JERUSALEM — While tracer bullets hum through the night skies above Israeli and Palestinian towns, trailing light like lethal fireflies, equally fierce battles are being fought over the words and photos emerging from this conflict.
The bitterness provoked by two defining images - the shooting of a Palestinian boy and a cheering mob celebrating the deaths of two Israeli soldiers - has hardened positions on both sides.
So it is no surprise that neither Israelis nor Palestinians see journalists chronicling their conflict as an entirely neutral force. Both sides are working to influence the message that shapes world opinion.
And world opinion matters. It's why 21 US embassies in the region were temporarily shut down for fear of reprisals. It is why 20,000 Pakistani Muslims reportedly pledged to fight a "holy war" against Israel. It is arguably responsible for the $1 bil-lion fund set up to support Palestinians at last weekend's Arab summit. And it will shape any future Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations.
Israel's media image has long been a concern, says Judith Elizur, doctor emeritus of international relations at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "It's been a problem ever since Israel was created in 1948 - but then it was only the written press. The first TV war was in 1967," she says, of the Arab-Israeli war. "Ever since then the primary worry is, 'how do the pictures look?' "
Indeed, after images of the current conflict prompted the UN Security Council to condemn Israel for using excessive force on Oct. 7, Israel quickly set up a special media team headed by Nachman Shai, a spokesman during the Gulf War.
The bookish-looking Mr. Shai projects a much softer image than that of the gun-wielding soldiers seen in news reports. At this month's Sharm al-Sheikh summit, he and a "special information team" wandered the lobby of a local hotel distributing five-minute video tapes to reporters. The tapes included footage of the beating death of the two soldiers and footage of Palestinian children learning to load guns.
Though Shai expressed reservations about using the images, he said "this is a TV war, and TV dictates."
Two images have already had tremendous impact. On Sept. 30, a French TV crew recorded live footage of a young Palestinian boy, Mohammed al Durra, as he and his father cowered from volleys of Israeli gunfire. Mohammed was ultimately killed. The photos of this were met with outrage in the Mideast and beyond.
Two weeks later, journalists photographed an exultant Palestinian man after the beating deaths of two Israeli soldiers. Standing in a window, leaning out to a cheering crowd below, his arms are raised, his palms stained red.
"These are searing images," says Jon B. Alterman of the Washington-based US Institute of Peace, "and I think both sides have been deeply hurt by them. The prospects for a swifter reconciliation have also been hurt because these images have galvanized hard-liners in both communities."
Favorable opinion is crucial
For both sides, favorable world public opinion translates to crucial negotiating leverage. "The Palestinian cause needs the understanding, support, and sympathy of different international communities, which in turn will bring about improvements in their governments," says Ghassan Khatib, director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, a Palestinian media consulting group.
Yet Mr. Khatib, like high-profile Palestinian commentators Hanan Ashrawi and Edward Said, is critical about the current Palestinian leadership's seeming lack of interest in the international media. "Palestinian leaders haven't lived in the West and don't understand that in democratic societies public opinion has a serious influence on government," Khatib says.
While Palestinian media efforts are widely seen as trailing Israel's, they do have some polished spokespeople, including Dr. Ashrawi and chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat.
And in the West Bank and Gaza, ordinary Palestinians on the street display a media savviness. The presence of a camera will intensify rock-throwing, says one TV cameraman for a major US network. He adds that he has been aggressively discouraged from filming Palestinians with guns.
Israeli limits on the media are more formal, as all journalists are required to sign a form at the censor's office, agreeing to submit reports on sensitive military matters for approval.
Media freedoms help
New media freedoms in the Arab world are making this intifadah, or uprising, resonate more widely in the Arab world than the last one from 1987 to 1993. In Jordan on Tuesday, some 30,000 Palestinians clashed with police as they tried to cross a bridge connecting Jordan and Israel. Arabs from Morocco to Kuwait have staged demonstrations in the past few weeks to show solidarity with Palestinians here.
TV imagery has been a primary force in bringing these people to the streets, particularly the broadcasts of Al Jazeera, a Qatari satellite TV station that has changed the Mideast media landscape with its uncensored reports and diverse views.
"Great television offers action, a great story, and makes people feel [involved] ... that's what we've been seeing from Arab broadcasts," says Mr. Alterman of the US Institute of Peace. "It affects not just what's happening on the ground, but beyond, because people all over the world are tuning to these broadcasts."
The Palestinian broadcasts have elicited a direct response from Israel. After the killing of the two soldiers, Israel retaliated with missile fire, hitting Palestinian radio transmitters because the station had aired broadcasts the Israelis deemed "incitement."
Both Israelis and Palestinians feel that the foreign press is biased against them. Israel is especially sensitive, often complaining that the media portrays it unfairly as a David-crushing Goliath.
A large crowd of all ages recently squeezed into a downtown Jerusalem meeting room for a lecture about presenting Israel's case to the international media. A chief goal, said speaker David Bedein, was to "restore Israel to its rightful position as underdog" and he proceeded to recommend ways his audience could approach foreign news organizations to make their views heard most effectively. "The messenger is not the problem," he told his audience, "the problem is the message."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society