Some of the speakers and participants said it was decades overdue. Called by the Palestinian Authority and titled "Talking to the world," the conference to discuss Palestinian PR included the top public and private brass, including President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Ahmad Qurei, Information Minister Nabil Shaath and Hanan Ashrawi as well as respected Palestinian journalists and media activists.
Held in Ramallah, the two-day conference reviewed the political scene in America, Europe, Israel. Participants discussed the status of the Palestinian cause in French-, Spanish-, and German-speaking countries, in Italy and even in Japan. They focused on the local media scene, the international wire services, and the Hebrew press including print, television and Internet media outlets.
The conference opened with a major disagreement. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat stated that the world knows what is happening to Palestinians, while member of the Palestinian Legislative Council member Hanan Ashrawi insisted that the world doesn't know and surely doesn't understand the Palestinian reality.
Some commentators attempted to bridge the gap by saying that the bare facts of what is happening in the occupied territories are available to those interested in finding them, but that the overriding image of Palestinians is a negative one. A main focus was this international image as portrayed on television, particularly in English and Hebrew.
While many diaspora Palestinians felt that support from solidarity communities in the West can result in change, the majority agreed that the key to change was in Palestine and in the hands of Palestinians of all levels. They called for a unified official position by the PA, coordination between the public and private sectors, and for a change in the attitudes of Palestinians.
Creating an office of a spokesperson with professionals, not politicians and creating daily talking points could go far in articulating such a unified Palestinian position to the public.
Speaker after speaker criticized the mistaken attempt to present the Palestinian struggle as that of a Palestinian mother appearing to celebrate the death of her son and refusing to show her real feelings or as a masked 16-year-old parading with a Kalashnikov.
The need to humanize the Palestinian image through encouraging human-interest stories and documentaries was emphasized repeatedly, as opposed to a suggestion to break cameras attempting to film negative images, which was rejected.
IMPROVING THE Palestinian image is not strictly a media issue. A number of astute speakers criticized the failure of leading political groups and factions to educate their public about the need to stop idolizing death and the militarization of the struggle.
The image of Palestinians in the Israeli media received much attention. Leading Palestinian media activists who are citizens of Israel spoke about the absence of a serious attempt to reach the Israeli public on all levels. The fear by some that such an effort could be considered normalization was quickly rejected. In addition, the need to genuinely understand the Holocaust was raised as one of the first steps in trying to reach out to Israelis.
The participants were surprised by the strength of the statement made by Shaath on the issue of incitement in the Palestinian media. He told the conferees about what happened when he discovered that an anti-Jewish Friday sermon given by a Gazan sheikh was aired live on Palestine TV. Shaath sharply attacked the sheikh, announced to the director of Palestine TV that this particular cleric would never be televised again, and insisted that a sermon espousing the opposite points of view be broadcast the following week.
Shaath also detailed his plans for reorganizing the official media on the public service broadcasting model, canceling license requirements for newspapers, and limiting media regulation to issues of public taste as decided by public representatives. A separate conference would be organized to deal with local media issues, Shaath promised.
The predicament of the Palestinians' global image was summarized by one speaker as having one of the world's most just causes represented by some of the worst defenders. An attempt, even a small one such as that initiated by the Palestinian Authority, can lead to significant results. Little will change, however, if the Palestinian leadership does not seriously take the findings of its own conference to heart, or fails to seriously pursue its implications.