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Propagandists on either side of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict have erased the possibility of persuasion

This article is part of a new series called “On Persuasion.” We asked thought leaders to consider what persuasion means to them. What works in terms of persuading people? Is it moot in 2020? What is the Jewish value of persuasion? Should we be opening our minds to other points of view, or closing them to dangerous ideas? Read all the pieces here.

Growing up in Gaza, one of the main beliefs I’ve seen shared by large circles of the population has been that the Palestinian Authority is a group of collaborationist normalizers, complicit in our suffering. They are viewed as policing Israel’s occupation and maintaining what’s viewed as its settler-colonial practices in the West Bank and Gaza.

Muhammad Shehada | artist: Noah Lubin

Muhammad Shehada | artist: Noah Lubin

The P.A. in these circles is only to be loathed, frowned upon, and rejected. At best, they are seen as delusional, pursuing a mirage of future self-determination through futile negotiations in which they held no cards. Rather than making progress, they consistently repress Palestinian resistance in a desperate bid to prove their worthiness and reliability as middlemen between occupier and occupied.

I grew up hearing about the P.A. as collaborators with Israel so frequently that I assumed they must be very popular among Israelis. So I was surprised to learn that the P.A. is also despised and hated by the very people Gazans accuse it of serving. In the Israeli media, the P.A. is often is portrayed as sponsors of terror, lovers of violence, an organization that incites and sows hate. “They pay Palestinians to kill Jews,” one hears over and over; they “glorify terrorists,” they fill their textbooks with hate. They promulgate anti-Semitism.

The truth of course is somewhere in between. Neither portrayal is accurate, and the black and white picture of the P.A. as either treasonous normalizers or terror sponsors is but one example of a pattern of propagandist rhetoric that clouds rational thinking when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian topic — from both sides of the debate.

There’s a fine line between propaganda and persuasion. The latter is an interactive, transactive and reciprocal process in which honest and good rhetoric is used to convey something the persuader believes to be true. The persuadee has room to challenge the message, think rationally, and co-create meaning with the persuader.

Propaganda, on the other hand, is controlling in nature. It’s manipulative, deceitful, one-sided and repetitive. It disallows critical reflection and truncates thought by using simple images and slogans that touch on the recipients’ prejudices and emotions of fear, pride, hate and sympathy. There’s no listening to the person being addressed. The goal is to move an unthinking herd to a pre-determined point of view for a concealed purpose.

Will Israel really annex the West Bank (and what happens next)? Watch the video of our June 17 Zoomversation with David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and Khalil Shikaki of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Unfortunately, much if not most of the ink spilled over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is propaganda, not persuasion. Instead of debate, conversation, discourse, and mutually respectful back and forth, propagandists on both sides throw around associative catchphrases and buzzwords: terrorist, normalizer, racist, traitor. Case closed.

No room for nuance or discussion is left in such an echo chamber; from the propagandist’s point of view, your choices are either to believe that a person or group is evil, or get out of Dodge. You don’t belong with us.

You see this everywhere you look when it comes to the conflict. When Israel’s army shot to death a Gazan journalist, Yaser Murtaja, in 2018, all the right-wing Israeli government needed to justify his horrifying killing was to add the word “terrorist” to his name, even though evidence showed this was false, to prevent any questioning over the brutality of killing civilians.

When Hamas arbitrarily arrested Gazan peace advocate Rami Aman for talking to Israelis online about the situation in Gaza, it simply called him a “normalizer” to shut down any discussion over his illegal detention. All this despite the fact that over the years, several Hamas leaders have themselves been in contact with Israelis. For instance, Hamas co-founder Mahmoud Zahar met with Yitzhak Rabin, Hamas’s Deputy Foreign Miniter, Razi Hamed, maintains contact with Israeli activist Gershon Baskin, and Hamas developed a cease-fire proposal with Israeli Rabbi Menachem Froman in 2008.

Of course, none of those Hamas leaders were called normalizers, just like the Israeli killers of a civilian journalist were never called terrorists. Propagandists always want to control the narrative and call the shots, rather than engage in constructive dialogue or tolerate criticism.

This dehumanization puts our lives in danger; one’s death or detention can be spun with a few magic words that blind rational thinking. It also muzzles Palestinian voices when being too critical of Israel renders one “terrorist” — while being too sympathetic renders one a “normalizer.”

We Palestinians and Israelis can’t afford to give in to slogans and imagery that justify our prejudices and make us feel right and good. The longer we indulge in these falsehoods, the more we fuel and perpetuate the conflict and the more death and pain we bring on ourselves.

We need to come to our senses and realize that our communities have both been suffering and we both deserve a better life and a better future. The way to avoid being blinded and manipulated by propaganda lies in the power of empathy, compassion and solidarity.

Muhammad Shehada is a contributing columnist for the Forward from Gaza. His work has also appeared in Haaretz and Vice. Find him on Twitter @muhammadshehad2.

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