In the world of public relations, perception is everything. Take companies, for instance. How a company’s product or service is perceived by the outside world can have an amazing impact on that company’s ability to function effectively.
But public relations is not just employed in big business. Welcome to the Middle East, where reality has often taken a back seat to the best PR campaign. As one official at the New York-based Israeli Consulate put it, “We are currently engaged in a conflict with the Palestinians, and engaging in a successful PR campaign is part of winning the conflict.” The Israelis even went so far as to hire two American public relations firms — Rubenstein Associates and Morris, Carrick & Guma. For the average Palestinian Joe besieged in the Occupied Territories, their reality is being clouded by the perception that Israel is fighting for basic survival. And unless reality on the ground is known by the outside world, perceptions will continue to win out. Neither an end to the violence nor a meaningful peace are going to be possible. Consider some of the following perceptions currently held by the public:
1] If President Yasser Arafat is gone, Israel will finally get a “real” peace partner, and the conflict will come to an end.
The fact is that Arafat is not the issue. The Israeli Occupation of Palestinians is the issue. Regardless of who comes into power, Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank have said that their resistance will continue until they are free. And international law is on their side: resistance against occupation is legal.
2] The Israeli Defense Force only fires on Palestinians when fired upon.
More than 250 Israeli soldiers now refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories, and several of them have told stories of complete disregard for Palestinian life. One Israeli soldier even noted to Israel’s Channel 2 that he saw Israeli soldiers competing among themselves to see who can kill the most Palestinians. In one case, a ten-year-old child was killed for doing absolutely nothing.
3] Suicide bombers are just trying to get into paradise.
There is a debate among Palestinians regarding the utility of suicide bombings as a legitimate tool of resistance. But there is no debating as to the types of individuals who volunteer for these attacks: poverty-stricken, depressed, and/or witnesses to violence against a loved one. Revenge is more likely to be the reason.
4] Palestinian parents don’t care about their kids.
Palestinian parents mourn like any other parents who have lost their children. And like typical parents, they cannot always control their children’s every action. As little Ahmed told CNN at the beginning of the Uprising while he and his classmates were planning their stone throwing tactics, his parents had no idea what he was up to nor did he care what they think. Parents have said they are at a loss on how to keep their kids in the house, and they are all dealing with the post-traumatic stresses afflicting their children as best as they can.
5] Palestinian children are taught to hate through their textbooks.
A thorough study recently carried out by George Washington University Professor Nathan Brown on Palestinian textbooks found that the textbooks were fair. Brown stated that Palestinian and Israeli schools handle an awkward political situation more similarly “than either side would like to admit.”
6] Israel only assassinates leaders who have orchestrated acts of terror against Israel.
Not only are there no trials held for those assassinated to determine their guilt, but several of those killed were not even supporters of armed struggle. Consider the murdered Dr. Thabet Thabet, a Palestinian dentist, who used to organize round tables for Palestinians and Israelis in an effort to promote peace. But even if he did support armed struggle, as Hanan Ashrawi recently noted to Calvin College students, “Nobody gave Israelis the God-given right to pick and choose who lives and who dies.”
7] Palestinians turned down Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s generous offer.
The so-called generous offer allowed for a Palestinian state which resembled disconnected populated islands, as well as the maintenance of 80% of existing illegal Israeli settlements. Sovereignty in East Jerusalem consisted of a few Arab neighborhoods. As former Israeli head of security, Ami Ayalon said, the notion that Barak’s offer was generous is “ridiculous.”
It’s been said that the first casualty of war is often truth. This has proven no less true in the Middle East.
And this first casualty is leading to many human casualties. Ultimately, reality will need to supercede perception for peace to be achieved.
Sherri Muzher is a Palestinian-American activist, lawyer, and freelance journalist.