In Rotterdam, Holland’s third largest city, thousands of Palestinians gathered on May 5 for the annual Palestinians in Europe conference. I too opted to participate only to witness a PR disaster, which could have not possibly taken place at a more critical time. This article is another attempt at self-critique and reflection, and is hardly intended as chastisement for its own sake. I believe that time is simply too precious to indulge in self-deception.
Despite the clear factional attitude that pervaded the conference championed mostly by Islamists with Palestinian ‘secularists’ invited as a gesture of kindness, an attitude that still saturates Palestinian activism everywhere the organizers were well-intended: they wished to emphasize the centrality of the Palestinian refugees’ problem and their right of return, and to focus the international community’s attention to the ongoing humanitarian and political crises fuelled by the US-led sanctions imposed on Palestinians in the Occupied Territories for electing Hamas to power in January 2006.
Indeed, the organizers did their best to attract media attention by inviting Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to speak. Scores of Dutch journalists descended on the conference hall in Rotterdam, where an estimated 3,000, mostly Palestinians living in Europe attended. The Dutch government’s unmerited denial of entry to Haniyeh, coupled with the dramatic episode in which PA Sports Minister Basem Naim was not allowed to disembark at Brussels’ international airport on his way to Rotterdam his visa which he had earlier obtained from the Dutch Embassy in Tel Aviv was revoked, apparently after Israeli and American pressures Dutch, Arab and international media was eagerly watching and listening: every word uttered, every banner raised and every leaflet handed out were painfully analyzed, often leading to some outrageous conclusions. Take Haaretz and AP’s report on May 6, as an example: “Organizers said the protest was against the occupation of the West Bank, but the posters advertising the event advocated what could be construed as a call for the destruction of Israel, such as ‘Palestine free from the river to the sea,’ and ‘Stop the 60-year-long catastrophe.’
Another headline grabber was the presence and the poignant statements made by Former Dutch Prime Minister Dries Van Agt, who audaciously acknowledged Holland’s ‘biased’ pro-Israeli stances, demanding an end to the boycott in which EU members are part and parcel. “We automatically pardon the occupier and sanction the occupied nation,” he told reporters at a press conference which I also attended. This and other strong statements made by Van Agt coincided with a visit by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to the Occupied Territories in which he criticized the embargo; they were both excellent indicators of positive change in Europe, though slow and slight, but is still welcomed.
But media and PR achievements are not made by good intentions alone, and a particularly encouraging statement by an official or two, but the outcome of incessant, decided and preset strategy that engage in the subject of shaping public opinion with utter care and obsession with the details. This was hardly the case in Rotterdam.
The conference had no central message, but several messages which were hardly related. While the conference purported to address the issue of the Right of Return for Palestinian refugees, the key and recurring topic of all the speeches was the sanctions. Thus literatures and leaflets, which were sparse, spoke of one issue, while the speakers of another.
When I requested the media package in English, I discovered there was none: only Arabic and Dutch were available, I was told. Why hold an international conference if the organizers are not prepared to appeal to an international audience and speak to international media using an international language? I was dumbfounded, if not furious.
The speakers were mostly Palestinians from the Occupied Territories, speaking Arabic. As eloquent as they where in their own language, their fiery words were translated into Dutch only. Neither English nor French were apparently needed. The conference of Palestinians in Europe lacked the contributions of some of the most brilliant and eloquent Palestinian scholars and activists in Europe they are simply many but overshadowed by angry speeches of angry sounding, Arabic speaking men female participation was almost non-existent: all leading to the most fantastic contribution to stereotyping Arabs, whose culture is readily depicted by the media as man-dominated, inherently angry and innately irrational.
Of course, the conference was not a conference at all: no papers were submitted nor expected to be published, hardly any written material that was at all meaningful was present, no serious or purposeful discussion; even the ‘workshops’, that were announced but whose time, place nor topic were made available, were cancelled without a mere announcement. Potential participants roamed the conference for hours seeking information but received none. None of the organizers seemed to know much about anything. The disorganization and mismanagement were flawless.
Although the publicity that was generated by Haniyeh’s denied visit and Van Agt’s attendance was the perfect opportunity to present the media with a solid case for Palestinian rights and the need for an immediately lifting of the sanctions, the media attention that was giddily welcomed was hardly exploited. There were almost no media experts whatsoever, as if the object was the mere presence of journalists, regardless of what they write and how their articles and news reports will damage the image of Palestine and the Palestinians.
The date chosen for the conference was deliberately elected to coincide with the country’s Independence Day, when the Netherlands was liberated from the grip of the Nazis, a bad choice by any standards considering the hardly subtle insinuation that the Nazi occupation was reminiscent of Israel’s. Though one can indeed mitigate the similarities, the extremely sensitive parallel, if it must be invoked at all, should’ve been handled by those who possess the eloquence and the smarts to do so. The media was simply furious, giving the pro-Israel elements within a heyday.
Toward midday, a group of teenagers were instructed to gather in a central point in the conference hall and wave Palestinian flags; the euphoria eventually lead them to start running around the building, jeering and laughing, and behind them Dutch camerapersons. The PR disaster was now perfect as was my discontent. I hurried out of the building seeking comfort in a large cup of strong coffee, never to return.
RAMZY BAROUD is the author of The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle. He is also the editor-in-chief of PalestineChronicle.com. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org