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AL DURAH: NEGOTIATIONS AND PEACEMAKING

 

Richard Landes

 

Many think that to make a stink about al Durah, even if it was staged, will only infuriate the Palestinians and make negotiations still harder. The case can be made, however, that these kinds of tales are one of the major elements contributing to the conflict, and until Palestinian society can get a grip on empirical reality, their attitudes and policies will continue to choose negative-sum games in response to losing zero-sum games. Indeed, if the Western media and spokespeople were to resist the "soft bigotry of low expectations" and tighten up on Pallywood it would have immensely beneficial effects. It would strengthen the hands of moderates on both sides and level the civil-society playing field. Does our press have the courage to do so? Does our public have the will to demand that they do?


Ironically, liberals and progressives, for whom these issues would seem most in accord with their most cherished values, seem least likely to take up the cause. And yet, this seems like a victory over terrorism that can be won without firing a shot.

 

One of the most interesting hypotheses about the Israeli reluctance to object to the coverage of the Muhamed al Durah affair suggests that it stems from their desire to negotiate. The Barak government continued to try to close a deal with the PA even after the explosion of violence in October, making still greater concessions than those of Camp David at Taba. By December and January 2001, Israel had agreed to Washington's proposal that it withdraw from about 95 percent of the West Bank with substantial territorial compensation for the Palestinians from Israel proper, and that the Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem would become sovereign Palestinian territory. The Israelis also agreed to an international force at least temporarily controlling the Jordan River line between the West Bank and the Kingdom of Jordan instead of the IDF. During this time, anyone within government or army circles who tried to argue al Durah was staged, or the Palestinians may have killed him, was silenced by the powerful argument that to press this would only infuriate the Palestinians, alienate the rest of the world, and wreck any chances of negotiation. This approach continues to shape people's attitude to this day. At one point a School of Communication had expressed interest in my work until the chair was advised that I was a troublemaker who wanted to wreck the possibility of peace negotiations.

 

However well intentioned this kind of thinking may be, it is also counter-productive. Anyone who wants the negotiations to work wants to create conditions that favor keeping both sides to their commitments. Last time, during the Oslo process, when Israel conceded territory and significant autonomous power to the PLO before the final deal, they used it to arm themselves beyond any limits, turning the Palestinian media into a hate-mongering propaganda machine with which they battered a captive audience of "fellow" Palestinians. As a result, the PA could break its commitments to the peace process, resort to staggering levels of violence and genocidal rhetoric when they stalled, and, with a major assist from the press, still get the Israelis to take the blame for building settlements, the "objects of Palestinian rage."

 

Refuse an unprecedented offer, respond with violence, take advantage of your enemy's trust in cooperation, and get them to take the blame for the war. The strategy was viciously belligerent, bold in that it counted on the failure of the western press to adhere to its own standards, and depressingly successful. At one point one of Arafat's aides was asked why Arafat did nothing to stop the violence. "Why should he?" the man responded, "The whole world is on his side."

 

Shortly after Abbas took over and started to urge a ceasefire, a girl named Noreen Deeb fell down dead in a schoolyard in Gaza.  The Palestinians immediately blamed the Israelis, and Hamas started shelling. Despite the comments of the headmaster that he heard no shots fired at the time, and the observation of a western journalist that the Israelis could not have fired into schoolyard from their post, much of the press reported the Palestinian version. They were encouraged by carefully worded but highly suggestive UN documents criticizing Israelis for their trigger-happy behavior. At best, coverage was even-handed, "he said, she said…" The most likely explanation for her death was bullets landing back down from being shot in the air by a returning Palestinian pilgrim to Mecca.

 

This coverage was clearly more professional than that of Muhamed al Durah. Here, the Western reporter gave important information about the lay of the land that contradicted Palestinian claims; there Western reporters, especially the Guardian's Suzanne Goldenberg, jumped into the story, producing ill-considered conclusions that "proved" Talal's account. With Noreen, the Western papers (again, primarily American), reported doubts from the start. With Muhamed, any doubts the Israelis might express were shouted down as "blaming the victim."

 

We find the same tendencies at the very moment that this dossier goes up at the website, in the wake of the Israeli evacuation. A Hamas parade displaying their military might blew up in the middle of a crowd, killing 15 and injuring 80, among whom were children. Although the evidence makes it clear that the blast was due to Hamas' own mistakes, and some newspapers like the NYT carried that version of the story, others, like the Christian Science Monitor presented it in studiedly neutral language about the "cyle of violence" flaring up again, with "Hamas, the PA, and Israel all trading blame." A strange way to refer to a situation in which both the PA and the Israelis agreed that Hamas was responsible. Such even-handedness enables the media to continue to implicate if not blame Israel for every incidence of violence, presenting responses as initiating violence that "threaten the fragile cease fire," and underlining Israeli violations of the "road map" without mentioning far more serious Palestinian ones.

 

These banal stories reiterate what Al Durah has done on a mythical scale - blame Israel for violence that ceaselessly emanates from the most paranoid elements of Palestinian culture. And when we understand that this seriously distorted mirror has real consequences, that it strengthens the hands of the paranoid haters and weakens the hands of Palestinians committed to civil society, these real consequences illustrate the peril our press has put us in. As long as the Palestinian political players know that they can pull out of the deal, start the violence, and get the press to blame the Israelis, they always have an escape from their commitments. As one of Yasser Arafats aides put it in the early months of the Al Aqsa Intifada, when asked by a journalist why Arafat didn't move to rein in the violence: "Why should he? He feels that the whole world supports his efforts." In order for a negotiation to work, people must keep their bargains.

 

But under current conditions, why shouldn't the Palestinians stage scenes? After all, rather than catch them, the outside media finish the job with their astonishing acquiescence to Pallywood. Repeatedly we see in the rushes figures smiling and laughing, often after the scene. They know how stupid we are. France2 knows. Does Bob Simon (CBS) or Gerald Holmes (ABC)? Does Amnesty International? Or Btselem? Or are they dupes like the public? In any case we are the last to know… and, I submit, in that we are inexcusably remiss. If our media is this incompetent, it falls on us to demand better.

 

The Palestinians are very concerned about their public image. Those who would behave much better if they could - those who "hope Palestinian society will soon be rid of all of these images," would be immensely strengthened in their task of building a civil society, if their leaders knew they were held to standards, rather than encouraged by our credulity to act out in the most destructive ways. When leading Palestinian intellectuals signed a petition against suicide bombing they explicitly invoked the "harm to the reputation of the Palestinians that such actions have," as a reason to desist. Imagine how much farther that argument might have carried in Palestinian circles if the media, and such luminaries as Cherie Blair, or British MP Jenny Tongue had been a bit less understanding, and a bit more outraged.

 

Tightening up on Pallywood would have immensely beneficial effects, strengthening the hands of moderates on both sides and level the civil-society playing field. Does our press have the courage to do so? Does our public have the will to demand that they do?

 

Ironically, liberals and progressives, for whom these issues would seem most in accord with their most cherished values, seem least likely to take up the cause. And yet, this seems like a victory over terrorism that can be won without firing a shot.

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