Managing Palestine’s PR

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Jamal Dajani last year became the director for strategic communications and media for Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah. Before moving to Palestine, Dajani, an American citizen, was a journalist, activist and television and film producer. Editorial Director Souheila Al-Jadda spoke with Dajani.

*Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Donald Trump was elected president.

Souheila Al-Jadda: What is your strategy in communicating the Palestinian plight, or side, of this long-standing conflict?

Jamal Dajani: I am a consultant. I am, of course, Palestinian American, so they [Palestinian Authority] reached out to me to come and help in their communications and media strategy. I’ve been doing it since January. … I’m in charge of the press office for the prime minister, but at the same time, what we have is the Palestine government media center, which works with the entire government and different ministries — so the different departments that feed into the prime minister’s office. And the objective is to make sure that the communications, both to and from the prime minister and the government, is designated to the public. And also outreach for the Palestinian cause internationally, but not only … for reaching the general public, but also connecting with the Palestinians in Diaspora. As you know, half of our population is in Diaspora. So there is that message, which reaches internally and then externally.

SAJ: Part of that message is, of course, communicating your agenda with regard to the conflict. For example, Israel recently cut off water supplies in the West Bank during a very hot summer, during Ramadan. What do you think is their strategy for doing this? Do you think it’s just another Israeli tactic? Do you think all eyes are on the U.S. elections and Donald Trump, so they’re getting away with more hard-handed tactics? What do you think is going on here?

JD: I think, first and foremost, that this is probably the most radical far-right Israeli government — and I’m talking about the government of Benjamin Netanyahu — that we’ve witnessed for many years. The peace process has seen Israel building illegal settlements like crazy, appropriating Palestinian land and resources, and you said something important, which is, are they taking advantage of the U.S. elections? I think they’re taking advantage of the entire mayhem that’s inflicting the Middle East, not just the U.S. elections, but the tactic of delaying any prospect for peace while creating facts on the ground, basically to usurp more Palestinian land.

That has been the policy of Benjamin Netanyahu and most, if not all, of his predecessors. But now, as you know, we have the conflict in Syria, the never-ending conflict in Iraq, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya and so forth. So the world has been preoccupied with the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring and a massive refugee crisis. Who would have thought we’d be talking about a Syrian refugee crisis that is bigger than the Palestinian refugee crisis? Of course, the Palestinian refugee crisis is the oldest in the Middle East, but it’s no longer the biggest in terms of numbers. … Now we have this major influx to Europe. A lot of the global attention has shifted toward this, and issues around ISIS, the war on terror, terrorism, and so forth. That’s what the Israeli leadership would like to see continue, in my opinion, because it eclipses the Palestinian plight, and it’s no longer on the forefront of what they see as the global agenda. At the same time, they keep on appropriating more land and building new settlements, extracting and stealing Palestinian resources.

You mentioned the water crisis, and we have several like this, whether it’s in health, freedom of movement — of course Gaza is the largest open-air prison in the world. … [The water crisis] is just a recent example of reducing the flow of water to Palestinians during the month of Ramadan. But this is an ongoing crisis. There is a report from the UN that shows you the imbalance of water allocated for the Palestinians, for example, vis-a-vis Israelis, especially in the settlements. When Palestinians have problems [with] having enough water just for drinking and irrigating their farms, etc., Israeli settlers fill their swimming pools with it. We also have several things like the suffocating siege on Gaza. The last war on Gaza left more than 2,200 people killed, and destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes. So we have a lot of people living in destroyed homes or shelters, and it required more than $5 million to repair the infrastructure in Gaza to what it was just before the Israeli attack.   

SAJ: You had mentioned that this is one of the most hawkish governments that you’re dealing with. Do you think that, number one, this is a global trend of conservatism that’s taking place with Trump in the United States and various other European nations turning a little more conservative and hawkish? Or do you think that this turn is more localized in Israel? Do you think it’s just a natural result of the ongoing conflict? Is it making it harder for you to deal with the Israeli government?

JD: I do believe this is a global trend, including the United States. Everything affects the Palestinian plight, including Islamophobia that is now a trend in the U.S. — fueled of course by the rhetoric of people like Trump and others, and Europe. … We are part and parcel of the Arab and Muslim world. So when people have any type of xenophobia or Islamophobia against Muslims, it does not only isolate the Syrian Muslims or the Lebanese Muslims or the Iraqi, but it also includes the Palestinians. Just like in the U.S., when people see a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, they don’t care, they don’t think that she’s from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Lebanon. Unfortunately, taking it all the way back to 9/11 and the war on Iraq, this trend has been building up and driving a wedge between East and West. And I’m talking about the Middle East that is seen by many countries as the enemy, and it affects everyone. It affects the Palestinian problem, and the Israelis are taking full advantage of this.

SAJ: That’s interesting because Donald Trump has cited the Israeli practice of profiling as a legitimate policy in advocating the profiling of Muslims in the United States.

JD: Not only this, but he also proposed the building of the wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Where did these ideas come from? We have the largest apartheid-like wall in the entire world. The Berlin Wall fell … [and] the world, imagine, celebrated this. And then we have a wall imprisoning most of Palestinians in their villages and towns, and now Donald Trump wants to put a wall between the United States and Mexico. All of this thinking doesn’t come from nowhere. And then, of course, the racial profiling that Israel imposes on Palestinian travelers, based on ethnicity and religion, which is really racial profiling based on your religion. Soon, if people like him have their way, they’ll be doing that even though we know that profiling already exists with the so-called random checks. I, just like any citizen of the world or American citizen, also like to feel safe and travel safely. If it provides safety and security for all, then why not? Just like going through the metal detector … . But if it’s profiling just for the sake of profiling, that’s a major problem.

SAJ: Who do you think is better for the Palestinians — Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton? Or should I say, who is better for Israel?

JD: I don’t like to comment from the Palestinian perspective on American politics. We’re talking about Donald Trump, but as far as I’m concerned, as of now, he’s still a citizen. He’s a candidate, but not the president of the United States. At the same time, there are concerns from Palestinians and I think everyone else who watches TV and sees him saying he wants to ban Muslims from the United States, or other statements like this, or jumping to a conclusion with big brush strokes painting all Muslims as terrorists.

SAJ: Well, Israel has been painting the Palestinians as terrorists for many years. So that’s another lesson from the Israeli playbook.

JD: It is a lesson from the Israeli playbook, and Israel is at war with the Palestinians because it still occupies — even though there are negotiations and it’s different from before — but it still holds Palestinian land. At least from the Palestinian perspective, they feel there are no issues between the U.S. and Palestine, and the U.S. should be even-handed in this equation. So when you have statements like this, it is unsettling. But I don’t think it’s a matter of choice. I don’t think people view it here as Trump vs. Hillary. It’s just that Trump comes with so much negativity as far as his attitude, and xenophobia. Really, people view him as xenophobic and racist. He’s against Muslims and foreigners, he’s against Mexicans, and so forth. But it’s not about the policies. People know U.S. policy is always in favor of Israel. It doesn’t matter which president, since there isn’t a balance. But this scenario is totally different because you have someone from the get-go personalizing the race against certain ethnicities and groups. It’s part of his campaign.

SAJ: Has the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement affected the Palestinian communications strategy, and has it affected its hand in the power play between Israel and the Palestinians, and the negotiations or non-negotiations?

JD: The official position of the government of Palestine is that the government supports the boycott of Israeli goods made in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It’s different than the total boycott. There is a difference here. I’m just giving you the official perspective. The official government here embraces boycotting Israeli goods that are made in settlements because they’re made in occupied Palestinian land. But they stop there, so there is a difference between that and [the] entire BDS. So far, that’s the official position. Will this change? I don’t know. But this is the official position.

As far as BDS itself, obviously we see something that is a measurable result, that it poses a major threat to Israel, otherwise why would the Israeli government give 100 million shekels to combat it? And then Haim Saban and Sheldon Adelson raised $60 million also to combat it. I think it is having an effect. It’s also creating a lot of publicity. We’re also seeing a debate in the international arena, whether the U.S. or Canada or Europe, where we’re seeing government positions, like in the U.S., and certain localities coming up with laws trying to penalize companies who support the BDS movement. But what we’re seeing … is a grassroots rejection to this. In other words, the public is rejecting that. It has become a personal choice, and it should be like anything else that you want to purchase or not. That’s the interesting aspect of it. Israel is spending millions of dollars trying to combat it and come up with a strategy to vilify the people who are in it, and of course penalize companies that support it. But … I go back to what happened in South Africa and the success of a similar thing that happened [there]. Obviously there are people in the world who are making this connection.

SAJ: Do you think there are any movements by the Palestinian side toward adopting a one-state solution strategy?

JD: There are certainly supporters. There have always been supporters of the one state. Not just on the Palestinian side, but also on the Israeli side. They have been the minority. But interestingly enough … the Israeli government’s actions in increasing the number of settlers on Palestinian land and etc., is moving into that direction. Inadvertently, I think, they’re moving into [that] direction because they are killing the hope of the two states. … If they keep doing this, what hope is left? Or how much will be left of that state if they keep proceeding in that route? The alternative to this would be a de facto one state, because you don’t officially have a free Palestinian state. They don’t want to do that.

But at the same time, they’re keeping an entire population that is outgrowing the number of Israelis here and you’re keeping them under a one-state system that will end up an apartheid state. Israel is going on two tracks now. They want the land without the people, but they can’t get rid of the people. And they want people to recognize it as a Jewish state. So if you’re not going to have a Palestinian state, you’re going to have one state with a Palestinian majority or equal community, but under one racist system that favors Jews against others. That would be the net result, I think. That’s what we’re moving toward if Israel continues anywhere on this path.

SAJ: What are the Palestinians doing wrong when it comes to dealing with Israel and attaining their rights?

JD: No one is perfect. I think mistakes might have been made, but it’s hard to pinpoint and say we’re doing this wrong or that wrong because, at the end of the day, you are the oppressed, and you cannot equate our situation with the Israelis. There is not a level playing field to say we could have done it this way. They have all the control and the power, and it’s very hard really to tell you. I’d like to see unity between all the Palestinians. That, I think, would probably be the best scenario. The split between Fatah and Hamas has to end. I like to look at the cup half full and not half empty, and think, what can we do better? We need unity, we need cohesiveness, that’s for sure, to make sure we can achieve our freedom. We also can’t visit the past because, at the end of the day, you can say that what affects Palestine should hurt every single Arab in the Middle East and what affects Syria should affect everyone. But unfortunately, things have changed because we are part of the entire region.

SAJ: How is it between Fatah and Hamas? Is there unification? Is Hamas hurting? What is happening on that front?

JD: The government here by Rami Hamdallah is a consensus government, meaning it has reached consensus by both Fatah and Hamas. It’s not a unity government. They are striving to reach the unity government. I think that’s when all the differences will be set aside, and Palestinians will all come together. At some point — and we are not yet at that point — just like any democratic society in the world, Fatah and Hamas and other factions will be political parties, just like the Democrats and Republicans. Because we are not yet at this stage, all of these movements started as liberation movements and they have not yet transformed. At some point, they will come to [realize] a common goal, which is the liberation of Palestine and having a sovereign country. These movements then will just become like regular political parties.

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This article appears in the Summer/Fall 2016 print issue of The Islamic Monthly.

The magazine can now be purchased with print on demand! Click on this link to purchase a single issue.

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    Souheila Al-Jadda

    Souheila al-Jadda is the Editorial Director at The Islamic Monthly
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