Photography by Emily Heath (Head of Photography)
On Wednesday 5 December, the University of Kent held the first formal discussion between two prominent Israeli and Palestinian figures at a UK university.
Michael Freeman, diplomat of the Israeli Embassy representing the Israeli Government, and Meisoon Elshorafa, Political Counsellor to the Palestinian Mission UK, were invited by three societies - UKC Liberty Union, Kent Jewish Society, and the Kent Palestinian Solidarity Group – to discuss the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine.
Speaking to a sold-out auditorium of over 300 people, the guests discussed various pertinent and contemporary topics relating to the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine.
The discussion was chaired and mediated by Dr Philip Cunliffe, a Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the School of Politics and International Relations.
Security was strict and ticket-holders were prohibited from bringing items such as laptops, cameras, bags or water bottles into the venue.
This year marks the 70th year since the establishment of Israel and the geo-political situation of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza continues to pose a major issue internationally, and legal changes to citizenship rules proposed in Israel have been very controversial.
The claim to Israel
The evening began with an opening statement from the two guests starting with Elahorafa who began by quoting an article written by Israeli journalist Amira Hass in 2015: “Young Palestinians do not go out to murder Jews because they are Jews, but because we are their occupiers.”
“Those who chose to be our enemies have mobilized against us” and Israel have denied the mere physical existence, collective rights and, recognition of historical injustices.
“The 25-year peace process has resulted in no withdrawal from the land of Palestine, but instead an expansion of Israeli territory.”
She said the Palestinians were the victims and had been facing years of historical injustices as a result of this conflict. The representative said up to 450 children are being held hostage in Israel, many as young as 12, and that after the 25 years of peace talks, the number of Israeli settlements has gone up four-fold.
Over 500-700 children have been detained in Israeli military courts, with the most common crime being stone throwing.
The number of settlements have increased 4 times since 1993, from 252,000 to 854,000 settlements.
Israel has failed to comply with over 40 U.N regulations.
Freeman, on the other hand, told the audience some information about Israel and the nation’s ongoing challenges. One of the claims that Freeman made was how “Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East,” which he repeated over 10 times during the talk.
“Jews aren’t just a religion, but a nation and a people. Israel is the only place we’ve had independence.”
“The inability to reach true peace is because Palestinians have not yet come to terms with the fact that Israel is there, and we have a 3,000-year old claim to the land. Palestine has also not yet come to terms with the idea of Jews as a people.”
“The real challenge Israel faces is Palestine’s refusal to accept the Jews as a people and our self-determination for our homeland. It is not about recognizing Israel as a state but about recognizing Jews as a people.”
Israel smaller than Wales, with a population of 9 million, which is 20% Arab and 80% Jewish
1 in 6 medical prescriptions in the UK are fulfilled by Israeli developers.
Israel is only 1/6 of 1% of the landmass of the Middle East and Israel is only half the size of Lake Michigan.
After their 5-minute opening statements, Dr Cunliffe proceeded to ask both guests questions about the present-day challenges facing Israel and Palestine respectively.
Freeman mentioned the rise power of Iran and radical Islam.
“Hezbollah have started tunnelling inside Israel. All done with Iranian funding and influence,” postulated Freemen.
“Palestinian can return to the negotiating table immediately with no pre-conditions. The Palestinian Authority have avoided condemning Hamas.
“People should relate to Israel like they relate to other nations and not hold Israel to specific standards.”
Another issue touched upon by Freemen was ultra-orthodox Jewish social integration issues.
When the question was brought forward to Elshorafa, she said that the fiercest challenge facing the Palestinian people was “ending the occupation; the longest occupation in modern history.”
“Is Israel willing to declare their borders? Willing to un-occupy territories? Israel does not recognize a Palestinian state. Israel wants the majority of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean.”
“Under international law, you are allowed to fight the occupier of your territory.”
She referenced a quote from Nelson Mandela’s grandson, Mandla Mandela, of how “Israel is the worst Apartheid in the world.”
“Israel’s appetite for land is greater than their appetite for peace.”
Elshorafa rejected many of Freeman’s allegations: “there was Never a time where Palestine rejected negotiations. We would prefer it if Israel stops breaking international law.”
“If the Palestine issue is solved, there would be no more extremism and no more terrorism in the Middle East.”
She finished by stating how “Britain has a moral obligation to recognize a Palestinian state. We would like Britain to boycott products of Israeli settlements” and that the current American administration led by Donald Trump needs to stop backing Israeli occupation.
Elshorafa would later unrecognize Hamas and Hezbollah as Islamist extremist groups and claim that there were no civilian casualties from rockets aimed at Israel.
Freeman responds to claims
The claims made by Elshorafa attracted strong criticism from Freeman during the later section of the evening when topics were brought to both speakers from members of the audience.
In response to a statement made by Elshorafa about fighting the occupier, Freemen responded: “There is no justification for a suicide bombing.”
The Counsellor for Civil Society Affairs claimed that “The Palestinian Authority donated £300 million of their budget as a direct award for Palestinians who kill an Israeli or a Jew” and that “It is a pay to slay system.”
Freeman said, “That is why I travel with bodyguards,” in reply to Elshorafa’s dig at Freeman for being accompanied by three security guards in the lecture theatre.
He also denounced Elshorafa’s claim that there are “no Jewish ruins in Jerusalem until now,” calling it “Outrageous and a farce.”
“Jewish archaeological history in Jerusalem is a key indicator of our relations.”
In response to a statement on apartheid, Freeman, who previously worked as Israel's Ambassador to South Africa, said it was “an outrageous accusation and it is deeply insulting to the people who genuinely struggled in South Africa.”
He added: “Your [Palestinian] leader is in the 13th year of his 4-year term.”
“Netanyahu open to negotiate, tomorrow”
In a moment of reconciliation during his closing remarks, Freeman said: “I do not want to live in conflict with my neighbours. Both sides need to make painful compromises In order to resolve the conflict. We must sit around the table, negotiate, and find a compromise.”
“We are not a perfect country, we make mistakes. I do not want Palestinian neighbours to move out of Israel either, illegal immigrants are not welcome to stay – they are only pursuing illegal immigrants to leave.”
He added: “We have released convicted terrorists in order to further peace talks.”
“Both sides need to understand the need for painful compromises and I can say, on behalf of the Israeli government, that prime minister Netanyahu would negotiate tomorrow if needs be, anytime, any location.”
Freeman then proceeded to leave the premises along with his security team – during Elshorafa closing speech without shaking her hand – because “he had a train a catch.”
Elshorafa finished by asking someone in the audience to “write what he said on paper” and that she supports a “peaceful struggle” but insisted that a “One state solution not feasible”, advocating instead for a two-state solution.
She concluded: “We have agreed to claiming 22% of historic Palestine, how many more concessions can we make?”
Freeman spurned the one state solution as “not an option, the Jewish people need self-determination and independence.”
The running of the event brought about high praise from academics, including the mediator, Phillip Cunliffe, who tweeted shortly after the event: “It was a useful discussion, and I was proud to have helped moderate, and most of all proud of our students for having organised it.”
He posted previously: “Given that it is a testing time for contentious discussion on campus, and that this is the first time in at least several years that such a discussion has been hosted at a UK university, I am happy that it is happening.”
“I am immensely proud of our University of Kent students whose dedication to hearing different sides and hosting discussion led them tenaciously to plug away at organising this event. They are a credit to themselves, the University and British higher education in general.”
UKC Liberty posted last Wednesday, writing: “Many thanks to both the Jewish and Palestinian societies on campus, as well as Dr. Philip Cunliffe, for helping us organise this historic and unique event.”
“Unfortunately, Ms. Elshorafa of the Palestinian Mission declined to have a picture taken with Mr. Freeman, the organisers, and the mediator.”
Stay tuned at www.inquiremedia.co.uk for in-depth analysis on this event, including a history on the Israel-Palestine conflict, an interview with the Arab Society President and the more. The full talk will be available for viewing soon.