MOSCOW, 5 September — The 2018 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East opened here today, with journalists, policymakers and other experts examining progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict almost 25 years after the signing of the first Oslo Accord, as well as issues related to media coverage of the conflict, Palestine refugee narratives and the protection of journalists.
Organized by the Department of Public Information, in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, and with support from the United Nations Association of Russia and the Russia Peace Foundation, the Seminar featured two panel discussions today, titled “25 years after the Oslo Accords: Are we any closer to peace?” and “The war of words?: Covering the Israel-Palestine conflict”.
Alison Smale, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, said the Seminar is an annual reminder that the question of Palestine remains unresolved — and that the media can be a part of the solution as much as the problem. Over the next two days, discussion will focus on local and international coverage of the conflict, and whether journalists have allowed their emotions or ideologies to colour their narratives. It will also look at how the stories of Palestinian refugees are reported and whether media outlets should do more to protect their correspondents.
United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said the Israel-Palestine conflict remains central to the Middle East quagmire, with recent tensions in Gaza a painful reminder of the fragile situation. “The people of the region — and the world — cannot afford another escalation of violence,” he said in a message read out by Ms. Smale. Stressing that the United Nations is strongly committed to a just, comprehensive and lasting two-State solution, he said the Seminar offers an opportunity to engage in debate, describing it as a welcome reminder of the power of words over weapons and an important way to keep hope alive.
Ms. Smale also recalled the Secretary-General’s recent statement expressing regret over the decision by the United States to cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
Sergey Vershinin, the Russian Federation’s Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, expressed the unwavering commitment of his country’s Government to improving collaboration with the United Nations and upholding a just and sustainable peace in the Middle East. In such efforts, the Russian Federation respects the principles of sovereignty, independence, the territorial integrity of countries in the region, and respect for the will of the people in those countries.
Reading a statement from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, he said the long-standing Russian initiative to host a meeting of Palestinian and Israeli leaders in Moscow remains on the table, and the Government is fostering dialogue through bilateral and multilateral frameworks, including the Middle East Quartet (United Nations, European Union, United States, Russian Federation).
Cheikh Niang (Senegal), Chair of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, said journalists are often targeted by those who do not want truth to be told. However, journalism appears at times locked into irreconcilable narratives, hurting its own credibility, he said, adding that social media also can build bridges of peace or fuel extremism if not managed responsibly. “You, as media, and we in the Committee have our roles to play in this regard,” he emphasized.
Yelena Sutormina, First Deputy Chairman on the Board of the Russian Peace Foundation, said the media politicize events and at times play the role of “detonator”, an aspect not explored fully. Rejection of media wars could be the basis for finding mutually beneficial solutions, she stressed.
The International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, 6 September.
SERGEY VERSHININ, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Russian Federation, expressed the unwavering commitment of his country’s Government to improving collaboration with the United Nations and upholding just and sustainable peace in the Middle East. “That is a necessity” in a region where existing conflicts continue to rage alongside emerging new ones. The Russian Federation has been guided by sustainable principles contained in the United Nations Charter — sovereignty, independence, the territorial integrity of countries in the region, and respect for the will of the people in those countries — expressed in broad dialogue when crises emerge. He expressed hope that such a stance means the international community will respect peoples’ right to determine their own future without interference, and that today’s discussion will allow for better understanding of the situation, generating solutions to the Middle East’s serious crises.
Reading a statement from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, he noted that the Middle East is engulfed in numerous crises, the solutions to which can only be found through methods based on international law. Unilateral attempts will only destabilize a complicated situation, he cautioned. Calling for a fair, just settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict on a universally recognized basis, including Security Council and General Assembly resolutions and the Arab Peace Initiative, he said it is also necessary to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza. The long-standing Russian initiative to host a meeting of Palestinian and Israeli leaders in Moscow remains on the table, he added. The Russian Federation is fostering dialogue between Palestine and Israel through bilateral and multilateral frameworks, including the Middle East Quartet. Mutually acceptable agreements should guarantee peaceful coexistence, he said, expressing hope that the Seminar will contribute to those efforts.
CHEIKH NIANG (Senegal), Chair, Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People, welcomed the Russian Federation’s efforts to support a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian issue. The Committee, comprising 50 Member States and observers representing different regional groups, is dedicated to a common objective: a just, comprehensive and lasting two-State solution that brings an end to the occupation of Palestine and attains the legitimate right of Palestinians to self-determination, independence and return, in accordance with United Nations resolutions and international law. This includes the return of all occupied Palestinian territories, he said, as well as respect for the pre-1967 Palestinian frontier and the establishment of East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian State.
“Our Committee is neither anti-Israeli nor pro-Palestinian,” he said, emphasizing that, rather, it is pro-peace and pro-international law. Outlining a number of ways in which it mobilizes support, he described conferences and delegation visits to advocate Palestinian rights. He recalled the 2017 lecture organized in New York on the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, as well as the May 2018 Forum to mark the anniversary of the 1948 war, and the June international conference held in Morocco under the theme “The Question of Jerusalem after 50 years of Occupation and 25 years of the Oslo Accords”.
All too often, he said, journalists are targeted by those who do not want truth to be told, who do not want the world to witness the violations of human rights and who seek to invalidate facts as they happen on the ground. “We all want to see a safe environment where independent journalism can be practised free from commercial, political and ideological pressures,” he said. Soul-searching would not be out of place, he added, noting that journalism, especially on such controversial issues as the question of Palestine, appears at times locked into irreconcilable narratives, hurting its own credibility. Social media can also build bridges to peace, but can also, if not managed responsibly, fuel extremism through hate speech. “You, as media, and we in the Committee have our roles to play in this regard.”
YELENA SUTORMINA, First Deputy Chairman, Board of the Russian Peace Foundation and Chairman of the State Duma Committee on International Affairs, read a statement by the Board’s Chair, Leonid Slutsky, stressing that media coverage of conflicts in the Middle East is essential. Unfortunately, the media politicize events and at times play the role of “detonator”, an aspect that has not been considered. Rejection of media wars could be the basis for finding mutually beneficial solutions, he said, wishing the Seminar success.
ALISON SMALE, Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, said that every year, the Seminar is a reminder that the question of Palestine remains unresolved and that the media can be a part of the solution as much as the problem. One objective has been to sensitize public opinion to the question of Palestine, and to promote dialogue and understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, reviewing trends in media coverage of the conflict and its role in forming public perceptions in both the region and around the world.
She said that over the next two days, journalists, media experts, former and current policymakers, academics, students and civil society representatives will exchange views on a spectrum of topics. The first panel discussion will review the political context, examining the position almost exactly 25 years after the signing of the first Oslo Accord, the causes of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and options for advancing the search for peace. Discussion will focus on local and international coverage of the conflict, exploring whether journalists have allowed their emotions or ideologies to colour their narratives and how to distinguish fair coverage from fake news.
She said the second day will look at media coverage of Palestinian refugees, recalling that the first wave fled their homes in 1948 with hopes of returning. One year later, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) was established. “It was supposed to have been a temporary solution,” but 70 years later, it continues to be crucial for millions of people in Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, she said, adding that the day’s discussion will explore how their stories are covered. Finally, the Seminar will examine the protection of journalists who cover conflicts, she said, noting that hundreds are attacked, imprisoned or killed every year. Questions will centre on their rights and whether media outlets should do more to provide them with training and safety equipment.
The day began with a panel discussion titled “25 years after the Oslo Accords: Are we any closer to peace?”. Moderated by Ms. Smale, it featured presentations by Hanan Ashrawi, Member, Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee; Yair Hirschfeld, Director, Centre for Middle East Studies, Galilee International Management Institute, and Oslo Peace Process negotiator; Riyad Mansour, Permanent Observer for the State of Palestine to the United Nations; Andrei Baklanov, Adviser to the Deputy Head, Federation Council; and Ilan Pappé, Professor of History and Director, European Centre for Palestine Studies, Exeter University.
Ms. SMALE, introducing the panel, said almost exactly 25 years have passed since the historic handshake between PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel during the first Oslo talks. “A shred of hope was born on that day,” she said, recalling that 13 September was supposed to see the launch of a five-year process that would end with the birth of an independent State of Palestine, living in peace and security alongside Israel. That dream has never come to reality and the prospects for a final settlement have rarely seemed further from reach, she said, adding that the panel will assess what went wrong and what comes next.
Ms. ASHRAWI said in answer to a question from Ms. Smale that “we are no closer to achieving peace”. The chances for peace are being undermined and rapidly reaching a point of no return amid the side-lining of the two-State formula and the culmination of a fundamentalist Zionism that is imposing Israel’s will over ancient Palestine. Outlining flaws in the substance of the Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, she said it takes a functional rather than territorial approach, postponing assurances without guarantees and giving the occupying Power the power to wreak havoc while weakening those living under the occupation. The United States is severely biased towards Israel, and today is complicit in that country’s rights violations. “They are basically destroying the prospects for peace,” she said, stressing that gradualism has only allowed Israel time to steal more land and resources, while creating more settlers.
Moreover, she continued, Israel has confiscated or revoked the identification cards of 15,000 Palestinians while continuing to rezone Jerusalem, leaving Palestinians 12 per cent of their own land and turning the city into a settler colonial project. The rise in Israeli entitlement and exceptionalism is now linked to an absolutist ideology used in a political process. “That is lethal to any sense of peace,” she said, noting the Zionist movement’s use of the Bible in its political discourse. In the 1970s, “there were people talking peace”, she recalled. “Now, the peace camp has been silenced. It’s apologetic. It’s afraid,” she said, noting that the West conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Even Israeli voices for peace within Israel are being silenced, a change arising from the unaccountable nature of an occupation that enslaves an entire nation, and which, besides being cruel, is also illegal. The United States — protector of Israel’s narrative — has dismantled all the components of peace through its “me first” identity, disdain for international law and unholy alliance with both Christians and those serving white supremacism, she emphasized.
Mr. HIRSCHFELD, answering the same question, said that “if we decide to work together, peace will be closer”. Israel and Palestine are working along a historical process and “we may well get there”. Today, Israel still wants a two-State solution but needs good-neighbourly relations, cooperation and coordination with all neighbouring Arab States and beyond. As for what went wrong, he recalled the 16 February 1988 Notre Dame meeting, where the parties agreed that if there is terror, peace will not work. He then recalled the murder of Prime Minister Rabin in 1995, saying it undermined confidence and erased the Israeli peace camp. He also cited the Palestinian rejection of an offer by Shimon Peres in 1982 that would have given both sides the right of veto over what happens in the territories.
Anti-normalization of the situation involves making it impossible to establish a successful Palestinian State, he continued. Chairman Arafat wanted to solve problems one at a time and saw a partner in Prime Minister Rabin, believing that by creating trust and legitimacy, the two sides could move forward. But Mr. Arafat’s advice was ultimately disregarded and a “perfect proposal” was replaced with an “everything or nothing approach”. At Stockholm in 1995, Israel cautioned Palestinians not to sign “Oslo II” because it was a territorial compromise on the West Bank. The proposals outlined in Oslo were true then and remain so today. “We need the principle of going slowly. And we need Palestinian empowerment, especially in Area C,” he said, noting that it took 27 years — between 1921 and 1948 — to create Israel. Palestinians must redouble their efforts on that front. “You will not have good-neighbourly relations if you don’t talk to us,” he emphasized, while also urging respect for religious inclusion.
Mr. MANSOUR said it was unfortunate that, 25 years after the Oslo Accord was signed, negotiations on final status issues have not led to the creation of an independent State of Palestine with East Jerusalem as its capital. Today, the situation is much worse than in 1993. “We will not leave our land, regardless of the ruthlessness of the occupation and the settlers,” he stressed. It is important to establish Palestinian national unity. While there is global consensus on the need to end the occupation along 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem the capital of a Palestinian State, there is a lack of political will — mainly on the part of Israel but bolstered by the United States — to bring that vision to reality, he said.
However, the Palestinians have the tools to counter illegal colonization, he said, pointing out that the international community generally supports their right to self-determination, independence and statehood. Palestinians followed legal policies in changing their United Nations membership to observer status, and in subsequently joining international treaties and conventions to bolster their international position. “What we do is legal,” he said. “What we do is civilized. The other side, what they do is illegal,” he added, noting that international law offers a powerful avenue for Palestinians to achieve their rights and demands. As for UNRWA’s funding, he said the Agency’s mandate is legislated by the General Assembly, not the White House, which cannot define who refugees are. Collectively, the international community will find solutions to UNRWA’s financial problems.
Mr. BAKLANOV said it is most important to resume the peace process. Recalling his participation in the Russian Federation’s delegation linked to the Oslo Accord, and his experience as one of two participants in the second stage of that process, he said he was also a member of the Russian delegation that helped to establish international police forces for Palestinians. However, the Russian Federation was “not so positive” about the secret nature of the Oslo peace process and shared its concerns with Mr. Arafat and its Arab friends, he recalled, noting that the delegation also did much to develop its relations with Israel. Perhaps the secret nature of the talks made it easier to find compromises and lay out an agreement, but when they were made public, issues grew more complicated and it became impossible to put plans in place.
Turning to security matters, he said the Palestinians at that time wanted arms and equipment, and the Russian delegation found a compromise. It was clear that Palestine and Israel lived in a difficult situation of insecurity and it was important to gain support from third parties. Noting that the conflict often features emotional difficulties, making mediators necessary, he said: “We should use such instruments in the future.” The Madrid and Oslo peace processes succeeded thanks in part to democratic elements on both sides. “People were very enthusiastic” and set out interesting concepts and doctrines. There was also an official negotiation process, which does not exist today, he said. The Russian Federation advocated support for both sides in seeking solutions and creating a suitable psychological environment.
Mr. PAPPÉ, pointing out that the Israelis and Palestinians are no closer to peace, said “Oslo was a failure”. Comparing peace processes to a search for a key, he stated: “We looked for the key where there was light, not where the key had been lost.” Today the parties should look where the key was last seen, he said, recalling that, back then, the most important lamp was in Washington, D.C. Even at that time, it was clear that the United States was a dishonest broker and not the right international actor to mediate. “We should look for different international intervention,” he said, calling for greater involvement by civil society since most initiatives, including Oslo, were Israeli ones. When proposals come from the occupier, there is condescension because the initiator wants the other party to accept its ideas, he noted. In South Africa, however, the African National Congress had been initiated by South Africans, he pointed out. It is time for Palestinians to outline their vision and ask Israelis to respond, he said, stressing that peace and reconciliation will remain elusive without such an approach.
He went on to point out that Palestine is not simply the West Bank and Gaza. There are 1.5 million Palestinians living in Israel and another 5.5 million refugees. The process must engage them all, he emphasized. In Oslo, the idea of achieving peace first and then ending the occupation was mistaken. It is time to think of peace not just in terms of convincing Israel to withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank, but also in terms of addressing the power imbalance between the colonizers and the colonized. On that point, civil society was clearer than the political elite, he said, noting that the “boycott, divestment, sanctions” movement was started because civil society felt that politicians were too busy to create a balance. “Oslo de-historicized the conflict,” he said, cautioning that it was impossible to address the Palestinian question as if it started in 1967; it started in 1948. Israel’s recently passed Nation State Law — or “apartheid law” — demonstrates the historical nature of the conflict, outlining as it does that only one group has the right to self-determination — the Jews. Noting that it says the Government will encourage further colonization, he declared: “There is no point in pushing now for a dialogue.” The international community must instead turn Israel into a pariah State until it changes its criminal policies towards Palestinians.
Ms. ASHRAWI, responding to questions, noted that panellists are still talking about confidence-building, dialogue and gradualism. “Negotiations per se have failed,” she said, emphasizing the need for international intervention outlining that the occupation must end and Palestinians must be protected within a binding time frame. Such power asymmetries have given Israel the time to expand, and while decision-makers in Israel are using the Bible to make their policies, “the PLO is not a religiously ideological institution”. It has accepted Israel on 78 per cent of historical Palestine. “Now it wants us to recognize Israel as an exclusively Zionist State.” Confidence-building and gradualism only destroyed confidence, she said, pointing out that the Israel Defense Forces entered Palestinian cities every day because Israel defines security as being for Israel only. The idea that people under occupation must protect the occupier’s security is a wrong definition of security, she stressed.
Mr. HIRSCHFELD said he should be seen as a partner in a shared experience. However, Israel has not decided that it wants a two-State solution, he said, recalling that in South Africa there was a sufficient majority to move forward. “In the end, we have to speak together,” he said, pointing out that Israel says that an agreement must be imposed not by the international community but by creating reality on the ground. Its narrative is that “we offered you peace and a territorial deal — you said no and started to fight”. The Palestinian narrative says: “Oslo was a scam. Israel tricked us into expanded settlements.” The idea, however, is not for the parties to indulge in their own narratives, he emphasized.
Mr. PAPPÉ said the notion of a two-State solution has been dead for a while. “The body is in the morgue. We need a funeral, a mourning period, and then [to] move forward with new ideas.” The true nature of Zionism has unfolded, he said, adding that Palestinians do not have the power to resist Israel by themselves. From a human point of view, the approach must change, moving from the idea of a negotiated peace to one of achieving decolonization. He advocated a strong international intervention in the name of human rights and international law, stressing: “We don’t need the UN to invite the sides to a table.”
Mr. MANSOUR disagreed with the notion that the international community does not care about the Palestinians, recalling the failure of efforts by former United States Permanent Representative John Bolton to abolish all resolutions related to the question of Palestine. Noting that United Nations resolutions form a part of international law, he said that for Palestinians, given the imbalance of forces not in their favour, “these are very important tools”.
Mr. BAKLANOV noted that the two-State formula has shown no results and suggested a return to the idea of confederation. Ideologically, States have different positions but some similarities on the ground for mutual security, he said, noting that public opinion is being underestimated. He advocated working with political opinion at the expert level.
Ms. ASHRAWI, responding to a participant’s question, said security cooperation is a key feature of the Declaration of Principles, as is the commitment to security cooperation between occupier and occupied, which places the responsibility on the Palestinians. Many of them believe the relationship with Israel must be re-defined, beginning with security cooperation, because Israel has reneged on all its agreements from a belief that the interim phase will persist forever.
Mr. MANSOUR said “we have decided to stop security cooperation with Israel”, citing sessions of the Palestinian National Charter and the Central Council, as well as pressure within the PLO Executive Committee to implement that decision.
Mr. HIRSCHFELD said that if there is no security for the Palestinians, there is no security for Israel. To a question about Israel’s High Court decision to demolish a Bedouin village near East Jerusalem, he responded that he rejects the Government’s activities in that regard.
Mr. PAPPÉ, asked why the logic of partition does not work, underscored the importance of understanding twentieth century colonialism and twenty-first anti-colonialism, drawing a parallel to Europeans who colonized Africa and other parts of the world. From the start, Zionism sought ways to eliminate the indigenous population, he said. In the context of Israel-Palestine, partition means a racist Jewish State in 90 per cent of Palestine, while inside Israel, partition is used to reduce Palestinians to the West Bank and Gaza. It will take time to change the vocabulary and adopt the correct language for what is happening in Israel, he added.
Mr. BAKLANOV, in response to a question about the Russian Federation’s role in the peace process, said that his country takes a dynamic view, but results are lacking amid weakened, decentralized, non-systematic efforts at the expert level. With continuing conversations, Moscow could host experts to work on documents that would be of higher quality than the 2002 road map, he said. What is needed is agreement on the conditions, he said, noting that only after reasonable efforts by experts and the involvement of a majority of public opinion representatives can official talks resume. “As of now, we have no favourable conditions for successful talks,” he said, urging more meetings such as the one held today.
Ms. ASHRAWI said the Russian Federation is now a real player in the Middle East, and not only in Syria. Noting that Quartet resolutions are not law, nor even respected, she pressed the Russian Federation to go beyond saying it is a friend of both sides and present proposals.
Mr. HIRSCHFELD said a Madrid II conference is possible and should support three negotiation channels: a fast Israel-Palestine channel focused on State-building and creating the basis for a two-State solution; a longer Israel-Palestine channel for talks on Jerusalem and refugees; and a third channel for Israel, Palestine and regional partners to discuss regional cooperation. The Quartet is still needed because Israel will not take up a proposal by the Russian Federation without the United States, he said, describing it as an important forum for promoting the rebuilding of the peace process.
Mr. MANSOUR said it was destiny for Palestinians to be visionary and demonstrate leadership in containing the damage looming due to after current United States policies. While United States Administrations have always sided with Israel, the current goes a step further to inflict damage on the issues of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees. If Palestinian leaders continue to reiterate abstractly that they want a collective approach, without dealing with practical suggestions, they will not be shouldering their responsibilities. As for how to unblock the situation, the Quartet is the practical “door” Palestinians must invigorate to practise the “collectivization” of political activities.
Mr. PAPPÉ reiterated the right of Palestinians not to live under occupation and to return to their homeland. If those rights are not part of the opening position of a mediator, “we will do Oslo again” and Palestinians will continue to suffer. A new approach encompassing the issues of morality and justice is needed, he asserted, emphasizing: “This is a moral issue more than anything else.”
The day’s second panel, titled “The war of words?: Covering the Israel-Palestine conflict”, was moderated by Aidar Aganin, Representative of the Russian Representative Office in Ramallah and former Editor-in-Chief of RT Arabic. It featured presentations by Walid Batrawi, Media and Communications Expert; Liat Collins, Editor, The International Jerusalem Post; Yonatan Mendel, Director, Center for Jewish-Arab Relations and the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute; Omar Baddar, Journalist and Deputy Director, Arab-American Institute; Artyom Kapshuk, Presenter, Panorama Programme, RT Arabic News Channel; and Bel Trew, Middle East and North Africa Correspondent, The Independent.
Mr. BATRAWI said that from a Palestinian viewpoint, all Israelis are occupiers and soldiers, while Israelis assume all Palestinians are terrorists. These views arise in large part from what people read in the media. What Palestinians call occupied Palestinian territories, Israelis call territories, he said, noting that Palestinians refer to the West Bank, while Israelis say Judea and Samaria. “These phrases not only represent a war of words, they represent a war of fundamentals,” he added.
Ms. COLLINS said that in the culture of words, “the UN has been part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is perpetuating the victimhood”, obsessing about the Palestinian issue. “I don’t think it’s empowering Palestinians to build a viable State, which is the ultimate goal,” she said, adding that she hears today the same rhetoric as years ago. She pointed to Israel’s peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan as evidence that it can be done — but not in today’s culture.
She went on to recount her experience of attending the ceremony in which Prime Minister Rabin signed the Oslo Accord, recalling that she wondered at the time why the Palestinian delegation was so small. She then described “the normalization problem”, a phenomenon by which Palestinians are scared to be seen with Israelis and to be perceived as part of the “normalization process”. The media has fostered such conditions into “a self-fuelling monster”, she said, underlining also that peace will not be achieved in a culture that uses the word “martyrdom” for someone who has killed. Noting that the Israeli force in Gaza comprises only two soldiers, she said Palestinians panic over the perception of having had contact with Israeli journalists after the Jerusalem Journalists Association set up a hotline for handling ethical questions.
Mr. MENDEL said he studied the politicization of Arabic in the Jewish community, adding that there is definitely a war of words which he experienced recently when asked to be an Arabic expert in a court case against poet Dareen Tatour, who used a word which, in Israel, means “terrorist” or “people who incite” such actions. He argued that the term had nothing to do with terrorist aggression, but he lost the case. Noting that a strong Orientalist approach still exists in Israeli discourse, he said it pushes forward Israel’s European characteristics and erases the special voice that Jews of Arab origin should have.
Some researchers have said Israel is a militaristic society, while others say it has changed, he observed. It should be seen as a society in which defence forces play a major role. Israel views itself as a Jewish country in a world of Arab enemies, he said adding that there is a feeling that Israel is never the aggressor, but instead always responds to aggression. Recalling that the year 2000 marked the failure of the Camp David accords, he said that over the last 15 years, Israel has experienced a process of radicalization and a belief that it has no partner. Its political vocabulary has shifted to a propagandist approach marked by impatience with other views and disregard for the international community. The word “occupation” has nearly disappeared from the media, as has reporting on settlements, while official Israeli statements about Palestine have become more radical, he noted. The annexation of Area C in the West Bank has evolved alongside a “we will not apologize” campaign and the appointment to office of people representing the settler community.
Mr. BADDAR said that, viewed through a prism of Palestinian aspirations to self-determination, conditions have not improved. There was a culture of martyrdom, marked by the worshipping of Baruch Goldstein — a religious extremist who killed 29 Palestinians — as a hero, and the Supreme Court ruling on the chant “Death to Arabs”, he said, describing that as worrying. Mutual hatred is a symptom of the conflict, not its source. On United States media coverage of the conflict, he outlined a common narrative distilled to Palestinian children throwing rocks at Israeli soldiers and the media wondering whether he overreacted.
He went on to state that the general reporting ignores whether the Israeli soldier has a right to be on Palestinian land in the first place, asking participants to imagine if Hamas militants were in Tel Aviv and shot a few children. The reporting would never be about whether Hamas has the right to self-defence, but because of the internalized sense of Israel’s moral superiority, one asks whether the Israeli soldier overreacted. Likewise, it is appealing to say that Israel left Gaza, and had rockets fired upon it in return, but Israel never really left Gaza. It placed the enclave under siege, he pointed out, adding that its people are banned from trading and can barely fish. Every now and then, Israel carries out military operations, he said, emphasizing that “this context is missing” in media coverage.
Mr. KAPSHUK said social networks are among the most important tools for confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians. While it is useful to read mass media, it is not enough for any educated person. The problem is not that people do not read enough, but that they stopped reading books, and through their ignorance, became the main weapon in the war, he said. However, Palestinians and Israelis are well-informed and use rhetoric well. Both sides sound plausible in their arguments, he noted, adding that what one side calls “occupation” the other calls “peacebuilding”.
The situation becomes more tangled in this war of facts, he continued. Israelis think the refugee problem is humanitarian in nature and say “it is a fact”. Palestinians say the issue is a political one and call that “a fact”. Following the shooting of peaceful demonstrators during the March of Return, a social network meme said that a young girl was killed by an Israeli sniper. While the sniper did not kill the girl, audiences around the world remember that a girl was killed by a sniper — “and this is a fact”. No one is the winner, he said, pointing out that Israel has an entire support system in the West, as do the Palestinians, but to a lesser extent.
Ms. TREW said she is asked routinely to be objective when covering the Israel-Palestine conflict, but that is extremely difficult if not impossible. Even “sitting on the fence” is regarded as aligning with a particular side. The ability of journalists to enter Gaza, the West Bank and refugee camps in Lebanon or Jordan presents a huge responsibility to report stories correctly. “We’re in a bit of a crisis in terms of international coverage,” she said, noting that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. In Israel-Palestine, “we’re talking about words that are missing”. Journalists are often forced to write passively in covering the conflict, she said, adding that she uses the word “borders” but those are neither agreed nor recognized. Similarly, the word “clashes” implies equal sides with an equal willingness to attack, but both sides would take issue with its use.
She said there is also difficulty in terms of the weight attributed to certain deaths amid questions around whether air strikes in Gaza are carried out in retaliation for rockets fired by Gaza militants, or whether the latter start after Israel shoots down militants, or perhaps earlier. The international media is often afraid to report “as we think” due in part to limits on the number of words that fit into a column to create the context. This summer, that problem has never been so fraught, she said, linking it to the United States Administration giving its policies concrete effect. There is a now debate over the number of Palestinian refugees there are around the world and what constitutes a refugee. Although settlements in the West Bank are illegal — that is a fact — there is a fear of writing “illegal” before the phrase “settlement units” and frustration against the European media, which stick to European Government positions, she said. Palestine and Israel are discussed in the context of two territories, but there is little discussion of the oppression that Hamas exerts over Gaza’s people, she said, while cautioning that “terrorist” and “martyr” are among the words to avoid in reporting on the conflict.
Mr. KAPSHUK, in reply to a question from the moderator, said there is a general impression of the Russian Sputnik channel as pro-Palestinian. If both sides are critical of the reporting, it means the journalist has managed to report events in a neutral way, he added.
Ms. COLLINS, asked about her audiences, said her principle is to be truthful to herself by asking whether she is using a term neutral enough not to incite anything. There will always be someone who complains, she emphasized, pointing out that the only thing on which Palestinians and Israelis agree is that “they both hate CNN”. She said that she tries to present the facts as she finds them and allows the reader to determine his or her own mind. She added that Palestinians have been victims of — or let down by — their own leadership.
Mr. MENDEL said the world media do not buy what Israel would like it to cover, adding that he does not believe Israel is winning the war of words, nor that winning it will make the world accept its terms. There is a shortfall in Israel’s understanding of its place in the Middle East, of Palestinian history and of the difficulties in which Palestinians live because of its policy. The phrase “violations of the order” is used, for instance, when Palestinians throw stones at an Israeli soldier’s jeep, he said. However, what happened before that action is not questioned. “We have a problem of basic understanding.” As long as there is a refugee problem, and Israel is unwilling to take responsibility for it, there will be disorder everywhere, he emphasized, saying it should not run away from addressing those issues.
Mr. BADDAR, asked what ordinary Americans understand about the conflict, said there is more sympathy towards Israelis than Palestinians. However, if asked whether they would support penalties if they knew that settlements are illegal, or that Israelis are taking Palestinian water, the answer would be yes, he said. There is a problem of misinformation among the American public, and Donald Trump has added so much confusion to the concept of truth that the polarization he has created is reflected in the media, he noted, adding that the media are starting to cover the conflict more accurately because of the unholy alliance between the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Israel.
Ms. TREW, responding to a critique about the framing of the Seminar and the absence of discussion around Western media structures whose ownership problems and political positions influence their coverage, said the point of her talk was to explain a fear of being part of the media. There is a crisis in the media, she said, adding that all media are compromised one way or another — an issue separate from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but that must also be addressed.