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Kiyotaka Akasaka

Kiyotaka Akasaka

Posted: August 2, 2010 05:48 PM

Today's headlines were sprinkled with words that seldom go with breaking developments in the Middle East: "cooperate," "agree," "assist." The news told the story of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon setting up a panel of inquiry on the Gaza flotilla incident -- a decision that had been made after last-minute consultations with the leaders of Israel and Turkey. It was a rare story about cooperation.

A recent trip to Lisbon, the historic harbour capital of Portugal, made me think a lot about cooperation and co-existence in the Middle East. It also made me think about the kinds of connections we can make in our lives today.

We often speak about how wonderful it is to meet people online, how technology is bringing us all closer together.

For me, a seminar we organized in Lisbon last month for Israeli and Palestinian journalists was a powerful reminder of the value of bringing actual, real life people together. Especially those who often find it nearly impossible to talk to each other -- let alone simply meet, eye-to-eye, face-to face.

The journalists who met in Lisbon travelled there from both Jerusalem and the West Bank; from Tel Aviv and Gaza. They came at the invitation of the United Nations to take part in the 18th annual UN International Media Seminar on Peace in the Middle East.

They were joined by members of the international press corps, and by a broad swathe of Israeli and Palestinian civil society. Among the group were Israeli mayors from Ashkelon and Hadera, the mayor of the Palestinian city Beit Sahour and government officials from Gaza.

They came to discuss the role of the media in covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - far from the stress and struggles of their everyday lives, and far from the screaming headlines that all too often drive their business.

It was the first time in the history of the Seminar that we looked at how new media is changing the game in the region in terms of peoples' understanding of the conflict, and on the prospects for peace.

In a two-day series of discussions, what we heard was frank and fascinating. The stories the journalists told were intense and personal.

They spoke about the fear and ignorance that exists on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, about the duty they felt to report the news objectively and accurately -- and about how the media can moderate this fear by trying to understand the other side.

"The stereotypes we create detract from the peace process....We present the pain, without demonstrating the source of the pain," said Mark Bleich, a columnist from Maariv in Tel Aviv.

Palestinian journalists spoke on the one hand of the need to report the facts on the ground -- to reflect the harsh reality of lives lived under occupation -- while on the other hand, not to inflame the street.

"The role of the media is not to provoke, not to incite hatred," said Riyadh El Hassan of the Palestine News and Information Agency. Unfortunately, the self-restraint by the Palestinian media results in many Palestinians seeking news elsewhere, from sources that can be extreme.

The journalists debated whether an Israeli, Palestinian, Muslim, or Jew could even hope to be objective in reporting on a conflict that is about land, security, culture and religion. Can they separate themselves from their tribe?

One answer to this question came from Ruth Eglash of the Jerusalem Post and Hani Hazaimeh of the Jordan Times.

The two aimed to write a piece about what schoolchildren were learning -- Jordanians about Israel and Judaism; Israelis about Islam and the Arab world. What they found was almost entirely so negative that they chose not to write the piece they originally intended. Instead they wrote about the stereotypes and misunderstandings that exist on both sides. The piece, which was published in different online media in the region and beyond, was recognized as a brave attempt to overcome mutual suspicion and hatred. Yet Eglash and Hazaimeh spoke of the strong reaction to their story by their respective communities, some of whom accused them of "betraying" their people for even collaborating with one another.

Many at the seminar agreed that social media provides a forum to exchange views and perspectives in an open space.

Asmaa Fathy, of the Egyptian El Mawqef Al Arabi newspaper, and co-founder of hijabskirt.info, spoke about how electronic media can bring together cultures and civilizations. Her project provides an educational and social platform for East-West understanding "through the symbolic process of reconciliation of the hijab and skirt."

Of course, many expressed caution. "The Internet promotes a fragmentation of communities, without a common set of facts," warned J.J. Goldberg of The Forward.

By the end of the seminar, one almost had a sense that the journalists were competing with their political counterparts, who, facilitated by the United States, are in the midst of "proximity talks," with the hope of moving to "direct" talks for a two-State solution.

In Lisbon, facilitated by ocean breezes, it was clear that the journalists had connected and were engaging in the kind of direct talks that can advance this goal.