Israel's divisive Palestine policy. Censorship of Palestinian birth pangs

THE past 3 months have been a series of dismal failures for the Israeli Defense Forces. The Palestinian uprising has outsmarted and outflanked the IDF and the political echelons, who at first lashed blindly at the rioters in the field and then turned their attention to the news media. Media representatives were trying to cover the unfolding historic events despite attempts to deny them access, despite threats and beatings, having guns stuck at them and being shot at, having their equipment smashed, confiscated, and their film and video taken for use by the Israeli security forces, apparently against direct orders of the Israeli Supreme Court.

Intelligence estimates in December, when the uprising began, were way off beam. First, there was little or no warning that anything was afoot, or if there was, no notice was taken of it. ``It will soon be over,'' was the word here, the word given to the media and the political echelons. Today it still exists and is escalating.

In those first days, in December, the military wanted to shut off the whole West Bank and Gaza Strip. Prime Minister Yitzak Shamir vetoed the idea as undemocratic. In addition, the Supreme Court ruled some years ago that total closure of areas is undemocratic. So today, when whole areas are closed off to the media and only the media, the fact is not admitted; thus democracy is preserved.

After several weeks of trying to cope with hundreds of foreign newsmen and photographers who came to witness the birth pangs of a Palestinian state, the Israelis opened a 24-hour information center in Jerusalem. It rarely had more informative statements than ``we are checking that out,'' while the pro-PLO Palestine Press Service kept newsmen up to date with what was happening in dozens if not scores of towns and refugee camps. The PPS information was tendentious and often misleading, as the agency attempted to make it seem there was a major civil war under way. But the PPS became more restrained and more accurate - to the Israelis' chagrin. They closed the office.

The much-vaunted Israeli information center, which opened to fanfare and wide local media coverage, has crept away.

On the home media front the press has given the events a wide coverage, but the major media arm here, Israel's state-owned television, has sanitized its broadcasts, preferring not to show the Israeli public how hard-pressed were its sons, brothers, and fathers in the field. How frustrated they were at being sent to war armed only with weapons that killed.

When the Israelis started using truncheons and smashing bones, at first the Israeli public was not shown pictures of that, either. CBS managed to obtain pictures of a most brutal systematic beating, which were shown around the world. But they weren't shown in Israel, until irate journalists here demanded that Israeli television shed its blinkers and show even a censored version of the beating.

That was a watershed. From that point the public took notice, and blamed the media for being there. The public really did not want to know. The ultra-nationalists and right-wingers had a field day. Veteran Israeli correspondents were accused of being Palestine Liberation Organization agents, the foreign press of being a fifth column.

Army generals and the minister of defense refused to state publicly that newsmen were doing their job, that beating newsmen or preventing them from taking pictures were actions not in conformity with military ruling. Meaning: The troops were free to keep the media out by any means possible anytime there was something happening that might later embarrass the military machine. Later the IDF began the widespread use of ``closures,'' which barred journalists from ``special areas.'' Legally, these closure orders barred every person, but in fact, as officers explained, they were carried out only when a journalist was present.

Longtime Army officers involved with information were frustrated. They felt this was not the way to conduct Israel's information policies. They agreed that newsmen should be kept away from certain areas where their presence might inflame or incite, but they felt that laws were being honored in the breach.

Israel's war against the media is still hesitant; Israel has not yet defined its objectives, for example on censorship. There are different standards for the local press, local correspondents writing for foreign media, and for transient foreigners corresponding from here.

The press is far from blameless. it would appear that a number of reporters and photographers come here with one thing in mind: to do a hatchet job on Israel. ``Don't forget the venomous comment which is sometimes injected back in the home base at New York, London, or Paris,'' adds a Tel Aviv university lecturer who recently returned from an overseas visit, visibly shaken at the anti-Israel coverage he saw, heard, and read while abroad.

Israel faces serious problems, it faces a midlife crisis of gigantic proportions in this its 40th year. Its existence in its current format is threatened. It is fighting a battle and, for once, doesn't know what battle strategy to adopt.

Peter Allen-Frost, the immediate past chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel, is a correspondent for ABC News radio in Jerusalem.

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