I am currently sitting in my apartment in Palestine, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where I am living for the next four months. After reading your two Wespeaks, Mr. Nestler (“The Public Relations War,” Jan. 30, 2009, Volume CXLV, Number 1 and “Response from Nestler on Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Feb. 6, 2009, Volume CXLV, Number 3), I feel compelled to respond. I want to focus on your response to Mr. Gunawardena and the concept you refer to as Israel’s “public relations war.
You begin by claiming that the United Nations Human Rights council is “notorious for its anti-Israel hate” and that they should be focused on actual human rights violations. No matter the number of deaths or the degree of the violation, the bottom line is a human rights violation is wrong. Yesterday, I met a group of foreigners here in Ramallah who attended a demonstration last week in the village of Bil’in, to protest the construction of Israel’s “security barrier,” which cuts directly through the village, rather than on the green line (a violation of international law in itself.  If Israel wants to build a wall, fine, but build it on their own land. If it is truly just for Israel’s security, why has it been built into Palestinian land, winding around Palestinian homes and villages, separating people from their jobs, schools, and hospitals?) At the demonstration, which has occurred each week for almost the last four years, tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition are often fired by the Israeli army, while stones are often thrown by Palestinians. It is often unclear which occurs first. Last week, two foreign journalists (one from Japan and one from Spain) at the demonstration were shot in the head by rubber coated steel bullets, and neither of them had participated in stone throwing.  At another protest in the village of Nil’in over the summer, a Palestinian man was detained, bound, and blindfolded. He was not even resisting, when an Israel soldier shot the bound Palestinian in the leg at an incredibly close range, after his commander ordered him to do so.  Furthermore, in Israel’s three weeks of attacks and destruction in Gaza, there are many accusations and strong evidence that Israel used white phosphorous bombs , which organizations such as the International Red Cross categorize as chemical weapons. Wherever it occurs, whether in Darfur or in Palestine, human rights violations are wrong and many of Israel’s actions, such as these three examples, are justly criticized.
You go on to write that in 1948 the Palestinians rejected their own state, which is a statement I agree with. How would you feel, however, if someone came to your home and said it was now on their territory? Would you fight for your house, or would you just get up and leave? You claim that “blam[ing] Israel for the Palestinians’ lack of self-determination is frankly absurd,” going on to cite Camp David in 2000 as one of your points of evidence. Camp David, however, is much too complicated to simplify into “Arafat rejected Israel’s amazing proposal” (not a direct quote). In fact, nothing was ever written down at Camp David, it was very rushed and forced, and many of the agreements from Oslo and other negotiations had yet to be fulfilled by Israel, so Arafat had little reason to trust Ehud Barak.  These circumstances did not lead to a healthy environment for an agreement. Robert Malley (Bill Clinton’s Special Assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs) details why Camp David’s failure cannot all be pinned on Arafat. See citation list at the end for his article.
In my time in Palestine, I have visited two of the many Palestinian refugee camps across the Middle East, the Balata camp in Nablus and Dheisheh near Bethlehem. The majority of these people did not waltz out of their homes and move to refugee camps. I spoke with countless Palestinians whose families fled when the war began, thinking they would be gone from their homes for a week, or two, at most – however long the war lasted. They left all of their personal belongings behind, never considering the idea that they would not return to their homes. Other people were physically forced out, or if not physically, psychologically.  Events such as Deir Yassin were broadcasted on the radio, spreading a sense of fear that if they did not run from their homes, their destiny would be the same of those murdered that day. This is not a case where “the majority of these people left either on their own volition or by the recommendation of surrounding Arab governments,” as you suggest. Yes, other Arab nations have done little for these refugees, but that does not eliminate the fact that Israel bears the burden of the responsibility in this problem.
You argue next that the threat of Hamas’ rockets justifies Israel’s actions in Gaza. Let me begin by asking you, what has Israel’s three-week offensive in Gaza achieved? It has not stopped Hamas from firing rockets into Israel. The calmest period for Israel’s southern citizens was during the six months that Israel and Hamas had negotiated (even if indirectly) a truce, not when bombing Gaza for three weeks straight and sending the fourth strongest army in the world into 360 square kilometers of 1.5 million cramped people. Diplomacy, not violence, has been the most successful tool for Israel when dealing with Hamas. You argue that Hamas began firing rockets into Israel after the six-month truce expired, while Israel was “imploring them to stop and consider peace.” First, it was in fact Israel, not Hamas, who broke the ceasefire. In November, Israel bombed a tunnel in Gaza, killing six people.  If we are talking about international deception or a PR War against Israel, why is the fact that Israel broke the ceasefire rarely mentioned? Furthermore, what actions did Israel take to encourage Hamas to “stop and consider peace?” “Considering peace” implies negotiations and dialogue, yet Israel never showed the slightest inclination that this was the path it wanted to take with Hamas. I do not support Hamas firing rockets into Israel; however, terrorism is proven to be a natural response to occupation, especially when this occupation has been going on for over 40 years.  Saying this does not translate into defending Hamas, but it means that the best way to combat terrorism is to end the occupation.
Your next paragraph, where you debate the number of actual deaths in Gaza, is sickening. You reduce human lives to a dispute of numbers, and the lack of humanity in your argument is appalling. Yes, you can debate how many of the dead were militants and how many were civilians, and because this is a P.R. War, as you claim, Israel will argue that most were militants and they will give a lower number of overall deaths. Yet, engaging in this battle of numbers misses the point, because we are talking about human beings. Let’s take the story of Dr. Ezzeldeen Abu Al-Aish, just one of the thousands of Palestinians affected by the recent attacks on Gaza. Dr. al-Aish is a very well respected gynecologist in Israel, who trained at two hospitals inside of Israel and is one of the few Gazans who has permission to leave Gaza and work inside of Israel. For three days at a time, he would travel to work at a hospital near Tel Aviv, taking care of Israeli patients. He would stay with Israeli friends, before traveling back to Gaza to be with his eight daughters. He speaks fluent Hebrew and is a well-known peace activist. Just before the Gaza attacks began, he made his routine trip from Israel back home. Instead of going back to work in Israel the next week, he stayed in Gaza to take care of his daughters and work at the strip’s main hospital where thousands of injured Palestinians needed treatment. A few days before Israel and Hamas announced unilateral cease-fires, an Israeli shell hit Dr. al-Aish’s home, five minutes before he was scheduled to do an interview for one of Israel’s main nightly news stations. Just after his home was hit, he called the news anchor’s cell phone, crying and yelling, and the news anchor held up his cell phone to the microphone for over three minutes, so all of his Israeli audience could hear Dr. al-Aish’s pain. Three of Dr. al-Aish’s daughters were killed and other members of his family were injured when the shell hit his home.  To Dr. al-Aish, does it matter whether 900 or 1,300 Palestinians were killed in the attacks on Gaza? What I find so heartless about your argument is you reduce Dr. al-Aish’s pain, and the pain of thousands of other Palestinians, to numbers.
If we are talking about a P.R. problem in this situation, the problem is not how the media views Israel, but it is Israel and the West’s inability to see Palestinians as human beings rather than terrorists. I was out to dinner at a café here in Ramallah a few nights ago, when a friend of mine said: “What Palestinians need most of all is a new P.R. campaign.” At that moment we all laughed, but looking back at what he said now, there is a lot of truth to it. “I’ve traveled to many places all over the world,” my friend went on, “and in no place have I met people as nice, and I mean genuinely nice, as I have in Palestine.” Personally, I’ve met many Palestinians during my stay in Ramallah so far, and many more in past visits to other parts of the West Bank. In no place have I felt more welcomed. These individuals (and I can safely extend this to the majority of Palestinians) do not want to destroy Israel, and in fact many have friends who are Jewish and friends inside of Israel. All they want is to live in dignity like any other human being, and not to live under a system of military occupation that controls every facet of their life, from large aspects such as borders, electricity, water, sea, air and movement within their own territory, to more subtle ways such as getting a drivers license and getting to school everyday. If this is truly a P.R. War, Palestinians are not only misrepresented, but Israel has lost a major P.R. battle with the Palestinians. The three-week offensive in Gaza did not bring security to Israel’s southern cities, but instead alienated thousands of Palestinians and convinced them that Israel does not truly want peace. This anger and loss of hope does not secure Israel, but instead makes Israel less safe for its civilians.