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MEDIA SEMINAR ON PEACE IN THE MIDDLE EAST DISCUSSES THE IMPACT OF THE ARAB SPRING ON MEDIA COVERAGE OF PALESTINE AND THE ROLE OF WOMEN‘S ACTIVISM AND THE MEDIA IN ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN PEACE
13 June 2012

The 2012 Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East held two panel discussions to explore the impact of the Arab Spring on media coverage of the question of Palestine and to examine the role of women’s activism and the media in Israeli-Palestinian peace and the wider region on 12 June in the afternoon.

Participants in the first panel session spoke about the coverage of Palestine and the Arab Spring by the Israeli media and the perspectives of Israeli society and how it has viewed events in the region over the past 18 months with fear and uncertainty. Before the Arab Spring, the world saw Muslims as a security threat and incompatible with democracy; after the events in Tahrir Square a shift happened in the Western media, which wanted to know more about the Muslim world, but this shift did not happen in Israel. The Arab Spring was a story that was still happening and also a story that was still at its beginning; it would therefore be premature to draw a conclusion on the permanent impact of the Arab Spring on the Palestinian cause.

The panelists included Gershon Baskin, Co-CEO of the Israel Palestine Centre for Research and Information; Rula Jebreal, Journalist, novelist and screenwriter; and Ghassan Khatib, Director of the Government Media Centre of the Palestinian Authority.

Speakers in the panel on the role of women’s activism and the media in Israeli-Palestinian peace and the wider region noted it was unlikely that women would retreat from new niches they had carved for themselves during the Arab Spring. The emergence of women in cyberspace during the uprising challenged traditional attitudes, gave them more visibility, mobilized fellow men and forced societies to rethink the role of women. Panelists, among other things, provided a picture of Israeli and Palestinian women at the forefront of the struggle against the occupation, which - because it was non-violent - was not making news at all.

Panelists were Amal Alqasem, Social Activist from Jerusalem; Sarah Ahmed, Activist from Yemen; Courtney Radsch, Senior Programme Manager of the Freedom of Expression Campaign at Freedom House; and Mairav Zonszein, Editor and Journalist at +972 Magazine in Israel.

The 2012 Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East held its first panel discussion this morning on the prospects for peace approaching the twentieth anniversary of the Oslo Accords. The Seminar will meet at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 13 June for the final two panel discussions on civil society in media and film in the Middle East and on youth activism in the Middle East: evolving attitudes towards and tools for social change and democracy.

Panel 2: How has the Arab Spring affected media coverage of the question of Palestine?

DEBORAH SEWARD, Director of the Strategic Communications Division of the Department of Public Information of the United Nations, introduced the panel and the panelists and said that the objective was to discuss how the Arab Spring had affected media coverage of Israeli-Palestinian peace, including whether this issue was fading from the top of the agendas of the Arab media.

GERSHON BASKIN, Co-CEO of the Israel Palestine Centre for Research and Information, said that his perspective was that from Israeli society, how it viewed the Arab Spring and how it affected the Israeli society and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arab Spring and the awakening in the region were viewed as something to be afraid of. There were concerns that the events in Egypt would change the terms of the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement and fears that there would be another Muslim Brotherhood emerging in Syria. Israelis saw in the Arab Spring guns and rockets pointed in their direction and the neighbourhood, that was never friendly to start with, was becoming less so, with backward trends prevailing. Israel had never been interested in understanding that neighbourhood and the region; the Israeli public and the media were not interested. Media outlets had to fight for every minute of coverage on Palestine; the public simply was not interested. The average Israeli stopped dreaming about integrating in the region; that romanticism of the new Middle East no longer existed for many Israelis; the Israeli perspective of the Arab world was seen through the prism of one thing only: security. Everything happening in the region was seen through the simple prism of security. All regional events were evaluated with one question: “Is it good for us?” People were afraid and fear created hatred.

RULA JEBREAL, Journalist, novelist and screenwriter, said that she was one of the most insulted journalists in Italy, simply because she challenged people, talked about politics and about giving people a possibility to see and hear different views. Before the Arab Spring, the world saw Muslims as a security threat and incompatible with democracy. But the moment Tahrir Square started happening, the media in the United States started inviting Muslim intellectuals and activists and wanting to hear their point of view and know more about the Muslim world. One of the major issues of any democracy was to have a strong media that would challenge politicians and tell them what they were doing wrong; if that would not start happening in Israel soon and if Israelis continued to view the Arabs with fear, it was going to continue to be a world of divisions and fear.

GHASSAN KHATIB, Director of the Government Media Centre of the Palestinian Authority, said that the Palestinian cause had always been in the hearts of the Arab people. Still, the coverage of the Palestinian situation by the media was declining and other events in the region were taking up more and more space. The Arab Spring was a story that was still happening and also a story that was still at its beginning. That was why it would be premature to draw a conclusion of the permanent impact of the Arab Spring on the Palestinian cause. Arabs were busy with their Spring and other players in the regional affair seemed to be busy with their stuff: Americans with the upcoming elections, Europeans with the financial crisis. This was a very dangerous situation as this vacuum would allow the creation of illegal facts on the ground through the advancement of settlement activities. The outcome of those illegal activities would be the total impossibility of a two-State solution. The fact that Israel was taking advantage of the absence was a very dangerous occurrence that required the urgent reaction of the international community; illegal settlements needed to be curbed straight away. It was clear to all that Israel was immune to verbal admonishments and the only way was to hold Israel accountable. Palestine was encouraged by the recent consideration of South Africa and other countries asking Israel to label differently products coming from the settlements. This meant that the rest of the world did not recognize on a practical level the legality of the settlements and this might represent a first step to holding Israel accountable for the violations of international law and the rights of Palestinians. Palestinians should get busy with reconciliation and elections, which would be appropriate use of time now when it seemed that the international community was abandoning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians should also be more aggressive and forthcoming in pursuing legal recourse with international organizations and States.

Discussion

In the ensuing discussion, Ms. Jebreal said that December 2011 issue of Time featured Arab Spring as “man of the year” and this was indicative of a paradigm shift in the Western media concerning the Arabs.

A participant asked how Israel could participate in negotiations when it was clear from their actions that peace was not objective; how could such disconnect between the policy and practice be explained.

Mr. Baskin said there were many who criticized and condemned Israel and that, looking at any other parties to the conflict, the aim was to be the side that won and not the side that lost. Israel, with Palestine, was a party to a conflict in which trust was lost and there was no agreement on how to resolve that conflict. Both sides substantively breached commitments they took upon themselves.

A participant noted that every aspect of Palestinian life was controlled by the Israelis and asked how this could re-define the Israeli story.

The Israeli public did not want to know the Palestinian story, said Mr. Baskin. The peace that the Palestinians had provided, compliance with the road-map and dismantling of terrorist infrastructure, which stopped terrorist attacks, meant that for the Israeli public they were not a threat any more and they did not want to know they existed. Ms. Jebreal said that it was very hard to be rational on the Palestinian issue but there was a need to see the facts on the ground. A seismic shift was happening in the Western media, but not in Israel, where media were only focused on security and trade. Israelis did not see themselves as part of the region, but part of Europe or the United States. That was a way of not wanting to see Arabs who represented 20 per cent of the Israeli citizens, and this was scary. Mr. Baskin also added that if there was a stable and guaranteed peace in the region, the attitude of Israelis would change straight away.

Israelis were very successful in creating and maintaining a narrative about the conflict and ensuring that the Palestinian perspective was kept off the table. Did the participants believe that the Arab Spring would eventually come to Palestine?

Mr. Khatib was optimistic that the changes in the Arab world would bring a new balance in the media level; a part of the loss of Palestine in the international media was to do with the traditional and negative image of Arabs by the media. One of the positive aspects of the Arab Spring was its contribution to the image of Arabs worldwide. There was a need however to distinguish and differentiate between different experiences in the Arab world, because what was positive in Egypt did not have to be as such in another part of the Arab world. Mr. Baskin agreed that the narrative was controlled with a great degree of sophistication and anyone who tried to change it was discredited and even accused of anti-Semitism. Part of the problem was that the Palestinians disengaged too. If Palestinians refused to engage with Israelis and explain the story to the Israeli public, Israel was not left with much to do.

The picture of the state of mind of the Israeli society was an accurate one. There was a rooted position, connected to fear in the Israeli leadership, against peace; it was easier to continue with the position of fear and stay in the kingdom of Tel Aviv and away from others who wanted to destroy Israel. Why did Israeli leaders not want peace?

Mr. Baskin noted that the society was in fact afraid from what happened through the peace process, and not peace itself. The solution was in the peace imposed by a third party, but that was not going to happen.

Panel 3: The role of women’s activism and the media in Israeli-Palestinian peace and the wider region

MARGARET NOVICKI, Director of the Strategic Communications Division of the Department of Public Information of the United Nations, introduced the panel and the panelists and said that the session would look at how women activists had shaped and continued to contribute to the dramatic changes in the Middle East and North Africa. It would further explore whether women’s rights had been advanced in the region as a result of the changes.

AMAL ALQASEM, Social activist from Jerusalem, said that Jerusalem was the capital of the only country under occupation in the world, where international law should prevail; unfortunately this was not the case. International organizations had an obligation to ensure the enjoyment of rights for the Palestinian people. Ms. Alqasem said her objective today was to remind everyone of the unfair conditions to which Palestinian people were subjected due to the Israeli invasion. As a Palestinian, she had a right to live in Jerusalem, but her husband who was from Gaza did not have the right to live with the family in Jerusalem. The Palestinian families were taken apart and the only communication was by phone or over the Internet. Her family had to pay a high price to live in Jerusalem; they had a card that entitled them to health care and education while the Israeli Government continued to expand illegal settlements to make Jerusalem the capital of the Jews. The rights of the Palestinians were constantly violated; they were subjected to body searches, not by the police but by volunteer settlers, and were observed by closed circuit TV cameras.

SARAH AHMED, Activist from Yemen, said that revolutions were never radical and they never happened at once; she felt that it was the Arab Media Winter because the way Arab language media covered the events had not been sufficient. Everyone knew of their affiliation with oil money and the Wall Street. Ms. Ahmed said she was terrified of theocracies and of the Israeli right wing using religion to justify genocide. Everybody was concerned about the loss of women’s rights; but it was to be noted that the dictatorial regimes had not given women any rights in the first place. The problem was that in any country in turbulence or conflict there was a problem of priorities and what came first, liberation or equality; it was obvious in the case of Palestinian women who had to endure violence and abuse in the society and also violence at home. It was not possible to postpone human rights and equality. Break the Silence was a campaign in Yemen managed by Ms. Ahmed upon realizing that the right wing was gaining strength in Yemen. The campaign had three demands: ending early marriage for girls and improving women’s health; greater participation of women in decision making positions; and criminalization of domestic violence and child rape.

COURTNEY RADSCH, Senior Program Manager of the Freedom of Expression Campaign at Freedom House, said that it was unlikely that women would retreat from the new niches they had carved for themselves during the Arab Spring. Those women used social media to counter State controlled media in their countries and played a pivotal role in inspiring others to take part in the uprising. Women used videos and YouTube, facebook, flickr, blogs and twitter without which the revolution would not had happened. It was the younger generation that led the way online. Those women helped organize virtual protests and ensuring that the 24 hour news cycle had been fed and were always ready with news, information, photographs, videos and blogs. Al Jazeera relied on citizen-generated content for more that 60 per cent of its coverage of events in Tunisia during the first weeks. One of the primary goals of citizen journalism was to create awareness among the people about their rights. Ensuring that the Western world got an accurate picture of the uprising and bridging the Arabic-English language divide were early goals for those young women. Going online enabled women from traditional society to leave the confines of their homes and engage with others, including men, without fear. The emergence of women in cyberspace challenged traditional attitudes, gave them more visibility, mobilized fellow men and forced societies to rethink the role of women in society.

MAIRAV ZONSZEIN, Editor and Journalist at the +972 Magazine, Israel, said that the Israeli public would get information about Palestine only when the news got to the international level, such as the recent hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners. Israeli women and Palestinian women were at the forefront in the struggle against the occupation; but because it was non-violent, it was not making news at all. Images had shifted and now it was mainly women and girls against Israeli soldiers. The language in Israeli media about Israeli activists resisting the occupation had changed rapidly over the last five to ten years, and today they were called anarchists and traitors.

Discussion

A participant noted that what was extraordinary about the revolution in Yemen was the presence of women everywhere, leading the protests; where were they now?

Ms. Ahmed said it was the question she asked herself every day. Women were now fighting within political parties to guarantee the 30 per cent quota inside the parties in preparation for the Election Day. Others, who were not interested in politics, were joining non-governmental organizations.

A lot of women felt that they took place in revolutions, but had then been sidelined; dignity and demands for dignity was a unifying theme for minorities. Palestinians were subjected to undignified lives every day; why was there no demand for dignity by the Palestinians?

Ms. Alqasem said that Palestinian women were still under the occupation and had not yet enjoyed the fruits of the Arab Spring. Palestinian women however were active since the First Intifada, but there had not been enough time to talk about it. Palestinian women taught politics to Palestinian men, for example wives of Palestinian prisoners would encourage the youth to get active and engaged. Palestinian women had not been awarded for what they had done; they lived in a patriarchal society and they still had not tried to change the mentality of Palestinian men.

Ms. Ahmed said that Yemeni and Palestinian women had the same struggle to undergo, against early marriage, domestic violence, marital rape and a number of other human rights violations.

Ms. Radsch said that Palestine was in a unique situation, but lack of dignity could be observed throughout the region and not only in Palestine. Palestine would probably become a more unifying cause once things settled down.

Ms. Zonszein said there was indeed a need to speak more about human rights violations of women in Palestine, both by Palestinian and Israeli men.

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M/12/18E

For use of the information media; not an official record