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Wiping Egg from His Face, Pollster Learns It’s Tough to Change Culture

One of the central points of the “road map” peace plan is for the Palestinians to cease anti-Israel incitement and move to a style of public discourse that favors reconciliation.

Some might say that a recent poll of Palestinian refugees, indicating that few would want to implement a “right of return” to their former homes inside Israel, does just that — promoting reconciliation by helping to defuse one of the most controversial issues separating the two sides.

But that might have been precisely the problem.

About 200 rioters stormed the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research on Sunday as the center was about to publish a poll indicating that the overwhelming majority of refugees preferred to receive monetary compensation or settle in other areas, rather than return to their former homes.

In the end, center director Khalil Shikaki — himself a refugee — cancelled the news conference called to discuss the survey results, wiping not just metaphorical but actual egg off his face.

“They ran in here, smashing everything. They broke all of our furniture, the windows, throwing eggs and physically attacking us,” one of the center’s researchers told JTA. “It was horrifying.”

For advocates of reform, the incident served as a nasty reminder of how difficult — and potentially bloody — it will be to change the Palestinian culture of violence and rejectionism.

This is hardly the first such incident that reform-minded Palestinians have encountered: Last October, following his statement that the Palestinians would have to compromise on the right of return, Sari Nusseibeh received death threats.

Leaflets attributed to Fatah, the ruling Palestinian political party, circulated in Ramallah condemning to death all those who would compromise on the right of return. Most Israelis see the call for a right of return as a veiled demand to dismantle the Jewish state through demography.

Nusseibeh, president of eastern Jerusalem’s Al Quds University and at the time the top P.A. representative in Jerusalem, publicly downplays the threats. In private, however, he acknowledges that a sniper’s bullet could cut him down at any time.

Still, since the road map was launched last month, many in the Palestinian media are trying to change the political culture to foster a gentler image of Israel.

Even Israeli officials say they see the beginnings of moderation in the Palestinian media, which are heavily influenced by the governing Palestinian Authority.

“We are trying to support the hudna,” Gaza television host Hazem Abu Shanab told JTA, using an Arabic word for the temporary cease-fire Palestinian terror groups declared a few weeks ago. “Much of our efforts are now concentrated in selling the hudna to the people.”

According to Abu Shanab, television programs have adopted new terminology and increasingly are geared to presenting “the Israelis as partially responsive to peace.”

Palestinian media officials also are trying to filter out “Israeli statements about violence, possible reinvasions and aggression,” Abu Shanab said.

Israeli troops left the Gaza Strip three weeks ago and Bethlehem two weeks ago in the initial stages of the road map. But Israel has refused to withdraw troops from other Palestinian cities in the West Bank until it is confident that the Palestinian Authority will crack down on terrorist groups operating there.

In Bethlehem, Nasser Laham, who owns the influential local cable station “Bethlehem TV,” increasingly relies on local Palestinian reporters rather than those of the massive Gulf satellite conglomerates, finding them more sensitive to local issues and generally less prone to incitement.

“We are also trying to concentrate on the future and not the past,” he said, presenting viewers with images of “a quieter, more comfortable future.”

Most importantly, Laham said, Bethlehem TV is working to counter the clout of local clans and small neighborhood groups, fostering “a greater, unified Palestinian structure, one with a single Palestinian policing force.”

Laham, who comes from a family of refugees — his cousin is an administrator of the Dehaishe refugee camp — believes Israel and a future Palestinian state can coexist peacefully. An avid reader of Israeli newspapers, his office is plastered with pictures clipped from the mass circulation dailies, Yediot Achronot and Ma’ariv.

Paramount right now is the need to wean Palestinian viewers and readers from what was, until a few weeks ago, a steady diet of “martyrs,” gore and “Israeli atrocities.”

The Palestinians have grown so addicted to the violent images screened nightly that “we have forgotten what it is to live a normal life,” Laham said.

Some of the efforts to reduce anti-Israel incitement are not well received. While the whitewashing of some anti-Israel graffiti in Gaza met with great fanfare, the vast majority of the sprawling Palestinian city was left untouched.

Few are willing to take on the job, both because the workload is so great – – pictures of dead terrorists, Kassam rockets, AK-47s and other Palestinian symbols mark miles of walls in the maze-like refugee camps — and because it is highly unpopular.

Likewise, Palestinian journalists and researchers find it increasingly difficult to overcome the anti-Israel sentiment that their own outlets have helped stoke.

“Our work is not having an effect on the people because Israelis are acting differently, not fully accepting the truce,” Abu Shanab claimed. “The people feel that there are no real changes on the Israeli side.”

But the real pressure may be coming from his own side.

“We are constantly threatened for this stance. I personally have had to reduce my TV time,” Abu Shanab said. “It’s not because I don’t believe in peace, it’s just that the people don’t think the hudna does anything for them.”

Part of this stems from P.A. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas’ failure to secure a blanket prisoner release from Israel. Other factors are the first tentative steps by the P.A.’s minister for security affairs, Mohammed Dahlan, against terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip.

Abbas and Dahlan “are losing their strength in the fight for Palestinian public opinion, which makes things very hard for us,” Abu Shanab said.

Like many Palestinians, he harbors misgivings about Shikaki’s poll.

“I believe that he was well-paid to publish those figures,” said Abu Shanab, alleging that the United States might have been behind the “doctored” results.

“How can it be that only 10 percent of Palestinians supported the full right of return, when 70 percent of Palestinians worldwide are refugees?” he asked.

By pressing on the most sensitive issue for Palestinians — the right of return — Shikaki “strayed too far from the line,” Abu Shanab said.

“For us, these issues should be restricted areas,” he said.

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