A war of words in Mideast

SUN JOURNAL

Media: As Israelis and Palestinians try to put their respective spins on the latest round of battles, reporters are left with unanswered questions.

April 24, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Fighting a war is only half the battle. Selling the war is an equally important task. Hours after Israel's army began its incursions into Palestinian cities and camps three weeks ago, its public relations experts were ready for the second front: the media.

By the time the first newspapers reporting the action went to press, the war had a name: "Operation Defensive Shield." And Israeli officials were gathering at Jerusalem's International Conference Center, ready to supply journalists with information.

The number of accredited reporters here swelled quickly from 600 to 1,700, and the newly formed media center had booths to accommodate several languages, along with pamphlets describing everything from the local food to recent terror attacks.

"The media war is almost as important as the real war," says Arie Mekel, who runs the press center and is a Foreign Ministry spokesman. "The media war may determine the success or failure of the operation."

Palestinian officials also have a media campaign under way, though they have had a harder time getting their message out because much of the population was locked under 24-hour curfew and top leaders were confined to a small office by Israeli tanks.

"They have the media center, but we have the truth," says Mahdi Abdul Hadi, the director of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, an independent research group that monitors news reports on Palestinian issues.

While Israel has provided extensive information at the press center, it has not been allowing reporters into the field with the military, in contrast to past practice.

Just a month ago, the army routinely took foreign and local reporters into the battlefield. That ended when a local television station broadcast pictures of soldiers blowing open a door to a house in Bethlehem. Shrapnel struck a Palestinian woman in the chest. She died on the floor of her home in front of her children, as her husband pleaded with the soldiers to allow an ambulance to come.

Israeli censors banned the story from airing, but the television producers felt it was a story that had to be told and broadcast it anyway. That was when reporters were told they could not go into the field, making it difficult for reporters to ascertain independently what was going on.

The latest round of battles has given both the Israeli and Palestinian sides plenty to contradict each other over.

Have the 120 or so Palestinian gunmen holed up in Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity taken priests and others hostage, as the Israelis assert, or have they been given refuge, as church leaders and the Palestinians maintain?

Were hundreds of people, including many Palestinian civilians, victims of indiscriminate killings in the Jenin Refugee Camp, or were only dozens of armed gunmen shot dead or buried under the rubble of bulldozed houses?

With entire Palestinian cities and neighboring villages turned into "closed military zones," it has been difficult for reporters to answer these questions conclusively.

To make up for not letting reporters close to the action, Israel's newly formed press office routinely sends out video clips of soldiers helping Palestinian civilians or allowing food and medicine into cities under curfew.

This is a typical text message sent out to reporters' pagers: "Press wishing to receive filmed material of, 1: the evacuation of an injured Palestinian from the Church of the Nativity; 2: the evacuation of a sick priest from the church; 3: Palestinian gunmen violently stopping a man trying to escape from the church, call ... "

Journalists who have made it into the embattled areas have been shot at, detained and threatened with expulsion from Israel. An Italian photographer was killed and two other reporters shot and wounded during the fighting. Israeli officials will say only that reporters have been warned to stay away.

Even after the Israeli army had pulled out of most areas, reporters were still officially barred from Jenin and the refugee camp, even though the original reason given for keeping them out was to protect them from harm.

Many of the images and stories that come back from the off-limit combat zones are not helpful to the Israeli public relations effort. Pictures from the Jenin Refugee Camp show vast devastation and children digging with bare hands for missing relatives.

Though reporters have uncovered no evidence of a massacre, the scenes that have now been broadcast around the world have prompted top European and U.S. officials to label it a human disaster area and have forced Israel to allow in independent investigators from the United Nations.

It is Mekel's job to counter those images with army commanders and other officials who repeatedly take to the microphones at the media center to deny that they killed Palestinian civilians and left their bodies buried under the rubble of demolished buildings.

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