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Action! Roll out the propaganda war

As claims and counter-claims fly, along with the bullets and stones, our writers report from Jerusalem on the battle for the media

By Phil Reeves, Jerusalem Correspondent, 29 October 2000

Not long ago, Israel's acting foreign minister - an urbane and academic man called Shlomo Ben Ami - invited a handful of journalists to meet him for one of his occasional chats with the world's press. It was clear at once that he was not a happy man. The Western media, he felt, was not being fair.

In fact, he argued, it could probably never be fair about Israel. The Western cultural consciousness is too burdened by its own history: its guilt about imperialism; its guilt about its role in the persecution of Jews. In conflicts between the Third World and the First, he concluded, the Western media therefore tends to support the underdogs - in this case, the Palestinians. He looked at us morosely, like a choirmaster gazing at a room full of hopelessly tone-deaf students.

Not for the first time Israel has convinced itself that the West and its media are against it. Not for the first time, Israel is exaggerating badly.

If it were true, then we would be hearing more moral outrage from the international community as each day's events unfold. We would not be hearing amazingly bland headlines from the BBC announcing that more Palestinians "have died in clashes" - as if these people suffered fatal heart attacks or collapsed from riot exhaustion.

And we would not repeatedly be seeing Israeli military spokesmen telling global television audiences that the Palestinians' "cynical use of children" explains why kids are being shot dead by Israeli soldiers almost every day. (A ludicrous argument akin to a rapist blaming his victim's cynical use of a short skirt.) The question that the world's politicians would be asking is not whether this amounts to excessive force, as is obvious, but whether it is part of an illegal military policy of killing unarmed rioters in order to apply pressure on the Palestinians to rein in their gunmen.

An enormous public relations operation has been set up by the Israelis to put their case, and it has so far done much to dampen the criticism. It faces limited resistance within Israel where a siege mentality has taken over. Public opinion seems willing to accept the need to kill scores of people if it means keeping the Arabs at bay. And it is not asking many questions about the methods.

The chief focus of the operation is world opinion. Ehud Barak's administration has assembled a PR team of senior officials to put the case to the international media. The Israel Defence Forces' press department has been churning out e-mails, video clips of the latest Palestinian outrages, and details of the scores of "terrorists" released from prison by Yasser Arafat.

A journalist would have to be comatose not to hear the Israeli side in the propaganda war. The spokesmen at numerous government briefings tirelessly explain that Israel's soldiers only shoot when their lives are threatened; that Arab children die because they are caught in the crossfire between the Palestinian gunmen (firing from behind them) and Israeli forces; that they issued warnings when they fired tank and helicopter missiles into Palestinian towns (there appears to be an effort to keep the number of fatalities to a certain PR-manageable level). In fact, the feeble excuses for killing rioters have been repeated so often that they no longer shock. Perhaps that's the idea.

The operation is not confined to Israel. The Israeli embassy in London has a highly industrious official who sends out a tide of information to newspaper editors, presenting Israel's case; the same official has been trying to convince the BBC to use less footage of its correspondents doing "stand-ups" in riot zones as the sight of their helmets and flak jackets underscores the impression that Israel has become a dangerous place.

On the other side of the barricades, the Palestinians are also fighting hard and ruthlessly for the hearts and minds of the world, but their methods are less slick. The Palestinian authorities send out e-mails, and there are occasional press conferences with top officials. But their most effective PR work occurs on the streets. Their dead are still above ground when their printing presses begin pounding out posters showing the latest "martyrs", instantly converting another pathetic and avoidable death into a sacred event. The Palestinian Authority has always been poor at finding calm and articulate English-speakers to counter the Israeli publicity machine. Mr Arafat himself - in contrast to the Israeli prime minister - has not said much before the Western cameras. But the Palestinians do understand the power of pictures, just as they did during the first intifada.

No image has been more striking, or sickening, than that of 12-year-old Mohammed al-Durah huddling terrified on the ground at his father's side, moments before he was shot dead by Israeli troops during a firefight at Netzarim Junction in Gaza. Captured on camera by French television, it became a picture comparable with the chilling 1968 photograph of a South Vietnamese general executing a northern Vietnamese suspect with a shot to the head.

Both are sights so jarring that they remain branded on the memory for ever.

The picture of Mohammed had huge publicity value, and the Palestinians realised this at once. Within a few days, colour posters catching the small boy's terror in freeze-frame appeared across the occupied territories, bearing the slogan - in English, note - "Stop Killing Our Children". The graffiti artists are no less swift. When another young lad, 13-year-old Mohammed Abu Aasi, was shot dead by the Israelis two days later, it was only a matter of one night before a large photogenic colour picture appeared on the walls of the Gaza Strip. It showed a small round-faced boy with blood gushing from a chest wound, standing - hand raised with a rock in his fist - in front of the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, the emblem of the new intifada.

And when another boy, 12-year-old Sami Abu Jazar, lay brain-dead in bed with an Israeli bullet lodged in his head, the doctors in his hospital in Gaza were happy to let the press in to see him, and take pictures. There is no privacy in the publicity war.

But the most productive parts of the PR machine are the rock-throwers and petrol bombers in the riot zones on the West Bank and Gaza. Although there are many occasions when these battles are genuinely out of control, they are also at times made for TV and newspaper front pages. Masked rioters strut a few yards in front of a scrum of helmeted photographers, stars in a piece of theatre that seems totally staged until, of course, someone gets shot.

The Palestinian consciousness of the cameras seems to have grown as their new intifada grows older; more and more young men in the headbands of the Islamic militant group Hamas and full face masks have emerged to parade, Kalashnikovs at the ready in front of the press. Every editor knows such images are irresistible. There is, of course, an ethical issue: should the media publish scenes that are contrived for their benefit, without revealing this to the reader? But one thing is certain: cameras or no cameras, the violence would still go on.

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