Pollster's results on 'right of return' make him a target
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
Friday, July 18, 2003
Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service
Ramallah, West Bank -- The Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research is usually a quiet place dedicated to academic analysis and learned discussion, but a riot broke out at the sleepy think tank this week.
A furious mob smashed glass and furniture, trashed potted plants and pelted the center's director, Khalil Shikaki, with eggs on Sunday.
His crime? Publishing the results of an opinion poll of Palestinian refugees that suggested only 10 percent of them would exercise the long-sought "right of return" to their former homes in what is now Israel if that right were granted.
Shikaki was only the latest Palestinian intellectual to learn that deviating from the Palestinian Authority's political line can be dangerous.
His findings seem to fly in the face of accepted Palestinian policy that the right of return for some 4 million refugees in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza Strip be a touchstone of any Middle East peace settlement.
A leaflet distributed by the protesters accused the Columbia University-educated Shikaki of "selling himself to the U.S. dollar" and "deviating from the consensus of the Palestinian people."
The leaflet also mentioned another prominent Palestinian who has dared to question the idea of the right of return -- Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al- Quds University in Jerusalem.
Years ago, Nusseibeh was beaten up at Bir Zeit University for promoting dialogue with Israelis. Last year, he was dismissed as the PLO's representative in Jerusalem after he publicly questioned whether demanding the right of return was either logical or feasible.
The leaflet distributed in Ramallah on Sunday recalled how Nusseibeh was denied entry to the campus of Al-Najah University in Nablus two months ago and prevented from discussing a new Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative.
"We warn anyone who considers harming the national rights that their fate will be similar to that of Shikaki and Nusseibeh," said a statement by the group that organized the egg-throwing, the Committee for the Defense of Palestinian Refugees' Rights.
"They will be ostracized and put on popular trial," the statement continued.
"The committee salutes the masses who care about their rights and who do not allow mercenary academics to spread their poison among our people.
"The committee calls on the Palestinian prime minister not to be lenient on such people and to take a clear position opposing their activities and to put them on trial for high treason."
Palestinian police stood by as the Nablus-based group, which is believed to be affiliated with Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, disrupted Shikaki's press conference. Group members then sauntered over to Arafat's headquarters, where they were received warmly.
Analysts say an atmosphere of intimidation stifles free debate about vital issues facing Palestinian society. They say the pressure comes not just from popular committees but also directly from the Palestinian Authority government.
Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has not commented on the Shikaki incident.
"People are often very cautious about expressing their political views, especially with regard to the government and sensitive issues," said Khaled Abu Toameh, an ex-PLO employee who is now an independent reporter and analyst. "Some writers and journalists have been punished by the Palestinian Authority for simply expressing their views. In one case, a group of intellectuals was imprisoned or beaten up by Palestinian Authority thugs for signing a petition calling for reforms."
Abu Toameh added: "There has been a slight improvement in recent years with more people speaking out openly in favor of reforms and against corruption, but you always have the feeling that you're being watched.
"It's not as bad as Syria or Saddam's Iraq, but it can be frightening. Palestinian journalists know that you don't mess around with sacred cows."
Perhaps for this reason, there aren't many independent Palestinian analysts like Shikaki. While there is some freedom of expression in academic circles, the media practices widespread self-censorship.
Israel maintains military censorship on security-related stories, and police will often obtain a court order gagging reporting on unfolding investigations. But there is notable freedom of political, anti-government and even anti-military comment in the Israeli media.
In the West Bank and Gaza Strip, pressure from above tends to dictate the content of Palestinian media -- and even of international news agencies.
The most blatant example in recent years was on the night of Sept. 11, 2001, when thousands of joyful, cheering Palestinians took to the streets of Nablus and other West Bank towns to celebrate the attacks on New York and Washington. Footage of the embarrassing street party was suppressed by senior Palestinian Authority officials, who telephoned the local bureau chiefs of the international news agencies and threatened physical harm to their camera crews if the film was shown.
The Associated Press and the Foreign Press Association protested the intimidation, but the footage stayed on the shelf.
Several years ago, Hafez Barghouti, editor of the Palestinian Authority- owned daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, straightforwardly told a seminar of media students at Bethlehem University, "At this point in our national development, it is not always appropriate to publish everything. As editor, part of my job is to censor the material I feel does not contribute to the immediate task of building the Palestinian nation."
Abu Toameh observed, "I am often criticized, even by Palestinian journalist colleagues, for exposing embarrassing truths which they feel are best kept away from public gaze. They don't attack me for publishing stories because they are untrue, because they can't."
Shikaki, for his part, has taken Sunday's incident in stride.
"I do believe that the word of the overwhelming majority of the refugees that we have interviewed is indeed much, much stronger than the views of a small number of rioters who attacked the center," he told National Public Radio. "I really don't give those people a great deal of weight."