PERCEPTIONS OF THE MIDDLE EAST AND THE GAZA WAR: VIEWS FROM EUROPE

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In Italy, the two main political factions have diametrically opposite views on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. In general, while Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s PdL (People of Freedom) is generally pro-Israeli, Veltroni’s PD (Democratic Party) is typically pro-Palestine. The war in Gaza sparked debates among politicians, pundits, and ordinary citizens. Yet to what extent did these events actually change people’s minds about the conflict?

Massimo D’Alema, a former foreign minister, well-known for supporting Hamas, during a sit-in held in Assisi, said that the Gaza war would tarnish the reputation of the Israeli government and could even cause people to become anti-Israel: “It was a bloody useless war. I am not trying to hide Hamas’s-–a fundamentalist group–enormous responsibilities, but they are the beneficiaries here…. This war was a terrific propaganda for the radicals.”


D’Alema’s position remains the same as usual, since he advocates (as he did before) the diplomatic recognition of Hamas as a legitimate political party. In Assisi, he continued by acknowledging that his opinion “is a taboo, [but] I don’t feel like I am by myself here, I even received letters of solidarity from the foreign ministers of some moderate Islamic countries.”

The former foreign minister is not the only one whose position has not changed much. Even Berlusconi’s recent remarks are quite familiar: “It was the population of Gaza that suffered more from the recent crisis, since Hamas used them as human-shields to combat the Israeli action. Israel, on the other hand, must absolutely be comprehended. I spoke with many Israelis, every day they went to sleep staring at their roof and asking themselves if they would be able to make it through the night.” Berlusconi continued, “Italy is very close to Israel in this troubled time,” he stated at the meeting in Sharm al-Shaykh, Egypt, called to discuss the crisis.

Other politicians, however, think that the war has changed the situation in the Middle East and that some Italians may even have begun to sympathize with Israel. As PD’s Congressman Emanuele Fiano puts it:

Something has changed. Hamas’s fundamentalist nature, its violent constitution, its appeal for a holy war against the Jews, and its inclusion in the list of terrorist movements identified by Europe, have perhaps for the first time caused a split in Italian public opinion, between a judgment of Palestinian versus Israeli rights and unconditional support for Palestinian representatives. Hamas’s fundamentalism has made us understand Israel’s right to defend itself. This is obviously without diminishing the sorrow for any innocent victim of this war.

Fiano’s position is somewhat similar to that of Senator Domenico Benedetti Valentini (PDL):

I think that Hamas’ cruel proclamations have convinced the free world of Israelis’ absolute right to live in peace and prosperity inside well guarded borders. The tribute paid in blood by the Gaza civilians might have caused someone to lose faith in Israel. Generally speaking, though, the number of those who ask the European institutions to take part in the tragic Israeli-Palestinian controversy and make this a ‘Mediterranean’ issue for us is rising. Europe should intervene more effectively between the two sides and try to induce a historical compromise inspired by cohabitation among civilizations.

He added: “I think that the first step toward reconciliation should come from the Islamic world even though it’s clear that the civilian death toll in Gaza does not help. We should isolate those who promote hate as a solution to the problems of our time.”

Both Fiano and Benedetti Valentini, along with other Italian politicians, visited Israel and the Israeli town of Sderot in December 2008, during a trip organized by the Italian inter-parliamentary association. They come from opposing parties but share a common vision: Hamas must change its policy if it really wants to be considered legitimate.

Turning to the media standpoint, consider the case of “Annozero,” for example, a show on Rai, public television, anchored by Michele Santoro. On January 15, 2009, “Annozero” hosted some politicians, analysts, and journalists to talk about the war in Gaza. According to many, the program was biased toward the Palestinian cause, so much so that a well known leftist journalist, Lucia Annunziata, walked out and told Santoro: “So far, except for one girl, it has been 99.9 percent pro-Palestinian.” Annunziata’s decision was widely approved, especially since she had never been considered a supporter of Israel.

The majority of Italian newspapers are pro-Palestinian, no doubt. The same is true of most television programs, and of course public opinion is heavily influenced by the media. A number of young people now wear kafiyyas, and others consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an issue of good versus evil, with the latter as the good side.

Unfortunately, there are few polls available to give an accurate picture. However, Renato Mannheimer, one of the most famous Italian pollsters, wrote in Il Corriere della Sera of January 11, 2009: “More Italians continue, indeed, to align themselves with the Israeli people as opposed to the Palestinians by a margin of 22 percent to 18 percent. This is particularly high among males from the north of the country who, predictably, support the center-right coalition. The number of those who feel more empathetic toward the Palestinians is much higher among center-left voters at 31 percent.”

Mr. Mannheimer also points out that the subject is becoming more important among Italians. It is hard to say if the war in Gaza has led to a change in either direction. One thing for sure, though, is that Italians have become more interested and informed, at least temporarily, on this issue.

Andrea Loquenzi Holzer

MERIAThe Middle East Review of International Affairs

Volume 13, No. 1

Published by

Andrea Loquenzi Holzer

The truth will set you free

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