By Stuart Littlewood
Some time ago Hamas complained that the Palestinian Authority was not getting its message across thanks to "poorly qualified or unqualified spokespersons with inadequate political and linguistic abilities".
Diplomacy had failed and the Palestinians needed “professional spokespersons with excellent knowledge of the world and mastery of foreign languages, especially English, to tell the world in a straightforward manner that Israel is a murderer, liar and land thief…"
How right Hamas is. Israel is the undeserving winner in the propaganda game. The Palestinians squander their chances and make little impact even though truth and justice are on their side. They occupy the moral high ground but consistently lose the all-important war of words. Why? The Palestinian General Delegation in London, for example, is blessed with two very talented people who should be making an impression.
Professor Manuel Hassassian took up his post as ambassador two and a half years ago, arriving at a critical moment in Palestinian diplomacy. He’s an academic “big gun” – a BA in Political Science from the American University of Beirut, an MA in International Relations from Toledo University, Ohio, USA, and a PhD in Comparative Politics from the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.
Before his appointment to this vital London job he was executive vice-president of Bethlehem University as well as professor of political science and president of the Palestinian-European-American Cooperation in Education (PEACE) programme. Among other things, he’s an expert on Palestinian civil society and citizenship, the right of refugees to return and church affairs. And he’s very articulate.
Husam Zomlot is the Oxford Research Group’s Middle East consultant and political adviser to the Palestinian diplomatic effort in the UK. Another highly qualified academic, Zomlot has a BA in Economics and Political Science, an MSc in Development Studies, and his PhD thesis dealt with international peace building and post-conflict reconstruction aid programmes.
He has worked with the UN, the London School of Economics and the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute. He lectured on international economics at the University of London and has contributed to several books, including State formation in Palestine: viability and governance during a social transformation – heavy stuff by the sound of it. Zomlot is an expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Palestinian and Arab politics, transitional economies, and bilateral and multilateral negotiations.
These are the voices appointed to speak to Western diplomats and media on behalf of a dispossessed, tormented and humiliated people in what is possibly the world’s hottest of hot-spots. The General Delegation also has a public relations person, so with a team like this the Palestinians surely can’t go wrong.
During the Palestinian elections (January 2006) I tuned in to British TV and radio expecting informed comment from key Palestinians. The BBC wheeled in people whose English was often so bad as to be almost unintelligible, while giving generous air-time to well-rehearsed Israeli propagandists.
This prompted a letter of frustration to the BBC. “Why wasn’t the Palestinian ambassador at the forefront of your election news coverage?" I wanted to know. "I understand from the Palestinian Delegation in London that he was interviewed for the World Service and one or two digital channels, but that hardly gave mainstream viewers such as myself a chance to hear the authentic voice of Palestine…"
The BBC’s reply gave links to a few reports most of which had indeed been broadcast on the World Service rather than domestic channels. “I saw and heard none of them,” I wrote back. “Also you do not say why the official voice of Palestine in the UK, Professor Manuel Hassassian, is so seldom heard.”
Is Hassassian’s team not pushy enough? Has the tame Fatah administration in Ramallah ordered them to dumb down and not rock the boat? Or is it a case of not being “savvy” enough? One thing is certain: they are no match for the Israeli lie machine.
I twice asked the General Delegation’s London office to copy me on all press releases, and they twice promised to do so. I have received nothing except a few notices about forthcoming demonstration and suchlike, nothing a journalist could use to develop a good story. Are they not bothering to brief the press and TV? Is there no attempt to educate and inform?
How are British people supposed to understand the Palestinian point of view? The appalling situation in the West Bank and Gaza, which can be traced back to Britain’s foolishness 90 years ago, is massively relevant to us in the West today: it’s about Israel’s grand theft of the Holy Land, no less, and the terrorizing of its Christian and Muslim communities.
Hamas’s Haniyeh, Al-Zahar and Abu Zuri, and even the Catholic priest Fr Manuel Musallam, all bottled up in Gaza, seem far more effective with their limited access to news organizations than Hassassian and Zumlot in London with the world’s media on their doorstep. It is puzzling that Prof Hassassian, who comes from the besieged town of Bethlehem and ran a university that has been closed 12 times by the Israeli invader and shelled by Israeli tanks, apparently cannot make himself heard. As a Christian Palestinian with the highest credentials, one might have thought he’d find a ready audience here in Britain.
But academic guns are not necessarily the right calibre for counter-propaganda work, and Hamas have a point. Getting the message across, exposing Israeli disinformation, broadcasting the truth and setting the news agenda are tasks that require diplomats and senior politicians to be properly trained in Western media and publicity skills. The Palestinian Authority needs a shrewd communication strategy, a more proactive style and the right people to carry it off.
They must be able to refute and demolish Israel’s distorted definition of the conflict and re-frame it in Palestine’s terms, based on truth and justice.
Otherwise, the General Delegation in London might as well pack its bags.
-Stuart Littlewood is author of the book Radio Free Palestine, which tells the plight of the Palestinians under occupation. For further information visit: www.radiofreepalestine.co.uk.