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Daoud Kuttab Headshot

How Palestinians Can Engage the West

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Anyone following the Palestinian struggle for liberation understands that the only path to success today is through a concerted, holistic, non-violent approach.

Palestinian leaders, including President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have been repeatedly and consistently opposing any violent solution and supporting acts of popular non-violent resistance. Recently, they even succeeded in convincing the leaders of the Islamic Hamas movement to utter the words "popular resistance," even if Hamas has not acted on them.

Using non-violence requires a high degree of discipline, and sophisticated media and public relations approach. The entire premise of this form of struggle is based on the need to win the hearts and minds of one's opponents, as well as of those in countries that are supporting one's adversaries.

Support for Palestine in Asia, Africa and Latin America today is at an all-time high. The conference of the Non-Aligned Movement, which was held in Iran last week, showed 120 countries supporting Palestinians' right to an independent state on the 1967 borders. This means that the real battle for Palestinian support continues to be in Western countries, such as Europe and the U.S. And while the U.S. is key to any breakthrough, much can be done if Europe shifts from its lukewarm support to Palestine to a full-fledged support. Europe, for example, is the biggest economic partner of Israel.

The justice of the Palestinian cause is overwhelming. The Palestinian people, occupied for over 45 years, simply yearns to live in freedom in the post-colonial 21st century. More than anything, what is needed is for the Palestinians to be able to tell their story in a strong and convincing narrative. For too long, Palestinians have been at the losing end of the narrative battle, especially in the Western media.

Palestinian thinkers and leaders like Edward Said and Hanan Ashrawi talked a lot about the need for etching a Palestinian narrative that tells the authentic and human story of a people wanting to live in freedom and peace rather than the narrative that has been written for them by the other side.

To be able to develop a Palestinian narrative, there is no escaping from the need to engage on a multitude of stages and in various types of media platforms. For such engagement to succeed, certain prerequisites are necessary.

The narrative needs to be humanitarian, not rhetorical. At the same time, successful narrative cannot negate the other side. While Palestinians have suffered and continue to suffer from their own negation by the other side, it is impossible to overcome that by attempting to present only one point of view. Today's demanding public requires that.

Such an opportunity was made available to Palestinians in Jerusalem recently through a unique documentary. Jerusalem24, a project that emulates an effort similar to one created in Berlin that aims to chronicle over a 24-hour period the lives of people living in a particular city. Over 80 Berliners were filmed on a single day and their stories were broadcast later in a program called Berlin 24 over many European TV stations. Applying the same concept, the idea was that the author/creator of the Berlin project, Volker Heise, would supervise the film, to be produced by Thomas Kufus of the German company Zero One.

Funding and broadcasting (including ARTE France, ARTE Germany and Finnish TV) were secured. An Israeli and a Palestinian production company were contracted with the idea of finding characters from their own societies that would be filmed in a single day over a 24-hour period.

The Palestinian producers went to great lengths to make sure that they are contractually and financially engaged with the German producers. The idea was that the money and direction would come from the German author and producer, with Palestinians having freedom to choose their characters, stories and filmmakers.

The filming was supposed to take place on September 6, only to be postponed at the last minute because of a public boycott call issued, without checking with the participating parties, by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). The boycott call was based on a misunderstanding that some of the funds for the Israeli production -- specifically the Jerusalem Fund -- was somehow paying for the Palestinian production. The unelected group that issues the call considers the film an act of normalisation with the Israelis.

Once the issue was in the public domain, a campaign of intimidation followed that led to directors withdrawing their participation in the film despite being presented with evidence contrary to the content of the boycott call and even after seeing the type of characters chosen by the Palestinian producers that will help present honestly and fairly the Palestinian narrative.

Palestinian producers detailed that the film would have narrated the lives of at least 28 Palestinians reflecting all walks of life and narrating the pains and aspirations of East Jerusalemites.

A family whose home was divided by the Israeli concrete wall, Silwan activists fighting a settler campaign to remove them from their neighbourhood, Palestinians living in the Shufat refugee camp, lawyers fighting against Israeli attempts to deport Palestinians and a Palestinian woman living in Sheikh Jarrah whose family was massacred in Deir Yassin, all would have told their stories.

Palestinians to have been filmed also included musicians, artists, a 6-year-old girl going to school for the first time and one of the city's richest men. A guard at Al Aqsa Mosque, a Palestinian Catholic priest, a nun and the Muslim family that has, for centuries, been holding the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher were also part of the mosaic that makes East Jerusalem.

Naturally, Jerusalem 24 was to have Israeli and a number of international characters, including foreign diplomats, journalists and international humanitarian individuals.

PLO officials and the Palestinian Authority culture minister were informed of the issue, but despite their understanding of the importance of the film, they were unable to intervene in time, thus leading to the postponement of the filming of the project.

The Palestinian case is just and powerful, but for this Palestinian narrative to be told effectively and professionally, leaders must take a proactive role to ensure that efforts at telling this story is not scuttled by ideologues who so bent on their narrow view of issues such as "normalization" that they lose sight of the bigger picture.

Politicians cannot and should not interfere in art, but should ensure that the efforts of creative people are not blocked by a group of unelected individuals who have appointed themselves as guardians of the society.