This April, at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, I attended “The Israel-Palestine issue,” a panel discussion about the UN vote that granted Palestine non-member observer state status. An event about the Israel-Palestine conflict often attracts a crowd of supporters of both sides, as well as voyeurs with an opinion. The panel in Perugia was no different.
Alessia Schiaffini, a reporter at Radiotelevisione Italiana (RAI), was the moderator. The panel featured four speakers from Israel, Italy, Morocco, and Palestine. This was my first time attending a public discussion featuring a Palestinian and an Israeli, and, admittedly, my expectations were high. I wanted to gain a better understanding of the viability of an independent Palestinian state, but was left disappointed by the exchange of ideas.
Schiaffini opened the floor with some data: In November 2012, a total of 138 UN member countries voted to elevate Palestine as a non-member observer state. Forty-one countries abstained, and nine voted against the resolution.
Prior to the UN vote, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had asked the 193-member countries to “issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine.” The General Assembly obliged him. But months later, there remain unanswered questions about the legitimacy of that birth certificate.
The panelists discussed whether the UN vote had any real impact on peace negotiations. “The situation has gotten worse and worse,” said Ahmad Rafiq Awad, a Palestinian professor at Al Quds University.
“Settlers and the [Israeli] army punish us collectively.”
Panelist Zouhir Louassini, a Morocco-born journalist working for RAI, said, “The UN vote was a decision to justify the silence.” In other words, after decades of inaction, the international community wanted to appear as a relevant broker of peace in the Middle East.
Israeli journalist Meron Rapoport stated that Palestine’s new status at the UN is “merely symbolic.” Although it’s an important tool for Palestinians who are invested in a diplomatic solution, the vote changes nothing in the eyes of many Israeli politicians.
The positions of the panelists were familiar and entrenched.
“If Palestinians recognize the Jewish state, they lose Palestine,” said Awad. “Palestinians want peace and security more than anything in the world…but the Israeli mainstream does not want to solve the occupation crisis,” he continued.
According to the Ramallah-based professor, the settlers in Hebron, approximately 500 – 800 Jews, run a campaign of terror on the Muslim and Christian Arab population. “We cannot live with them…Israel wants an apartheid state. They want everything: land, acceptance, normalization with the Arab world, security,” he added.
The audience gave him a rapturous applause.
“We in the Diaspora are less biased,” interjected Louassini, the Moroccan journalist now based in Italy. “Abu Mazen (Mahmoud) is corrupt. Hamas is seen as a terrorist organization by the West. But both parties – Israelis and Palestinians – need to understand that they’re not the only ones with problems [in the world]. Neighboring fanatics are exploiting the situation,” he said.
Out of all the speakers, I found Louassini’s ideas to be the most fresh and forthright. “As an Arab, I am theoretically pro-Palestine,” he continued. But as a Moroccan-born journalist, Louassini is baffled by elements of “Jew-hatred” in the Arab world because, in his native country, Jews lived amicably with their Arab Muslim neighbors for centuries. Louassini also challenged Israel’s paranoia about its illegitimacy in the Arab world. He explained that Al-Jazeera, the most credible name in Arab media, often features Israeli spokesmen on its programming to ensure a balanced coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Gigi Riva, the foreign news editor at L’Espresso, believes the mainstream of Israel and Palestine are radicalized. He stated bluntly that “The defect is in the leadership.” In Riva’s opinion, Israel should negotiate a two-state solution at the earliest opportunity, because, in a few decades, the country will lose its Jewish character. “Palestinians have more children, and, in the future, they will outnumber Jewish citizens,” he said.
“It’s [distasteful] to count Jewish heads, Palestinian heads,” Rapoport interjected. “It takes us away from the solution.”
After decades of little progress towards their objectives, both Rapoport and Louassini suggested that the Palestinians turn their plight into a civil rights issue, rather than an ethno-religious one. “But are they interested?” Louassini asked. “[Many] people benefit from the [international humanitarian] aid.”
The Palestinian on the panel didn’t agree with the civil rights angle. “We want freedom. Freedom, because it’s a gift from God,” Awad insisted. Because he didn’t articulate the conditions of that freedom, Awad’s diatribe sounded like an empty battle cry. The audience may have felt differently, because, after Awad’s passionate pleas, their applause thundered through the fresco-painted room at the Cathedral of San Lorenzo.
I also noticed something interesting: That afternoon, the Palestinian professor repeatedly referred to the Israeli journalist as his “friend.” Depending on one’s vantage point, it sounded diplomatic or disingenuous.
But it wasn’t long before we saw the awkward dance between the leftist Israeli (a label Rapoport rejects), and the Palestinian pundit. At one point, Awad challenged the accuracy of Rapoport’s death math. The Israeli journalist had stated that 23,000 Jews and Israelis have died as a result of the Israel-Palestine conflict, which has been going on for 120 years.
“Are you sure about that?” Awad insisted. “One must not say things without being sure.”
Rapoport smiled tensely and said, “Yes, am sure.”
The panel discussion ended with very little time for questions from the audience. As I packed up to leave, I wondered about the impact of rhetoric recycling on the Israel-Palestine conflict.