Israel ponders pulling the plug on news media. Strategies sought to blunt televised coverage of Palestinian unrest

The Israeli soldier waved the car to a halt outside this Arab town and pronounced the area closed to the press. Asked why, he smiled and replied, ``It's Friday.''

The reference was to the Muslim holy day, marked frequently in the past few months by clashes between local Palestinians and the Israeli Army.

The past week's preemptive move to keep foreign reporters out of major West Bank towns suggests a new stage in Israel's response to the unrest. This emphasizes the need to limit foreign news media coverage, which many Israelis say is prolonging the violence and hurting their country's standing abroad.

At time of writing Sunday, more than 80 Palestinians had died since the political violence that erupted on Dec. 9. Most of the deaths have come in clashes between stone-toting Palestinian youths and armed Israeli troops.

A vocal minority on Israel's political left is arguing against any news media restrictions. They reason that curbs on coverage of the Palestinian unrest will erode democratic values in Israel and divert attention from the substantive causes of the unprecedented unrest in the West Bank and Gaza, captured in the 1967 Mideast war.

Some commentators have added that any concerted crackdown on coverage will invite comparisons with a South African conflict which Israel has always been at pains to insist is fundamentally different.

Yet more and more Israelis see that limiting foreign news media coverage may outweigh the risks.

The main debate among these Israelis concerns how far the government should go in curbing the news media - and how far it can go in light of its close relationship with the United States.

Israelis' resentment of foreign media coverage, especially television, has been builing for some time. It bubbled over with the photographing late last month by a CBS News crew of Israeli soldiers' beating two Palestinians who had been detained in connection with a stone-throwing incident.

The 40-minute sequence caused an outcry in the US and Western Europe over the Israeli Army's conduct in quelling the disturbances, particularly since the incident came on the heels of assurances that the policy of physically beating protesters would be cut back. The footage was shown, in greatly abridged form, on Israeli TV.

The most fervent calls for media curbs are coming from Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's Likud bloc. Several ranking Likud members have called for a ban on television crews' access to the West Bank and Gaza. Interviewed yesterday, a Likud parliamentarian charged that foreign TV was being manipulated as a ``new political weapon'' by Palestinians against Israel. The aim, charged Eliahu Ben-Eliassar, was to present stone-throwing Palestinian youngsters as the ``David'' in conflict with an Israeli ``Goliath.''

Mr. Shamir himself has stopped short of advocating a blanket ban of TV access to the West Bank and Gaza. But he indicates this is one option under consideration.

The Labor Party, partners with Likud in Israel's fractious ``national unity'' Cabinet, is so far resisting such drastic steps.

Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the Labor minister most directly involved in countering the unrest, is understood to feel a blanket TV ban would in any case be impossible to enforce. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, the Labor Party leader, has said that to deny media access would risk the spread of at least equally damaging rumors concerning the situation.

All signs so far are that, rather than a formal ban on television coverage, an elective tightening of restraints on news media access will be implemented through existing military regulations. These allow local commanders to announce on-the-spot closure of areas to the news media for security reasons. On Friday, it was this prerogative that was used to turn back reporters en route north from Jerusalem to the Arab towns of Ramallah and Nablus, and at Hebron to the south.

But this was the first time since the unrest erupted nearly three months ago that such a wide, preemptive restriction had been introduced.

It followed a more selective Friday ban in Nablus a week earlier. One of the West Bank's top Israeli military commanders, Brigadier General Zeev, was later reported by an Israeli newspaper to have said the measure had led to the ``quietest'' day there since the unrest began and would be used in future ``whenever trouble is anticipated.''

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