Spanish perspectives I: an interview with Ignacio Alvarez-Ossorio

John Collins is currently living in Madrid and conducting interviews with Spanish intellectuals, journalists, and activists about the Palestine solidarity movement in Spain. He recently spoke with Ignacio Alvarez-Ossorio, who teaches at the University of Alicante and who has published widely on the Palestinian issue. Alvarez-Ossorio began by noting that until recently, Spanish intellectuals have paid very little attention to Palestinian politics. (This interview is the first in a series of Spanish perspectives.)

How would you explain this gap?

The Palestinian question is something that has only drawn attention in certain, usually media-driven moments, and after these moments there have been periods during which the Palestinian question has been almost totally ignored. During the 1960s, we had the Six Day War, and there was a movement among certain segments of the Left in Spain to express solidarity with Palestinians as a “Third World” cause. But this was followed by a long period during which the Palestinian question was ignored, really until 1982, with the evacuation of the PLO from Beirut and the massacres in Sabra and Shatila. These events brought Spanish civil society back into contact with Palestine. People held meetings and demonstrations, formed working groups, and so forth, as a way to express their solidarity.

Professor Ignacio Alvarez-Ossorio

But then we had to wait again until the [first] intifada in 1987 for the solidarity movement to reassert itself. This period from 1987 to 1989 was when we saw the first solidarity visits of Spaniards who went to see the situation on the ground. There was also greater media attention from journalists who previously had not gone, since very few national newspapers had correspondents in the area. But thanks to the intifada, we began to see a greater interest, and the media began to show us the reality of daily life for Palestinians. This changed the parameters [for understanding the conflict] that had existed until that time. Of course there had been solidarity with the Palestinian people, but it’s also true that Israel was generally seen in the role of David fighting the Arab Goliath. The intifada changed this a bit.

Then there was another decline in attention paid to Palestine, and we had to wait until the 1991 Madrid Conference and the 1993 Oslo Accords. These events, however, actually produced something negative. After all the solidarity that had been built up during 1987 and 1988, these groups began to demobilize. Why? They started buying the idea that the peace process was back on track, that we were facing a historic moment, that peace was only a question of time, and that the Palestinian autonomy [authority?] had created unstoppable momentum toward an independent Palestinian state. So this movement that had its roots in the intifada years started to dissolve itself, believing that its objectives had been met.

So another process started after 1993, and we had various periods of crisis, such as the election of Netanyahu in 1996 and the outbreak of the new intifada in 2000, when [the solidarity movement in Spain] tried in some way to reconstitute itself, but only in an episodic way—for a meeting, a demonstration, a benefit concert—instead of in a systematic way. It was only in 2002, when the intifada and the Israeli repression reached their highest point, that civil society in Spain realized that there may not be a negotiated solution in the offing and that it was therefore necessary to reactivate the solidarity movement. So many people who had been involved in the movement came back after almost ten years, during which they had followed events passively, and tried little by little to get the movement going again with some new blood. All of the mobilization against the Iraq war in 2003 also played an important role, because [the solidarity activists] were able to take advantage of this climate in order to press for a similar attitude toward the Palestinian question. This was when various organizations, such as the Palestina Ahora (Palestine Now) platform, were formed.

I’d like to ask about the general level of knowledge and consciousness among the Spanish people about the Palestinian issue. I’m very interested in the question of the connection, or lack of connection, between political attitudes and the level of information that is available to people.

In my opinion, there is more solidarity than knowledge, which is to say that there is a general feeling of solidarity that is not necessarily rooted in a deep familiarity with the issues. People may know some basic elements of the conflict—the Zionist movement, that there was a British Mandate and a partition plan, that Israel was created in 1948, that there have been various wars since then, and so forth. But this is largely superficial information, in my view. And you see this when you’re speaking on TV or on the radio, giving interviews. It’s all very basic, and when you try to go in depth, to go to the details—for example to discuss internal struggles within the Palestinian Authority or to discuss the specific goals of the Islamic movement in Palestine—you realize that some basic information is lacking. When the time for questions comes, you see it, that there are certain issues that you thought were generally understood when in fact they are not.

We need to ask why this is the case. How could a situation that is covered in the press, that is talked about on the TV news, about which rivers of ink have been spilled, be so poorly understood by the general public? When we analyze the work of the Spanish media, we notice that they tend to focus all of their attention on things that don’t actually provide the keys to understanding the conflict. These keys are totally passed over—things like who is the occupier and who is being occupied, basic information about the actual distribution of territory. Many people believe that a Palestinian state already exists. So perhaps we need a stronger effort in this area, to explain the key issues and the daily realities. We also need better graphics, because maps can help clarify things significantly. You can’t write three pages in a newspaper trying to explain the Oslo process, the cantonization of the occupied territories, without providing a single map. It’s very rare to see a map when the Palestinian question is discussed here.

In the U.S., the occupation has disappeared. The word “occupation” rarely appears in the news. Here, just last week I heard a newscaster say that the Palestinian economy is in ruins after four years of intifada. But they didn’t say anything about the almost forty years of occupation.

Exactly. The episodes of violence receive about fifty percent of the attention in the media. Another forty percent covers changes of government, elections, and so forth. These are the moments when they pay the greatest attention and send special correspondents to the region. Only the remaining ten percent, sadly, touches on the major issues that could actually help us understand the Palestinian question. I’m talking, of course, about the conditions in which the Palestinian people actually live, about economic issues, about what type of future they have to look forward to, about the impact of the settlements. These are central issues, not side issues, but normally they are completely passed over by the media, who prefer to concentrate on episodes of violence that, to be honest, give us very little useful information about the conflict.

Another issue is that until the Madrid Conference it was practically impossible to find any interview with any leading Palestinian in the Spanish press. Only with the Madrid Conference did people begin to realize that the Palestinians weren’t only the PLO, weren’t only Arafat, weren’t only the guerrillas. Until 1991 the Palestinians were associated largely with violence. There were no interviews with Palestinian intellectuals or novelists, so Palestine was reduced to a violent place where people throw stones and plant bombs. But with the Madrid Conference it became clear that Palestinians are also lawyers, academics, students, and this was really a shock for Spanish society, to see Hanan Ashrawi, Saeb Erakat, and Haidar Abdel Shafi. It was a real psychological shock, and we began to hear people talk about Palestinians in much more positive terms and to blame Israel more for the situation in the region.

So from the early 1990s things really started to change. We started translating a lot of Palestinian literature—not only Mahmoud Darwish, who is probably the most translated, but also other less famous authors whose work showed what life is like in the territories. Many authors came here, many politicians came here to give lectures and interviews, so they were regularly seen in the media. I think that all of this, little by little, has modified the image of the Palestinian, who is now seen more in the role of David rather than as the aggressor, as the victim rather than as the terrorist portrayed in the media during the 1970s and 1980s.

At the same time, it’s also true that the al-Aqsa intifada of 2000 has reversed this process somewhat. The Israeli strategy of portraying Arafat as if he were bin Laden’s brother in the field of international terrorism has been successful. We saw this in the breakdown of the Camp David negotiations, when some of the Spanish press blamed Arafat for missing a “historic opportunity” for peace. Here we have to recognize that the words of Israeli politicians had their effect.

We also can’t ignore the fact that Spain’s relations with the Palestinians depend in part on relations with Israel. Spain established diplomatic relations with Israel in 1986, and the Socialist Party [the PSOE, which is currently in power] maintains a good relationship with the Israeli Labor Party. So the media often tends to act as a sort of echo of the Labor perspective, the perspective of people like Shimon Peres, like Shlomo Ben Ami, the former Israeli foreign minister and ambassador to Spain, who is of Sephardic origin and was born in Tangier. He is an excellent communicator who knows exactly what to say in each moment, and he succeeded in putting the blame not on Sharon, but on Arafat for rejecting the “generous offer” supposedly extended by Ehud Barak at Camp David and at Taba.

So there are many factors here, not only civil society but also the media, and the relations that a particular government or party might have with Israel. All of this helps make sure that the Israeli point of view normally prevails over the Palestinian point of view in the press. It’s interesting, for example, that many Spanish newspapers tend to feature articles written by Israeli intellectuals such as Amos Oz, David Grossman, Ben-Ami, but almost nothing from Palestinians as a counterweight. When something happens, and even when they want to get a Palestinian perspective, they often turn to a “dovish” Israeli writer from the Labor camp, and they trust them to give the opinion of the Palestinians. There used to be a counterweight to this: Edward Said, who published often in the Spanish press, but since his death it seems that there is no one to replace him. There have been occasional exceptions, such as Mustafa Barghouti, but no one with the same depth and influence as Said, who was well known to a Spanish audience since most of his works have been translated into Spanish. So the press tends to turn to Israelis from the “peace camp” to speak for the Palestinians. But of course they can’t give the perspective of the Palestinians who are actually dying every day.

John Collins is Assistant Professor of Global Studies at St. Lawrence University. He is the author of Occupied by Memory: The Intifada Generation and the Palestinian State of Emergency, published by New York University Press (2004) and the co-editor of Collateral Language: A User’s Guide to America’s New War (NYU Press, 2002).

Ignacio Alvarez-Ossorio is associate professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Alicante. He is the author of El proceso de paz de Oriente Medio: historia de un desencuentro(Madrid: Agencia Espanola de Cooperacion Internactional, 1999) and El miedo a la paz: de la guerra de los seis dias a la segunda Intifada (Madrid: Los Libros de la Catarata, 2001) and, most recently, co-editor of Espana y la cuestion palestina (Madrid: Los Libros de la Catarata, 2003).