Israel launches 'image management' campaign

The city of Ramallah continued to be off limits to reporters yesterday after two journalists were shot.

As Israel embarks on an openly declared war against "terrorist infrastructure" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it is making it difficult for the world to know what the Palestinians or the Israelis are doing.

For the fourth straight day, the city of Ramallah, which troops took over Friday, was closed off yesterday by Israeli authorities, who cite not only concerns about journalists' safety, but also a need for image management.

"In America's war in Afghanistan, none of us saw even one civilian killed," says Arye Mekel, a foreign ministry spokesman. "Can we imagine that no one was killed? The bottom line is this. You only saw remote pictures."

Journalists are also being thwarted on the Palestinian side. In Bethlehem yesterday, gunmen confiscated film from Reuters television after they had dragged a suspected collaborator through the streets and then shot him dead in a car park. "We will hold you personally responsible if these pictures appear," they said.

The difficulties come as the 18-month Israeli-Palestinian confrontation moves to a climax with daily Palestinian bombing attacks in Israel and the call-up of Israeli reservists for a major military push.

During this decisive period, strictures on the media, as well as mounting danger faced by journalists, promise to significantly curtail the flow of information for shaping opinion and making policy decisions. And, according to Aviv Lavie, who writes a media column for the daily Ha'aretz, the strictures have moral implications. "When a city is occupied, horrible things happen," Lavie says. "The Israeli and world media need to be there in order to document what is going on."

Two journalists were shot in Ramallah over the weekend, Anthony Shadid of the Boston Globe and Carlos Handal of Nile Television, becoming the latest in more than 40 casualties among journalists, most of them attributed to Israeli fire, since the start of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation in September 2000. There has been one fatality, Italian photographer Raffaelli Ciriello, shot by Israeli troops in Amari Refugee Camp last month. On Saturday, soldiers took over a six-story building in Ramallah housing the offices of Reuters and other foreign and Arab media.

Foreign journalists are also feeling the impact of new Israeli curbs on their Palestinian stringers, relied upon heavily by the correspondents for translation, news gathering, and even personal safety in Palestinian areas. Several veteran Palestinian journalists have been refused renewal of their press cards, thus preventing them from getting past the army checkpoints.

"The increasing hardship in getting accreditation for the Palestinian journalists and the extremely dangerous circumstances you can find yourself in all have the effect of intimidating people and deterring them from doing their jobs," says Graham Usher, who covers the occupied territories for British and American publications. The director of Israel's Government Press Office, Daniel Seaman, says that cards of some Palestinian journalists were not renewed for "security reasons." A new credential that would enable some of the Palestinian journalists to get through checkpoints is being devised, but "we have no reason to hurry," he says.

"The question is whether these Palestinian employees of the foreign press are providing nonbiased objective coverage of events, or deliberately distorting the truth to serve the Palestinian cause," Seaman says. "We have no doubt that all of those employed by the foreign press receive their instructions from the Palestinian Authority."

Israel was reinforced in its decision to bar foreign journalists from Ramallah by interviews that CNN broadcast on Sunday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in his besieged offices.

Journalists had followed pro-Palestinian peace activists into Mr. Arafat's room.

"If a journalist wants to come here and be accredited by Israel, we expect them not to cross us and be a part of a Palestinian propaganda show," Mr. Mekel says.

Mekel says that "we have always gone out of our way to provide full freedom all of these years, but this time it is really safety. We don't want people to be hurt and then we are blamed.

"If you compare access by the foreign press here with Arab countries, the difference is striking," he adds.

Grievances of journalists toward Israeli authorities have been mounting for months.

Journalists have also faced problems with the Palestinian Authority, including interference and intimidation.

Mr. Shadid, of The Boston Globe, was shot from behind, in the right shoulder, in Ramallah. A colleague at the Globe, Alon Tuval, said it was not clear if the shot was fired by Israelis or Palestinians. Not so in most of the cases where journalists have been hit, say watchdog groups.

"Gunfire from the Israel Defense Forces was the most dangerous and immediate threat to journalists in Gaza and the West Bank," the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said, referring to the year 2001.

Mr. Handal, of Egypt's Nile Television, was shot in the neck by Israeli soldiers, according to colleague Ra'ed Hilu, who was with him. Mr. Hilu said the car was clearly marked on all four sides with large stickers that said TV. The Israeli army did not respond to queries about the incident.

Ciriello's colleagues say the Italian photographer was tracking Palestinian gunmen at the time he was shot by Israeli forces, after pointing his camera toward a tank.

"I don't think they are deliberately trying to hit journalists. I think a lot of people lose patience and vent their anger at the media," says Tami Allen-Frost, deputy chair of the Foreign Press Association in Israel. "Lackadaisical and slow army investigations are giving the soldiers in the field an unofficial green light to do what they are doing."

Ms. Allen-Frost says that in 19 months, only one soldier has been punished for shooting a journalist. The soldier shot and seriously wounded photographer Yola Monakhov in the abdomen with two live bullets while there was no exchange of fire during an incident in Bethlehem. He was demoted and given a suspended 28-day prison sentence.

Seaman says the army does not deliberately shoot journalists.

In some of the cases of journalists being shot, there was not enough evidence to conclude whether disciplinary action was appropriate. In other instances, journalists were "caught in the crossfire," he said.

"I am more afraid that an Israeli soldier will not shoot in such a situation and get killed than I am that the journalist will get killed," Seaman says, referring to the incident in which Ciriello was killed.

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