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New Arab Debates in Ramallah: No to peace talks, yes to peaceful resistance


June 12, 2014
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Section: [Main News] [Culture]
Tags: [nonviolent resistance] [Peace Process] [negotiations] [BDS] [popular resistance]

While the majority of the audience agreed with the sentiment proposed by one of the speakers that, “For now peace negotiations with Israel are pointless,” particpants could offer few tangible examples of what could replace the talks. 

About a month and a half after the latest peace negotiations broke down between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, 66% of the audience at the New Arab Debates in Ramallah said they were against continuing the talks at the moment.

It was the first time that the New Arab Debates, based in Tunis and Cairo, were organized in the West Bank. Moderated by Tim Sebastian, a respected television journalist who also serves as the chairman of the Doha Debates, the New Arab Debates aim to engage “a new generation to get involved in politics.”

In Ramallah, the turnout was a bit lower than expected and the organizers had to carry away extra chairs. This, however, didn’t slow down a heated debate once the approximately 50 members of the audience started to question the speakers.

The answer: BDS movement

Arguing for stopping the talks for now, Mamdouh Aker, a physician and a former Palestinian peace delegate, maintained that peace negotiations should be used only as a part of a larger strategy.

“Our leadership [the Palestinian Authority] behaves as if we were defeated,” he said. “We should never be negotiating from a weak point.”

He lamented the fact that the current Israeli government is continuing to carry out its “colonialist settlement project,” adding that the occupying power “will reconsider the occupation only when it becomes too costly for it.”

A businessman and philanthropist Munib R. Masri claimed it was important to continue the negotiations like “our hero” Yasser Arafat, the first president of Palestinian Authority, did when he signed the Oslo Accords back in the mid-1990s. Yet, Masri admitted he felt very frustrated at the slow pace of the process.

“I haven’t found a negotiating partner,” Masri said, calling for the US to pressure Israel to abide by its previous agreements.

Both speakers called for peaceful resistance and support for the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement. Aker encouraged Palestinians to “confront the Israeli soldiers and settlers,” but offered few tangible examples of how this could be done.

“We should fight them even with our bear breasts!” the physician exclaimed.

Masri told the audience that Palestinians should act as a group and start civil disobedience as soon as “tomorrow.”

“But your own security service will break that protest down,” noted Sebastian, referring to the tendency of PA security forces to violently suppress any type of vocal dissent in West Bank streets.  

Old arguments

Although audience participation was so active that there was not enough time to answer all the questions, not everybody was fully satisfied with the discussion.

“I expected a larger contrast between the two speakers,” said Sinan Abu Shanab, who came to the debate from Bethlehem. “We’ve heard these arguments so many times.”

He acknowledged that the debate came at a sensitive time. “Maybe that’s why the speakers were not really sure of themselves,” the participant said.

The moderator himself was happy with the outcome. “I learned a lot about what matters to people here,” Tim Sebastian said after the debate.

While he would have wanted to see more people in the audience, Sebastian believed some Palestinians might be so frustrated with their politics that they didn’t even bother to come to the debate. Yet he claimed that the New Arab Debates are “an exercise of free speech and holding leaders accountable.”

Although he refused to give his personal opinion about the motion, Sebastian said, “it is miraculous how many Palestinians would still be ready to continue the peace talks”.

If the Debates keep receiving sufficient funding from the British and Norwegian governments, Sebastian said he would like to hold a new session in the West Bank. Maybe by that time the Palestinians will have already engaged in new round of talks with Israel – or, if the audience poll during last night’s debate in Ramallah is anything to go by, maybe not.

 

The New Arab Debates were held in Ramallah the 11th of June in English and the 12th of June in Arabic. The debates are transmitted to Deutsche Welle TV and its regional network partners. 

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