Highlighting the Palestinian Human Narrative

10/20/2011 02:04 pm ET | Updated Dec 20, 2011

For most observers, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is one of raw politics. Most people familiar with the conflict take one side or another, maybe even becoming fanatical in their defense of their side.

Usually, those who support the Palestinian cause do so because of a personal connection, because of a visit to Palestinian territories or because they understand the Palestinian cause and the injustice the Palestinians have suffered for decades.

Support for Israelis usually comes due to a religious connection, often through the Judeo-Christian heritage that is prevalent in the West. Americans remember the David and Goliath story in the Bible and sympathize with the Israelis, mistakenly connecting the Old Testament Israelites with the 20th century Israelis.

Neutral observers often adopt a position on this century-old conflict based on media reports in which the overwhelming narrative is that of a civilized white people fighting barbarian natives who do not value human life or individual freedoms and values that people in the West are familiar with.

Naturally, this narrative has been much eroded in time, just as the David and Goliath image was reversed, with images of Israeli soldiers, guns and planes pitted against stone-throwing Palestinian resistance.

But the human narrative of the Palestinian individual has not succeeded in becoming part of the global media narrative. Western media reports do give attention to individual stories, but most often Palestinians are only mentioned as groups or are nameless.

Never has this distinction been clearer than in the days leading to the prisoner exchange. With the exception of two political leaders (Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Sa'adat) who were not released, Palestinian prisoners were often referred to as a number -- 1,027 -- to be released in exchange for an Israeli who has become a household name all over the world. Private Gilad Shalit is more famous than any other person because of the persistence of his family and country to seek his release and because of the media focus on him.

Israeli hasbara ("public relations") was successful in painting a human portrait of this young Israeli soldier who was kidnapped. While hundreds of Palestinians, including elected members of parliament, had been kidnapped and held without charge or trial, no one tried to focus on any one of these Palestinians. Summud Saadat, who was not allowed to see her father for five years, received little attention from the media.

Shalit's needing eyeglasses was highlighted to defame his captors, while cases of the many Palestinians held in solitary confinement, so widespread that prisoners had to go on hunger strike for 20 days just to inform the world of what they are facing, got little or no attention.

Soon after the prisoner release, many Palestinian stories were heard. Perhaps the most famous is the love story of Nizar and Ahlam. He belongs to Fatah and she belongs to Hamas. They met before both were imprisoned and got engaged while in prison. Their only form of communication was letters sent through the International Committee of the Red Cross. She is a Jordanian citizen and was sent to Jordan; he was allowed to return to the West Bank village of Nabi Salih and now they are preparing for a joyous wedding that they hope will unite the two factions. Most Palestinians only heard of this story when both talked to an anchor from Voice of Palestine, who interviewed them by phone in differing locations.

Then there was 57-year-old Fakhri Barghouti, who was jailed at the age of 24. A report by the Palestinian news agency WAFA talks warmly about his embrace with his granddaughter, Majdal, who is named after an Israeli prison. Speaking to a local radio in Ramallah, Barghouti talked about recognizing his village of Kobar only because of the welcoming sign. He talked about the fact that both his parents and one of his brothers died while he was in jail without a chance to bid them farewell.

Journalist Yousef Shayeb relayed a moving story in the Palestinian daily Al Ayyam of Hassan Salameh, whose twins Ali and Sanaa were 19 days old when he was arrested in 1982. He comes out of jail as a grandfather.

While 1,027 stories are now being narrated, thousands other stories are held back behind bars. When will Palestinians understand that the political struggle is not limited to the fight over the precious Palestinian land, but also for the hearts and minds of people around the world? Humanizing the Palestinian case is a prerequisite to gaining the political support of the world community.

Coupled with the political actions at the UN and nonviolent protests in Palestine, a human Palestinian narrative is necessary in order to win over whoever is yet not totally supporting the Palestinians' inalienable right to live in freedom and peace.