As it was the first time at a UK university that an Israeli and a Palestinian representative would have a discussion on stage, it was expected to be a groundbreaking event, one that would help to shape further such discussions in the future. Organised by the Jewish Society, the Kent Palestinian Solidarity Group and Liberty Union, the occasion was a significant moment which showed that with enough effort, these kinds of discussions can be coordinated.
Whilst it was indeed a ground-breaking event, it failed completely at providing any building blocks for the future. Both representatives, Meisoon Elshorafa from the Palestinian Mission, and Martin Freeman from the Israeli Embassy, made gripping opening remarks, giving the audience the opportunity to picture how this discussion would play out. And whilst both parties made it clear that this was an opportunity to resolve various issues surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict, the discussion that followed failed to impress.
It was clear from the beginning what the key points would be in this discussion; Elshorafa stated she wanted a pledge from Israel to end their illegal building of settlements, and for the cessation of young Palestinians being arrested and imprisoned by Israeli soldiers; Freeman outlined his point that Israel’s challenge was not Palestine acknowledging Israel as a state but rather ‘the acknowledgement of Jews as a people and their self-determination for their homeland’.
The mediation of the discussion, led by Politics and International Relations lecturer Phillip Cunliffe, succeeded in providing open, fair and symmetrical questions to both parties, allowing them the opportunity to expand on their points. However, some of the answers to those questions were not what many had hoped for.
Both parties were asked what they feel are the biggest challenges that their nations face. Freeman responded that the rise of radical Islamic extremism was very concerning, especially Hamas and Hezbollah, which he claimed are propped up by “Iranian funding and influence”. Elshorafa claimed Palestine’s biggest challenges were Israel’s failure to recognise Palestine as a state, as well as Israel failing to declare their borders and failure to “stop breaking international law”.
Whilst these points brought interesting discussion, there was a sense that there was no movement forward between the two nations. Elshorafa stated that Israel must release their grip on Gaza and remove settlements there, whilst Freeman combatted that statement by claiming that “Israel completely withdrew from Gaza in 2005”. There was indeed an almost argumentative sentiment to the discussion which, of course, was somewhat expected. Yet, the inability of both speakers to understand and acknowledge the other’s points, rather than simply denouncing their statements led the audience to believe that this talk was not leading to anything concrete.
Freeman challenged Elshorafa to recognise the Jews as a people and their self-determination to their homeland, whilst Elshorafa challenged the Israeli representative to be “willing to declare their borders, and willing to un-occupy territories”. Neither of these challenges were met.
A very interesting question was raised from a member of the audience, who made it clear that the real barrier to reaching peace was the inability of either side to admit their own mistakes or to recognise any valid points being made by the other. And unfortunately, unless both sides make sacrifices and can admit their own mistakes, as well as fighting their corner, then true peace never will be accomplished.
Admittedly, the discussion ended on a seemingly positive note. Freeman stated that should the Palestinian Authority choose to return to negotiations, they would be able to “return to the negotiating table without any pre-conditions”, and even went on to say that his president, Benjamin Netanyahu would be willing to meet “anytime, anywhere, even Ramallah” to negotiate and try to find a solution to these issues. Elshorafa stated herself that if the “Palestine issue were to be resolved, there would be no more terrorism in the Middle East, no more extremism”. And with those two points, the audience was able to take at least some optimism from the discussion which for the most part was combative and tense.
Although this was a significant moment for discussions regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, it seemed, with the points being made by both sides, that things were at a standstill. Elshorafa consistently reverted back to the removal of settlements from occupied territories, whilst Freeman regarded Israel’s “3,000-yearold claim to the land” as the key issue that Palestinian’s refuse to recognise. While things seemed to end positively, there is a sense that it will take plenty more discussion, sacrifices, and negotiation before these issues begin to be settled.