As Pope Francis prepares to visit the Holy Land this weekend, the Associated Press takes a stab at balance in a story on West Bank Palestinians -- a report that nevertheless leaves a number of holes. The story at first walks the beaten path of the Palestinian plight -- poverty, crowded camps, unemployment -- but for once, it isn’t all blamed on Israel:
Many feel increasingly neglected by the Palestinian self-rule government and the United Nations agency responsible for their welfare. Resentment can be seen in the rise in stone-throwing protests by camp youths and a recent two-month strike of thousands of local employees of the U.N. aid agency demanding higher wages.
The article does play a familiar note: the supposed right of return of Palestinians to their homeland.
In Palestinian public discourse, a large-scale return is seen as the main goal. Israel vehemently objects, saying this would dilute its Jewish majority. Palestinian leaders say each refugee has the right to choose where to live, including in a future Palestinian state. The Palestinians want to set up such a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
As you can see, however, the story does give at least a sentence to Israel's position. And in a previous paragraph, it points out that Palestinian refugees and their descendants now number more than 5 million people.
The AP story has other fresh material as well. It tells of a budget cutback in free meals in schools by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. It says that the refugees "feel looked down upon by their better-off urban neighbors" and ignored by the Palestinian Authority. And it cites an unemployed refugee accusing the PA of nepotism, saving jobs for families of officials.
AP also says that "Teens routinely throw stones at Israeli troops or at cars with Israeli license plates passing near the camps," blunting the image of refugees as total doves. But AP also reports a "sharp rise" in Israeli troop violence against Palestinian refugees -- from zero dead and 38 injuries in 2012 to 17 dead and 486 injured in 2013. Fair enough.
What's wrong with the AP article, then? At least four things.
One, the reporters ask three Palestinians their views, but no Israelis -- who, as you may recall, have run the West Bank since 1967. The only non-Palestinian voice in the story is Chris Gunness of UNWRA. And he sounds pretty partisan: "Truly, the Palestinian refugees are the dispossessed of the earth, a people languishing in exile. There cannot be peace in the Holy Land until they are delivered from their dispossession and exile."
Had the AP gotten views from Israeli Jews, it would have likely added that Israel has taken in nearly 900,000 refugees from Arab lands -- Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Morocco and elsewhere -- many of them with their own grievances of their dispossession. If Palestinian refugees deserve justice, so do Jewish refugees, no?
Second, the AP story would have benefited from a bit of history on the 19 years, 1948-67, that the West Bank was under Jordanian rule. Where were the arguments for a "right of return" then? Where were the international calls for a two-state solution?
Third, I would have liked an admission that Israel is not in a friendly neighborhood. Ever since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip, that group and others have fired thousands of rockets and mortar shells into Israel -- 1,500 just in eight days of 2012 before Egypt brokered a truce. If Palestinians had sovereign control of the West Bank, with unfettered power to import planes and artillery, what do you suppose would happen?
Finally, most Palestinians prefer attacks over negotiations to force Israel off the West Bank, according to a joint Israeli-Palestine survey. Sure, reporters can't scoop up survey material while in the field. But they had time to find this one: It came out in December 2012.
The AP story does get the bottom line right: In visiting a refugee camp for less than a half-hour, Pope Francis will find it hard to bring lasting resolutions to the tangle of problems in the Holy Land. Francis has already done more than anyone had hoped. But any real fixes from him in Israel might be a bit much to ask.