Hamas, Fatah must start communicating or forget dreams of freedom

Palestinian miscommunications
By Stuart Littlewood

Eighteen months ago Hamas announced it was upping its game by appointing bright, attractive 23-year-old Isra al Modallal as the media face of the resistance movement.

Isra was at college in Bradford, Yorkshire, a part of England where people are noted for blunt speaking and their dry sense of humour. I remember thinking at the time that if Isra brought some of these qualities to Gaza it would stand her, and Hamas, in good stead.

Her arrival was supposed to be part of a Hamas government “public transformation” that included a new head of media, Ihab Ghussein, who was to “orchestrate a new government website”. So things were looking up, it seemed.

“We expect ignorance from fools but not from genuine patriots”

But has anyone here in the West noticed a transformation? The English version of Hamas’s website was still “under construction” at the time, and no-one among the writers I know had ever heard of Mr Ghussein let alone received a press release from his office. Hamas’s websites were hacked by Israel prior to last year’s murderous assault on Gaza, but the English-language site was still out of action when I tried it yesterday. The Ezzedeen al-Qassam Brigades website is functioning but packed with woefully out of date information.

Palestinians are heavy users of electronic media yet don’t seem to know who their media friends are.

And what about Hamas’s media office? Isra’s appointment needed to go hand-in-hand with a top-down change of attitude in the regime, a new mood for cooperation and a genuine opening-up to all media. Had this minor revolution been achieved? Would she be allowed to reach out to the “alternative” media? Would those of us who are interested in Gaza’s progress be placed on Hamas’s database and regularly briefed? Was Mr Ghussein even aware of online publications like the ones that carry this article? Did he know of their unflagging support for the Palestinian cause?

Or do we simply not exist in the minds of Isra and her boss – and the Hamas high command? Are the pair of them actually still there?

It’s clear that Hamas and Fatah have never given a toss for the toils of alternative media on their behalf. Palestinians are heavy users of electronic media yet don’t seem to know who their media friends are. We expect ignorance from fools but not from genuine patriots.

A play called “The Siege”, produced by the Freedom Theatre of Jenin, is currently on tour here in the UK. It tells of Israel’s 40-day military siege of the world’s oldest Christian Church, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, in 2002 — a most shameful episode in the never-ending illegal occupation of Palestine. The authors traced exiled Palestinian resisters scattered across Europe and collected their accounts of that infamous event.

The play recently opened in Manchester and was immediately condemned in the press as “sympathising with Palestinian terrorist groups” and presenting an “unashamedly one-sided drama based on accounts from the gunmen and bombers of Hamas and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade”. It was suggested that the British taxpayer is funding a play promoting “terrorism as legitimate”, that it appeared to be “a grotesque white-washing of the Second Intifada” and glorified “extremist ideology”.

It so happens that I too interviewed a survivor of the siege and told his story several years ago in my book, Radio Free Palestine. It would have been nice (and perhaps useful) to have been invited to a rehearsal and given a chance to talk to some of the players and production team. The same goes for other writers in the UK who are anxious to see justice done in the Holy Land.

Palestine’s unsung heroes

It reminded me of those other unsung heroes, the student team from Khan Younis, Gaza, who travelled to Silverstone, the home of Formula One motor racing, in 2011 and bravely pitted their race-car against the sophisticated machines of Western technical universities in the annual “Formula Student” contest. The Gaza students had been blocked by Israel from importing the necessary components, so they constructed their car with bits and pieces salvaged from the scrapyard. The team’s effort was hailed as “inspirational” by the motor sport authorities. The director of engineering at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which runs the Silverstone competition, said:

It really is inspirational to see a team working so hard with the odds stacked against them like this. Formula Student is a massive challenge in its own right, but to be working with almost entirely recycled parts in one of the most deprived areas in the world is remarkable. These students epitomise the spirit and inventiveness of those who take part in Formula Student.

Their achievement wasn’t considered worth broadcasting by the Palestinian embassy and their amazing adventure went largely unreported. When I found out about it many months later I wrote a retrospective piece which contained this paragraph…

Sadly, I’m posting this article without any contributions from the main players – the General Union of Palestinian Students UK who hosted the Gaza team while in Britain, the Palestinian embassy in London, and the team itself. The reason? After several requests the union said it was “too busy” to give me the team’s contact details. The embassy has not, as far as I know, issued any press releases or briefings, although it did reproduced a Daily Telegraph report on its website last June. I have written twice asking the ambassador’s office for information and contact details only to be ignored. After combing the internet I found a general email address for KYTC [Khan Younis Technical College]. Two emails have been sent but not acknowledged.

So, this amazing story is scraped together from other sources. Had I known about it last summer, I’d have been at Silverstone cheering the lads on.

For the full story, click here.

Palestine’s thrusting “Grassroot Diplomat”

I have long been a critic of the Palestinian embassy in London, having found it unresponsive and lazy. I was therefore astonished to hear that in March this year its ambassador, Manuel Hassassian, was given a “Grassroot Diplomat” award “for his immense work on bringing attention and awareness about Palestine”. Yet the embassy website contains no reference to “The Siege”. Indeed, it offers very little information about anything of relevance.

How extraordinary that a play about an even more appalling event – the desecration of the world’s most famous Christian church a few hundred yards from his university – isn’t mentioned on Prof. Hassassian’s embassy website.

As a Christian, and vice-president of Bethlehem University before he came to the UK nine years ago, Professor Hassassian would have known all about the siege of the Church of the Nativity and, one supposes, was in Bethlehem at the time. Shortly before the siege his university was hit by four Israeli tank shells. Three smashed into the multi-million dollar Millennium Hall Complex which featured state-of-the-art classrooms and laboratories and had been dedicated only the year before. The fourth exploded in the Heritage Centre in the Library, destroying 200 books.

A month later the campus was invaded in the early hours of the morning by 100 Israeli troops, who then commandeered it for their barracks, despite the fact that as a religious and educational institution the university was protected from military incursion by international law. Every building on the campus was damaged, with an estimated repair bill well over USD 100,000.

How extraordinary that a play about an even more appalling event – the desecration of the world’s most famous Christian church a few hundred yards from his university – isn’t mentioned on Prof. Hassassian’s embassy website. It is, after all, considered an artistic and cultural triumph of Palestinian talent!

The Grassroot Diplomat award claims Hassassian “has been featured on 400 major TV interviews”. I live here in the UK and can count on the fingers of one hand how many times I’ve seen him on mainstream national TV. Whenever a Palestinian “spokesperson” is required they usually wheel in someone with poor English who’s almost unintelligible. Perhaps the good professor scores higher on obscure local stations and World Service programmes that are never seen by the majority of viewers in Britain.

The problem, as always, is that Palestinian officialdom… is pathetic in managing media relations and downright lackadaisical about seizing media opportunities.

Well-placed contacts have told me that all Palestinian embassies are under instructions not to rock the boat with Israel. Given the quisling status of the Palestinian Authority, this is no surprise. If anyone in the UK deserves credit for creating awareness of the plight of the Palestinians it’s the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) activists, solidarity campaigners, a handful of principled MPs and the alternative media. Plus, of course, the brave people of Gaza and the West Bank themselves who have suffered the Israeli jackboot on their necks for 67 years.

Certainly not the sleek, well-fed Palestinian officials who take their ease in the world’s capitals.

The problem, as always, is that Palestinian officialdom – whether Hamas, the Palestinian Authority or the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) – is pathetic in managing media relations and downright lackadaisical about seizing media opportunities. Your average medium-size company is cleverer with media strategy and more professional in its dealings with press and TV than the would-be rulers of a new Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.

A challenge to Fatah and Hamas

So, here’s a challenge to Hamas and the equally uncommunicative Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority. Kindly get a grip and reach out with news and briefings to those who are likely to use your material, including us justice seekers in the alternative media.

It may already be too late. But for heaven’s sake act as if you really want independence. Be united. Be proactive. Start setting the news agenda yourselves. Spread the word. Otherwise you are doomed.

Those who haven’t seen “The Siege” play or read my book can read an eyewitness account of the horrific siege of the Church of the Nativity here.

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