In the Palestinian territories, journalism has become a major tool of non-violent resistance. More than anywhere else, the lines between journalism and activism are often blurred. Exposing the truth about the reality on the ground can help redress the biased coverage in the mainstream media, as well as mobilize the international public to act for justice and freedom of the Palestinian people.
Established in 1984, the Alternative Information Center (AIC) is the first only joint Palestinian-Israeli organisation operating in the struggle for just peace, and promotion of human and national rights, democratic institutions through dissemination of information, political advocacy, grassroots activism, analysis about Palestine and Israel.
Co-founder of the AIC Michel Warschawski, talks in-depth over his contribution as activist, author and journalist.
As an activist/journalist, what drives you to do what you do?
First, I have no choice. I was already aware 40 years ago that if we didn’t stop the policy of our state (Israel) we would offer to our children, and today to our grandchildren, a terrible future leaving the very possibility to live peacefully uncertain. So being an activist was a matter of mere egoism. Often, I’m asked if I’m doing this to advocate for the Palestinians -no, I’m doing it first for myself and children. Becoming a journalist came as part of my political activism through writing. Especially 40 years ago, the written word was essential for us, we were almost sure that if we could tell the facts to people around us, then everybody would be convinced in the same way that we were convinced.
Do you see yourself more of an activist, journalist, or both? And what role do you think you play?
I see myself, first of all, as an activist, I would say a veteran activist. Today, I’m glad to see there is a new generation that is leading the struggle against colonial occupation, and the policy of war. Activists are now confronted with the same kind of problems that we were confronted with many years ago. We have a duty to transmit a certain history, a certain experience, in order to make their way a little easier. So I’m quite pleased to take up the role of advising the young generation of activists.
What mission do you hope to deliver, and what do you consider being your primary duties?
To give a sense of time, mainly in order to help avoiding despair. Sometimes, we encounter in the new generation the feeling that everything is lost, nothing can be done. We need to tell them that there have been other times in the past when the situation was much worse, they need to effect change and move on beyond their impatience.
I identify my responsibilities with what the AIC does and is supposed to do. When we established the Centre, we attempted to create a bridge between Palestinians and the Israeli anti-occupation movement at that time, to act as a facilitator between Israeli activists and the Palestinian national resistance organizations.
I think the first mission we set for ourselves is to be a kind of breach in the wall. There is today a real wall between Palestinians and Israelis, between Palestinian and Israeli activists. Our duty, as Alternative Information Center, is to re-open a breach in that wall and to facilitate cooperation between the two communities. We provide information, including logistical and technical assistance, to bypass and defy the policy of separation.
How many times we say to Israeli activists: ‘Come to Bethlehem or Ramallah, we are running a workshop’, ‘It’s not true that you cannot go’, and ‘If you need assistance, a guide or someone to tell you how to get there, we are here to help’. As for Palestinian activists, there’s still a strong rejection, among many in the Palestinian national movement, to cooperate with ‘the enemy’, to normalize relations with the Israelis.
What role do you think the AIC is doing in helping understand the local context?
We do this by disseminating information, nevertheless in Israel we have plenty of information concerning Palestine, we even sometimes have an inflation of information through the Internet, written publications, or in Israeli daily newspapers. There is less information inside Palestine concerning Israel’s domestic affairs, although this has improved a lot in the past years.
That said, the question for us is no longer to provide factual information, unlike when the AIC was founded. Our task is more analytical today: to help people understand such information, to provide some background, to give to the wider public (through media coverage) and to the activists -who are our main priority- a better understanding of what are the actors on the ground, where they come from, what are their agendas, and how to relate to those actors.
How do you contribute towards local grassroots resistance to Israeli policies and practices?
Firstly, by creating contacts between Palestinian and Israeli activists who often need to organize activities. Secondly, by offering modest resources such as our office, and making documentation available to anyone. Our office has been from the very first day an open place, a place that doesn’t belong to the AIC’s board of directors or its staff, it belongs to the activist movement. We are not a goal in itself. The AIC has always considered itself a facilitation tool at the service of the movement.
What is ‘good journalism’ from Palestine?
I think good journalism, in Palestine and elsewhere, is a journalism that is not neutral but does not try to adapt the information provided to the public by the interests of an individual or a party. Good journalism is first of all independent. Besides, bearing in mind that our readership is intelligent, if you provide well presented, clear facts, and sometimes some analytical tools, people can draw their own conclusions from the information given.
What would you criticize in more ‘conventional’ journalism from Palestine?
Sometimes it tends to mix information with political education, though it was more the case in the past. As a journalist, you don’t try to educate. You inform, analyze, and let the readers draw conclusions by themselves. If the information is well presented, interesting enough, and related to basic concerns, as human beings, activists and citizens, readers will be able to draw their own conclusions.
What issues have a negative influence on the level of Palestinian media?
What is more of danger in the Palestinian territories is self-censorship, often journalists think that covering certain topics could hinder the goal of the struggle for freedom and justice. I personally disagree with the fact that no information should be exposed to the public. The public is, in fact, and must be the actor of change, and therefore has to know all the facts and draw its own conclusions from such facts. The role of a journalist is not to educate, and make a choice about what the broad public should know and shouldn’t.
What risks do you run in reporting the truth from occupied Palestine?
Almost no risk in disseminating information. The AIC was shut in 1997, most of us were put on a long trial that resulted into heavy fines and short prison sentences. At that time, the Israeli security services and the prosecutor made clear that the problem was not what we were writing, even though it was extremely critical of the Israeli regime and its policies. The red line that we crossed was the separation. The problem was the fact that we physically crossed the border to reach a certain level of cooperation with the other side, that we presented ourselves as part of the same struggle, sharing the same goals.
One of my interrogators said: ‘Here in Israel, there is democracy, and you’ve been able to say almost whatever you wanted during the 25 years of your political activity’, then he pointed out: ‘If you want to be protected under Israeli democracy you have to continue working inside Israel and among Israelis. But if you want to work with them (Palestinians), you will be treated exactly like them, as an occupied population. The choice is yours’.
We, progressive Israelis, are not by principle against the law though we are against it in that we don’t want to violate our principles. So this is what we said in our trial: ‘No-one will stop us from writing alongside the Palestinians, producing publications, expressing their ideas, whatever those ideas may be’. We have to be at the service of this mission, this is what we and our Israeli colleagues are here for at the AIC.
In general, what challenges do you face as an activist doing journalism in Palestine?
Except for teargas or rubber bullets from time to time, I don’t think we face problems. We can do our work with one exception: closure, that is the issue of restricted access which is the main tool of the Israeli Occupation in separating Israel from the Palestinian territories, closing access between towns and villages. First, it’s a geographical obstacle in bypassing these borders and separations.
Next, it’s a problem in getting the trust of both Israelis and Palestinians to meet and cooperate. As political activists, we can see that our history speaks for itself. And our greatest task is to get that trust, as we are not any journalists who ask questions and get ‘already made facts’. When we interview activists or a group of women in a Palestinian village, for example, we speak from the same side of the barricade although we are Israelis.
How can your coverage from the ground educate the international public about Palestine, trigger action and effect positive change?
Reporting information abroad is precisely triggering action. We are journalist activists, and our role is to build and develop the movement. When we tour around the world, our concern is to test if that has been successful or not, how much action did the tour promote or facilitate?
In our work addressed to the foreign public, whether it’s running our website, releasing publications, or organizing conferences, we mainly provide our audiences with the tools to better understand what’s happening on the ground, as much as possible from within. We always communicate as analysts but also as actors. We are not only educated observers, we are first of all actors who have made our observations more relevant, more accurate, and more useful.
What kind of influence does your journalism have in the mainstream?
Quite limited but it has some impact. It’s not our press releases, articles or our analysis, but we are good at publicizing our media actions, the AIC is a very useful tool for mainstream journalists when they need information. If there’s a particular incident taking place in Bi’lin or Hebron, journalists will come to the AIC and ask for information, contacts, and logistics.