As anyone who regularly reads AIJAC’s blogs would be aware, incitement and glorification of terrorism to Palestinian society – including and especially children – is unfortunately a way of life in the Palestinian Authority and Gaza (see here, here and here).
For the most part, this incitement is under-reported in Australian media, but it sparked a controversy in Australia this week – not because it exists and the obstacle it poses to preparing the Palestinian people for peace, but ironically because top Palestinian officials took offense when visiting senior Australian and UK government officials and politicians had the courage to raise the issue with them.
The story began on December 13, when Australian government representatives and officials including Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne, former speaker Bronwyn Bishop, Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson and Western Australia Labor Senator Glenn Sterle met with Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah and Palestinian Education Minister Dr Sabri Saidam in Ramallah.
The Australians were visiting Israel and the PA as part of the Australia-Israel-UK Leadership Dialogue, and some UK counterparts reportedly also took part in the meeting, although they have not been identified.
Several days later, on the morning of December 16, ABC Middle East Correspondent Sophie McNeill filed a story on the ABC website about comments made by Saidam criticising the Australian members of the delegation.
Palestinian Minister for Education Dr Sabri Saidam described the meeting as “very explosive and very challenging” and said the group had asked “rude and blunt” questions.
“The delegation had false information and twisted facts,” Dr Saidam told the ABC.
“So it was clear the delegation was not well educated.
“Obviously the delegation was under impressions, wrong impressions accumulated after the visit to Israel.”
Oddly, this initial version of the story, filed at 8:38 am, failed to identify what subject matter had offended Saidam. (ABC overwrites earlier versions of stories if they are updated, as this story later was, but a PDF of the original story can be found here.)
Soon after this story was posted on the ABC website, Tim Wilson contextualised the event in a comment on Facebook:
Complete rubbish. Utter and complete rubbish. The article doesn’t say what ‘facts’ were wrong. Do you want to know what the key point of contention was?: should the Palestinians name schools after teenage suicide bombers. The Education Minister accepted it occurred and then called one of the suicide bombers a “national hero”. It was a polite and frank meeting. The same questions were asked by the Brits. If anything, they were the more blunt of the delegates.
Jerusalem Post journalist Greer Fay Cashman provided considerable details about the incident in her widely read column, “Grapevine”, mostly from the perspective of Senator Sterle. Cashman’s column actually pre-dated McNeill’s report as it was initially posted on the Jerusalem Post website on the evening of December 15. (As such, while it’s not known whether McNeill was aware of Cashman’s story when she filed her own story the possibility exists). Cashman wrote:
When questions from the delegation were put to the prime minister, the responses were varied, Sterle added.
“Firstly, there was complete denial that any schools in the West Bank were named after terrorists. He challenged us to check our information. He reiterated a number of times that our information was incorrect.
But when he was returned to the question by other members of the delegation, he then went into defending the practice of ‘honoring’ terrorist-suicide bombers.”
His reasoning, said Sterle, was that Israel honors its “terrorists” by naming streets, buildings and airports after them. Names such as [Israel’s first Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion, [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon and [former Prime Minister Golda] Meir – people who, he said, killed Palestinians – were cited. He also mentioned Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Muslim worshipers at prayer in Hebron.
At one stage, said Sterle, Hamdallah got a little agitated as the group continued to bring him back to the topic of honoring terrorists through sporting events and the education system.
It goes without saying that Hamdallah’s accusation that Israel’s former prime ministers were all terrorists is patently absurd and distorts the meaning of the word. Meanwhile the only Jewish terrorist he actually mentioned – Baruch Goldstein – is seen only as a shameful and criminal figure among almost all Israelis as well as the Israeli government.
In these later versions, the content of the questions posed to the PA officials were mentioned, although buried in the story.
As McNeill mentioned briefly halfway through her report on PM:
SOPHIE MCNEILL: Dr Saidam says the group repeatedly asked questions about Palestinians naming schools and venues after people who had killed Israeli civilians.
SABRI SAIDAM: I said that one man’s hero is another man’s terrorist.
Does that small mention in the story really do justice to the issue? And did the delegation come with “false information and twisted facts” as Saidam told McNeill?
No, what they claimed was completely accurate, as even Saidam admitted, and on December 18, Sydney Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman, who was in Israel for the Dialogue, wrote about the incident.
They [Hamdallah and Saidam] treated the members of the delegation as fools.
In March, the Palestinian Authority celebrated the anniversary of the most deadly terrorist attack on Israelis, the Coastal Road Massacre in which Palestinian terrorists murdered 37 Israeli civilians, 12 of them children.
In addition to the three schools already named for terrorist Dalal Mughrabi, who led the bus hijacking in 1978, a square was dedicated to her memory along with an image of her and a map which includes what the Authority teaches its people is Palestine – all of Israel.
There are 25 schools named after terrorists and pupils wear on their uniforms the logos of terrorist brigades and appear regularly on Palestine television avowing their wish to become martyrs.
There are no schools named after terrorists or suicide bombers in Israel.
Strangely, there was no hint of controversy in the official Palestinian press release after the meeting.
So, why did this whole issue of alleged “rudeness”, meaning accurately expressing concerns about incitement, suddenly pop up days after the meeting?
Tellingly, in a seven-minute phone interview with SBS Radio News’ Greg Dyett on December 16, Saidam repeatedly avoided answering direct, simple questions including: “Members of the Australian delegation have told Australian media outlets it wasn’t the Australians who were rude, it was the British delegates who were rude. What’s your recollection?”; “What were the exact questions and who was asking them?”; “Was there any one question, and was there any one individual who particularly riled you, who particularly upset you with their questioning?”
Instead of answering even one of these questions, he repeatedly changed the subject to Palestinian talking points such as checkpoints, settlements and, in his words, “why [Israel] is continuing the occupation after 60-plus UN resolutions that have called upon Israel to end this illegal occupation [sic]”, suggesting this was merely an effort to gain publicity for the Palestinian narrative.
Finally, the fact that two Australian participants in the meeting (Wilson and Sterle) separately commented that the British members of the meeting were more blunt with their Palestinian hosts than the Australian members (even as McNeill reported that Palestinian officials insisted otherwise) may hint at the real context for this manufactured “controversy”.
The evidence seems to suggest that the Palestinian Authority has a grudge against the Australian government that they don’t have with the British government.
As the Palestinian Education Minister told McNeill: “There has [sic] been a lot of complaints as you know on the Palestinian side that the Government of Australia was not [or, rather, has not been] that sympathetic with the Palestinians.”
For the Palestinian Authority, then, it would appear that uncritical “sympathy” is their litmus test for visiting foreign officials. And they apparently haven’t been feeling enough sympathy from Canberra.
However, on the Palestinian Authority’s political ledger, embarrassing or antagonizing the UK’s Cameron government appears to be something they seek to avoid at this time.
Why visiting Australians were singled out by the Palestinians for criticism while British visitors were spared is a question that is truly newsworthy. So is the reality, conceded by Saidam, that the PA teaches children to venerate terrorists who slaughter civilians as “freedom fighters”. It’s a shame elements in Australia’s media do not seem to think so.
(It should be noted that the incident was also reported in Australian’s Cut and Paste column (Subscription required) and websites for the Algemeiner, Guardian and in an AAP story although none of these reports added new information to the story).