Suhad Babaa is the Executive Director at Just Vision, an organization dedicated to increasing media coverage and support for Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders working to end the occupation and build a future of freedom, dignity, and equality for all. 

FPI: What is Just Vision?

Suhad Babaa: Just Vision is a team of human rights advocates, journalists, and filmmakers dedicated to increasing media coverage and support for Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders working to end the occupation and build a future of freedom, dignity and equality for everyone in the region. Through award-winning films, digital media, and targeted public education campaigns, we drive attention to under-documented stories that undermine stereotypes, inspire commitment, and galvanize action.

While violence and extremism receive front-page exposure, courageous Palestinian and Israeli community organizers, activists, and human rights defenders are often invisible, both within their own societies and beyond. Just Vision fills this gap by ensuring that these leaders have a media megaphone and access to strategic networks, at home and abroad, so that they are more visible, valued and influential in their efforts.

FPI: What has most surprised you in your work? Are there any widely held perceptions about Israel and Palestine that have been challenged?

SB: There’s one thing that consistently strikes me: despite ongoing civil resistance efforts in Israel and Palestine, and daily acts of resilience by communities in the face of overwhelming repression and inequality, most people around the globe still don’t know about what’s taking place in the region.

In many ways, that’s also unsurprising, since the mainstream media so often misses these stories. There’s a stark disconnect between the reality on the ground and the stories we hear of Israel and Palestine in our news, which are characterized by violence, extremism, and failed political leadership. Unfortunately, these kinds of stories reinforce the misconception that the conflict is intractable, by painting a picture that things have always been this way, and will always be this way.. That’s narrow telling of what’s going on in the region is dangerous. It also misses the immense possibility and power that exists at the grassroots.

FPI: Could you give any examples? 

SB: In 2009, we released Budrus, a documentary film that tells the story of a Palestinian community in the West Bank village of Budrus. Faced with the threat of having their community destroyed by the Israeli separation wall, they led a 10-month campaign to stop the wall from being built on their lands. Through their strategic, sustained campaign – which unified political factions across the community, welcomed in Israeli and international allies, and included the leadership of women who took the helm at the frontlines – the community’s efforts were ultimately successful. These events took place in 2003-2004, and when we began researching the story – in 2006 – there was very little in the media that captured the nonviolent nature of the movement in Budrus.

From the outset, our goals were clear: we wanted to put Palestinian and Israeli nonviolent resistance efforts at the center of local and international discourse about the conflict. We also wanted to help build the capacity of nonviolent activists in the field, by ensuring they gain traction within their own societies and abroad.

Two years after Budrus’ release, StrategyOne  (a daughter company of the public relations firm Edelman) conducted an independent media audit to assess the film’s impact on the discourse about Palestinian-led nonviolent efforts in the mainstream English-language press. Their study showed that coverage prior to the release of the film characterized the protests in Budrus as “riots” and “disturbances of the peace” — a law-and-order frame that justified the repression of the nonviolent movement and the activists by the Israeli military and government. But after the launch of the film, most of the media coverage described events in Budrus as a nonviolent struggle initiated by the residents to save their lands and olive trees, with women at the frontlines and unity across political divides. Moreover, in the two years following the film’s release, the key messages we set out to tell through the story of Budrus had a 91 percent message penetration rate across English-language coverage – demonstrating the impact of accurate storytelling of what is really taking place on the ground.

If accurate storytelling can so dramatically change the discourse around one series of events, imagine what would happen if our media makers and audiences demanded holistic storytelling about what’s happening in Israel and Palestine. It could be absolutely transformative.

FPI: Have you found that “track II” diplomacy, cultural and people-to-people exchanges, is uniquely effective in a way that traditional diplomacy isn’t?

SB: Diplomatic efforts on this issue have consistently failed to recognize power asymmetry in this conflict. It’s a flaw that has led to countless failures in the diplomatic arena, whether we talk about Track I or Track II diplomacy. The diplomacy that has characterized the peace process in Israel and Palestine, namely the Oslo Accords and all subsequent negotiations, has not adequately addressed how power asymmetry inherent to the occupation cements structural inequality. Every agreement that came out of Oslo – from the Paris Protocol governing economic relations between the Palestinian Authority and Israel to security coordination between the Palestinian Security Services and the Israeli army – failed to address this. In fact, they’ve done the opposite, perpetuating inequalities with detrimental effects for the region.

Remarkably, it’s a process that diplomats have relied on for over two decades, despite its obvious and repeated failings.

I like to imagine a Fortune 500 company where executives report losses for over two decades. Year after year, the same leadership comes to the board with the same analysis and proposals for growth – despite clear losses – and the board throws money at them and wishes them luck in the next quarter. In any other line of business, the executives would have been fired ages ago, and their analysis and strategy for growth tossed in the trash. Not so in the realm of Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy.

If diplomatic efforts for peace on Israel/Palestine are to succeed, they need to take power seriously at every level – to do that will require bringing both carrots and sticks to the table. Yet with regard to the Israeli government, sticks are rarely ever used.

This is why the grassroots is essential: where there are stark asymmetries in power, and when political leaders have failed to do the right thing, whether because of lack of courage, authenticity, or legitimacy, communities will and must lead.

FPI: Do you have any book or movie recommendations for people who are looking to better understand the issue?

SB: You’re asking a question that’s close to my heart, and of course, I’m going to run with that and plug Just Vision’s films and digital resources, which you can find out about on our website a www.justvision.org. Also, stay tuned for our upcoming film, Naila and the Uprising, slated for a launch in the coming months.

There is also no shortage of fantastic films on the topic, but I’ll recommend a couple – one that provides a glimpse of the evolution of Israeli policies and practices vis-à-vis Palestinian populations: The Law in the These Parts. And another film about the civil resistance efforts in the Palestinian village of Bil’in: 5 Broken Cameras. And a totally unrelated film, but one that has lessons across movements and is a big inspiration for our team: How to Survive a Plague.

For a historical reading, Avi Shlaim’s Iron Wall and Rashid Khalidi’s The Iron Cage.

On civil resistance in Palestine, Mary Elizabeth King’s A Quiet Revolution and Ben Ehrenreich’s The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine are both fantastic. And if you want to dive into the theory and practice behind civil resistance around the world, Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works is essential.

And, finally, if you happen to read Hebrew, I encourage you to check out our Hebrew-language news site, Local Call (in Hebrew, Sikha Mekomit, co-published with 972 Advancement of Citizen Journalism) at mekomit.co.il to follow developments on the ground. You can also find a selection of articles from Local Call, translated and cross-published in English on +972 Magazine at 972mag.com.

FPI: Do you have any advice for fellow Interruptors?

SB: Keep interrupting. Leaders across the world are failing in disastrous ways. Globally and across issues, we need to disrupt the status quo and amplify the work of others who are doing the same. At the same time, be compassionate to yourself and to others along the way. We’re in this for the long-haul, and if we’re going to succeed, we’ll need all of us. I look forward to meeting you down the road.