Rebranding Palestine?

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Rebranding, that trendy buzzword for an image makeover, popped up in the brouhaha over a series of Israeli films at the Toronto International Film Festival. The cinematic salute to Tel Aviv, which marked the debut of TIFF’s new City to City program, was another success in the Brand Israel campaign begun several years ago.

The strategic rationale behind the rebranding initiative was spelled out by Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Ido Aharoni when the campaign had its Toronto rollout back in March 2008: “Even those who recognize that Israel is in the right are not attracted to it, because they see it as a supplier of bad news. It is more important for Israel to be attractive than to be right.”

Israel, of course, has not been alone in calling in rebranding consultants. Other clients have included Belfast, Hong Kong, Zambia and Lebanon. But Israel’s embattled status on the world stage renders the stakes high enough to prioritize getting the country known as a place to come and have a good time.

And the Brand Israel campaign has certainly made a splash. Female Israeli soldiers overflowing their swimsuits were featured in the American edition of Maxim, the international gent’s magazine. A celebrity salute to Israel honoring its sixtieth anniversary last year was shown on giant videoscreens in Manhattan’s Times Square. The Big Apple was also the setting for inter-city twinning this summer as truckloads of Tel Aviv beach sand were dumped and dispersed in Central Park.

In view of this success, a curious (if naïve) observer might be drawn to speculate about the rebranding potential for the other side of the Holy Land coin, namely, Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza.

Now before such speculation is written off as patronizing and trivializing, it should noted that “rebranding Palestine” was a goal explicitly set by Khuloud Daibes when she took over as tourism minister for the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Daibes, who holds a doctorate in archaeological conservation, elaborated: "We are counting on cooperation with the outside world to give Palestine the image it deserves and encourage tourism and pilgrims. Behind the wall they will find friendly people with a rich heritage and culture ready to receive them." But prospects for that eventuality appear distant at the moment. 

Palestinians remain saddled with a decidedly unfavorable “brand image”: hapless victims at best, terrorists at worst. Changing that image will take more than increased public awareness of, say, the horrific reality that Gazans are enduring in terms of medical, social and economic devastation. Rebranding can’t afford to get bogged down in unpleasant details. It has to start fresh and find fodder for positive thinking.

There wouldn’t seem much to wax positive about in the Palestinian milieu, what with most human energy being directed towards survival. 

Yet, mirabile dictu, reality seems to have served up an answer to everyone’s prayer (and you’re entitled to be miffed if you haven’t heard more about it).

For decades now, Palestinians have been exhorted to renounce violence and follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther King and/or Mahatma Gandhi. The message was even delivered on-site by Gandhi’s grandson in 2004. Speaking in the shadow of the separation wall, Arun Gandhi, a naturalized American citizen, framed the non-violent option in terms of simple necessity: "I don't think Palestine has the economic and military capacity to confront a huge state like Israel."

Actually, there had already been an extensive history of nonviolent protest actions that remain sadly unpublicized. However, the following year marked the birth of a sustained campaign of peaceful protest in the West Bank village of Bi’lin which continues to this day. It has inspired similar actions in other villages and garnered international support. A recent high-profile delegation of “elders”  included Jimmy Carter and Bishop Tutu.

Every Friday at noon, Bil’in residents are joined by Israeli Jews and supporters from abroad in a protest march against the 6-8-metre-high concrete partition erected by Israel as a security barrier, but known unkindly as the annexation wall or apartheid wall. It will eventually run for about 650 kilometres, including a stretch that  cuts through the middle of Bil’in, cutting off its inhabitants from  the agricultural land they depend on.

Heavy-handed responses by Israeli soldiers have been frequent. Bil’in protestors have been clubbed, tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets and sprayed with a nauseating liquid. Injured demonstration victims have been hospitalized, and one was killed this year after being struck in the head by a tear gas canister. (Seventeen demonstrators have been killed at wall protests in other Palestinian villages.)

If such scenes were to play out on North American television screens, some iconic memories would be stirred in viewers of a certain age -- images that blanketed the airways in the spring of 1963, showing civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham Alabama being beaten, tear-gassed and set upon by police dogs.

The Birmingham campaign was led by Martin Luther King. His  counterpart in Bil’in today (coincidentally bearing the same  initials) is Mohammad Khatib, the Secretary of the Bil’in Committee. Khatib was recently arrested at home in the middle of the night, taken away in front of his family, but eventually released after  travel documents showed that he couldn’t have been where he was  charged with being.

Thus, the elements for rebranding are in place -- and for once, unpleasant reality doesn’t have to be ignored. Though the feasibility of such a campaign would depend upon a variety of factors, it is substantively plausible. It would throw a welcome spotlight on an overlooked and inspiring phenomenon. It would identify a movement that embodies long dormant hopes and transcends national, ethnic and religious barriers. And it would showcase the disciplined restraint that confers visceral credibility on movements of this nature.

In a world becoming accustomed to overnight turnarounds, the way is clear for responsible rebranding of Palestine as a laboratory of hope.

So, make way for Brand Bil’in.


Lured by a softer edge to life, Dave Himmelstein moved to Montreal from New York where he had been communications director for a social services union. He juggles writing, editing and teaching.

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