JERUSALEM - They have worked with Weight Watchers and the New York Yankees. Now the experts at Rubenstein Associates, a public relations firm, are taking on a new client: the state of Israel, which hopes to spruce up its image in the deadly conflict with the Palestinians.
The New York-based agency, hired this year, already has come up with several suggestions it believes would help Israel sanitize the battlefield.
First, reduce the number of security guards hovering around Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The strapping special forces men with dark sunglasses make the hawkish leader appear he's constantly under siege.
Next, paint the Israeli military assault rifles that shoot rubber bullets purple or orange - to make it clear to concerned television viewers that soldiers are firing nonlethal rounds and not really trying to kill anyone.
And then, clean up the mess left behind after hours of shooting, shelling, rock throwing and the burning of tires, buses and cars. The idea, the company says, is to "create a sterile and less threatening scene."
Government officials said they are taking the recommendations seriously, including the idea of painting the rifles.
"This is not a fashion statement," said Emmanuel Nahshon, deputy spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "The idea is to convey to the public that our soldiers are firing rubber bullets, and not live ammunition. It is a daily fight for Israel's image."
But Palestinian officials and young boys interviewed at the Ayosh Junction in the town of Ramallah, one of the places singled out by Rubenstein as a problem area, say the proposals prove Israel would rather save face than save lives.
"If they want to look better, they have to stop shooting," said Nabil Abu Rdeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
At least 484 Palestinians, 124 Israelis and 13 Israeli Arabs have been killed since the Palestinian uprising began at the end of September.
Officials at Rubenstein declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Sharon. Questions were referred to the Foreign Minister's office and to the Israeli consul general in New York, Alon Pinkas.
He said that the cosmetic changes being recommended are only part of the strategy and that the firm first and foremost told the Israelis to quickly release accurate information about daily events.
"Good policy will translate into good P.R.," Pinkas said.
Members of the public relations firm toured the West Bank as part of their four-month study. They were particularly struck by the Ayosh Junction - a dividing line between areas of Palestinian and Israeli control on the West Bank and a noted flashpoint of unrest.
They noted that the junction "looks in photographs like a battlefield filled with shells of burnt-out cars, boulders and burning tires."
The Ayosh Junction, at the edge of Ramallah, is indeed a scene of war and devastation. The fire-scarred street, which reaches a virtual dead-end at Israeli-controlled territory, is strewn with burned-out cars and littered with shrapnel - a convenient backdrop for television news crews based in nearby Jerusalem who need quick video to illustrate the uprising.
Palestinian children gather there every day. On a recent day, the only action was a group of young boys who were using homemade slingshots to shoot rocks at stray dogs and a crumbling Palestinian government building crippled by Israeli bombs.
After a few minutes, however, they climbed on a hill and looked down on an Israeli flag flapping above a military post. Several hurled rocks at army vehicles on the road below. This prompted two quick shots from Israeli soldiers, using what the army later said were rubber bullets, though live rounds are often fired here, too.
The youngsters scattered, but quickly regrouped at the junction, where they hid behind a makeshift barrier and began hurling rocks at a steady stream of soldiers swooping down as reinforcements.
An 11-year-old Palestinian boy took cover behind a concrete block, adorned on all sides with a photo of Hassan Mohammed Quadi, a Palestinian reportedly killed April 30 and remembered "with all dignity and pride" as a martyr. (An Israeli human rights group that keeps track of the killings could find no record of Quadi's death, either at the junction or elsewhere.)
A 26-year-old rock thrower, who declined to give his name, said any attempt to clear the rubble from Ayosh Junction, particularly on the Palestinian side, would be met with resistance.
"This is historic land," the man said. "It is going to stay historic land. A lot of martyrs have been killed here."
Precise numbers of casualties were not available; the human rights group B'Tselem reports 23 Palestinians killed in Ramallah since the start of the uprising. At least two, including a 15-year-old boy, were at Ayosh Junction.
Palestinian and Israeli military posts are stationed far away from the actual dividing line at Ayosh, leaving the actual border a no man's land. Most of the destruction is on the Palestinian side.
"It is a war zone," said Pinkas, the consul general from New York. "But there are certain areas that should be cleaned, if not for CNN's sake, then for the welfare of the Jews and the Arabs. But Israel is not going to invade to clean."