Palestine’s Ambassador on Conflict with Israel and the Role Japan Can Play

World

Violence in Israel and Palestine, touched off by protests in early May and culminating in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, left more than 200 dead and hopes for peace in tatters once again. Waleed Siam, the Palestinian ambassador in Japan, spoke with us about the latest conflict and Japan’s ties with the Palestinians and the region.

An Old Conflict Rekindled

Conflict flared up once again in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict earlier this month, touched off by rioting and fighting that commenced on May 10 and running through May 21, when the two sides called a new ceasefire.

The fight is not a new one. “The root of the problem,” says Waleed Siam—ambassador at the General Mission of Palestine in Tokyo—“is that Israel has for the past 73 years occupied Palestinian areas in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. This occupation has not only affected our lives, it controls our lives.” The ambassador points to the settlements Israel continues to build in Palestinian-controlled areas, in contravention of international law; this latest round of fighting was touched off amid tensions surrounding an Israeli Supreme Court decision on the eviction of Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah district of East Jerusalem.

When Palestinian protests led to rioting, and Palestine’s Hamas faction began launching rockets into Israeli territory, the violence escalated. By the time the ceasefire was reached, a total of 13 Israelis had died, mainly from rocket fire; on the Palestinian side, casualties reached more than 200 deaths and thousands of injuries.

Ambassador Siam warns against viewing the conflict as one between equals, though. “One thing that people, especially the media, do is to equate Israel and Palestine, placing them on the same balance. But it is a mistake to place oppressor and oppressee on the same scale this way.” He points to domestic Israeli politics as one root of the problems. “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has failed for the fourth round of elections to form a government; he will likely go for a fifth round. But his supporters are the ultraright settlers, and he has unleashed them to attack Palestinians to protect himself.”

US President Donald Trump emboldened the Israelis during his time in office, Siam argues, but even now that he is out of the picture, “there is not much difference between Trump and [President Joe] Biden. What US presidents will do is seek only to manage the conflict,” not to bring it to a meaningful close. Japan, he hopes, can do more.

An Important International Role

Ambassador Siam also appeared at a Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan press conference on May 14, leveling the same charges against what he terms the “apartheid state” of Israel. That same day, Israel Strulov, charge d’affaires at the Embassy of Israel in Tokyo, also appeared before the FCCJ to present the Israeli view on the conflict, describing Hamas as a radical terrorist organization that decided on May 10 to “launch an indiscriminate attack on the civilian population across Israel.” Some days into the fighting, he noted, Hamas had already launched around 1,600 rockets, and was continuing to use social media posts to urge Palestinians to take up arms against Israelis.

Both Palestine and Israel are reaching out to the Japanese media and public not just to gain support for their side in the recent conflict, but to cement Japanese support for their states across the board. “We strongly believe that Japan can play an important international role in the conflict,” says Siam. “Japan is one of the most trusted friends of Palestine and is also trusted by the Israelis.” He notes that Japan was a warm supporter of Israel from the 1950s onward while also recognizing Palestinian issues, casting votes in support of UN resolutions on Palestinian rights and getting involved as an international aid donor helping to build infrastructure and bolster human security there.

Calling for a More Confident Japan

“We need help,” says the ambassador. “We need education for our people, tech transfer. We may be labeled terrorists, but we are humans with a long history—10,000 years ago we were in Jericho. We want to show the human side of Palestinians.” Toward this end, he notes, his embassy carries out social outreach in Japan, sharing Palestinian cooking tips on Line and hosting music and film events, bazaars, and other means of reaching out to the average Japanese citizen.

“Japan has given to the Palestinians some 1.8 billion dollars in aid over the years, funding hospitals, education, and cultural centers. They have done more than most other countries for the Palestinians.” Siam also notes that Japanese aid to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and other places in the Arab world has also been highly welcomed. “But the lack of information on this—in Japan and elsewhere—is due to the Japanese. The Japanese do not advertise enough. They really need to invest in this.”

This slow, careful approach extends to Japan’s cultural exports, notes Siam. “In cinema and TV, South Korea has taken its spot in the Arab world’s popular mind by a wide margin. Japan takes time to translate its content for other markets.” His recommendation? Japan needs to overcome the mentality that it is far away—geographically, it is closer than many destinations in the United States, he notes—and to confidently tell the Arab world, “This is us. We are Japan, a good friend.” Japan has always been a good friend to those in need, he concludes.

(Originally written in English based on a May 18, 2021, interview. Banner photo: An Israeli airstrike destroys the Jala Tower, housing Al Jazeera and Associated Press reporting operations in Gaza, on May 15. © AFP/Jiji.)

diplomacy Israel Middle East Palestine