One of several episodes for which Ariel Sharon continues to be blamed, despite much evidence to the contrary, was that he caused the Second Intifada in September 2000 by visiting the Temple Mount.
Foremost among the propagators of this narrative is the BBC which, unlike CNN, fails to point out that Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount was co-ordinated with the Palestinian Authority (PA), happened within regular opening hours, lasted just 34 minutes, and, perhaps most importantly, took place on Judaism’s holiest site. Nor did Sharon ever enter a mosque there, as some BBC and other journalists claim.
In their reports, BBC Middle East correspondents such as Jeremy Bowen and Kevin Connolly told us none of this. Nor did they tell us that key Palestinians deny Sharon triggered the intifada. Marwan Barghouti, the de facto leader of the Second Intifada, said: “The intifada did not start because of Sharon’s visit to Al-Aqsa”. And PA Communications Minister Imad Al-Faluji said: “Whoever thinks that the intifada broke out because of the despised Sharon’s visit to Al-Aqsa is wrong. This intifada was planned in advance, ever since President Arafat’s return from the Camp David negotiations.”
Arafat’s widow, Suha, told Dubai TV: “After the failure of Camp David [and before Sharon visited the Temple Mount], I met him [Arafat] in Paris... and he said to me, ‘You should remain in Paris.’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because I am going to start an intifada. They [Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak] want me to betray the cause. I will not do so.”
Yet the British press — more than media in some other countries — was determined to blame Sharon, not Arafat. I was Jerusalem correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph at the time. I wrote a sentence along the following lines: “Some have accused Likud opposition leader Ariel Sharon of triggering the violence by visiting the Temple Mount, a site holy to Jews and Muslims, although many say the violence was pre-planned.”
The Telegraph foreign editor changed my sentence to read: “The violence was caused by General Sharon’s provocative visit to a Muslim holy site.”
I asked him afterwards why he inserted the word “General” into my text, when Sharon had been out of the military for over two decades, and Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin — also mentioned in the piece — were not described as generals. “That’s different,” he replied. “How?” I inquired, adding that Barak was Israel’s most decorated general and was more recently in the military than Sharon.
And why had he removed my reference to the Temple Mount being holy for Jews as well as Muslims? He replied: “The Guardian and other papers say it is only a Muslim site, so why should I believe you — you are only saying that because I hear you are Jewish.” So even among media with proprietors sympathetic to Israel — the Telegraph was owned by Conrad Black — it seemed easier to blame Israel, and Sharon in particular, rather than allow more balanced accounts.
Tom Gross is a journalist specialising in the Middle East