"We are setting with you the cornerstone for world leadership under Islamic leadership," declares an actor on Hamas's Al-Aksa TV. "Yes, we, tomorrow's pioneers, will restore to this nation its glory, and we will liberate Al-Aksa, with Allah's will, and we will liberate Iraq, with Allah's will, and we will liberate the Muslim countries, invaded by murderers." The message is not unfamiliar. It forms part of the official ideology of Hamas, is heard in mosques and seen on posters in the Palestinian street. This time, however, it is delivered by a squeaking overgrown mouse with big ears, white gloves and a bow tie on the children's television show Tomorrow's Pioneers.
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The dissonance between the message of violence (children call into the show to sing songs about martyrdom) and the Mickey Mouse look-alike is only the latest instance of a decade-old trend in the Palestinian media, according to Palestinian Media Watch director Itamar Marcus.
Marcus made aliya from New York more than 30 years ago. His organization has been watching Palestinian media for more than a decade, seeking to convey to the West the vast gap between the Western perception of Palestinian society and how the Palestinians themselves describe their goals and aspirations. It's been quite a decade, according to the PMW records.
According to Marcus, the PMW has watched, catalogued and warned about a spiraling degeneration into religious extremism. And, he says, it all happened in public, ignored by the West because it didn't fit idealistic political plans.
Marcus believes he knows why peace is farther away today than in the past, and why Israeli hasbara is so weak in the face of international anti-Israel movements. Let the Palestinians' own voice be heard, he says to Israelis, and the truth of the collapse of the peace process will be revealed - and maybe, just maybe, also corrected.
Your reports often travel far and wide, but the most recent one on Tomorrow's Pioneers made a remarkable splash in the mainstream international media - Fox News, CNN, The Guardian, AP, hundreds of local papers in all sorts of languages, even an entry on Wikipedia. Why do you think this was so powerful?
The world often responds more to a striking messenger than to a striking message. Just a few weeks before the Hamas Mickey Mouse story, PMW publicized the fact that the speaker of the PA legislature called for the extermination of all Jews and Americans. It received press for a day and was forgotten. It's possible that if the Nazis had used a Mickey Mouse to tell their hate messages, the world would have listened and tens of millions of lives would have been saved. We are now trying to convince the world that Hamas Mouse is not the problem, but a symptom of a profound evil that needs urgent treatment.
The message is carried not only through the media, but through the education system. A recent report reveals Palestinian schoolbooks that are written by Fatah-appointed officials and call on children to take up a war for Islam. Is this discourse mainstream among the Palestinians?
This is unfortunately mainstream; it is what they believe. For years I haven't used the term incitement about their material, because when you think of incitement, you think everything is fine and incitement is the problem. What they're saying is not merely incitement. What they're saying is reflective of their beliefs and opinions and ideology.
We've noticed this shift over recent years in Palestinian society, from the focus on nationalism to greater focus on religion, with a Palestinian poll before the election of Hamas [in 2006] showing about 78 percent of Palestinians wanting Sharia [Islamic law].
What is driving this shift?
I think Israel had a great secularizing influence [on Palestinian society] before the PA. But under the PA, through its control of TV, education, culture, everything, there has been a tremendous Islamization effect. This radical Islam, this is very dangerous.
The PA was Islamist from the beginning?
[Former PA chairman Yasser] Arafat himself initiated this, but not because he was a religious person. To have the support of the people, he felt it was important to have religious backing. When the terror war started [in October 2000], it was Arafat who was using the Islamic terms jihad and shahada, dying for Allah. These are religious terms. He said "all of Palestine" - meaning Israel - "is holy wakf [Islamic trust]." He was using religion the way Machiavelli talks about using religion - to keep the people in line.
Unfortunately for Israel, the world and for the Palestinians as well, he was more successful than he wanted to be. They have truly, in great masses, adopted this ideology as their own. And this is reflected in the election victory of Hamas and in the polls.
Some have said the Palestinians are taking refuge from the failures of their society by turning to Islam. Do you agree?
There never was a secular Palestinian society in the sense of [what exists in] Israel or the West. Even under Arafat, Palestinians were religious. Polls showed that nearly all Palestinians believed in God and accepted the Koran as the word of God. They didn't have to learn a new Islam, just the [new] way Islam was being presented in Palestinian society. The establishment has not had to convince people to accept Islam - it just had to convince them that Islam demands Israel's destruction.
And Islam is everywhere. Every grade level has "Islamic education" schoolbooks. A number of times a day during regular TV programming, Palestinian TV stops - even in the middle of a sentence - for prayer. [During] the month of Ramadan, all programming was changed, and all day long you had religious programs.
So, even though under Fatah it was a secular society in name, it wasn't in reality. Even [PA Chairman Mahmoud] Abbas, like Arafat, regularly appears on television praying during the Friday services in the mosques.
Now the hate message of the PA is even more dangerous; it is wrapped in Islamic packaging. The newest schoolbooks define the conflict with Israel as having global Islamic meaning. The children have a global Islamic destiny to keep fighting and destroy Israel. That's the message to the kids. And it gives them a good feeling: "Wow, I'm representing all of Islam; we're in the frontlines of all Islam." The kids grow up with this. That's been the change.
Is there a moderate religious force in the Palestinian Authority today?
There are moderates, but they have no public voice. We have never heard a religious message other than "all of Palestine is Muslim." Even as far back as 2000: "Palestine is Islamic wakf," "Tel Aviv is like Ramallah." These words are from 2000 said by the imam appointed by Arafat in the Aksa Mosque.
We've never heard a religious leader saying you can recognize Israel's right to exist. In fact, we've never heard a political leader say that.
Abbas, seen by many as moderate, hasn't said this?
Abbas has never said Israel has a right to exist. The very day that The Jerusalem Post had a headline a number of months ago reading "Abbas: Hamas must recognize Israel," he was asked by Palestinian TV, "why should Hamas have to recognize Israel's right to exist?" He said, "Hamas doesn't have to recognize Israel. Fatah doesn't have to recognize Israel. No one has to recognize Israel."
Then how did that headline come about?
Abbas met a number of times with [US Secretary of State Condoleezza] Rice, and Rice had said this about him.
Did she misunderstand him?
Abbas explained in his interview - I am paraphrasing: "I meant, for example, that Israel owes us hundreds of millions of dollars. In order for us to get that money, our minister of finance will have to meet their minister of finance and will have to recognize that the Israeli minister of finance is a minister of finance. That's what I meant by recognizing. But to recognize? No one has to recognize Israel."
PA leaders play the game of double language. There has never been a Palestinian leader who has recognized Israel's right to exist. Some may recognize the fact of Israel's existence, but no one will say Israel has a right to exist.
What about the Arab street? Does public opinion force leaders to be more extreme, or is it the other way around?
In many respects, Israel allowed the street to get to where it is today by ignoring and minimizing the significance of the PA hate promotion that was heard as early as 1995-1996, when PMW started publicizing.
In polls by Khalil Shikaki, Palestinians were asked to rate different places in the world in democracy and human rights. In 1996, 78% of Palestinians gave Israel a positive rating, 13% higher than the United States. The Palestinian Authority had only a 50% positive rating. Even three years later, Israel had dropped down to 65% positive, but Israel was still far more admired that the PA, at 32% and even the US, down to 55% positive.
Consistently, after 27 years of Israeli administration, the Palestinians thought that Israel was by far the best in the world in democracy and human rights.
This came despite their sense of occupation?
They knew what life was like under Jordan and under Egypt. Just take health care. Arab life expectancy in 1967 when Israel gained control of Judea and Samaria was 47. When Israel gave it over [to the PA in the 1990s], it was close to 70. Their economy in the '70s had the fourth-fastest growth in the world. Everything modern and good in the Palestinian areas today was built under Israel. The Palestinians knew how Israel had actively and intentionally improved their lives, and that's why Israel was given such high ratings.
It's also why we at PMW have been so focused on screaming to the world: "Wake up to this hate education in the PA." If not for the hate promotion poisoning the people throughout society, we would not be in the situation we're in today.
So education, far more than the situation on the ground, is the primary factor in sustaining and deepening the hatred?
The PA employed both in its very successful hate strategy. In mid-2000 Arafat's popularity rating was the lowest ever - only 22% gave the PA a positive rating in democracy and human rights. It was at this moment of weakness that Arafat decided to start the terror war and started sending children to the front lines to be shahids [martyrs].
The many deaths - especially of these children - the closed roads, the Israeli tanks back in the cities, all achieved for Arafat the hatred of Israel and Jews that he had been promoting all along. Arafat started the war in 2000 not because the Palestinians hated Israel - but so that they would hate Israel.
However, it was the poisoning of the minds that had been going on from 1995 that created the environment for the war. Had there been peace education parallel to Israel's peace education, no one would have joined Arafat's call to war.
Many people don't hear your message.
Hillary Clinton got the message and joined me in releasing our new schoolbook report a few months ago. I've spoken at a US Senate hearing, in the International Relations Committee in Congress, in meetings in the British Parliament, the Australian parliament, the French parliament, the European Union. When people see and hear the Palestinians in their own words, the reactions are always the same.
When the media see this material it is reported. There have been major stories even in left-wing papers like Unitee, the communist paper in Italy which is totally sympathetic to the Palestinians. It attacked the PA for brainwashing their own children to be shahids, for child abuse of their own children.
Before a meeting with the editorial board of the Montreal Gazette, I was warned that it was very anti-Israel. I gave a presentation on PA media, video and schoolbooks, and at the end one woman journalist, who initially defended the Palestinians, complained, "Why aren't you going to international courts with charges against the Palestinians for incitement to genocide and child abuse?" I answered her that our job is to present the material and academic findings, and the job of the media is to publicize it. So I put the ball back in her court.
The point is that even she, someone who was very anti-Israel, understood.
Another example. Two days before I spoke at UCLA the university newspaper, the Bruin, had an editorial condemning the university for inviting me to speak. I met the editor before my lecture. The next day the same paper had a front-page article describing what the Palestinians are doing to their own kids and why it's hate education. PMW material turned around an anti-Israel newspaper completely, essentially with a one-hour meeting and a one-hour presentation.
I don't tell people my opinion. I let the Palestinians speak for themselves and people get the message.
Then why don't these parliamentarians and others act on what they learn about Palestinian media?
I've heard many times what one congressman told me maybe two years ago: "I see what Mahmoud Abbas is saying, but what do you want me to do when I see Israeli leaders shaking his hand and presenting him as a moderate?" We get this very often. World leaders are taking the cue from Israeli leaders.
Israeli leaders often complain that they can't sound too critical of the Palestinians because it will attract criticism from other countries.
That's because Israeli leaders don't make their arguments with proper ammunition. To come and say, "Hamas is no good; it doesn't recognize Israel" - everyone has heard that so many times nobody knows what it means.
Israeli leaders should say: "Yesterday, a genocidal statement was said by an official PA leader on official television." And then quote it. And hand the media a PMW CD. They should say: "Look at what it says in schoolbooks. Would you talk to them?"
I'm convinced that just as anti-Israel journalists turn around when they have a presentation from PMW, if Israeli leaders or the Foreign Ministry used PMW material more actively, people would understand Israel's position and legitimate demands. They would understand why the Hamas is outside the realm of legitimacy. They would understand that unless the Palestinians start promoting peace among their own people, signing a piece of paper is meaningless.
Israel has intelligence networks, well-funded state agencies studying the Palestinians. Why doesn't Israel produce the material you're producing?
[sigh] Let me tell you something. The Israeli government is very sloppy with PR.
When we worked closely with [prime minister Ariel] Sharon, his media adviser would call before trips and ask for a PMW report on Palestinian kids which came with a CD. It was a full-color report called "Ask for Death: The Indoctrination of Palestinian Children to Shahada" that shows the horrific child abuse.
One time, he came back from a trip, and these were his words: "Itamar, they ate them up like hotcakes. There's nothing left. Can we have another 50 copies?" Of course I agreed and later, while talking to a secretary, added: "It costs us $5 a copy to produce these books with a CD. Would you mind paying the $5? If you can't, we'll give them to you anyway, but I'd appreciate if you covered our costs."
The Prime Minister's Office has never called us back for more reports. It was going to cost them $5 a copy. It's unbelievable. It's beyond negligence. They saw how powerful this material was and they never called back.
We're talking about a few hundred copies?
You're talking about nothing! Nothing! This is the prime minister traveling abroad, and they know how powerful it is. It's negligence.
The only leader who has absolutely understood the power of this material has been [Binyamin] Netanyahu. As prime minister, he brought PMW documentation to Wye, demanded the establishment of an anti-incitement committee and appointed me to represent Israel in the negotiations on that committee. When he was foreign minister, which I think was only for a couple months, I had three meetings with him. Each time I gave him more material, and then I would see him on TV around the world documenting the problems of the Palestinians. And nobody could ever challenge him on PMW material, because you can't. You can't. When they're poisoning their kids with hatred, no one is going to argue against you.
We've been doing a lot of the work on our own and in coordination with Jewish communities around the world that the Israeli government should be doing, but with a very small budget. Every time I hear the Foreign Ministry complaining about not having enough money, I just can't believe it. It's true they have a small budget, but the problem is not the budget. The problem is the message.
There was an article in The Jerusalem Post about [Foreign Ministry officials] thinking that having pictures of Israeli women in a popular American men's magazine was going to change Israel's PR image. There's a conflict going on. You think you show pictures of pretty Israeli women, and people are going to say, "Okay, I support Israel?" If Israel is killing Palestinian kids, pretty faces and bodies are not going to change the image.
What our material shows is that the reason Palestinian kids are being killed is that Palestinian leaders are sending their kids to the frontlines. That's what you have to show. The Palestinian kids, the adults, the entire population are victims of their own leaders. We turn around the Palestinian victimhood claim by placing responsibility for all the victims and all the suffering at the door of the Palestinian Authority.
You insist on not revealing your own views when giving a presentation, letting the PA media speak for itself. But you've been watching the Palestinians up close for more than a decade. Where do you stand, personally, on the peace process?
I want the Arabs of Gaza, Judea and Samaria governing themselves, but one must not permit a murderer to live beside one's family. The PA, from Hamas to the Aksa Brigades of the Fatah, is a confirmed terror authority, until it proves otherwise. Self- delusion that there are moderates will not change reality.
Statehood is not just a flag and a national anthem. It means Palestinian control over land, sea and air, and border crossings. A Palestinian state, even if it was officially demilitarized, would accumulate within a few years a vast arsenal of weapons that could kill thousands and tens of thousands of Israelis. This is not just possible, it is 100% certain. Just look at the mammoth arms buildup today - when they don't control the crossings.
As a state they would also control 60% of Israel's water, which originates in the aquifers that cross the Green Line. Given the water needs of a developing Palestinian industry and agriculture, even ignoring increased needs as refugees poured in, it would only be a matter of time, 10 to 20 years, before a Palestinian state would need and use every drop of water before it reached Israel. We would be at their mercy and could be destroyed ecologically.
This is all documented, and is ignored by those who present unilateral withdrawals and a Palestinian state without conditions as an Israeli interest. It is not an Israeli interest.
So you do not support creating a Palestinian state in the short term?
Because a wall cannot prevent missiles from flying over and cannot stop water theft from under the ground, there is no such thing as "separation" from the Palestinian Arabs no matter how much we desire it. Statehood is not just a nice gesture. Unless we have control over the water, crossings, air space and so much more, all conditions the Palestinians and the world would never agree to, Palestinian statehood is life-threatening for Israel.
And even if a Palestinian leader were sincere, remember, we live in an Islamic Middle East where most Muslims believe that Allah has determined Israel must be destroyed. Once Iran was led by the shah and today it has [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad. Look at Turkey and the Islamic forces threatening [President Hosni] Mubarak in Egypt. A peace deal with a moderate Palestinian leader - were one to come along - would not guarantee that a Hamas Ahmadinejad would not replace him in five or 10 years. A peace agreement will not cause Hamas and its millions of supporters to reinterpret their beliefs to secular humanist Islam.
In addition, radical Islamic ideology will be strengthened in the PA by even small Israeli withdrawals, as it was after the Gush Katif withdrawal. A withdrawal that would put all 6 million Israelis within missile range will not bring peace. It's an invitation to death and destruction.
So where do we go from here?
Israel must develop policy that's not based on hope of a New Middle East, but based on the true Middle East. By studying the PA media and schoolbooks, we know exactly where we are living, we know who our neighbors are and we will also know the day when a New Middle East arrives. I just wish Israel's leaders would open their eyes and put on their reading glasses.