PRETORIA, 31 August — The 2016 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East opened in Pretoria today, with well-known film-makers, journalists, politicians, academics and other experts exploring new ways to narrate the complex and evolving story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The three-day seminar will tackle a variety of issues, with a special focus on visual media and film technologies. Organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information, in cooperation with the Department of International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa and the Embassy of Sweden, the Seminar’s first day featured two panel discussions on “prospects for a political solution of the Israel-Palestine conflict and deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory” and on “the Israel-Palestine story in documentaries and film”.
In a video message to participants, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the Organization counted on the media to explain to the world that durable peace in the Middle East would only be achieved through a negotiated, just and comprehensive two-State solution, with Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace and security.
For a quarter century, he said, the annual media seminars had promoted dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, bringing together journalists and others to discuss how local and international media could fairly cover the Middle East. They had stressed the need to avoid “fanning the flames” of hatred and violence and instead, build bridges of understanding and respect. “The lives and aspirations of millions of people are at stake,” he said.
Cristina Gallach, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, in opening remarks read by Margaret Novicki, Acting Director of the Department of Public Information’s Strategic Communications Division, said the annual seminars aimed at achieving two goals: to debate media-related narratives of the Israel-Palestine story and to raise awareness about the question of Palestine. It had become an annual occasion to enhance dialogue, advance peace and promote tolerance and understanding.
Over the next three days, she said, participants would have the opportunity to discuss media trends connected to the situation and the region. “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy,” she said, quoting former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela. “Then he becomes your partner.” In that spirit, she looked forward to hearing from participants and encouraged them to engage with the panellists.
In a similar vein, Ebrahim Saley, Deputy Director General of Global Governance, Department of International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa, said the 2016 Seminar was the first to be held in a sub-Saharan African country. In highlighting the collapse of the peace process and the grave humanitarian situation, he reminded participants of the need to do more to ensure that peace prevailed.
Indeed, he said, it had been seven decades that the region’s people had endured insecurity and violence, stressing that civil society, journalists and Governments bore a collective responsibility to ensure that the defunct peace process did not remain the “proverbial tear in the eye of the international community”. The media, especially, must be the “honest eyes and fair ears” of the international community on the ground.
As the world prepared to commemorate 50 years of Israeli occupation, he recalled General Assembly resolution 2202A (XXI) of 1966, which had activated the international campaign to end racial discrimination in South Africa. “Today, we are able to meet here in a democratic, free South Africa,” he said. The father of that nation, Nelson Mandela, had cautioned that South Africans could not truly be free if Palestinians were not truly free.
Karin Hernmarck Ahliny, Chargé d’affaires of the Embassy of Sweden, stressed that “narratives have power”. The two-State solution was at risk amid violence, settlement expansion and the demolition of Palestinian homes and infrastructure. She called for unimpeded access to Gaza and respect for international humanitarian law, pressing the international community to create new dynamics to end the occupation. The Security Council must uphold its resolutions and the Charter of the United Nations.
“If the international community is serious about its commitment to the two-State solution, there is important work to do,” she said, expressing hope that the Seminar would assist in that endeavour.
Also speaking in the opening segment today was Momar Diop, Ambassador of Senegal to South Africa, who delivered a statement on behalf of Fodé Seck, Permanent Representative of Senegal to the United Nations and Chairman of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. “We particularly rely on the multiplying effects of the media” in giving a human face to Palestinians’ daily struggles against 50 years of foreign occupation and denial of their rights, he said. “We need to show young Israelis and Palestinians that the international community has not forgotten them”.
The 2016 International Media Seminar will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, 1 September.
EBRAHIM SALEY, Deputy Director General of Global Governance, Department of International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa, said it was an honour to host the 2016 Seminar, as it was the first time the meeting was being held in a sub-Saharan African country. South Africa supported its goal to heighten awareness of the situation on the ground in Palestine and to discuss new ways for civil society and the media to help to foster honest and fair dialogue. The Seminar brought together various civil society, journalists and Governments, who bore the collective responsibility to ensure that the defunct peace process did not remain the “proverbial tear in the eye of the international community”.
For its part, he said, the United Nations had played important role in reminding the world of the goal of Palestinians realizing a legitimate and independent State, free of occupation. In highlighting the collapse of the peace process and the grave humanitarian situation, especially for the people of Gaza, the annual seminar was a pivotal reminder of the need to do more to ensure that peace and security prevailed in the Middle East. Indeed, it had been seven decades that the region’s people had endured insecurity and violence.
In that context, he said, the media had a responsibility to bring the “honest eyes and fair ears” of the international community on the ground. Through the media, the world had a glimpse of the conditions affecting both sides of the conflict. The seminar offered an opportunity to address the challenges faced by the media, often enduring harassment simply for doing their jobs. It could be argued that the world suffered from a general sense of helplessness in addressing the question of Palestine and peace in the Middle East, especially amid the brutal war in the region. With the rise of terrorist groups and resultant humanitarian disasters caused by them, the question of Palestine had almost been averted.
As the world prepared to commemorate 50 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank, he said, the annual seminars aimed at sensitizing public opinion on the question of Palestine and on efforts — or lack thereof — to address the situation on the ground. South Africa had benefited from the United Nations role against apartheid, notably with its resolution endorsing a statement that had called for an international campaign against apartheid through a three-tiered approach: pressuring the Government to end oppressive policies; assisting apartheid victims; and mandating the Secretary-General to disseminate reliable information to sensitize world public opinion about the Government’s discriminatory policies.
Among other things, he said, that resolution had established a committee against apartheid and a centre. Indeed, the entire United Nations system had geared towards an international campaign to end racial discrimination through the creation of a non-racial, non-sexist society. Among its techniques was to organize scores of international conferences and seminars throughout the world.
“Today, we are able to meet here in a democratic, free South Africa,” he said. He recalled that the father of that society, Nelson Mandela, had said South Africans could not truly be free if Palestinians were not truly free. That idea had compelled the world to support initiatives aimed at bringing the focus back to the unresolved conflict.
KARIN HERNMARCK AHLINY, Chargé d’affaires of the Embassy of Sweden, stressing that “narratives have power”, said the seminar aimed at framing a narrative that was conducive to peace. The year 2017 would mark 50 years of the occupation of Palestine and everyone was aware of the urgency of the current situation. The two-State solution was seriously at risk amid violence, settlement expansion and the demolition of Palestinian homes and infrastructure. She called for changes that would increase economic opportunities and empower Palestinian institutions, stressing that all acts of violence against civilians were despicable. Only by addressing the underlying causes of the conflict would people in Israel and Palestine be able to live in dignity. “This is in the interest of both parties,” she said.
The situation in Gaza was critical, she continued, stressing that, in the coming years, the lack of drinking water would be irreversible. Gaza’s isolation must end and new construction must be fast-tracked. She called for unimpeded access to Gaza and respect for international humanitarian law. To save the two-State solution, the international community must move from words to action and create new dynamics to end the occupation. Sweden supported the French initiative to hold an international peace conference and was encouraged by increased public activity in that context. For its part, the Security Council had a central role to play by upholding its resolutions and the Charter of the United Nations. “If the international community is serious about its commitment to the two-State solution, there is important work to do,” she said, expressing hope that the seminar would assist in that endeavour.
MARGARET NOVICKI, Acting Director of the Strategic Communications Division of the United Nations Department of Public Information, speaking on behalf of Cristina Gallach, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, said that, for a quarter century, the seminar had worked to achieve two goals: to debate media-related narratives of the Israel-Palestine story and to raise awareness about the question of Palestine. It had become an annual occasion to enhance dialogue, advance peace and promote tolerance and understanding.
In the coming days, she said, participants would have the opportunity to engage in discussions on the recent media trends connected to the situation and the region, she said. The Department had put together a rich programme that would tackle a variety of issues with a special focus on visual media and film technologies.
Politicians and diplomats would explore the prospects for a political solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, she said, and the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Well-known film‑makers would review the Israel-Palestine story as expressed through documentaries, while comedians and writers would help participants understand the role of political satire in peacemaking. Virtual reality practitioners would take them to a new frontier of storytelling.
The seminar would also feature a screening of the animated documentary, The Wanted 18. Participants would hear from impressive speakers from the Middle East, South Africa and around the world: politicians, journalists, film-makers, comedians, experts and academics. “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy,” she said, quoting former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela. “Then he becomes your partner.”
Participants started the day with a panel discussion titled “prospects for a political solution of the Israel-Palestine conflict and deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory”. Moderated by Ebrahim Ebrahim, Parliamentary Counsellor to the President of South Africa, it featured presentations by: Leila Shahid, former Palestinian Ambassador to the European Union; Steven Friedman, Director, Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Johannesburg; and advocate Doctor Mashabane, Chief Director, United Nations Political, Peace and Security Unit in the Department of International Relations and Cooperation of South Africa.
Mr. EBRAHIM opened the discussion recalling that South Africa had worked to resolve apartheid through dialogue, negotiation and reconciliation. South Africans had a story to tell and could share their experience with countries that were in racial and ethnic conflict. The Government had appointed special envoys to understand how South Africa could best share its experience, citing their meetings with members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and others in Cuba during peace talks. They also shared South Africa’s experience with parties in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, he said, underlining that South Africa had one of the freest media on the continent.
Ms. SHAHID said that, for Palestinians, South Africa’s struggle for independence, democracy, good governance and equity was a reason for hope, as they had seen how long and painful the process had been. “Palestine is not a conflict,” she said. “We are not equals. Maybe we thought we were, but we were wrong. We are under occupation.” The meaning of their struggle in public opinion, as addressed by the media, amounted to more than only kilometres along a border. Palestinians were a population fighting an army. Media had an important role in finding new ways of talking about Palestine and Israel.
For its part, she said, the United Nations was perceived as talking too diplomatically, whether about the media or the concepts of liberation and decolonization. A new vocabulary was needed. Media was the most direct way to the heart, and thus, essential for Palestine, which was not in a conflict situation like others around the world. What was important was coexistence.
The Oslo Process, she said, had failed because it had not been implemented. While the mutual recognition and the step-by-step approach it offered to State‑building was a “kosher” or “halal” solution, it had failed because five Israeli Governments, since Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, had carried out an “ostrich” policy. And while the Palestinian Authority had seen there was no implementation, it had never demanded that Israel respected its commitment. Peace prospects had disappeared amid new agendas about the result. In the fight against terrorism, Israel was seen as one of the good guys. As such, a new narrative was needed.
She went on to describe the gap in Palestine between the elite and the population, with the media being an active part of civil society that spoke about reality. Palestinians had lived in better conditions before the Oslo Process had divided their land in to areas A, B and C, the aim of which had been to fragment the land and undermine civil society. Families between Nablus and Hebron had not seen each other in 20 years. “We have regressed” in a dangerous political, anthropological and sociological sense, she said. Israel had created facts on the ground under the cover of the Oslo Process. She advocated implementation of the more than 400 United Nations resolutions, questioning their worth if they remained disrespected. Implementation required courage, political will and accountability. As long as sanctions were not taken against Israel, the occupation would continue.
Mr. FRIEDMAN said the discussion of peace and conflict resolution had become ritualized, with speeches about peace and compromise, despite that the conditions needed to make them possible were nowhere in sight. People had often gathered annually to decry the absence of peace at institutions that had failed to create the necessary conditions. One reason there was no real peace process was that there was no neutral party in the conflict. One side had operated with impunity, and given that, he questioned whether it was reasonable to expect the other side to negotiate. It had become compulsory to announce that the outcome must be a two-State solution. Negotiations had been pre-empted by an idea that there was only one possible outcome.
He said relations between the parties were the furthest from those needed for good faith negotiations than had been seen in 70 years. The more Israel’s impunity continued, the more Israeli politics had shifted in ways that made resolution impossible. Today, senior Israelis talked about the birth of Israeli fascism. Those expressing concern were members of the old military and security establishment who were being marginalized and removed. Even the limited ability to address Palestinian demands, which had existed, was being removed by an establishment that was not interested in compromise. The reason why political conditions in Israel were moving against prospects for negotiations was due to a new balance of power in which Israel “could do anything and get away with it”.
Moreover, he said, academics, lay people and politicians in Western countries held the view was that everyone was entitled to rights, “as long as that human being was not Palestinian”. In France, United Kingdom, Canada and the United States, attempts to criminalize the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement were a gross violation of the basic tenets of liberal democracy, including freedom of speech. “Liberal democracies do not ban peaceful expression of speech,” he said. The claim that support for the Palestinian cause was anti-Semitic was false — the equivalent to saying the fight against apartheid was anti-white. He advocated shifting the balance of power by ending Israel’s impunity. The international community must become an honest broker, committed not to supporting one side against another, but rather, taking an even-handed approach to fostering open-ended negotiation between the parties.
Mr. MASHABANE also drew attention to ritualism at the United Nations, recalling that the Palestinian question was as old as the Organization itself. Many had called on the United Nations to be the centre of gravity in resolving the Palestinian question. However, the balance of power had had a direct impact on the Organization. Unfortunately, the Israeli-Palestinian question also was intertwined with United States domestic politics and not much would happen between now and December.
At the United Nations, he said, the Palestinian question was addressed by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, the General Assembly Fourth Committee (Special, Political and Decolonization) and the Security Council, among others. “The United Nations has been reduced to a talk shop,” he said. The Non-Aligned Movement also had a committee on Palestine, of which South Africa was a member.
He said the lack of action was not due to a lack of international consensus. United Nations resolutions had formed an international customary law which had been routinely violated with impunity by one State. In Security Council consultations, the Secretariat often displayed a map of conflict areas, except in discussions on Palestine, during which nothing was displayed to outline borders. While South Africa supported a two-State solution, the reality was that it would soon be difficult to talk about a two-State solution for reasons that were based on ground conditions.
Taken together, he said, those actions spoke to a broader effort to reduce the viability of a Palestinian State in favour of an Israeli Jewish one that could not be characterized as democratic. Linking the Palestinian question to regional security was also an issue, as the latter would not be solved without first tackling the former. It was important for the media to pick up on issues such as the Gaza blockade, as they brought to light violations of international law and the United Nations Charter itself. While he supported initiatives, including by France, that aimed at reviving the peace process, he said rarely heard were words such as “here and now”.
When the floor was then opened for discussion, a participant from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in South Africa said that while Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions efforts should be commended, it was unfair to burden civil society with such a movement. Countries must do a better job of aligning their policies with their international legal obligations. Settlement-building must be a starting point.
Ms. SHAHID said she could not agree more. Under country obligations, settlements could not be treated as Israeli sovereignty, which was how a new approach by the European Union — embodied in the 2020 guidelines for investment in innovation and technology — had been reached. Under those legal obligations, the European Union could not fund projects beyond those taking place within recognized borders, which stopped at the Green Line. Beyond that was the sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority. That approach had posed a huge problem for Israel, which viewed it as sabotaging its peacemaking attempts. She applauded international non-governmental organizations, among others, for “lifting the veil” on the problem, noting that today, 17 of the Union’s 28 countries had implemented their market origin obligations, which stated that settlement products could not be imported without a tax.
The session ended with a behind-the-scenes look at the production of My Mother’s Wing, a virtual reality film presented by Kristin Gutenkunst, Project Manager at the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Action Campaign, which had produced the documentary in Gaza. The video had been shown in United Nations workshops for young people who, motivated by the cause, had organized themselves to do fundraising. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) also had tested the film in 40 countries and found that it had doubled the effectiveness of its own fundraising efforts. Her office was working to make the film more widely available to the public and partnering with organizations around the world towards that end. “Education is a building block for creating empathy,” she stressed.
The seminar held a second panel discussion on “the Israel-Palestine story in documentaries and films”. Moderated by Kaha Imnadze, Permanent Representative of Georgia to the United Nations and Chair of the United Nations Committee on Information, it featured presentations by: Emma Alpert, Public Engagement Manager, Just Vision; Imad Burnat, film director of 5 Broken Cameras; Sello Motsei, filmmaker; Majd Nassar of the The Wanted 18; and Tamar Yarom, film director of To See if I’m Smiling.
Ms. ALPERT said Just Vision had created strategic media and outreach campaigns that aimed at changing the narrative around the Israeli-Palestinian issue. It had been founded in 2003 after interviewing hundreds of people who felt their efforts had been invisible. “The stories that typically make headlines tell a more top-down narrative” of political stagnation, failed negotiations or escalation of violence and extremism, she said. Those working at the grass-roots level to change their communities were often left out of the coverage.
For 12 years, Just Vision had documented those stories through feature-length and short documentaries, one of which was hand delivered to United States President Barak Obama. Among other efforts, it had created an Arabic graphic novel about a 15-year-old woman who led a women’s contingent in the resistance movement. It also had established a Hebrew language platform — Global Call — to highlight Israeli media stories about the occupation and movements to increase equality within Israeli society. Research had shown that much of the media coverage around the film Budrus, which chronicled non-violent protests against the Israeli wall, had been written through a lens of law and order, with the protests construed as a movement that was disrupting peace and therefore must be squashed. It also had shown that 91 per cent of the coverage had adopted at least one of the key messages intended to be at the centre of the conversation.
Mr. BURNAT said the word “conflict” was a mistaken one, as Palestinians had no military or other armed forces. He had lived his entire life under occupation. There were not simply two sides fighting each other. Rather, his was a complex experience that only those living it could understand. Media was controlled by big countries that only showed the violence. “We face everyday life, many problems that Western people do not know about,” he said. The purpose of 5 Broken Cameras was to tell his story because the media did not accurately explain peoples’ lives. In 2005, wanting to feel part of the non-violent struggle against occupation, he began filming. “The peaceful struggle is nothing new,” he said. Non-violence had been practised for decades. Children faced soldiers in school. There was no place to play. His son always asked to go to the sea, a request he routinely was forced to deny, as they did not have any access to it.
He said that 5 Broken Cameras had chronicled peaceful protests in the West Bank village of Bil’in against the Israeli wall. While it had been released in Israel, he did not see a political solution to the conflict in the current context. He questioned the Government of Israel’s desire for peace. “They control everything,” he said, noting that if the United States and European Union were interested in pursuing solutions, they would do so. “I want to raise my kids and build them a peaceful life,” he said. “We are only human. We live in the same world.”
Mr. NASSAR said he was a physician who had had an opportunity to document a story in 2002, during the Second Intifada. The film, The Wanted 18, would be shown tomorrow. In 1987, Israelis had established curfews and cut phone lines in the West Bank. Between 1988 and 1991, they had closed all Palestinian schools. “We had to act,” he said, so Palestinians created neighbourhood communities to teach children in garages, gardens, anywhere. They took a conscious decision to lower their living standards to withstand the pressure being placed on them. “People were going in and out of jail as if they were going on a picnic,” he said.
Society had been transformed, he said. The other transformation was that of power, from the mayors and collaborators to the young people who had orchestrated the protest movements. Residents of Beit Sahour had decided to stop buying milk from Israeli companies in a quest for greater self-sufficiency. When the siege ended on 5 November 1989, visitors from all over the world, including Desmond Tutu from South Africa, had come to Beit Sahour, calling on Israelis to give back the confiscated goods, against other calls by the United States. The struggle was one of a two narratives. “You cannot talk to The New York Times, or others. They will not listen to you. You are not the family. They have their own agendas and they make the news. The lesson to be learned from the first intifada was that ‘Palestinians make the news if we want to’,” he said.
Mr. MOTSEI said that, in visiting Gaza and the West Bank as an outsider in 2009, he had the impression that the former was in better condition than the latter. He wondered whether the occupation was really about Israelis and Palestinians or if it transcended them. He concluded that the situation was one of humanity. He was reminded of a story of a man watching his wife cut meat into three parts. When he asked why she cut it in that way, she responded that her mother had done so. In that context, he asked participants how often they questioned tradition in their storytelling, to imagine being in a foreign country and hearing guns in the middle of the night.
He then asked participants to imagine the reality of people living with such violence every day. All who had been to the West Bank now must have remembered the check points. How the story of Palestinians was told was informed by those check points. Ensuring that justice prevailed required the entire international community. “The children of Palestine should be our concern,” he said, asking what would inform their world view in the years to come.
Ms. YAROM said she had been a soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces. During the first intifada, she had been called to Gaza. One night, a fellow soldier had brought her to a basement where a 60-year-old Palestinian man was tied to a generator, his face smeared with blood. Her fellow soldiers were responsible. She made a film called To See if I’m Smiling, interviewing women, like herself, to understand whether their experience had shaken their lives. The conversations were personal and painful. “I wanted to make it powerful in order to incite action,” she said, so people would see how terrible the situation was.
She said she had discovered that, although there was much discourse, with panels about women in the territories, the film did not achieve a political result. While people were moved by the film, they felt helpless to respond. The occupation had turned into a management job, rather than one that activists believed their efforts could change. In 2011, the Arab Spring was unfolding and in Israel, there were protests for social justice. An Israeli journalist had launched a call for a political utopia of an Israel-Palestine confederated State, which resonated with people like herself who needed something to pursue. The wall was not working; it had demonized people. “This is a fight against fear,” she said.
When the floor was opened, participants asked a range of questions.
Ms. SHAHID commented on the Oslo Process, stressing that films were part of Palestinians’ contemporary history. Events unfolded with such speed, which made it all the more important to weave the many experiences of Palestinian communities and the diaspora. “The worst thing is to be indifferent,” she said.
Mr. BURNAT addressed a question posed by Ahmed Shihab Eldin, Senior correspondent at AJ+, about how he had shared his experiences locally. He said he had wanted to make the film to tell his story. It was a surprise that the film had made it to the Oscars and been screened around the world, including at the United Nations in New York, Geneva and Ecuador. It was emotional for people to see how Palestinians lived under occupation. While he felt he had made something important, when he saw people lose family members to the war, he felt he had accomplished nothing compared to them. His purpose was to prevent the next generation from living out his experience.
Ms. YAROM said, answering a question from another participant from the Boycott, Divest Sanctions movement about the fairness of having Israelis narrate the Palestinian story, that the occupation was also the story of Israelis. Her story was from the viewpoint of an Israeli soldier. “It’s a story to tell,” she said. It was a human one.
Ms. ALPERT said it was, indeed, possible for them to address the story especially by addressing the power balance. “When you are telling a story, it’s not about telling one side and then another,” she said. Certain narratives gained more traction than others. Further, it was about breaking down stereotypes.
Ms. YAROM said she understood criticism that the film had sought sympathy for the perpetrator.