Group of journalists, scholars discusses peace at Ramallah compound

Yasser Arafat kissed Deborah Gerner’s hand, offered her tea and coffee and tried to convince her the United States must be a part of any deal reached between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Arafat wasn’t going to miss the political opportunity presented by a rare meeting with European and American scholars and journalists, including Gerner, a Kansas University political science professor.

“Even now, after everything that’s happened, Arafat still believes in the U.S.’s ability to facilitate a resolution,” Gerner said. “I was shocked with that. I figured he’d say, ‘To hell with the U.S.’ I think he feels if the U.S. is persuaded, it can persuade Israel.”

The hourlong meeting, which occurred May 18, was at the Ramallah compound where Arafat was recently holed up for 38 days. It is the same compound that Israeli troops shelled Thursday.

Gerner was among a dozen speakers at a conference in Ramallah who were invited to the meeting.

Gerner concentrates her research on Middle East conflicts and has traveled to the region about 20 times since the mid-1980s. This was her second visit with Arafat. The first took place in the mid-1980s in Jordan.

This time, Gerner said, the Palestinian leader looked old and frail as the visitors grilled him with questions on everything from suicide bombers to his country’s electoral process. His responses shifted freely from broken English to translated Arabic.

Gerner said Arafat had spent much of the meeting describing past successes with U.S. intervention in the conflict  such as the Oslo Accord in 1993 and the Camp David meeting between Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in 2000  as reasons for encouraging future involvement.

Better communication

Gerner, who specializes in conflict negotiation, said she thought any agreement between the two sides would need to include the sharing of Jerusalem and the return of Palestinian refugees to their homeland.

Garnering support from U.S. citizens will require better communication from Palestinians, she said. While in Ramallah, Gerner also gave public relations suggestions to a group sponsored by the Palestinian Red Crescent Society.

Her recommendations on getting Palestine’s message across to Americans focused on the language differences between the two countries.

She said the “poetry and the rhetoric” of Arabic often don’t translate well literally into English. Instead, she said, communications intended for American consumption should be written by English speakers.

Gerner also suggested Palestinians could show more public sympathy toward Israeli civilian casualties. She said she was trying to “balance out” the pro-Israeli sentiments heard by many Americans.

“Americans know more and hear more about the Israeli perspective than they do the Palestinian perspective,” she said. “The puzzling thing facing Palestinians is virtually every part of the world is far more supportive of Palestinian human rights and Palestinian political rights than the United States.”

Return engagement

Gerner will return again next week to the Middle East, this time not as a scholar but as a Quaker.

She’ll accompany a group of Quakers from around the world who will meet with Palestinians and Israelis, then return to their respective countries with ideas about how to promote a nonviolent resolution to the Mideast conflict.

The trip, from Wednesday through June 26, includes stops in Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank, Israel and the Gaza Strip. The group wants to “re-energize” the peace movement, she said.

“The topics are similar to what I’d do as a scholar,” she said. “But we will be trying to speak to the light in every person, and we’ll be looking for something of God in every person.

“I’ve never been as discouraged as I am now. I still believe there are individuals of goodwill in Israel, Palestine and the U.S. who are working for a peace that is just and enduring. But still it seems the level of trust in the region is low and those who feel violence is the means to end the conflict are in ascendance. It’s totally painful.”