A delegation of Palestinian journalists from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank toured Tel Aviv on Thursday, as part of an initiative to build bridges between the Arab media and their peers in Israel.
Among those present were three reporters from the Gaza Strip and two from the West Bank. The reporters work for a variety of news outlets, both in the Arabic and English-speaking worlds.
The trip was arranged by the non-profit Israel advocacy group “The Israel Project,” whose Web site describes the group as “an international non-profit organization devoted to educating the press and the public about Israel while promoting security, freedom and peace.”
The Israel Project focuses largely on making connections with foreign media outlets, in order to present Israel’s point of view before reports are filed. Officials at the Israel Project told The Jerusalem Post this week that they have made their Arab Media Program and forging greater connections with the Arab media a top priority of their organization.
The journalists met first with Major Avichai Edri, head of the Arabic-language branch of the IDF Spokesman’s Office. Edri is a familiar face in the Arab world, appearing on a near-daily basis on Arab TV channels from the Persian Gulf to Morocco to London, as well as on Israel’s Arabic TV channels and radio stations.
Held at a café on Rehov Ibn Gvirol with a luncheon at a restaurant on Sderot Rothschild, the meetings had a very friendly atmosphere, with the reporters and Edri talking about a number of issues, including politics, Gilad Schalit, Hamas, gays in the military, and football.
The conversation also dealt with differences in perceptions, in particular whether Operation Cast Lead was a military operation or a war.
Edri said he felt the meeting was very successful and said he felt fortunate “to be able to actually speak face-to-face with them [the journalists],” especially considering that he is “already friends with some of them on Facebook.”
Edri characterized the meeting as “the type of conversation where you learn a lot and are also able to teach a lot. There were a lot of things we spoke about where I was able to present the Israeli side of things and other issues where we just agreed to disagree.”
Edri said that, speaking to the journalists, he gained a greater appreciation of the difficulties they face in reporting from Gaza, particularly in regard to censorship and criticism of Hamas.
Edri said he wanted to present the journalists with a picture of how the IDF views the threats it faces on its borders both with Gaza and in the North.
He said that he felt that the reporters relished the opportunity to speak face-to-face with an official IDF spokesman, even though they largely disagree over the security issues facing Israel “and still don’t understand why we went to war in Gaza.”
One of the journalists, Palestinian TV broadcaster Lana Shaheen, said she appreciated the opportunity to meet fellow reporters in Israel and described the difficulties of being a reporter in the Gaza Strip.
Originally from Syria, Shaheen has lived in Gaza since 1997 with her Palestinian husband. She described living in Gaza under the Israeli blockade as “a lot of little things on top of little things that make life very difficult.”
In particular she described the lack of freedom of movement and the sporadic availability of electricity as issues that make life difficult, especially for a reporter pressured to meet deadlines. When the power is off, Shaheen said she resorts to using a generator to file stories.
In addition, Shaheen says she has to contend with significant censorship from Hamas on what journalists can report from the Gaza Strip. Such limits make it very difficult to present a completely objective picture of the situation on the ground.
Shaheen said “to some extent” Hamas controls what they can report. She used the example of a friend who works for the BBC who produced a report on the rather widespread making of homemade wine in Gaza, “and the next day we receive a statement from a Hamas spokesman saying they are supporting the enemy and this is immoral.”
Shaheen said that being a female journalist is not a big issue, and that she typically goes to work in jeans, and doesn’t wear Islamic headdress.
Shimrit Meir, senior advisor for the Israel Project’s Arab Media Program, said that the journalists had a great time in Tel Aviv, and that after the luncheon on Sderot Rothschild they headed to Jaffa to stroll around before hitting the Azrieli Mall to shop for friends and loved ones back home.
Meir said she was very pleased with how the outing turned out. “It was
exactly what we wanted. We didn’t want them to come for some hard-core hasbara
[public diplomacy] meeting, with briefings from Israeli officials. We
wanted them to be able to meet Avichai as well as Israeli journalists.
Also, we wanted them to have the opportunity to come to Israel, get out
of Gaza and see the other side in a quiet, peaceful way.”
Meir said the journalists headed back to the Gaza Strip and the West
Bank after the shopping runs, because of work and not any sort of
security regulation. She did, however, admit that it took several days
and some wrangling with Israeli authorities and those in Gaza in order
to get approval for the journalists to come.
“Everything we can do to give them a balanced atmosphere and a
different view of Israel as well as interactions with Israelis is very
positive. This human interaction is the best hasbara possible.”