Caught in the middle of the Palestinians’ normalization debate - comment

I was one of the journalists invited to be briefed by Palestinian officials. Then, the restaurant where we had lunch was attacked, and the PLO is pretending they had nothing to do with us.

The Palestinian flag flies after being raised by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a ceremony outside the United Nations in New York, September 30, 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Palestinian flag flies after being raised by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a ceremony outside the United Nations in New York, September 30, 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
“It is disgraceful,” PLO Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi tweeted on Monday night.
“I agree,” PLO Secretary-General Saeb Erekat chimed in a couple of hours later.

What disturbed these veteran Palestinian leaders so much? My effusive tweet about the knafeh in Ramallah.
Last month, the Palestinian Authority invited the Israeli Diplomatic Reporters’ Association to a day of briefings by Palestinian officials in Ramallah, which ended up taking place on Sunday.
The timing was great – in the aftermath of the Trump peace plan, PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech to the UN Security Council and the Palestinian petition to the International Criminal Court, all major stories on the diplomatic beat.
I had been to Ramallah before, but only accompanying MKs, where the fact of the visit was usually the headline and there were mainly boilerplate remarks. This time, I looked forward to the opportunity for a more in-depth discussion of matters I had been covering in recent weeks and the chance to ask questions.
We met with PA Information Minister Nabil Abu Rudeineh; adviser to Abbas on religious affairs and chief Shar’ia judge Mahmoud Al-Habash; former PA prisoner affairs minister Ashraf Al-Ajrami, a frequent interviewee on Army Radio; and vice chairman of the PLO Committee for Interaction with Israelis Elias Zananiri.
News-wise, there was definitely a value to hearing the Palestinian perspective firsthand to add to the depth of my reporting. The headline we went with at The Jerusalem Post – “PA Spokesman: Israelis have to live with us, not the Sudanese” – showed what the PA thinks about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s push for normalization with Arab and Muslim states even when there is no peace agreement with the Palestinians.
Another pertinent point that came up in the meeting was that all of the officials who spoke with us thought the Palestinian street may respond violently to the Trump peace plan, but they mostly washed their hands of it as if they bore no responsibility.
Some threatened to put an end to the security coordination between Israel and the PA. They also seemed very fixated on former prime minister Ehud Olmert and his offer to Abbas – which Abbas did not agree to, and then Olmert resigned due to a corruption investigation – instead of solutions relevant to 2020.
The group also got a brief glimpse of the Yasser Arafat Museum in the Mukata compound, adjacent to the arch-terrorist’s mausoleum. We peeked into the exhibit somewhat illicitly, because it is still under construction, and were ushered out almost immediately. But it was enough time to see that the libel the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Hajj Amin al-Husseini used to incite Arab violence in 1929 – that the Jews were going to take over the Western Wall and Temple Mount, despite being powerless under the British Mandate – was presented as fact, and that there was no reference to the Arab massacre of 69 Jews in Hebron, only a photo of a synagogue in disarray.
We were also taken to Nelson Mandela Square, which features a six-meter statue of the South African leader, a gift of the City of Johannesburg, and many of us took photos. Most of us reporters were tweeting and posting on Instagram and Facebook throughout the day, as many of us do with most news stories we cover. What we didn’t notice is that passersby were also taking photos of us; a video labeled “religious settlers invading Ramallah” – edited so that only journalists with kippot were visible – ended up on a West Bank Hamas operative’s Facebook page.
After that, we were taken to lunch, where there was a spread of hummus, pita and salads. Those who kept kosher had salmon that was wrapped in aluminum foil before it was cooked; others had meat. But the highlight for many of the reporters was the delicious knafeh, hot out of the oven, and many of us, including myself, posted enthusiastically on social media about the syrupy, goat-cheese delicacy.
When I woke up in the morning, several American anti-Israel Twitter accounts picked up on my love of the dessert, somehow arguing that it exemplified the “occupation” because I could go to Ramallah “freely,” but Palestinians can’t enter Israel freely. Never mind that I can’t go to Ramallah freely; it’s illegal for Israelis to go, because it’s not actually safe for them. So I would have to lie and use my foreign passport, and I did not wander around freely to a random bakery. I was part of a special PA delegation.
But the issue is really a larger one than the Twitter wars about Israel, and it reflects a broader opposition among Palestinians to normalization with Israelis.
Israeli reporters on Palestinian affairs soon brought to light that several people attacked the restaurant that served us, using Molotov cocktails. No one was hurt and no damage was reported. But the incident highlighted that it really is not safe for Israelis to just waltz into Ramallah for dessert. It’s not even safe for Palestinians who want to invite Israelis to have some dessert and a conversation.
Videos and photos of Habash speaking to us in the restaurant, as well as the videos of reporters by the Mandela statue, were spread on Palestinian media, with people commenting and attacking the PA official for even speaking to us.
As The Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh reported, Palestinians on Facebook have been composing blacklists of people who dare talk to Israelis. Some Palestinians willing to engage in dialogue received death threats.
 “We are not traitors. We are working to relay our message to the Israeli public,” said one of the Palestinians who took part in another recent meeting with Israelis, which, like the journalists’ visit to Ramallah, was coordinated with the PLO and PA.
But by Tuesday night, Ashrawi and Erekat threw these officials, who were working under the PLO’s auspices, under the bus. The PLO has had a Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society. But the PLO also condemns interaction with Israeli society.
Never mind the ungracious behavior of the host organization that invited me to Ramallah and then called my presence a disgrace. I’ve been called worse on Twitter.
What’s really happening here is that Ashrawi and Erekat are too cowardly to stand behind their own organization’s official position and the people who are acting upon it. We Israeli journalists were just tools in their cynical anti-normalization game, which will do nothing to bring peace any closer.