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May 17, 2017 4:45 pm

Reviewing a BBC News ‘Six-Day War’ Backgrounder

avatar by Hadar Sela


An Israeli gun boat passes through the Straits of Tiran near Sharm El Sheikh during the 1967 Six-Day War. Photo: Yaacov Agor / GPO.

Fifty years ago, the build-up of events that led to the Six-Day War had already begun.

After 14 Palestinian terror attacks had been carried out with Syrian support since April 7th, 1967, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol warned Syria of retaliation on May 13th of that year.

Also on May 13th, the USSR gave the Syrians and Egyptians disinformation about a fictitious planned Israeli attack on Syria.

On May 14th, Egyptian troops were mobilized around the Suez Canal; two days later, Nasser demanded the removal of UN peacekeepers from the Sinai Peninsula — an ultimatum that was met by the UN Secretary General on May 18th.

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On May 17th, two Egyptian warplanes flew a reconnaissance mission over Israeli territory, and on May 19th, tens of thousands of Egyptian troops and hundreds of tanks massed in the Sinai.

Three days later, on May 22nd, Egypt created a casus belli by blockading the Straits of Tiran.

So how are those events being portrayed to the BBC’s audience?

In the past, BBC Watch has looked at some of the BBC material concerning the Six-Day War that remains accessible online. Another item still available is a backgrounder titled “1967 Middle East War,” which is undated, but appears to have been compiled about a decade ago.

The first page of that backgrounder ostensibly provides an introduction to the topic and the events that led to the 1967 conflict. Subsequent pages give day-by-day accounts of the fighting, which are notable for their significant omissions — perhaps the most glaring of which is the absence of any mention of the message conveyed by the Israeli prime minister Levi Eshkol via a UN official to the king of Jordan on the morning of June 5th. On that day, Levi informed the king that:

We are engaged in defensive fighting on the Egyptian sector, and we shall not engage ourselves in any action against Jordan, unless Jordan attacks us. Should Jordan attack Israel, we shall go against her with all our might.

In other words, the BBC has erased the fact that Jordan’s decision to attack despite that Israeli communication was the precursor to its defeat in Judea and Samaria, and parts of Jerusalem.

The BBC introduction is also noteworthy because it promotes a theme seen in other BBC material on Israel: a whitewashing of the events that occurred during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The BBC backgrounder offers a passively worded portrayal of the 1948 Arab invasion of Israel, without any clarification of the fact that areas that were promised to Israel were subsequently occupied by Arab armies (and, in the case of Judea and Samaria and parts of Jerusalem, subjected to unrecognized annexation by the belligerents.)

Rather, BBC audiences are told that:

The 1967 Middle East War, also known as the Six Day War, was the third conflict between Israel and neighbouring Egypt, Jordan and Syria.

The first, in 1948, left East Jerusalem and the River Jordan’s West Bank under Jordanian control and the coastal Gaza Strip under Egyptian control.

The build up to the Six-Day War, as described by the BBC, includes a portrayal of Arab League backed terror organizations established three years earlier as “newly-formed Palestinian militant groups”:

Tensions continued to rise and newly-formed Palestinian militant groups began cross-border raids with Arab support. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was keen to unite the Arab world and spoke of “the destruction of Israel”, while Israel feared it could be wiped out.

In May 1967, President Nasser demanded the removal of Unef troops from the Sinai, closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping and signed a defence pact with Jordan. Some historians question whether Nasser planned to go to war, but all three factors, and Egyptian troop deployment in the Sinai, led to a pre-emptive strike by Israel. [emphasis added]

The BBC, however, refrains from informing its audiences of the fact that Nasser had been warned in advance that the blockade of the Straits of Tiran would bring about war.

In a desperate attempt at de-escalation, on May 19, Israeli diplomats frantically dispatched cables to capitals around the world, declaring that as long as Egypt did not close the Straits of Tiran — its artery to the East, including access to oil from Iran — it would not initiate any hostilities. Through Paris, Washington and Moscow, Jerusalem was sending an explicit message to Cairo: A naval blockade would be considered a casus belli. At that point, tens of thousands of Egyptian troops and hundreds of tanks had already deployed in the previously demilitarized Sinai — a buffer zone filled with UN peacekeepers designed to prevent a surprise attack. Three days later, despite the Israeli warning, Egypt nonetheless announced it was closing the Tiran Straits. “The Israeli flag shall not go through the Gulf of Aqaba,” Nasser said in a speech.

Another noteworthy omission in the BBC’s account is any information concerning the part played by the USSR in stoking regional tensions:

In mid-May, Soviet meddling severely escalated the brewing conflict. On May 15, Israel Independence Day, plans for a parade involving large numbers of Israeli troops in western Jerusalem drew outrage in Arab countries. Wishing to defuse the situation, Eshkol forbade bringing heavy weapons into the capital. This decision was used by the Soviets to stoke tensions; on May 15, Anwar al-Sadat, then speaker of the National Assembly, visited Moscow, where he was warned (falsely) by the Soviets that Israel was planning to invade Syria sometime between the dates of May 16 and May 22.

The Soviets cited the absence of weapons in the Jerusalem parade as proof that the Israelis were preparing for war and falsely claimed that Israel was massing brigades along its norther border with Syria. Syria also quickly passed the disinformation to Egypt’s President Nasser, who on May 14 declared a state of emergency and made a show of parading his troops through Cairo on their way to Sinai. During this period, Arab leaders and the media spoke daily of eliminating Israel.

Also noteworthy is the fact that BBC readers are not informed of the terror attacks against Israeli civilian communities launched from Syria in the spring of 1967, or the Arab League’s Jordan River Headwater Diversion Plan.

Like other BBC material on the Six-Day War, this backgrounder is deficient in providing audiences with the full range of information necessary for proper understanding of the build-up to the conflict.

In particular, the failure to properly explain the status of the Gaza Strip, Judea and Samaria and parts of Jerusalem before they were belligerently occupied by Jordan and Egypt 19 years prior to the Six Day War hinders the full audience comprehension of the facts, and distorts current worldview on these territories. This material exemplifies the BBC’s penchant for presenting history in the Middle East as having begun on June 10th, 1967.

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