Making the suffering known

SUN JOURNAL

Israel: The Foreign Ministry posts scenes from a recent suicide bombing on its Web site to show the effect the attacks have on its people.

January 31, 2004|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM - Israelis and Palestinians, fighting so bitterly with guns and bombs, are in a fierce battle over public opinion as well. And on the media front, Israelis feel they are on the losing end.

Often, they say, the scenes of destruction after attacks such as the bus bombing in Jerusalem on Thursday are so shocking that newspapers and television reporters are unable to describe the extent of the suffering. In the United States, such detail is considered too graphic by most publications. The result, Israelis say, is that the rest of the world doesn't understand the effect of suicide bombing on the people of Israel.

"We haven't embedded reporters into our sorrow," says Barbara Sofer, the director of public relations for the Women's Zionist Organization of America, which runs Jerusalem's two Hadassah hospital centers, the city's premier trauma centers.

Now, Israeli officials have a new, and graphic, way to convey their message. The Foreign Ministry has produced a five-minute-40-second video of the aftermath of Thursday's Palestinian suicide bombing, which killed 10 people, and posted it on its government Web site (http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/home.asp).

The scenes captured as the first paramedics rushed into the aftermath of the blast, which catapulted the carnage to the roofs of three-story buildings, are "pretty raw and pretty difficult" to watch, one Foreign Ministry official acknowledges.

Within 12 hours, more than 180,000 people had downloaded the video, causing so much traffic that many of those who attempted to see it were unable to do so.

Israelis, from government spokesmen to hospital workers, also make an effort to show reporters the consequences of suicide bombing. Sofer worked hard Thursday to get reporters, particularly those in the foreign media, into Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital to interview patients less than three hours after the blast. In the United States, reporters would find such access nearly impossible.

Here, Sofer made sure reporters met a man whose clothes were caked with dried blood. And yesterday, she praised the video's release as necessary.

"I think we clean the scenes up too fast," Sofer says. "The only thing that comes across [in other countries] is that we can't have a coffee in peace at a trendy cafe. That's not what this is about. It's about our lives being blown to pieces. The world is not privy to this."

While Israelis argue that their suffering is insufficiently reported, Palestinians often make the same complaint. In the long-running war of words and images, each side chooses its own way to describe what seems like a war without rules.

Israeli authorities have encountered strong criticism for beginning construction of a 480-mile-long barrier to wall off Palestinians in the West Bank from Israel. Palestinians say the barrier is designed to appropriate land and impose borders; Israelis say it is necessary to prevent suicide bombers from entering Israel.

"All those who criticize Israel for building the fence should take a good look at this morning's pictures from Jerusalem," the Foreign Ministry's Web site says, before cautioning that the "video contains very graphic footage."

The video, shot by a Foreign Ministry official, opens with a view of a person running into the debris of the attack. Paramedics and police swarm around, and the first of the wounded are being carried out on stretchers as ambulances jockey for position on the street.

The images of broken bodies are intermixed with the sounds of rescue workers frantically shouting over shrill sirens. The camera then focuses on the charred remains of the bus, its roof peeled away, its windows shattered, before panning to the mutilated body of a woman lying face down in the street - an image that is more graphic than this newspaper can describe.

"The time had come for us to be slightly more proactive in front of a cynical world opinion," says Jonathan Peled, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, saying that Israel often feels that the world criticizes it unfairly for defending itself. "The victim of terror has been put on the bench of the accused."

Peled says he would not put the images in a newspaper or on a television screen, but he said people can choose whether to watch the video on the Internet. Editors, he says, obscured the faces of the wounded and the dead "out of respect for their families."

Only a few years ago, government censors barred Israeli newspapers and television stations from publishing or broadcasting graphic images from attacks. Police routinely kept reporters far away from the scene. But as attacks have increased in the past three years, and Israel has encountered a hostile public in Europe and elsewhere, the practice has changed.

Last year, when Benjamin Netanyahu served briefly as foreign minister, he summoned ambassadors to Jerusalem after every significant attack, and scolded them for not backing Israel in front of the news media. Reporters are now ushered into attack sites within minutes upon their arrival.

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