ISTANBUL, 8 October — The 2013 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East opened today at the Istanbul Hilton Exhibition and Convention Centre in Istanbul, Turkey. This two-day event will focus on the evolving media-related dynamics in the Middle East and will explore how the media relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Ban Ki-moon, United Nations Secretary-General, in a message read out on his behalf, said that the resumption of direct talks was a welcome step towards reaching an agreement on an independent and viable Palestinian State living side by side in peace with a secure Israel. The status quo in the occupied Palestinian territories was not sustainable and Israeli occupation was deeply damaging to Israelis and Palestinians alike. Building an enabling environment for economic progress was now more urgent than ever. The Israeli and Palestinian people faced hard choices. Both sides should act responsibly and with restraint and should refrain from actions that risked undermining the negotiation process. Stability was critical and maximum efforts should be made to avoid violence. On the margins of the general debate this year, the Middle East Quartet had met for the first time in more than a year to support the rejuvenated peace process. The Quartet received a joint briefing by the Israeli and Palestinian chief negotiators, and the Secretary-General said he was heartened by their commitment to reach a comprehensive agreement on all the core issues.
The international community should take concerted action and collaborate with the Quartet in order to continue to advance peace and increase mutual understanding between the Israeli and Palestinian communities.
In his opening statement, Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Coordinator for Multilingualism, United Nations, thanked Turkey for hosting the 2013 United Nations Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East and said that Istanbul had served as an international crossroads of civilizations for centuries. The objectives of the seminar were twofold: to raise public awareness of the Palestinian question and the search for peace in the Middle East, and to examine the evolving media-related dynamics in the region. The international community had an important role to play in helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the United Nations would do all it could to ensure that the peace process resumed. United Nations Quartet members had renewed their commitment to reaching a comprehensive agreement.
The conflict in Syria was a major crisis facing the international community. Palestinians who had sought refuge in Syria after having been displaced from Palestine had found themselves uprooted once more. The United Nations was working on multiple fronts in an effort to resolve the crisis in Syria, humanitarian support was being provided to those affected by the crisis, and political efforts were made to achieve a lasting settlement and end impunity for those who had committed serious crimes.
Ümit Yalçin, Director General for Bilateral Political Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkey, said that perceptions mattered in today’s globalized world and that the media had a special role to play in bridging the perceptions of the Israeli and Palestinian communities by fostering mutual tolerance and understanding. The conflict had become unsustainable and a two-State solution was needed, but the continued expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories undermined peace efforts.
In his keynote address, Robert Serry, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, said that bloody conflicts continued to rage in Syria and that neighbouring countries, including Turkey, were bearing the brunt of the influx of hundreds of thousand Syrian refugees seeking a safe haven. Concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was a positive development that earlier this year direct negotiations had resumed. United Nations Secretary-General had visited the region to lend the United Nations’ support to resumed talk. The Quartet remained actively engaged in the process of seeking a resolution and was determined to lend effective support to efforts made by both parties involved in the negotiations. It was up to the parties to sustain an enabling environment that offered a real chance for negotiations to move forward, take root, and achieve results.
Peace efforts risked being overshadowed by negative trends if violent incidents and other activities violating international law continued, including recent operations by Israeli Security Forces in the West Bank and the demolition of Palestinian structures.
Following the opening session, the Seminar held two panel discussions. The first panel discussion focused on the shifting media coverage of the Middle East peace efforts and the Palestinian question, while the second panel looked at the forgotten narratives of Palestinian refugees and the contemporary news agenda.
The first panel discussion was moderated by Lyutha Al-Mughairy, Chairperson of the Committee on Information and Permanent Representative of the Sultanate of Oman to the United Nations. Participating in the panel were Ghassan Khatib, Vice-President for Advancement and Professor, Birzeit University; Ufuk Ulutaş, Director, Foreign Policy Research, SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research; and Mairav Zonzein, editor and writer of the “+972” blog and digital editor at Haaretz.com.
The second panel discussion was moderated by Ufuk Ulutaş, Director, Foreign Policy Research, SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research. Participating in the panel were Joseph Dana, correspondent, Monocle Magazine; Nour Odeh, media professional and communications consultant; and Ahmed Shihab Eldin, producer and host of Huffington Post Live.
The 2013 International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East is organized by the United Nations Department of Public Information in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey. Tomorrow, the Seminar will conclude with a panel discussion on youth activism, digital journalism, and social media in the Middle East, and a panel discussion on the role and impact of film/visual media on coverage of the Palestinian question and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, followed by a screening of the documentary film Five Broken Cameras.
PETER LAUNSKY-TIEFFENTHAL, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information, Coordinator for Multilingualism, United Nations, in his opening statement thanked Turkey for hosting the 2013 United Nations Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East and said that Istanbul had served as an international crossroads of civilizations for centuries. The objectives of the seminar were twofold: to raise public awareness of the Palestinian question and the search for peace in the Middle East, and to examine the evolving media-related dynamics in the region. The international community had an important role to play in helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the United Nations would do all it could to ensure that the peace process resumed. United Nations Quartet members had renewed their commitment to reaching a comprehensive agreement.
ÜMIT YALÇIN, Director General for Bilateral Political Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Turkey, said that perceptions mattered in today’s globalized world and that the media played a crucial role in shaping people’s perceptions. Concerning the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the media had a special role to play in bridging the perceptions of both sides by fostering mutual tolerance and understanding. The media could also advocate peace, reflect divergent narratives on the conflict in an objective manner, and help create empathy between both sides through constructive dialogue.
In recent years, the Mediterranean region had been the setting of a process of change and had seen major crises unfold, including in Syria and Egypt. Nevertheless, the Israeli-Arab conflict had not lost its significance as a major source of instability in the region. The conflict had become unsustainable and the need to settle the conflict was now more urgent than ever. A two-State solution was needed, with a Palestinian State on the basis of 1967 borders and with East Jerusalem as its capital. However, continued expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories undermined efforts to achieve a lasting solution. This two-day seminar would provide ample opportunity for representatives of the media and civil society from the region and beyond to share their views on the matter.
BAN KI-MOON, Secretary-General of the United Nations, in a message read out to participants, said that the resumption of direct talks was a welcome step towards reaching an agreement on an independent and viable Palestinian State living side by side in peace with a secure Israel. The status quo in the occupied Palestinian territories was not sustainable and Israeli occupation was deeply damaging to Israelis and Palestinians alike. Building an enabling environment for economic progress was now more urgent than ever. The Israeli and Palestinian people faced hard choices. Both sides should act responsibly and with restraint and should refrain from actions that risked undermining the negotiation process. Stability was critical and maximum efforts should be made to avoid violence. On the margins of the General Debate this year, the Middle East Quartet had met for the first time in more than a year to support the rejuvenated peace process. The Quartet received a joint briefing by the Israeli and Palestinian chief negotiators, and the Secretary-General said he was heartened by their commitment to reach a comprehensive agreement on all the core issues.
ROBERT SERRY, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process and Personal Representative of the Secretary-General to the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority, in his keynote address said that bloody conflicts continued to rage in Syria and that neighbouring countries, including Turkey, were bearing the brunt of the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees seeking a safe haven. The situation in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa remained extremely volatile, following the Arab Spring. Concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was a positive development that earlier this year direct negotiations had resumed. The Secretary-General had visited the region to lend the United Nations’ support to resumed talk. The Quartet remained actively engaged in the process of seeking a resolution and was determined to lend effective support to efforts made by both parties involved in the negotiations. It was up to the parties to sustain an enabling environment which offered a real chance for negotiations to move forward, take root, and achieve results.
Peace efforts risked being overshadowed by negative trends if violent incidents and other activities violating international law continued, including recent operations by Israeli Security Forces in the West Bank and the demolition of Palestinian structures. The situation in the Gaza strip also remained precarious and non-sustainable, and Gaza should not be forgotten in our attempts to bolster stability, strengthen the Palestinian economy and move forward on the peace track. The challenges on the ground and in the negotiating room remained daunting, but we owed it to the peoples of the region not to give up on the current chance to realize the long-overdue two-State solution.
AHMED SHIHAB ELDIN, Producer and host of Huffington Post Live and discussion moderator, opened the interactive dialogue by referring to the historic decision of the General Assembly to accord Palestine non-Member Observer State status in the United Nations, and asked how much closer we were to achieving a two-State solution.
RIYAD H. MANSOUR, Ambassador and Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the United Nations, said that the Palestinian question would remain open until the Palestinian people had realized their inalienable rights, including their right to an independent State. The Palestinians wanted to become a full member of the United Nations and would continue to work to reach that goal. The ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory remained a major obstacle, and the Palestinian application to the Security Council was not moving forward for political reasons.
Mr. SHIHAB ELDIN said that the recognition by the Palestinian Liberation Organization of the State of Israel and its right to exist in peace and security had been an important moment in the peace process. More recently, however, Israel insisted that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish State, otherwise there could be no peace with Palestine. How did Israeli insistence affect the peace process?
Mr. MANSOUR said that it was not the Palestinians’ business to define Israel as a State. Israeli settlements were illegal and Israel must cease all settlement construction activity and allow the peace process to continue. It was important to concentrate on finding practical ways of removing obstacles from the negotiation process in order to increase its chances of success. Mr. Mansour commended the European Union on adopting a set of guidelines on Israeli settlements, which, he said, sent out a clear message that Israel must comply with international law.
Mr. SHIHAB ELDIN asked what were the remaining obstacles to the Palestinians being able effectively to present their case on the international stage.
Mr. MANSOUR said that now it was a case of the Israeli narrative on the Palestinian question versus the narrative of the international community. The two-State solution could not be achieved unless Israel complied with international law and put an end to its illegal behaviour, including all settlement activity.
Mr. SHIHAB ELDIN said that Palestinian singer Mohammed Assaf’s winning the talent show Arab Idol had been seen by many as a symbol of Palestinian unity and had given new hope to the Palestinian people. What was the significance of Assaf’s victory?
Mr. MANSOUR said that Assaf and his music had brought the Palestinian question to the entire world through winning that talent show. Mr. Mansour announced that the artist was scheduled to perform at the United Nations Concert in New York on 25 November, which was when the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People would be observed this year. Mr. Mansour said that it was important to keep a positive attitude at all levels while dealing with hardship on a daily basis. For example, it was positive that children in Ramallah had access to a music centre where they could listen to classical music. There were many similar stories that inspired Palestinians to fight harder for their just cause.
Mr. SHIHAB ELDIN said that it was well-known that there were differences within the Palestinian people. How could greater unity be achieved among Palestinians?
Mr. MANSOUR said that he was grateful to all those who were helping the Palestinian people to put an end to that tragic chapter in their history and end internal divisions, from which 11 million Palestinians continued to suffer. It was in the Palestinians’ interests to establish a national Government so that the process of healing could begin.
Mr. SHIHAB ELDIN asked how territorial unity could be achieved in Palestine.
Mr. MANSOUR said that the term “ Occupied Palestinian Territory” in the singular had replaced the term “ Occupied Palestinian Territories” previously used in political language to refer to all Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem. Using for the first time a term that clearly referred to one national unit was a significant development since Palestine had been divided into three areas. It was crucial for Palestinians to connect separated parts of their homeland.
Mr. SHIHAB ELDIN asked how the Palestinian people could find the political will to move forward in the peace process when their own representatives remained divided.
Mr. MANSOUR said that the Palestinian national movement was extremely transparent and that none of its activities were secret. Palestinians were proud of their democracy and diversity but lived in extremely difficult circumstances. With Palestine being granted non-Member Observer State status in the United Nations many doors had opened. As a result, Palestine now had new tools with which to achieve lasting peace, and would seize all options available to it to protect the peace process.
Mr. SHIHAB ELDIN said that Israel’s refusal to freeze settlement construction was the reason for an increasing sense of frustration in the Government and the media, and wondered how the conflict could be resolved.
Mr. MANSOUR said that there were several months left in the negotiation process and that during that time it was important for the Palestinian side to show its commitment to the peace process. If Israel’s illegal behaviour continued to hinder the process, then the international community would have to take practical steps against those who had been acting illegally. It was high time for the international community to find a way to bring Israel into compliance with its obligations under international law.
Mr. SHIHAB ELDIN asked whether private business was key to advancing the peace process, bearing in mind that peace talks had not been as successful as one might have hoped.
Mr. MANSOUR said he hoped that occupation would end so that a two-State solution could be achieved. Palestine was currently not in control of its territory and resources, and the ongoing Israeli occupation severely affected Palestine’s livelihood. If occupation ended, then Palestine would be able to build a vibrant economy and would no longer need economic aid. An economic solution on its own would not be viable, but would have to be combined with a political solution to have real strategic value. The goal should be to create two equal States and the necessary conditions for that could only be accomplished with the help of the international community. Mr. Mansour appealed to the media to report Palestine’s story as objectively as possible.
Panel 1: Shifting Media Coverage of Middle East Peace Efforts and Question of Palestine
LYUTHA AL-MUGHAIRY, Chairperson of the Committee on Information and Permanent Representative of the Sultanate of Oman to the United Nations, said that many important developments had taken place in recent months, including the recognition of Palestinian statehood by the United Nations General Assembly, an outbreak of violence in and around the Gaza Strip in November 2012, legislative elections in Israel, the Israeli apology to Turkey for the flotilla incident, and the postponed visit of the Turkish Prime Minister to the Gaza Strip. This afternoon’s panel would discuss how narratives of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in media coverage might have shifted in light of major recent developments. The panel would also explore to what extent those changes had had an effect on the prospects for peace in the Middle East.
GHASSAN KHATIB, Vice-President for Advancement and Professor, Birzeit University, said that the Arab Spring and recent events in Egypt and Syria had created a serious challenge for Palestinians to keep the Palestinian cause alive in the public media. Young Palestinians were becoming increasingly alienated from the political process of seeking a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and were less committed to the principle of the two-State solution, because the goal seemed to be fading away. Nevertheless, a growing number of Palestinians were bringing about a more balanced attitude vis-à-vis the conflict through effective use of the social media and were raising awareness about related issues. This line of activism was in part responsible for the positive change in public opinion in Europe, which also affected the official policy of some European States. The recent decision of the European Union concerning Israeli institutions involved in settlement activity was giving rise to a serious debate at grass-roots level. As Israel had escaped the consequences of its violations of international law, many Palestinians had reached the conclusion that the only way the international community could make a real difference was by introducing elements of accountability into the process. As long as official condemnation of Israel by the countries friendly to it remained verbal, it would be difficult to move things forward.
UFUK ULUTAŞ, Director, Foreign Policy Research SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, said that media coverage of the Palestine question remained relatively biased and the shift that had occurred in recent times was only very slight. Western media usually defended the right of Israel to exist, and Israel had been working hard to influence perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its portrayal in the media. For example, during the latest attack on Gaza, Israel had been successful in putting the blame on Hamas. Social media had been influential in creating a new image of Palestinians and of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and had been pressing Western media outlets to start taking into consideration alternative sources of information on the matter. This had reduced the monopoly of mainstream media and had challenged its authority. During the recent Israeli attack on Gaza, a fight on Twitter had been conducted at the same time as the fight on the ground. Social media were increasingly forcing mainstream media to be more objective in their portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Turkey, too, social media had made a difference to how the Palestinian question was portrayed.
MAIRAV ZONZEIN, editor and writer of the “+972” blog and digital editor at Haaretz.com, said that the recent media coverage shift was linked to mainstream media catching up with what was happening on the ground. The reality of Israeli occupation was now undeniable and, thanks to the social media, it was going out to the rest of the world a lot more and was also finding its way into mainstream media. The one-State reality was very apparent in Israeli media, where the shift in media coverage was linked to the shift in Israeli politics. Ms. Zonzein illustrated this point with specific examples from the Israeli media reporting on aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel engaged in a series of activities that made the two-State solution impossible to achieve, such as settlement construction in East Jerusalem. Regardless of which solution one supported, it was important to understand what was happening on the ground, and social media had a major role to play in this.
In the ensuing discussion, participants asked questions about the impact of the absence of diplomatic and media attention to the Palestinian question in light of ongoing events in Syria and Egypt, the link between the attitude of the Turkish media towards the Palestinian question and the shift in Turkish-Israeli relations, and reports in the Israeli media of Israeli-Turkish relations and the flotilla incident.
Ms. AL-MUGHAIRY, in concluding remarks, said that discussion of the media coverage of the Palestinian question had been interesting and timely, and thanked panellists and all participants for their input.
Panel 2: Forgotten narratives: Palestinian refugees and Contemporary News Agenda
Mr. ULUTAŞ, moderator of the panel discussion, in opening remarks said that the panel would discuss important but too often unreported aspects of the story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the challenges faced by Palestinian refugees and how the portrayal of the “other” in the media could be a major barrier to peace efforts.
NOUR ODEH, media professional and communications consultant, said that there were just over 7 million Palestinian refugees whose everyday lives and the misery they endured were little known to the rest of the world. Palestinians living in Syria had now become the victims of renewed displacement and were fleeing to neighbouring countries, and media coverage of the Palestinian refugee issue often focused on such events. What the media had forgotten was that before 1948 Palestine was a thriving country with a thriving economy. The story of Palestinian refugees should be put in that context, and Palestinians should not be portrayed as an entire people in need of a handout or unwilling to work. It was unacceptable that Palestinian claims to their right to return were treated as an unreasonable demand that would destroy another State. It was important to put a human face to Palestinian refugees and talk about unreported aspects of their lives. There was much more to it than the images we usually saw in the media, such as those of angry young persons who “had to come to terms with reality”, according to a recent statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Being a refugee was a source of a trans-generational trauma, and the feeling of being uprooted would not go away until justice was found.
JOSEPH DANA, correspondent, Monocle Magazine, said that the Palestinian refugee experience and the “Nakba” had been repressed in the Israeli media, and that Israel had managed to belittle and downplay the sufferings of Palestinian refugees. As communication between the two communities had now dried out, young Israelis would not encounter Palestinians outside the context of their military service. All that had allowed Israel to exercise strong narrative control and to delegitimize Palestinian demands. It was not just the Israeli academic establishment that was contributing to the repression of the Palestinian refugee experience and the “Nakba”, but the Israeli Government was, too. Israeli laws explicitly banning the public commemoration of the “Nakba” sent out a clear message that the narrative of the Palestinian side was seen as illegal and was not accepted. Mr. Dana stressed the need for recognition of the causes and the lasting effects of both sides’ trauma. Israeli activists using immediate forms of communication were breaking free from the narrative circulating in the mainstream media world and were increasingly looking at the experience of Palestinian refugees in a positive way.
Mr. SHIHAB ELDIN said that, despite being the son of displaced Palestinian citizens, it had not always been easy for him to obtain information about the displacement of Palestinians. Palestinian citizens had been excluded from the international refugee law that was established in 1951. Since then, a lot of the clarity of who Palestinian refugees were and how they lived had been lost and Palestinians had been largely forgotten, even in the Arab world. Conversations about Palestinian refugees were often about the past or the future, but almost never about the present. Events such as Mohammad Assaf’s Arab Idol victory had reminded the world — however momentarily — of Palestinian refugees. It was important to humanize Palestinian refugees and focus on human stories, because, as many of them had fled to other countries and had taken up a new citizenship, they could easily lose their Palestinian identity.
In the ensuing discussion, a participant asked how the new generation of Palestinians communicated among themselves and what sort of information they shared. Ms. ODEH said that there was a common identity shared by all those Palestinians who carried their homeland in their hearts and minds. Geography, the passport they held, and the language they spoke had nothing to do with their Palestinian identity, but, rather, it was their common history that kept them together.
A participant asked what would be a good civic model of healing and equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis. Mr. DANA said that the debate about the refugee experience demonstrated how the settler colonial regime in Israel had been created, and how a society had appropriated aspects of the native culture. Ms. ODEH said that if there was enough momentum within Israel to come to terms with the “Nakba” and its consequences, then there might be a chance of getting past the “Nakba”. Mr. SHIHAB ELDIN said that sometimes it was the aggressor who had to lead the way to justice.
Mr. ULUTAŞ, asked what a peace between Israel and Palestine would look like. Ms. ODEH said that no Palestinian would sign an agreement that would give up a fundamental right of the majority of Palestinian people. Recognition of injustice and seeking redress should be the guiding principle of any peace process.
For information media • not an official record