Arthur Neslen: Gaza: An Open Letter to Jeremy Bowen

By Arthur Neslen

Dear Jeremy,

I read your reply to the Medialens email about the BBC’s lack of coverage of Rabbi Menachem Froman’s Gaza peace initiative with some interest. As a former BBC staffer, I know the time pressures that editors are put under and the attitude to groups such as Medialens so all credit to you for replying.

But as the first journalist to cover this affair critically, I am also disappointed and increasingly perplexed by the corporation’s reluctance to report what seems to me a major international news story.

The decision by Israel’s security services to prevent the launch of a peace initiative between Rabbis representing the three main streams of Israeli Jewish thought and the Hamas MP Muhamed Abu Tir and Minister for Jerusalem Khaled Abu Arafa was unprecedented.

The panel had planned to make an extraordinary call for the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, the beginning of a process to release all Palestinian prisoners and the immediate start of negotiations with Hamas on the framework for a peace deal based on 1967 borders. Yet just hours before the press conference was due to begin in Jerusalem, Abu Tir and Abu Arafa were detained by the Shin Bet and warned not to attend the meeting.

This sequence of events is not disputed by any of the participants in the initiative. An audacious and ground-breaking peace bid was sabotaged by representatives of a state that proceeded to invade the Gaza Strip the next day on the basis that there was no partner for dialogue.

The BBC’s response was unequivocal. It ignored the story – and reported Israel’s claims. In your letter, you explained the reasoning thus:

"I don’t think a meeting between Hamas MPs and Menachem Froman and his colleagues would have been much more than a minor irritant to the government. Neither the Prime Minister and his staff nor Shin Bet would have been too bothered by it. Froman is a very interesting character, but he is regarded as a maverick, and he does not carry much political weight".

I think this needs some corroboration. When I interviewed Ghazi Hamad, the Hamas official spokesman (and a regular BBC source) for an Aljazeera.net story published on August 22nd, he said the following about Froman’s peace initiative.

"I have talked to Rabbi Froman many times and I think that there is a good chance for this [peace proposal], but first, we need the situation here to be calm and quiet. We are trying to prepare the situation in order to find a time that we can contact all the parties in Gaza, but the military tension caused by the daily incursions and deaths is making it impossible to speak normally with people here."

At this stage in the initiative’s history, a document had been submitted to the Hamas leadership in Damascus and Gaza via the Egyptian diplomatic mission. Froman had held talks about it with the defence minister Amir Peretz, the trade minister Eli Yishai and the Israeli president Moshe Katsav.

He was also briefing Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert through a senior aide on a daily basis that Hamas was prepared to invite a delegation of Rabbis to begin negotiations for the release of Gilad Shalit but that they were politically unable to do so while the Israeli offensive continued. The Israeli government’s response was to continue the offensive, effectively sabotaging the peace initiative for a second time.

Now Froman may be considered a ‘maverick’. He is a settler and co-founder of Gush Emunim who broke from the movement and now wants to make peace with Hamas on the basis of full civic, national and political equality between Jews and Muslims. In Israel, this is certainly considered an outlandish position.

But Froman is no lightweight. In 1997, he brokered the release of the Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin from prison and his announcement of a hudna which Israel refused to accept and Hamas subsequently withdrew. He was working on another peace proposal with Yasser Arafat in the days before the Palestinian leader’s untimely death.

More importantly, this peace initiative had the on-the-record support of Hamas, the blessing of Israel’s entire religious establishment and the unofficial sanction of its PMO, president and two cabinet ministers. How can this be said to lack political weight’?

‘Aha’, you may say. ‘But if Israel’s political-security elite was so interested in the initiative’s progress, why did they sabotage it at every turn?’ You may say that. I hope you do. It is not too late to ask the question.

Your secondary explanation for not covering the story is marked by confusion about the sequence of events. You wrote:

"I also think that the suggestion that the Shin Bet moved against Hamas MPs to scupper their meeting misses the main point. The arrests of Hamas legislators were part of a much bigger effort to undermine the Hamas government".

This may or may not be true of the arrest of a third of the elected Palestinian cabinet on Wednesday June 28th, but Abu Tir and Abu Arafa were first detained by the Shin Bet on Monday June 26th, two days before. The point’ is that a peace initiative which could have resolved the Gaza crisis peacefully was effectively sabotaged by Israel’s security services to the sound of silence from the world’s media.

The BBC has been no worse than anyone else in this regard but with the resources available to it, it should have been a lot better. A colleague at the corporation once grumbled to me that the BBC doesn’t tell you what you need to know it tells you what you’re supposed to know’. Whether he was right or not, this is a story that the public needs to know, and the BBC needs to tell.

Above Bush House, the maxim still reads: Nation shall speak peace unto nation. In Gaza, one nation is illegally occupying another, claiming that there is no-one to speak peace to after having arrested those who tried to speak peace to it. When the BBC ignores stories that challenge their narrative, it colludes in speaking lies to the world.

Best wishes,

Arthur

-Arthur Neslen is a journalist working in Tel Aviv. The first Jewish employee of Aljazeera.net and a four-year veteran of the BBC, Neslen has contributed to numerous periodicals over the years, including The Guardian, The Observer, The Independent and Red Pepper. His first book, Occupied Minds: A journey through the Israeli psyche, was recently published by Pluto Press.

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