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Palestinian Media

This week’s summit in Egypt sees the Middle East Peace Process back underway. There are, of course, stringent conditions and prerequisites for peace on both sides. Meanwhile, an organisation in Israel called Palestinian Media Watch – or PMW – says that the most meaningful gauge for the integrity for any peace process and the likelihood of its success is the degree to which the partners educate for peace. PMW accuses the Palestinian Authority of inciting terrorism and hate ideology. And it’s called on the new leadership of Mahmoud Abbas to do something about the Jew-hatred and the encouragement of child suicide bombers in school textbooks and on the media. Itamar Marcus is the founder and Director of PMW, and he’s currently touring Australia, talking to journalists and others as a guest of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies. Itamar Marcus, welcome to Radio National Breakfast.
Itamar Marcus, Director, Palestinian Media Watch: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
Presenter: Tell us about your organisation, and what it does.
Marcus: Well for the last eight years, we’ve been studying the Palestinian Authority newspapers, videotaping and translating Palestinian television, we’ve studying their schoolbooks, we studied whatever we could about Palestinian society, especially about Palestinian children, because we want to see to what extent the peace process is reflected, not just on the political level, but also is reflected on the people level, and with children.
Presenter: I think it’s one of the principles that guides your work, that the integrity of any peace process is really guaranteed by the education and in the media and all of that stuff that’s going on in the background, behind it.
Marcus: Exactly. I agree completely. In fact, I would say that there’s more importance to know what a third grade teacher is telling her students than it is to know what the new Prime Minister, the new President Mahmoud Abbas – is telling George Bush. Because what the third grade teacher is telling her students will reflect on the future much more than what the President is saying.
Presenter: As I understand it, one of the things that sets your work aside, that has gained it special respect is the empirical nature of what you do.
Marcus: Absolutely. Eighty – 90% of all of our reports are just quotes, citations. We recently finished a report that demonstrates how the Palestinians have changed this conflict from being exclusively territorial to being existential against Israel, against Jews, and 90% of that report is just quotes from their schoolbooks, from their television, to show how the Palestinians build this case.
Presenter: Isn’t there starting to be a change, though, since Mahmoud Abbas has come to power? I understand that some of this material has actually been withdrawn. Is that not so?
Marcus: There’s a lot less of it. There’s a lot less of it. What we used to have for hours and hours a day, we’re now getting sporadically. Part of the hesitation on my part to celebrate too prematurely is that we haven’t heard a different message. We’ve heard less of the old message, we haven’t heard a message of acceptance of Israel, we haven’t heard the message of acceptance of Israel in any borders. We haven’t heard that yet. When we do hear that, we’ll know there’s a real change.
Presenter: Yeah, it does strike me though that one of the key tactics as I read the material that your organisation produces, one of the key tactics of your organisations seems to be, to say that the extreme Jew hatred coming out of Palestine isn’t just coming from extremist organisations like Hamas, it’s the official policy of the Palestinian Authority, almost. In other words, at the very time that we are seeing changes now with Mahmoud Abbas in power, it seems to me that what you’re really doing is undermining the credibility of the Palestinian Authority itself, in the broad.
Marcus: The Palestinian Authority pre-Mahmoud Abbas undermined itself by promoting what you’re saying, exactly what you’re saying. These are not the words of extremists. Let me just give you one example from a children’s programme on Palestinian television. This was a musical with song and with dance and it was actually historical. And they get to a certain point and they have a man appear on the stage and he said the following: ‘The Jews are the ones who did the Holocaust. They opened the ovens for us to bake human beings. When an oven stopped burning, they would light a hundred more ovens.” Now, accusing the Jews, on a children’s programme, or essentially, teaching children through music and dance that Jews created ovens to burn them is horrific. It’s not connected to the conflict. It’s going to teach hatred amongst those children that is beyond the walls, beyond the parameters of a conflict. And this is the type of message that they’ve been getting for years. And this is on official Palestinian Authority television.
Presenter: I’ve often thought that the kind of thing that we saw just in the last week or so, that the terrible story of the boy with Down’s Syndrome fitted up with explosives and went out to kill people. What a shocking story, in a way. But that kind of thing that the, you know, martyrs and so on, comes out of a real nihilism and a real sense of despair so deeply embedded in the culture now that. I mean, what can be done to build something new in its place to move away from that?
Marcus: Well, this is terrible despair and I agree, but what’s so significant is that if you look at a timeline of the history of the Palestinians and their economic and social situation, during the entire period that Israel administered the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, that was the period of high growth and that was the period of high, the loss of despair from Palestinians, for example, when Israel got the West Bank in 1967 there were no universities, in fact there were very few of them – 90% of the area was wasteland, there was very few Palestinians there considering the masses of land. Israel did everything to improve the land for them and to improve society. Israel opened 11 universities for them. The average income grew many, many times under Israel and because of this there were actually good relations during this entire period. I say, these good relations were reflected in a very significant poll that was done in 1996, this was just two years after the Palestinian Authority took over. A Palestinian sociologist did a study and asked Palestinians, ‘how do you grade different countries in the world in democracy and human rights?’ Well, the Palestinian Authority got a 50% positive rating. Sixty percent gave France a positive rating. Sixty-five percent gave the United States a positive rating. Seventy-eight percent of Palestinians gave Israel a positive rating in 1996. And this was reflecting 26 years of Israeli administration that was absolutely the highlight of life for the Palestinians. Now what has happened is since then, the PA, the Palestinian Authority has taken over. And these were the people that came from Tunisia, this was the former PLO – and they have literally highlighted all of that goodwill. They have started to teach poison, they have started to teach hatred, they changed the schoolbooks into poison, and what has happened is they have actually undermined. Now, all of this despair that the Palestinians have today is because of this hardship and corruption and war that was brought on by their own leaders. And that’s the great tragedy here. If they really wanted peace these people and goodwill, they should be reflecting their hatred toward their own leaders who have ruined their lives and not toward Israel.
Presenter: On the other hand, it does strike me that an organisation like Hamas doesn’t seem to be structured for anything but nihilism and disaster and failure, whereas the Palestinian Authority in the broad, Mahmoud Abbas comes along, you know, we see Sa’eb Erekat on TV, they’ve dumped the army fatigues and they’re all now is suits – this is not kind of like the visual symbol of an outfit that is nihilistic and wants to kill itself. We do see change, would you not agree? I mean, are you optimistic?
Marcus: I would like to be optimistic. I’m certainly optimistic that he’s called for a cessation of violence. But until I see him change the schoolbooks, until I see him give a different message. We have never heard on television that Israel has a right to exist as a nation – not from the Palestinian Authority either. We have heard incessantly, just a few weeks ago, senior Palestinian historian. I would say a little more. It was in December, so we were talking about a month and a half ago, a senior Palestinian historian on television saying that the Jews were like a parasitic worm that kills a snail and then lives in its shell. And this was on official TV. This is the head of a history department. This was not Hamas. That rejection of Israel’s right to exist has to change.
Presenter: Very briefly, I can hear lots of people in my audience wanting me to ask you ‘what kind of messages does the Israeli media, and let’s concentrate perhaps on Israeli school textbooks, what kind of messages do they convey about the Arabs?
Marcus: Just the opposite message. I’ll give you an example actually, we studied all the, about 400 Israeli schoolbooks as well, where we wanted to find out exactly what was being said. And we found wonderful peace education, even throughout this war. For example, in a fourth grade children’s book, there is a story of an Israeli boy who is in a rowboat, and who falls in the water and he’s drowning. And there’s no one there to save him and all of a sudden, an Arab comes by in his row boat, sees him in the water and you’ve got this illustration in this school book where the Arab is bending into the water and he’s pulling this Jewish, Israeli child out of the water, and is saving his life. The message to the Israeli child is, ‘the Arabs are good people and if you’re in trouble, they’re going to save your life.’ This is beautiful peace education coming even during a time when there’s a conflict going on.
Presenter: Great to speak to you. Thank you very much for joining us on the programme.
Marcus: It was a pleasure to be with you.
Presenter: Itamar Marcus, founder and Director of Palestinian Media Watch, and a guest in Australia of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies.
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