BBC apologises for 'Thought for the Day' story on Muslim in Israeli army

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The Independent Online

The BBC apologised after a speaker on Radio 4's Thought for the Day told of meeting a Muslim conscripted into the Israeli army and jailed for refusing to shoot Palestinian schoolchildren.

The BBC apologised after a speaker on Radio 4's Thought for the Day told of meeting a Muslim conscripted into the Israeli army and jailed for refusing to shoot Palestinian schoolchildren.

The BBC said it had been "unable to find any evidence to support the story" told by Rev Dr John Bell of the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian group based in Scotland. He told listeners he had met the "19-year-old former corporal" two years ago. He said the man was an Israeli-born Arab of "Palestinian Muslim stock" who had saved many lives by killing a suicide bus bomber.

The BBC received dozens of complaints from members of the Jewish community who pointed out that elements of the account could not be true. Israeli Arabs are exempt from conscription and it would be all but impossible for a 19-year-old to reach the rank of corporal.

Prompted by the complaints, the BBC contacted the Israeli authorities who said they had no account of the soldier.

Dr Bell said his story contained factual errors and acknowledged that "at a time when Jewish sensitivity in Britain is running high because of anti-Semitism, that part of my remarks might have been interpreted as furtive racism".

A regular contributor to Thought For The Day, Dr Bell said such a conjecture would be "completely untrue" and apologised unreservedly for any offence caused.

The Israeli Embassy said Dr Bell's story had caused "irreparable" damage. A spokes-woman said: "It is important that Dr Bell and the BBC recognise the damage that these kind of baseless and false allegations have caused. We appreciate that the BBC have apologised. However, it is a pity, as the damage is simply irreparable. Today, with the rise of anti-Semitism, the BBC must act with more caution and responsibility to check facts before they are aired to millions of listeners."

Dr Bell made his remarks in Thought For The Day, on 9 February. The day before the broadcast, the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, and the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abba,s had declared a truce which offered new hope for peace in the Middle East.

Dr Bell has now written to the BBC to say that the story contained two factual errors. He said the former soldier was 21, not 19, and therefore he was old enough to be a corporal. And he admitted that the man "did not say he was conscripted. My presumption regarding conscription is wrong as regards Arab Israelis." Dr Bell concluded: "For any unintended dismay I may have caused, I apologise unreservedly."

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