He Said-They Said: Mahmoud Abbas October 14th speech, and the Mainstream Media

by Robert Harris (June 2016)

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority’s president, delivered an important televised speech to Arab-Palestinian society on October the 14th last year, during the height of a newly resurgent period of violence, which some commentators thought to be the opening salvo of a new Arab-Palestinian intifada or uprising. AFP (Agence-France Presse) described the speech in an article entitled “Abbas says he backs 'peaceful' struggle against Israeli occupation”:

"Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said Wednesday he favours "peaceful, popular resistance" against Israeli occupation, amid a two-week wave of violence that has killed more than 30 people on both sides.

In a speech broadcast on official Palestinian television, his first since the outbreak of the violence, Abbas spoke of the Palestinian people's 'right to defend ourselves' and 'pursue our national struggle'."

The ‘Abbas favours “peaceful, popular resistance” against Israeli occupation’ sentiment was echoed in other mainstream syndicated news services. Aron Heller, of the Associated Press wrote:

“In a brief speech Wednesday, Abbas called for a peaceful "national struggle." He also threatened to submit a case to the International Criminal Court against what he called Israel's "extrajudicial killings" of Palestinians.”

That same day RTE’s 9 PM news programme featured a report by Carol Coleman (“Two Palestinians shot dead in latest spate of attacks in Israel”) which presented the speech thusly:

“This evening Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas held firm, saying that Palestinians would continue to struggle for the project of nation or state-hood. He spoke of the right to self defence but called for non-violent resistance.”

Al Jazeera America stated:

"Addressing Palestinians for the first time since the violence began, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said in a recorded televised speech he supported 'peaceful and popular' struggle against Israel."

The Xinhua News Agency similarly emphasised Abbas’ supposed desire for a meaningful peace, while in an article carrying the headline “Palestinians still extend hand for real peace process: Abbas”, the Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) also described the speech in peaceful terms.

What Abbas really said

The reader would rightly understand such descriptions of the speech as the first seeds of a de-escalation of violence. However, the speech was received very differently in Israel.

Most sectors of Israeli society, including some segments of the more “dovish” left, condemned Abbas’ speech. Indeed, the leader of the liberal secular Yesh Atid party lambasted the speech in the strongest possible terms.

Which perspective on the speech is correct? A full English translation provided by the Jerusalem Post (much of which is reproduced below) amply validates the criticism that emanated from Israel.

In the paragraph below, Abbas does indeed speak of “non-violent popular resistance” but he simultaneously endorses the past violence of the PLO, to which he repeatedly refers:

“We will continue our legitimate national struggle, which is based on our right to defend ourselves and on non-violent popular resistance and political and legal struggle. We will work with needed patience, wisdom and courage to protect our people and our political and national achievements, which we have achieved after decades of hard work and persistence through a long path of martyrs, injured people and prisoners.”

He continues, describing this violence or terrorism as the “price of our freedom” which will soon come:

“It’s true that we paid a big price through the blood of our martyrs, the injured, the tears of our mothers and the pain of our prisoners. However, it’s the price of our freedom, which is around the corner…”

Abbas speaks of tearing up the Oslo Accords, the foundational agreement between the PLO and Israel allowing for Yasser Arafat’s return to Ramallah in 1993 from exile in Tunisia, which facilitates shared security measures (Article II), the transfer of taxes, water resources etc., to the new Palestinian Authority:

“We will together continue with you our national, political and legal struggle. We will not remain hostage to the agreements that are not respected by Israel, and we will continue to join the international organizations and treaties”

Abbas claims that Israel did not respect the Oslo Interim Accord, a view that he has often  asserted. However, grave and longstanding breaches by the PLO undermine the notion that the terror group was ever serious about peace. An upsurge in terrorist attacks during the 90s  undermined the possibility of final status negotiations. The newly established PA police force did not fulfil their security obligations under Oslo II, the PLO charter was not changed to recognise Israel (Article XXXI, section 9), nor were the undertakings to stop using paramilitary forces (Article XIV, section 3) and incitement to violence (Article XXII) upheld. Abbas also continues to breach the agreement with unilateral moves to achieve statehood without negotiation.

The speech ends with the threat of continued violence and an exhortation of those Arab-Palestinians involved in the violence and terrorist acts:

“Here, I invite you my great people, wherever you are, to, unite and be wary of the occupation schemes designed to abort and terminate our national project. We will never hesitate to defend our people and to protect them this is our right.

A tribute to the martyr’s… greetings to the wounded, greetings to the prisoners.”

In an earlier part of the speech, Abbas describes the conflict in apocalyptic terms, and blames Israel solely for the violence:

“The Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people, land and holy places continues to escalate. The racist barbarism exacerbates the ugliness of the occupation, in a way that threatens peace and stability and the igniting of a religious conflict that would burn everything, not only in the region but perhaps the whole world. […]

We are clearly saying that we will not accept a change in the status quo of al-Aksa Mosque compound, as we will not allow any Israeli schemes aimed at compromising its holiness and Islamic identity to pass. It’s our exclusive right: for the Palestinians and Muslims everywhere in the world.

We are asking for our rights, justice and peace, we do not commit aggression on anyone and we do not accept aggression against our people, our nation and our holy places”

Abbas describes the clashes on the Temple Mount in purely defensive terms. When speaking of self-defence, Abbas is justifying such violence which, paradoxically, is seen in defensive fashion by many of the faithful within the Islamic world. Muslims have claimed that the Jewish people of Israel are attempting to destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque. This trend began in 1929 when the then-Mufti of Jerusalem incited genocide, leading to the mutilation and slaughter of many Jewish civilians, especially in Hebron – the second holiest city within the Jewish faith. Abbas’ audience would not be deaf to the power of his words, which he often reiterated, as for example in an October 8th statement:

"Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas says the Palestinians will not be 'dragged' into more violence with Israel, but says his people stand with those 'protecting Al-Aqsa mosque.'

Speaking to business leaders on Thursday in Ramallah Abbas says he is committed to 'peaceful popular resistance,' though he backs rioters who recently barricaded themselves inside Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and clashed with Israeli police on the Temple Mount."

Whilst describing the clashes on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif in defensive terms, he nonetheless reiterated in the October 14th speech that Muslims had sole rights over the contested religious site, asserting that “it’s our exclusive right: for the Palestinians and Muslims everywhere in the world.”

Abbas not only repeated the patently false charge that the Israeli State wished to change the status quo of the Temple Mount, a claim originating in the 1920s, which evolved after Israel retook East Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, an assertion that initiated the Autumn 2015 spate of violence (as well as the Second Intifada), he heightened the political temperature by falsely claiming that Israel was the aggressor of this violence, and that Israel is destroying homes - an action against the financial rewards provided by the Palestinian Authority for encouraging terrorism by providing substantial financial incentives.

Ahmed Manasra’s martyrdom

And yet the baleful quality of such sentiments was nothing new for Abbas – the section of his speech that caused real controversy was the claim that Israel murdered a youth called Ahmed Manasra:

“We will not give up to the logic of brute force, policies of occupation and aggression practiced by the Israeli government and the herd of settlers who are engaged in terrorism against our people, our holy places, our homes, our trees and the execution of our children in cold blood as they did with the child Ahmed Manasra and other children from Jerusalem.”

Ahmed Manasra is a thirteen-year-old Arab-Palestinian, who engaged in an indiscriminate stabbing spree with his fifteen-year-old brother in a Jewish neighbourhood of East Jerusalem called Pisgat Ze'ev, as vividly caught on CCTV footage. Manasrah stabbed a thirteen-year-old Israeli boy multiple times, rendering him clinically dead upon arrival at hospital. Abbas’ claim was easily refuted with the publication of an image of Manasrah recovering in an Israeli hospital after he was injured when struck by a car. Yet Abbas attempted to present the Arab-Palestinian teen who engaged in a particularly savage stabbing attack as a martyr akin to the falsified  Mohammad al-Dura case, a hoax that has been used as a widespread source of incitement in the Arab-Islamic world.

A day before Abbas’ television speech, one of Abbas’ spokesmen also claimed Manasrah was executed and compared the youth with al-Dura:

“Presidential Spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina stated that the execution of child Hassan Manasrah in front of the media, as child Muhammad Al-Dura was executed in the year 2000, is an abominable crime, and the legal, humanitarian and political responsibility for it is on the Israeli government.”

The fabrication seemed to work. Micah Halpern, of the New York Observer, noted the effect caused by this lie:

‘Mr. Abbas used expressions like “Israeli aggression” against the Palestinian people, their holy places and their homes. He spoke of the “executions of children like Ahmed Manasra.” He actually calls terrorists victims and heroes. And the Arabic press backs him up.

Here are two Arabic press news headlines. The first one reads: “Palestinian Child Bleeds to Death While Israeli Police and Civilians Watch, Shouting Insults.” The second reads: “Teen Shot by Israelis Stomped On, Left to Bleed to Death.”’

US news channel MSNBC reinforced Abbas’ account of Ahmed Manasra’s falsified martyrdom whilst Vice News minimised what was a particularly savage stabbing attack, by claiming that it was merely an attempted stabbing. However, controversy over Manasra’s would lead the PA to amend their translation of Abbas’ speech, which was changed to say that Manasra and other children were “shot at in cold blood.”

Words of defence as words of aggression

The very considerable divergence between the international media’s presentation of the October 14th speech, and its interpretation in both Israel and the Arab world, related to basic descriptions of the content of the speech and how Abbas’ claims ought to be understood in view of the ongoing conflict.

Abbas’ speech did not subtly suggest a de-escalation of violence, or express a favouring for non-violent methods. His call to action was starkly framed by images of Israeli aggression and murder, supposedly designed to prevent the basic rights of Arab-Palestinian people to live in their homes, to worship freely, and to achieve political freedom. How could the media justify describing the speech as endorsing non-violent methods to gain statehood? Perhaps because Abbas’ speeches use language that conjures up superficial notions of humanism. To analyse the first of two sentences most indicative peaceful intent:

“We are asking for our rights, justice and peace, we do not commit aggression on anyone and we do not accept aggression against our people, our nation and our holy places”

This sentence uses the noble words “peace” and “justice” but Abbas does not voice any criticism (however feeble) of the then-recent spate of Arab-Palestinian terror attacks against Jewish civilians. Instead Abbas claims that the Arab-Palestinian collective does not “commit aggression,” but rather that Israeli authorities and Jewish people living in Judea and Samaria (AKA the West Bank) are aggressing against them in the renewed violence. By contrast, when a reprisal attack occurred, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “strongly condemned the harming of innocent Arabs” and warned those resorting to violence would be brought to justice. The Western ideal of justice, with the iconic image of the scales of balance representing fairness, has no real meaning in Abbas’ world.

Abbas’ notion of “rights” is also problematic because it is politically loaded by decades of conflict-propaganda. The primary longstanding Arab-Palestinian demand is for the so-called “Right of Return”, which is couched in the language of human rights, even though it has no legal basis or moral justification – rather it is an effort to nullify Israel’s existence as a principally Jewish State through demographic means, despite being wholly incompatible with the longstanding "two states for two peoples" approach to the peace process.

The supposedly peaceful stance of sentence two reinforces the difficulties in the first quoted sentence:

“We will continue our legitimate national struggle, which is based on our right to defend ourselves and on non-violent popular resistance and political and legal struggle.”

This sentence talks of “non-violent popular resistance,” which likely refers to the wide-scale riotous violence which is typically described as “protest” by the media. Furthermore, the statement distinguishes between this form of action and the “right to defend ourselves.” Thus, AFP’s claim that Abbas "favours "peaceful, popular resistance" is clearly incorrect. He actually legitimised ongoing sectarian violence, which often targeted Jewish-Israeli civilians, as an inherent right of self-defence.

In a November 16th broadcast on PA television, Abbas explained his intent. He described the attacks as part of a “peaceful uprising” (seemingly because some of the attacks did not use military hardware), and admitted to calling for terror attacks:

“We said to everyone that we want peaceful popular uprising, and that’s what this is. That’s what this is. However, the aggression of firing bullets has come from the Israelis.”

A poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research also found that a majority of Arab-Palestinians believe that Fatah, the ruling party of the Palestinian Authority, supported the terror attacks.

When leaders express such obvious counterfactuals as the claim that the Arab-Palestinian collective “do not commit aggression on anyone,” then their statements must be treated with scepticism and be duly scrutinised. This ought to be deemed a significant ethical issue, particularly during a period of substantive conflict. Where there is a parallel endorsement of ongoing and prior acts of terrorism, it necessarily follows that the use of words like “peace,” “peaceful struggle,” and “defence” can only be legitimately viewed in propagandistic terms.

Lethal results

In keeping with Abbas’ description of Arab-Palestinian violence as defensive, whilst Israel and segments of the regional Jewish populace commit acts of aggression, an incendiary August 1st 2015 speech asserted that “the story of the [Jewish] Temple is… the greatest crime and forgery in history,” and as a means to allow the Jewish People to conquer historic Palestine and “get rid of the al-Aqsa [mosque].” In September Abbas spoke on a PA television channel, heaping blessings on the Murabitin/Murabitat (defenders or guardians of the faith), which the PA and Islamic Movement in Israel hired to harass non-Muslim visitors at the Temple Mount. He added these now-infamous words:

“we bless every drop of blood that has been spilled for Jerusalem, which is clean and pure blood, blood spilled for Allah, Allah willing. Every Martyr (Shahid) will reach Paradise, and everyone wounded will be rewarded by Allah. The Al-Aqsa [Mosque] is ours, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is ours, and they (the Jews) have no right to defile them with their filthy feet. We will not allow them to, and we will do everything in our power to protect Jerusalem.”

These words were followed all too predictably by an intensified period of violence, with numerous Arab-Palestinian terrorists citing these very reasons for attempting to kill Israeli civilians or security personnel, for example, Muhannad Halabi, a nineteen-year-old university student, who murdered two Israelis and injured a further two, including a two-year-old. He wrote on a Facebook page:

“What is happening to al-Aqsa [mosque] is what is happening to our holy sites, and what is happening to the women of al-Aqsa [the Murabitat] is what is happening to our mothers and women. I don’t believe that our people will succumb to humiliation.”

Halabi decided to kill because he was outraged at the arrest of murabitat for abusing Temple Mount visitors, an act by the Israeli authorities that he characterised as aggressive, and as a “humiliation”. His parents would also praise their “martyred son” for “avenging” those of the Muslim faith on Temple Mount “against the impure enemies.”

Besides constituting one of many examples of the Islamist supremacism so defining this conflict, as forcefully reinforced by the tone of incitement during the period, the terrorist views his act as defensive, which the Arab-Palestinian authorities reinforce in conceptually bizarre ways. Thus, terrorists who attack, injure and/or kill are commonly described as defenceless when they themselves are killed in acts of self-defence, which is used to fuel further violent intent to attack Israeli civilians and/or security personnel.

This peculiar form of reasoning is founded on a century of Arab-Islamic rejectionism, based on the notion that the Jewish people have no right of self-determination in the region, regardless of how small the territory might be that they may possess. For example, the 1964 PLO Charter rejects UN Resolution 181 (Article 17: “The Partitioning of Palestine in 1947 and the establishment of Israel are illegal and false…”). In effect any violent response to Israel is an act of self-defence, while Abbas still refuses to accept the existence of Israel, especially as a Jewish state. This longstanding Arab-Palestinian perspective explains why so many perceive acts of aggression to be acts of defence. Article 15 of the PLO Charter (or ‘Palestinian National Charter’) makes it clear that war, violence and even terrorism against Israel is viewed in purely defensive terms:

“The liberation of Palestine, from an Arab viewpoint, is a national (qawmi) duty and it attempts to repel the Zionist and imperialist aggression against the Arab homeland, and aims at the elimination of Zionism in Palestine. Absolute responsibility for this falls upon the Arab nation––peoples and governments…”

It is quite clear that much of the lexicon of terms utilised by Arab-Palestinian leaders have been highly distorted by conflict-propaganda, and so these terms should be understood differently to that of their commonly understood usage. This fact would not come as a surprise to seasoned journalists familiar with the effects of incitement. However, after the major upsurge in violence, with various Fatah leaders and spokesmen celebrating and endorsing such acts of terror, the regional mainstream media bureaux did not read Abbas’ 14th October speech with any level of scepticism. The PA president is rarely presented as anything other than a moderate politician by the media, a peacemaker who doesn’t have a partner for peace with a supposedly-intransigent Israel.

Over a period of months, the mainstream media would continue to present the surge in Arab-Palestinian violence as a despairing response to failed peace efforts, rather than as a consequence of Islamist supremacism and/or extreme nationalism. Some media experts even believe that religious sectarianism etc. is irrelevant when attempting to explain this violence, contenting themselves by reiterating Arab-Palestinian talking points.

And yet surveys demonstrate that Arab-Palestinian society continues to believe that the al-Aqsa compound is in grave danger, despite the fact that the site has been in Israel’s possession for nearly half a century, and continue to favour the elimination of Israel, which would be replaced by a nation where Jewish people would not share equal rights with Arabs.

 

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Robert Harris contributes articles to several websites on contentious political issues (not to be confused with the popular English novelist (1957-) of the same name). He also blogs at eirael.blogspot.com and lives in Ireland.



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