Israel and the Palestinians
In 2006, the BBC Governors’ independent panel report on the impartiality of BBC coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict recommended that the BBC should make public an abbreviated version of its journalists’ guide to facts and terminology.
Words in bold beneath subheadings indicate a cross-reference.
This guide was last updated in February 2013.
The BBC’s responsibility is to remain impartial and report in ways that enable its audiences to make their own assessments. The BBC’s credibility is undermined by the careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgements.
The word ‘assassination’ is often used to describe a senior figure who has been murdered, but the word ‘killed’ or ‘killing’ may be perfectly adequate. Plain, simple language is preferable to more complex or emotive language.
If BBC journalists have details of exactly why or how the killing took place, they should communicate these in an equally straightforward way.
The phrase ‘targeted killing’ is sometimes used by Israel and should be attributed.
BBC journalists should try to avoid using terminology favoured by one side or another in any dispute.
The BBC uses the term ‘barrier’, ‘separation barrier’ or ‘West Bank barrier’ as an acceptable generic description to avoid the political connotations of ‘security fence’ (preferred by the Israeli government) or ‘apartheid wall’ (preferred by the Palestinians).
The United Nations also uses the term ‘barrier’. It’s better to keep to this word unless you have sought the advice of the Middle East bureau.
Of course, a reporter standing in front of a concrete section of the barrier might choose to say ‘this wall’ or use a more precise description in the light of what he or she is looking at.
Be careful with this word. Do you mean boundary? See also Green Line.
‘Cycle of violence’
It is better to avoid clichés wherever possible. This one does nothing to explain the underlying causes of the conflict and may indeed obscure them.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967. A law in 1980 formalised an administrative measure tantamount to the annexation of land taken as a result of the 1967 War. The claim to East Jerusalem is not recognised internationally. Instead, under international law, East Jerusalem is considered to be occupied territory.
BBC journalists should seek out words that factually describe the reality on the ground and which are not politically loaded. Avoid saying East Jerusalem ‘is part’ of Israel or suggesting anything like it. Avoid the phrase ‘Arab East Jerusalem’, too, unless you also have space to explain that Israel has annexed the area and claims it as part of its capital (East Jerusalem is sometimes referred as Arab East Jerusalem, partly because it was under Jordanian control between 1949 and 1967). Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state of Palestine.
The BBC should say East Jerusalem is ‘occupied’ if it is relevant to the context of the story. For example: “Israel has occupied East Jerusalem since 1967. It annexed the area in 1980 and sees it as its exclusive domain. Under international law the area is considered to be occupied territory.”
Do not call East Jerusalem the Palestinians’ capital. You can say that Ramallah is their administrative capital and that East Jerusalem is their intended capital of any future independent state. This position was endorsed by the findings of a BBC Trust complaints hearing published in February 2013.
See Jerusalem, Ramallah.
The Gaza Strip was occupied by Israel when it captured it during the 1967 War. Under the Oslo Accords, approximately 80% of Gaza was handed over to the Palestinian Authority to administer. Its permanent status is to be determined through negotiation between Israel and the Palestinians.
In 2005, Israel unilaterally completed the withdrawal of all its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip. Israel refers to this move as ‘disengagement’ but the BBC should use the term ‘pull-out’ or ‘withdrawal’. Israel retains control of the airspace, seafront and all vehicle access. All movement into and out of Gaza is controlled by the Israeli authorities, except the pedestrian-only Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, which is controlled by the Egyptian authorities.
Restrictions on access to Gaza were extensively tightened by Israel in June 2007, after Hamas violently forced out rival Fatah in the running of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli cabinet designated Gaza as ‘hostile territory’ and imposed economic sanctions including the restriction of movement and goods. Israel says this is in response to rockets fired from Gaza towards Israel. The restrictions came to be known as the blockade.
In 2010 the Israeli government eased some of its 2007 restrictions after international criticism against the developing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
See Occupied Territories.
The Green Line marks the boundary between Israel and the West Bank. It is properly referred to as the 1949 Armistice Line - the ceasefire line of 1949.
The exact borders of Israel and a future Palestinian state are subject to negotiation between the two parties. The Palestinians want a complete end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, and use the phrase to mean a return to the pre-4 June 1967 borders.
In describing the situation on the ground, take care to use precise and accurate terminology. The Green Line is a dividing line or a boundary. If you call it a border you may inadvertently imply that it has internationally recognised status, which it does not currently have. To that end, we can call the Green Line ‘the generally recognised boundary between Israel and the West Bank’.
The status of Jerusalem is one of the most sensitive and complex issues of the entire Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Its status is dependent on a final agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians.
Between 1949 and 1967, the city was divided into Israeli-controlled West Jerusalem and Jordanian-controlled East Jerusalem. But Israel currently claims sovereignty over the entire city, and claims it as its capital, after capturing East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 War. That claim is not recognised internationally and East Jerusalem is considered to be occupied territory. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state of Palestine.
The BBC does not call Jerusalem the ‘capital’ of Israel, though of course BBC journalists can report that Israel claims it as such. If you need a phrase you can call it Israel’s ‘seat of government’, and you can also report that all foreign embassies are in Tel Aviv. This position was endorsed by the findings of a BBC Trust complaints hearing published in February 2013.
See also East Jerusalem, Ramallah.
Be careful over whether you mean ‘Israeli’ or ‘Jewish’: the latter might imply that the story is about race or religion, rather than the actions of the state or its citizens. If in doubt ask the bureau for advice. See also Settlements.
‘Middle East expert’
Some ‘experts’ may have a history of sympathising with one cause or another, even if they have no overt affiliation. It is preferable, where time and space allow, to provide a lengthier indication of the contributor’s views on past issues so that the audience might calibrate his or her statements for themselves.
In all reporting we should avoid generalisations, bland descriptions and loose phrases which in fact tell us little about a contributor or event. The phrase ‘Middle East expert’ implies the BBC thinks this person's views have weight and independence. If we can defend that judgement - that's fine. If not it may be better to avoid the phrase.
Overall, we should seek a precise description - for example, what job does this person hold? Who employs them? Where do they stand in the debate?
The phrase ‘Occupied Territories’ refers to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and strictly speaking the Golan Heights. However, it is common usage for this phrase to refer to the West Bank as a whole and not the Golan Heights (unless it is in a story specifically on the 1967 War or Syrian/Israeli relations).
This is our preferred description. It is advisable to avoid trying to find another formula, although the phrase ‘occupied West Bank’ can also be used. It is, however, also advisable not to overuse the phrase within a single report in case it is seen as expressing support for one side’s view.
Try not to confuse this phrase with Palestinian land or Palestinian Territories. See those entries for the reasons why.
The Israeli government's preferred phrase to describe the West Bank and Gaza Strip is ‘disputed territories’ and it is reasonable to use this when it is clear that you are referring to its position.
Israel completed the withdrawal of all its troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005. See that entry for the use of language to describe the situation there.
Be careful that you don’t mean settlements. They are very different.
Outposts are usually little more than a few caravans occupying a hilltop. They serve a dual purpose: firstly to create new facts on the ground and expand the land included in the adjoining settlement; secondly to defy the Israeli government and show the strength of the settler movement.
Some of these outposts are called ‘unauthorised outposts’ by the Israeli government - generally meaning no permission was granted for them. You can describe an outpost as unauthorised by the Israeli government if that is accurate and relevant to the specific case you are considering.
There is no independent state of Palestine today, although the stated goal of the peace process is to establish a state of Palestine alongside a state of Israel.
In November 2012 the PLO secured a vote at the UN General Assembly, upgrading its previous status as an “entity” so that the UN now recognises the territories as “non-member observer state”.
The change allows the Palestinians to participate in UN General Assembly debates. It also improves the Palestinians' chances of joining UN agencies.
But the UN vote has not created a state of Palestine (rather, it failed in its bid to join the UN as a full member state in 2011 because of a lack of support in the Security Council).
So, in day-to-day coverage of the Middle East you should not affix the name ‘Palestine’ to Gaza or the West Bank - rather, it is still an aspiration or an historical entity.
But clearly BBC journalists should reflect the changed circumstances when reporting on the UN itself and at the Olympics, where the International Olympics Committee recognises Palestine as a competing nation.
Best practice is to use the term Palestine firmly and only in the context of the organisation in which it is applicable, just as the BBC did at the Olympics - for example: “At the UN, representatives of Palestine, which has non-member observer status…”
This phrase has become more widely used by politicians and broadcasters to refer to the Occupied Territories - for example, to explain why the construction of settlements is considered illegal by the UN.
Critics of the phrase say it is not strictly accurate because, for example, the West Bank was captured from Jordan in 1967.
The BBC Governors considered this issue in a complaint which was referred to in the programme complaints bulletin of July 2004. Their decision was that, although the complainant objected to references to ‘Palestinian land’ and ‘Arab land’, these terms “appropriately reflected the language of UN resolutions”.
Strictly speaking, the phrase ‘Palestinian Territories’ refers to the areas that fall under the administration of the Palestinian Authority (above). These are complicated to work out because of the division of the West Bank into three areas and because of the changes on the ground since the Intifada.
This phrase, in the wrong context, can suggest the two sides are returning to the negotiation process of the 1990s, when they would sit down and try to hammer out an agreement. An attempt to rebuild trust and relations is not quite the same as proper negotiations. So it is better to avoid the term entirely unless it is in an historical sense - referring to the discussions of the 1990s, or to a revival of talks at that level.
The Palestinians' administrative capital in the occupied West Bank.
See also East Jerusalem, Jerusalem.
Right of return
BBC journalists should try to specify who would like to return and to where. There is a Palestinian demand that Palestinians “who fled or were forced out of their homes” during the 1948 and 1967 Arab/Israeli wars have the right to return to their homes. (There is a dispute between the two sides over why they are refugees, so the previous phrase is a useful one that reflects the two different views.) Israel has Right of Return legislation which allows Jews to settle in Israel and receive Israeli citizenship.
The presence of settlements is one of the most contentious issues of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and is considered a ‘final status issue’. Settlements are residential areas built by the Israeli government in the territories occupied by Israel following the June 1967 war. They are illegal under international law - that is the position of the UN Security Council. Israel rejects this assertion.
When writing a story about settlements, BBC journalists can aim, where relevant, to include context to the effect that ‘all settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this’.
It is normally best to talk about ‘Jewish settlers’ rather than ‘Israeli settlers’ - some settlers are not Israeli citizens. Settler motivations vary from financial to ideological reasons. Many Palestinians see the settlements as one of the most damaging aspects of the occupation and a way to prevent the creation of a viable future Palestinian state.
There are approximately 501,856 Jewish settlers living in the West Bank: 190,425 in neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem and 311,431 in the rest of the West Bank (source: Israel Central Bureau of Statistic, the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, 2010). A further 20,000-odd are living in the Golan Heights.
Israel unilaterally withdrew from all of its settlements in the Gaza Strip and four in the northern West Bank in 2005. It is best wherever possible to be precise about geography when putting a figure to the number of settlers because of disputes and sensitivity over the status of East Jerusalem.
BBC Editorial Guidelines state:
“We must report acts of terror quickly, accurately, fully and responsibly. Terrorism is a difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones and care is required in the use of language that carries value judgements. We try to avoid the use of the term ‘terrorist’ without attribution. When we do use the term we should strive to do so with consistency in the stories we report across all our services and in a way that does not undermine our reputation for objectivity and accuracy.
“The word ‘terrorist’ itself can be a barrier rather than an aid to understanding. We should convey to our audience the full consequences of the act by describing what happened. We should use words which specifically describe the perpetrator such as ‘bomber’, ‘attacker’, ‘gunman’, ‘kidnapper’, ‘insurgent’, and ‘militant’. We should not adopt other people's language as our own; our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom.
“For similar reasons, it is also usually inappropriate to use, without attribution, terms such as ‘liberate’, ‘court martial’ or ‘execute’ in the absence of a clear judicial process.”
Photograph: Getty Images