Throughout the world, people have participated in peaceful demonstrations and public discussions about Israel’s construction of the wall in the West Bank. Controversy remains about the reasons behind the wall. Moreover, people are concerned about the health and economic effects the wall has on the Palestinians.
Dialog is crucial in the resolution of this controversial issue. As people continue voicing their opinions, here is an example of one panel discussion that took place a few weeks ago. It was at the University of Chicago’s International House. The panelists included: Ali Abunimah, Vice-President of the Arab-American Action Network and Co-Founder of The Electronic Intifada; Roxanne Afaf, journalist; Norman G. Finkelstein, Assistant Professor of Political Science at DePaul University; and Derek Jinks, Visiting Professor of Law at U of C.
Panelists shared their perspectives about the wall in 15-minute-segments. Their viewpoints gave overviews about the legal, political and humanitarian ramifications of the wall. American mainstream media was analyzed at the event. Panelists offered forward-looking solutions. The discussion included a Q&A session with the audience.
Finkelstein opened the discussion with the question: why does so much controversy surround the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? He stated the conflict is not complicated. “There’s pretty much a broad perception amongst scholars about what actually happened,” Finkelstein said. In 1948, Palestinians were expelled from their land. So scholars agree on the historical record. Finkelstein read through twenty years of human rights reports from organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. “They hardly disagree about anything in fact it sounds like the same person is writing it,” Finkelstein said. Why all the controversy if there is consensus on the historical and human rights record?
Finkelstein explained that what he sees as legitimate disagreement can be broken down into two categories: factual consensus and moral judgment. People agree that Palestinians were expelled from their land for an ethnic cleansing. However, Finkelstein stated there is a difference of moral opinion on how to resolve the question: do Palestinians have a moral right to return after fifty years? Therefore, moral and political, legitimate agreements cause disagreements.
What Finkelstein sees as illegitimate disagreements are the attempts to envelope the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with clashes of religion and civilization. He stated none of these attempts help facilitate understanding of the conflict. “The holocaust card and the new anti-Semitism are all acts to obfuscate, divert and confuse the issue,” Finkelstein said. He stated that 90 per cent of the new anti-Semitism is criticism of Israel and its conduct of ethnic cleansing. This propaganda turns the perpetrator into the victim and that the “… most pernicious, massive production of sheer fraud and fabrication on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … has the backing of the mainstream media.”
Abunimah continued with an examination of the wall. He sees it as the culmination of a project to colonize the Occupied Territories with Israeli Jews. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told the settlers go grab the hilltops. However it has created “… a completely unintended consequence along with making a Palestinian state unfeasible and unviable it has also made a Jewish state unfeasible and unviable and unsustainable and this is now the conundrum Israeli faces.” Abunimah explained Israeli has created a pre-1948 situation.
He looked at the demographics of the region. The Israeli side of the 1967 line Israel established in 1948 has five million Israeli Jews and more than one million Palestinians. On the Palestinian side in the West Bank, there are over two million Palestinians and 400,000 Israeli Jews. “They are not neatly parceled into distinct areas, they are completely intermixed,” he said. According to Abunimah, a partition line cannot be drawn which satisfies the majority of the Israelis and the Palestinians. The reason is the maximum the Israelis are willing to offer is far less than what most Palestinians will accept. Palestinians will not abandon their basic, human rights.
What does he see as the solution? “We need to start thinking in a completely different paradigm,” Abunimah said. “If you can’t divide the land, then give 100 per cent of the land to 100 per cent of the people.” The reality on the ground proves that a situation has to be created where everyone’s needs are met.
“The world is full of conflict,” he said. “But the world is also full of reconciliation…and a recent example of that is South Africa.” Abunimah says people must engage in dialog — otherwise people have resigned themselves to eternal conflict.
Jinks reviewed the legal dimensions of the conflict from the perspective of international lawyers. He stated international law has assumed a central role within the international community in discussions about the ramifications of the wall. According to international law, the territories are occupied. “Irrespective of claims of right, international human rights law and perhaps international humanitarian law provide a basic, legal framework within which the interests of both sides can be articulated,” Jinks said. “The injuries and intensive suffering of the Palestinian people can be expressed within…international law…that can be understood.”
In this speech, Jinks stated Israel advanced several claims about the legitimacy of international law. Israel argues international human rights law and humanitarian law are inapplicable in the Occupied Territories. Israel does not see the territories as occupied. At the time Israel acquired authority over the territories, the claim of right to the land through sovereign authority could not no be claimed by any state in the world. Therefore, the land was not captured by a sovereign.
Another claim by Israel and the United States is that international law has no role in defining the absence of security concerns with respect to the Israeli government. Jinks explained when it comes to international humanitarian law; the object of these rules is to govern the conduct of nations when they fight wars. Basically, these rules become in effect when there is a severe threat to national security. Israel states international organizations have no jurisdiction.
“My hope is there will be meaningful exchange about the wall,” Jinks said. “I hope international law provides a language where some agreement can be reached.”
Afaf examined some American mainstream media sources for coverage of the conflict. When reporters cover events, they cover the “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” and “so what.” It is the “so what” that becomes controversial. She reviewed some recent, newspaper articles. Media coverage focused on the Palestinian suicide bomber and the legitimate grief of Israeli Jews.
Statistics and figures play an important role in media coverage. Afaf displayed a framing and content analysis about the use of the words “wall,” “fence” and “barrier” for two media sources. She looked at National Public Radio and ABC over a two-year period. An interesting find is that NPR’s use of the word “barrier” increased from 8 references in 2002, to 166 references in 2003. Total references to wall, fence and barrier totaled 212 in 2002, while they totaled 385 in 2003.
On the other hand, ABC had 64 total references in 2002; and they had 54 total references in 2003. The word “wall” was used a total of 37 times in 2002. Then it decreased to 21 times in 2003.
Her presentation showed that journalists are sensitive to words because of the affect they have on listeners. It demonstrates that media sources are influenced by external pressures.
“Words are powerful,” Afaf said. “As long as we in the United States live in a democracy that holds the fates of other living people in our hands…our public consciousness will be hailed in high regard … and our journalists are the conduits of those influences.”
The panel discussion demonstrated that dialog about the wall not only informs the public, but it encourages people to do something about it.