Wednesday, June 11, 2014

On Israel, Palestine and the Media: An Interview with Harry Fear

On Israel, Palestine and the Media: An Interview with Harry Fear

By Devon Douglas-Bowers

Below is a transcript of a recent email interview I conducted with independent journalist, activist and filmmaker Harry Fear. Mr. Fear has made a number of documentaries regarding the Gaza Strip and has done reporting directly from the area.

 1. What made you become interested in journalism and specifically the Israel-Palestine conflict?

I believe strongly in the power of documentary and news video to expand people’s perceptions and move people. Video can powerfully portray situations of human suffering to audiences, and Westerners so often are in desperate need of being woken to acknowledge international injustices.
The Israel–Palestine conflict, as a prime and long-lasting international injustice, has been both personally and intellectually important to me, since I was at high school. The geopolitical dynamics of the conflict continue to steal my attention and journalistic intrigue. The liberal, advocacy journalist inside of me refuses to remain neutral in the face of war crimes and terrorism, which feeds into my work ethic and agenda. It’s a deeply impassioning conflict and as my work on the ground has continued my personal connection to the conflict and its suffering has depended too.

2. When you first went to Palestine, what was the ongoing situation and how were you greeted? How did you go about conducting work and how does that compare to now when you go to Palestine?

I first visited Israel, Jerusalem and the West Bank in early 2010, arriving as a photojournalist and working as an internet marketing volunteer for an Israeli NGO. Two years later and I visited Gaza, entering via Egypt. Within a few hours of arriving in Gaza, militants had been killed in targeted drone strikes, of course injuring civilians too. Back then in summer 2012, escalations of violence regularly afflicted Gaza, and the Israeli and Egyptian siege continued to hold back the economy and people’s morale. I worked to produce a handful of independent video reports, to try to redress the lack of video news emanating from Gaza, with young Palestinian translators.

Producing news from the Strip presents unique challenges, and over the months I developed an appropriate operating method that works well, to overcome the technical, linguistic, cultural and logistical constraints, of working in a very social conservative environment, with for example only a few hours of electricity per day.

Since I first visited Gaza, the situation has generally improved, in as much as cross-border violence is now at a near-zero level. However, on the other hand, the blockade has actually worsened dramatically, inasmuch as there is now no Palestinian civilian entry or exit into Egypt or Israel. The 1.9m Palestinians in Gaza are literally imprisoned in a tiny strip of land, essentially as punishment for voting for Hamas in their 2006 legislative elections.

When I first visited Gaza, it was easy for internationals to travel between Gaza and Egypt via the infamous Rafah border crossing. Since Egypt’s President Morsi was ousted last summer, the border has been permanently closed and only opened a few times for small trickles of Palestinian pilgrims and emergency humanitarian cases to cross. Now, ordinary internationals like myself (who aren’t working for a registered international aid agency) can’t easily access Gaza at all. Although, in the coming weeks we’re hoping to see dramatic improvements, with the hopeful reopening of the Egyptian border, now that both Egyptian and Palestinian politics are stabilising. Egypt has just elected former military chief Abdelfattah Al-Sisi. Palestinian factions have just formed an interim ‘reconciliation government’, before instigating desperately-needed elections.

Despite my being of a different country, background, race and language, my passion and love for Gaza and for the Palestinians’ just cause is evident in the way I engage with people in the Strip. I’ve always enjoyed getting along well with Palestinians I’ve met and worked with. My experience has been that almost all those I’ve met are extremely keen to tell their personal and national stories and have them transmitted as loudly and as far as possible. Generally, I’ve been treated incredibly kindly, with open arms and hearts by ordinary Palestinians. Some people have been suspicious and cynical – others even abusive of my work – but they’re in a tiny minority. Never have I seen such human hospitality as in Gaza.

3. The US media consistently generalizes that all Palestinians support attacks on Israel and hate Israel. Since you have been there, what have you seen to be the reality of the situation with regards to people's support for attacks on Israel and feelings regarding Israel?

Western media is guilty of shallow generalizations that steal from their viewers a chance at understanding the basic Palestinian narrative.

Certainly in Gaza, there’s no denying that there is hatred for Israel, because of its decades of ethnic cleansing and violent land theft policies towards Palestinians. So Gazans usually refer to Israel as simply ‘the occupation’, to deny legitimacy to the state that was established on the remains of Palestinian villages that were cleansed in the late 1940’s.

There is no doubt that during times of war with Israel and during flash points, ordinary people appear to be overwhelmingly in favor of the attacking Israel in ways that constitute terrorism under the laws of war.

Back in November 2012, after Israel launched its most recent full-scale operation on Gaza, once the ceasefire was agreed, Palestinians celebrated, arguing that their militant groups had hit back and successfully hurt Israel, making Israeli society feel some cost for attacking Gaza. The logic here is that if Israel is made to pay a price when it strikes Gaza, it will deter further attacks. Recent history shows that there is at least some discernable cohesion to that military argument.

Having said all of that, if you ask what Palestinians ultimately desire, it’s clear that people generally seem to desperately want a just resolution that simply offers a peaceful and prosperous human existence.

4. Do you think that independent journalists like yourself are having an impact on the way the Israel-Palestine conflict is viewed?

There is a positive impact being made, especially in making available new insights and hidden facts to increasingly broad audiences.

Social media technology and the latest internet platforms do allow for fairer chances for smaller outlets (and even one man bands like myself) to reach the public in numbers that facilitate sustainable and professional work. Meanwhile, the traditional news networks are increasingly relying on independent stringers and activists in this age of social media reporting, and this helps indie-journos with exposure.

There is a very long way to go, and the dominant channels are fighting strong in this new age in which news is gathered and consumed in ever-changing ways. But I see the trend as positive, exciting, and good for the development and broadening of journalism and democracy.

5. With this conflict it seems that there are only two options, Israel or Palestine. Are there any other ways in which people can push for peace without siding with either country?

It’s true that the conflict can be very polarizing, but you can find positions of genuine neutrality, and there are ways of straddling the two sides.

One way is to stand by international law, which strikes down on both sides, both positively and negatively. Israel’s precious ‘right to exist’ is preserved in the law, as is the novelty of Palestine’s right to exist. Two people, two states. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians are permitted to act terroristically during wartime. Both peoples should live in peace and security with full rights and dignities. This is the most simplest expression of where international law stands. Organizations like aid charity Oxfam UK follow the line of international law when it comes to positioning themselves on the conflict.

Another approach of neutrality would be to say that the Holy Land is sacred and should be preserved for the world’s Christians, Muslims and Jews (who constitute most of the people on this planet). Further, that all religions and people should be free to access a peaceful, not war-torn Holy Land, and that religious sites and religious freedoms should be absolutely protected in the Land. I think this is the neutral position that we see the Pope taking, with both his recent visit to the West Bank and Israel, and his holding of the peace prayer meeting with the Palestinian and Israeli premieres.

6. Why do you think that the argument regarding the right to self-determination is acknowledged and bought up when it comes to Israel, but always ignored when it comes to Palestine?

Israel continues to successfully maintain a dominant narrative in the West, and there are various reasons for that, including Israel’s developed PR and media outreach, as well as innate pro-Israel biases in the West’s dominant media because of prejudices like Islamophobia. While it is normal to hear about the importance of ‘Israel’s right to exist’, it seems rude, ridiculous or radical for us to ask, ‘what about Palestine’s right to exist?!’, even though it’s an elementary and fair question.

However, Israel’s grip on the narrative (and therefore on foreign governments’ policy) is slipping, throughout the world, including, importantly in Europe, and even also to an extent in the USA. Israel’s control over European and US positions is declining, on issues like settlements, the besiegement of Gaza, racist laws in Israel, economic cooperation between the PA and Israel, and the international recognition of Palestine.

7. What are your thoughts on the current unity government between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank? Were you surprised that the US is willing to work with this new unity government?

For years, I’ve been preaching that a necessary condition for progress for the Palestinians is to have internal reconciliation and, most importantly, to have elections. It’s a massive relief and immensely hope-inducing to see the interim reconciliation government in power and in place by the agreed deadline. It remains to be seen if the government will hold, whether elections will come in time, what its policies will be, and what practical improvements this will all yield on the ground (including for Gaza’s borders crossings, for instance).

Since the reconciliation government has been in place, we are already starting to see more hardball statements emanating from Palestinian leaders — threats to take Israel to international courts, threats to draw international consensus against Israel on key issues like settlements, and threats to escalate international bodies’ recognition for Palestine as a state. For those that want to see Israel’s power reduced, and therefore a balancing of the power dynamic with the Palestinians, this is good news.
I am hopeful that the interim government will indeed hold and that elections will be held successfully in the next 10 months.

What would be ideal would be for Palestinian factions to hold free elections soon, to install a new democratically-mandated government and leadership (without the tragic violent infighting that we saw in Gaza in 2007), to clearly galvanize popular international sympathy, and to clearly harness international legal avenues. I think this would put the Palestinians in a dramatically strengthened position, in comparison to where they’ve been at over the last few years.

I was pleasantly surprised to see Washington, Brussels, Moscow, Beijing, et al. tacitly accept the reconciliation and its product, an interim government. If the ‘international community’ (i.e. the US and whoever it can get to agree with it) is serious about its ‘two states for two peoples’ proposal for solving the conflict, then having a united and mandated Palestinian leadership to agree to the proposal is a simple prerequisite. Until now, the Palestinian leadership have recently been operating with a hairline mandate from elections back in 2006. So in a sense it was natural for the US to tacitly approve of the reconciliation, because they need the Palestinian leadership to have domestic legitimacy. The contradiction of course is that the internal Palestinian reconciliation has involved the coming together of one essentially US-accepted Palestinian movement (Fatah) and one US-deemed terrorist organization (Hamas).

8. How do you think, among all the extreme media bias, that people can get information and comes to their own conclusions regarding the ongoing struggles in the conflict?

The most important endeavour is to educate oneself about the conflict’s present dynamics and histories. The simple rules apply: get as much information as possible, from as many different sources as possible. I follow the conflict in the Palestinian, Israeli, UK, US and Russian news. Only when you look at the events and developments from disparate and even contradictory sources, do you see the real underlying dynamics of what’s happening.

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