Much of the media are misreporting the substance of the referendum proposed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the so-called Prisoners' Document presented in the referendum.
If the July 26 referendum actually does take place -- Abbas has said the plebiscite will happen only if Palestinian factions fail to reach an agreement before that date --Palestinians will answer "yes" or "no" to just one question: "Do you agree to the national conciliation document: ‘Prisoners Document'?"
Drafted by Palestinian prisoners from various factions and known formally as the "National Conciliation Document of the Prisoners," the 18-point document has been translated into English by Palestinian and other sources. Aside from urging internal Palestinian unity, the key points of the document call for
- the establishment of a Palestinian state in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip;
- securing the so-called "right of return"; and
- Palestinian "resistance with the various means" focused within the West Bank, and mobilization of "all resistance forces" to help achieve the release of Palestinian prisoners.
The Prisoners' Document does not explicitly call for recognition of Israel; and it presses for the "right of return," widely understood as a way to destroy the Jewish state via demographic means.
Additionally, instead of advocating an end to anti-Israel violence, the document calls for "clinging to the option of resistance" -- a term regularly used by Palestinians to describe terror attacks against Israelis. This point was not lost on Jordanian writer Yasir Za'atirah, who wrote in the London-based Al Hayat newspaper:
When one reads the text of the document, one is surprised by Mahmud Abbas's enthusiasm for it, because it conflicts with many of his proposals, especially with regard to rejecting militarization. The document insists on all forms of resistance. In fact, it urges the formation of a unified front for resistance. (May 31, 2006, translated by BBC Monitoring International Reports)
Yet, many media organizations are incorrectly touting this document as a "peace plan" and describing the referendum as a vote on a "two-state solution."
Newsweek, for example, asserted:
Abbas vowed to go ahead with his referendum on a peace plan crafted by jailed Palestinian leaders–one that would recognize Israel if it withdrew to the 1967 borders. (Kevin Peraino, June 19, 2006, emphasis added throughout)
National Public Radio and headlines in the New York Times similarly have referenced the document as a "peace plan."
Likewise, CNN added its own fabricated language when describing the Prisoners' Document:
Abbas ... was going to hold a referendum on what is known as the so-called prisoner's document. That's a document drawn up by Palestinian militants of all factions who are prisoners in Israeli jails agreeing on a number of conditions.
First of all, that Hamas recognize Israel. And secondly, that it recognize the 1967 borders of any future Palestinian state. (CNN Correspondent Fionnuala Sweeney, June 9, 2006)
The international press fared no better when describing the document. The Guardian's Chris McGreal claimed it "agrees to a two-state solution and recognition of the Jewish state" (June 10, 2006). The Daily Telegraph and Agence France Presse have used similar language. Such misrepresentation of the Prisoners' Document allowed McGreal to claim in a later report that "Hamas agrees to Israeli state" and to describe the (nonexistent) agreement as "a major political climbdown" for Hamas (June 22, 2006).
Many other media sources in the U.S. and abroad (including the influential Associated Press) reported the document "implicitly" or "effectively" recognizes Israel -- a description perhaps more precise than those cited above, but one that still infers too much.
It should be clear to those familiar with the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict that it is possible to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip without accepting Israel outside of those territories. In 1974, the Palestinian National Council passed a resolution, widely known as the "phased plan," that resolved to accept any part of the land controlled by Israel as a step towards destroying all of Israel. (Like the Prisoners' Document, that plan also called for continued terrorism and a "right of return.")
Indeed, a Hamas spokesman emphasized after the text of the Prisoners' Document was released that his organization espouses principles similar to those described in the "phased plan":
The Hamas Movement's position is a clear one: We refuse to recognize the Israeli occupation, but we do not object to any gradual solutions that do not stem from recognition of the Israeli occupation's state. If we are speaking in the context of a transient and gradual solution, then yes, we do not object to the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders without that leading to the recognition of the occupation's legitimacy. (Sami Abu Zuhri, May 11, 2006, translated by BBC Monitoring Middle East)
Later, speaking specifically about the Prisoners' Document, Abu Zuhri stated that "By saying '1967 land,' it was never meant to be recognizing Israel" (Christian Science Monitor, June 12, 2006).
(Although a Hamas prisoner signed the document, he later distanced himself from it and Hamas leaders have refused to endorse it. But the group is reportedly close to agreeing on a modified version of the document.)
In short, those media outlets claiming the Prisoners' Document is a "peace plan" or that it accepts a two-state solution recognizing Israel are selling an idea of Hamas moderation that has little, if any, basis. While such overenthusiastic extrapolation might be acceptable in an opinion or analysis piece, news stories should stick to reporting the facts.
Examples of accurate reporting on the topic that avoid conjecture include the following:
- "The referendum is meant to gauge Palestinian support for the prisoners' document, which some people say implies support for a two-state solution. Prisoners from Hamas and Islamic Jihad say Abbas has extrapolated too much, and have withdrawn their names from the document." (Ilene R. Prusher, Christian Science Monitor, June 14, 2006)
- "The document, presented last month by leaders of Hamas, Fatah and other Palestinian factions who are in Israeli prisons, endorses the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. It also calls for internal political reforms, the right of Palestinian refugees to return to homes inside Israel and confining armed operations against Israel to the occupied territories, among other items." (Scott Wilson, Washington Post, June 11)
- "... the prisoners' document, which calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territories that were captured by Israel in 1967 but does not explicitly recognize Israel's right to exist ..." (Khaled Abu Toameh, Jerusalem Post, June 11)