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The Palestinian Authority government will recover Gaza sooner than people think, PA Information Minister Riyad al-Malki told a group of Israeli and Palestinian journalists in Ramallah on Tuesday.
"We're working on the notion that what happened in Gaza is temporary, and we are working towards winning Gaza back," he said.
The media personnel were present under the auspices of The Mideast Press Club, a project of The Media Line dedicated to fostering cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian journalists.
Malki, who was appointed two months ago as a member of the emergency government, was charged with the immediate task of finding proper responses to the emergency situation created by the Hamas coup in Gaza.
It was a situation that the Palestinians had never experienced, he said, and one that did not have precedents elsewhere, so there was nothing from which to learn.
"We're not a state, but we have a political faction in power using a military coup against the government, and they control one part of the country separated from another part of the country by a third country," Malki explained in a nutshell.
As a result of the misinformation disseminated by Hamas, media and information have suddenly become the most important vehicle for the PA in confronting the situation in Gaza, he continued, noting that "80 percent of the battle is focused on media information."
Malki's major problem was that he was not equipped with the mechanism, the manpower or the in-house capacity to take on such a mammoth challenge. "This requires an army of expert journalists that think in terms of communication," he said.
Even if he could find such people, he couldn't attract them, he admitted, because the salaries paid by the ministry "are peanuts" compared to what they could earn in the private sector.
One potential avenue is an increase in the capacity of radio. Survey findings have indicated that radio is the most influential media vehicle among the general public, and Internet among the youth. "We have to invest in radio so that it will broadcast the most important message we want to deliver," said Malki.
In this vein, he wants to strengthen The Voice of Palestine radio station in Gaza, while trying to restructure his ministry and build units for strategic communication, perception management and community media.
"We have to win the hearts and minds of our own people and recover their trust by answering their needs," he said.
Malki suggested that Israelis could think of ways to help the Information Ministry achieve its goals. "At the end of the day, this government wants to reach peace with Israel based on a two-state solution," Malki commented.
One Israeli journalist proposed that Malki exchange roles with people in Israel's information effort, so Israelis would say positive things about the Palestinians and vice versa, enabling both to overcome the credibility gap.
Though amenable to the idea, Malki said its implementation was problematic because he did not have a counterpart in Israel, Europe or America. "I'm not going to hesitate to be fully engaged in that process. I just need someone to point me to the right address in Israel," he said.
Asked about the November summit meeting, Malki said it could be another PR exercise, or it could be different from any other meeting in the past. It all depended on the extent to which participants were prepared to be responsible.
Regarding European prodding for the PA to initiate talks with Hamas, Malki said that he was more disappointed by the fact that some Israelis were of the same mind.
"Hamas has violated the norms of behavior and committed atrocities against the Palestinian people. Israelis have to be careful when they come up with such statements, because they have to assess the impact on their own stability," he said. "The ideas and thinking of al-Qaida are finding their way to Gaza. People in Israel should start thinking about that. Whoever comes up with this idea in Israel doesn't see the implications of dialogue with Hamas."
The PA government will never negotiate with a faction, Malki insisted. Although Fatah can hold dialogue with Hamas, he clarified, "[PA Chairman] Mahmoud Abbas says that no one in Fatah has the authority to negotiate with Hamas."
Prior to meeting with Malki, the journalists toured The Voice of Palestine radio station that up until the second intifada used to broadcast in Hebrew as well as Arabic, French and English. Now, Palestine Broadcasting Corporation chairman Bassam Abu Sumaya said, they don't have people who are sufficiently professional to broadcast in Hebrew. However, he was not averse to hiring Israeli Arabs to run the Hebrew broadcasts.
Prior to the Hamas takeover, PBC radio and television had 1,000 employees working in the West Bank and Gaza. The 700 PBC employees who worked in Gaza now sit at home, said Abu Sumaya, because Hamas makes it impossible for them to do their jobs.
"Hamas steals their equipment and destroys many things," he said. It also threatens the lives of anchors and other staff. Thus any news coming out of Gaza is supplied by foreign media or by anonymous sources who call in and whose accuracy often leaves much to be desired.
The PBC is extremely interested in forging good relations with Israeli colleagues, said Abu Sumaya, and towards this end will soon introduce a weekly program, "Eye on Israel," in which Israeli journalists will be interviewed about current events.
Israel Radio head Yoni Ben-Menachem stressed the importance of renewing ties between Israeli and Palestinian journalists at such a sensitive time and said he would be happy to host Palestinian journalists at Israel Radio and Israel Television.
Abu Sumaya was delighted with the invitation, but said that he sometimes has to spend all day at the Beit El check point just to get to Jerusalem.
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