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News Analysis: Friendships Formed, but Few Minds Changed As Mideast Reporters Meet

July 7, 1999
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Just as Ehud Barak was presenting his new government to the Israeli Knesset, peace groups in the Middle East were interrupting their lengthy hibernations.

Some 150 peace activists met this week in Cairo for one of the largest conferences of the Middle East peace camp ever, yet another stage of the “Copenhagen Process” that began in January 1997 in the Danish capital to facilitate non-governmental peace relations in the region.

And a few days prior to the Cairo conference, a group of some 20 Arab and Israeli journalists, including me, met in Amman to discuss peace from another angle.

Meetings such as these, which came amid a renewed sense of optimism between Israel and its Arab neighbors, were rare during the last three years of the administration of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But several incidents that occurred at the three-day conference, “Telling About the Others,” which was funded by the Foreign Ministry of Denmark, indicate the difficulties of instituting journalistic changes as long as political tensions remain — and show that nice theories often fall prey to cruel realities.

Although the meeting brought together journalists from Jordan, Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and Israel, no Jordanian official greeted the guests, the organizers of the conference received angry telephone calls from the Jordanian Journalism Association calling the conference “as an unwarranted act of normalization with Israel” and only one of the Arab participants was willing to share a room with Israeli journalists.

And the perception of tensions in the street occasionally invaded the air- conditioned hotel in which the conference took place.

At one point, Amjad Omari, of the Al-Kuds daily newspaper in eastern Jerusalem, suggested that participants in the meeting go down the Baka refugee camp in Amman. But the Jordanian organizer, Samer Abu-Libdeh of the Alaswak business daily, was concerned for the safety of the Israelis, noting that he would not take such an initiative without consulting with the Jordanian security authorities.

Omari eventually visited the camp alone with an Egyptian colleague, and, ironically enough, the refugee camp residents would have welcomed the Israeli journalists, they said.

The deliberations were moderated by Johan Galtung, a Norwegian who specializes in finding peaceful — and sometimes eccentric — solutions for seemingly hopeless conflicts; and Jake Lynch, a correspondent for The Independent newspaper and Sky News television. Both tried to preach to the conflict-wary journalists from the Middle East to refrain from provocative terminology and to try to present to their readers a way out of the conflict.

As an example, they suggested, suicide-bombers should not be called terrorists, but should merely be mentioned as belonging to Hamas or Islamic Jihad.

But the Israeli journalists explained that they are not neutral bystanders when they report terrorist attacks.

“We are operating within the framework of a national consensus,” I told the forum. “If there is a national consensus that the suicide bombers are terrorists, then certainly we will refer to them as terrorists.”

The operator of a private television station in Bethlehem had a ready response.

“Then what name do you give the Israeli air force pilots who drop bombs that kill civilians in Lebanon, or an Israeli soldier who shoots a civilian in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip?” Hamdi Faraj asked.

Nevertheless, in light of the new government in Israel everyone appeared to be giving peace a renewed chance. People on the street smiled at the Israelis.

But the conference ended with no dramatic resolutions. It was clear to all the participants that the Israeli journalists would continue to name what they view as terrorists as terrorists, and Palestinians would continue to blame the Israelis for all the wrongs in the conflict — unless the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Information dictates otherwise.

The Jordanians would continue to write about the failure of Israel to deliver the fruits of peace — and complain about the acute shortage of water, despite the water agreements with Israel.

And it was clear that the attitude of most journalists would continue to reflect the conflict.

A year and a half ago, when the journalists first met in Denmark, Khaled Fayyad, of the Ibn Khaldoun Study Center in Cairo, was highly suspicious of Israeli journalists.

Last week, however, he was all smiles.

The Egyptian journalist appeared to have finally learned how to draw the line between political differences with the Israelis and the need to accept them as individuals and as professional peers.

Even so, as the journalists parted from each other, hugging and kissing, Fayyad declined invitations to come and visit Jerusalem. Moreover, he said, he would not visit his brother who lives in the West Bank, because that would require an Israeli entry visa.

“I will not enter Palestine at the mercy of the Israeli occupiers, “said the Egyptian journalist, “I will wait for the Palestinian state to be formed.”

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