferring their civilians into such territories.
4. The "international community" has repeatedly and forcefully rejected Israel’s claim to East Jerusalem. In the aftermath of Israel’s seizure of the area as well (as the rest of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights) during the 1967 war, the U.N. Security Council, including the U.S., adopted several resolutions reaffirming that "acquisition of territory by military conquest is inadmissible" In 1971 Security Council Resolution 298, adopted with U.S. support, declared that "al1 legislative and administrative actions taken by Israel to change the status of the: City of Jerusalem, including expropriation of land and properties, transfer of populations and legislation aimed at the incorporation of the occupied section, are totally invalid and cannot change that status.".In 1980, when Israel adopted the "Jerusalem Law," through which it attempted to formalize its annexation of East Jerusalem and surrounding areas and to declare the city its ""eternal and indivisible" capital, Security Council Resolution 478 said the law’s adoption constituted "a violation of international law" and "a serious obstruction to achieving a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in the Middle East," declared it "null and void," and asserted that it "must be rescinded forthwith." (This resolution was adopted by a vote of 14-0; the U.S. abstained but declined to use its veto power.)
5. In recent days U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has on at least two occasions declared publicly that East Jerusalem, like the West Bank, is occupied territory and that Israel’s settlement expansion plans are "unacceptable." "Let us be clear," he said on March 20. "All settlement activity is illegal anywhere in occupied territory and must be stopped." NPR has completely ignored Ban’s statements on these issues.
6. The 1,600 Jewish housing units planned for Ramat Shlomo are only a small part of Israel’s plans to "Judaize" East Jerusalem. Ha’aretz and other reputable sources reported on March 11 that some 50,000 new housing units in East Jerusalem are in various stages of the Israeli planning and permitting process. Coming on the heels of the Biden visit and the flap about the 1,600 units, this report got wide circulation around the world. NPR hasn’t mentioned it.
7. Much of the Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem is organized and financed by ultra-right-wing Zionist organizations such as Elad and Ateret Cohanim, which openly proclaim their intention to evict Jerusalem’s Palestinians. These groups are funded largely by tax-deductible donations from American Jews, most notably Miami doctor and bingo billionaire Irving Moskowitz. Yet NPR has never once – not just this month, but never, as far back as its archives go – mentioned Irving Moskowitz or Ateret Cohanim; Elad was mentioned only once, last September, as the funder of archaeological digs in the Silwan section of East Jerusalem – which host Robert Siegel referred to only as "the City of David," the patently ideological name the Zionists recently bestowed upon the area.
Likewise, NPR has never reported on the recent expulsions of Palestinian families from homes built for them in the 1950s by the U.N. in the Sheikh Jarrah section of East Jerusalem – nor on the growing non-violent movement that’s brought thousands of Palestinians and Israelis together to protest these evictions.
8. Even as it repeats Netanyahu’s assertion that "the Jewish people" were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, NPR has not raised any question or qualification about this claim. If ancient history is to be considered grounds for sovereignty, there are several issues that deserve attention: Many mainstream archaeologists doubt that there was such a thing as a Jewish people or even a Jewish religion 3,000 years. Whoever may have been building there 3,000 years ago, today’s Palestinians have a considerably stronger claim to be their descendants than Ashkenazi Jews like Netanyahu. As Juan Cole has recently pointed out, Jews have ruled Jerusalem for only a few brief moments in its history; Muslims have ruled the city and done most of the building there over the last 1,500 years.
9. If the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem are angry and frustrated, one reason is because Israel treats them like second- or third-class citizens – except that they’re not even citizens. They can’t vote in national elections, and they’re not entitled to Israeli passports. They’re prohibited from engaging in political activity, and Israel has repeatedly barred celebrations of their national culture. Thousands of them have had their Jerusalem residency rights revoked for such "offenses" as spending too much time outside the city. If a Jerusalem Palestinian marries someone from elsewhere in the occupied territories – even from, say, Bethlehem or Ramallah, which are just a few miles away – they’re not permitted to live together, either in Jerusalem or in the territories.
Meanwhile, social and economic conditions in East Jerusalem are miserable and rapidly deteriorating, in part because the giant separation wall Israel has built within and around East Jerusalem cuts the area off from the rest of the Palestinian population and economy. 68.4 percent of the population of East Jerusalem live below the poverty line, yet only 22 percent receive any government social services. While the Palestinians make up 32 percent of Jerusalem’s total population, and the municipality collects around 30 percent of its tax revenue from them, less than ten percent of the municipal budget is spent on services for them. The municipality spends four times as much per pupil on primary schools in West Jerusalem as in East Jerusalem, which suffers from a drastic shortage of classrooms. Entire Palestinian neighborhoods are not connected to a sewage system and do not have paved roads or sidewalks. Almost 90 percent of the city’s sewage pipes, roads, and sidewalks are found in the western part of the city. West Jerusalem has 1,000 public parks, East Jerusalem has 45. West Jerusalem has 34 swimming pools, East Jerusalem has three. West Jerusalem has 26 libraries, East Jerusalem has two. West Jerusalem has 531 sports facilities, East Jerusalem has 33. And so on.
As for housing, NPR somehow hasn’t noticed that the Palestinians too have large families and suffer from a "housing crunch" far more drastic than that afflicting Ramat Shlomo. While the government works overtime to develop plans for additional Jewish settlement construction in East Jerusalem, it’s all but impossible for Palestinians to get construction permits, and if they build anyway, they’re at constant risk of having their homes demolished. (All Things Considered did run a reasonably good report by Lourdes Garcia-Navarro last November about "allegations" by East Jerusalem Palestinians that Israel is "intensifying a campaign to evict them from their homes.")
10. NPR found time this month for a long story about an Israeli tariff that’s threatening the business of an Illinois company that exports carp for gefilte fish, but the last time the network’s listeners heard that Israel receives $3 billion a year in U.S. aid was when Stephen Walt mentioned it in a July 2006 interview. This month, even as debate about U.S. relations with Israel has boiled up, the network’s news shows haven’t bothered to mention U.S. aid at all. (The subject has come up briefly on Talk of the Nation – once mentioned by guest Ted Koppel, once in a quote from Gideon Levy read by host Neal Conan, and once when a caller from California observed that for $10 million a day, "You would think that would buy us a little more influence than it does" – to which Conan responded "Well, part of that is the billion dollars that we promised both to Israel and to Egypt, that’s included in the peace agreement that got those two people to recognize each other, which is a benefit that I think everybody can agree on.")