Israeli media shifts to the right

Critics claim Israel's media have turned inward, and shifted to the right since the new intifada.

"Five Palestinians killed in Gaza" read a recent headline in international newspapers. In Israel, however, the papers focused on the story of young Israeli sweethearts, slain the night before at a shooting spree outside their Gaza Strip settlement.

On Israeli television newsmagazines, features about the trials and tribulations of the Palestinians - regular prime-time viewing until a year ago - have become few and far between.

Meanwhile, Israeli radio has returned to the way it covered the conflict in the years before peace efforts began. "Two terrorists were killed," it often reports, without reference to nationality or group affiliation.

But a year since the new "al-Aqsa" intifada began - ushering in the worst and most consistent Israeli-Palestinian violence since Israel's founding in 1948 - one of the casualties has been the loss of interest in understanding how things look from the other side.

"I know that the things I write reach fewer and fewer people. I know that they don't want to read it," says Amira Hass, an Israeli reporter for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, who covers the Palestinians by living among them.

After basing herself in Gaza when the Palestinian Authority was formed in 1994, she now lives in the West Bank city of Ramallah - a place few Israelis dare go since a number of Israelis were murdered there over the past year.

Indeed, Palestinian-controlled areas are closed to almost all Israelis because, the army says, it cannot guarantee their safety.

At a time when the conflict is taking a daily toll on Israeli and Palestinian lives, it is not surprising that their media have turned inward.

But some here are concerned that, beyond neglecting the toll of bloodshed on the Palestinian side, the Israeli media have - alongside the Israeli public in general - veered to the right.

The neo-patriotic reflex is not unlike the impact the Sept. 11 attacks have had on the US media. When a nation is feeling under siege, the tendency to rally behind the leadership and to lose empathy for the "enemy" is often a byproduct of war.

But here the "enemy" is an intimate neighbor. And, over the past decade, the Israeli media have played an important role in bringing the humanity of its neighbors into Israeli homes.

Now, that role has almost disappeared, says Yoel Cohen, an expert on Israel's media at the School of Communications at Netanya Academic College, about an hour north of Tel Aviv.

"There have been some efforts to examine the political strategy of the other side, but the fact that the human story is single-sided probably means that the media have probably contributed to the widening gap between the Israelis and Palestinian Arab population, which was beginning to come together before the new intifada."

Dr. Cohen points out that only Ms. Hass and a few other Israeli journalists are covering the Palestinian viewpoint because the public is not interested in Palestinian tragedies when Israeli lives are lost in suicide bombings and drive-by shootings.

"When a country is in crisis, journalists need to be attuned to the expectations of their readers and viewers and listeners, and if it's unpalatable, even if it's the truth, they have to consider that," says Cohen.

Even at Haaretz, many columnists have veered toward the right and entertained debates such as whether Israel should assassinate Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, whom they directly blame for the violence.

Therein, say some editors, lies what has changed so fundamentally. Although the 1993 Oslo Accords always had opponents, the Israeli government had begun to sell the mainstream on peace - and Mr. Arafat as a peacemaker.

But that has changed. "In the past year, the country has come to a conclusion that Yasser Arafat doesn't want to make peace with Israel," says David Horovitz, the editor and publisher of The Jerusalem Report, an English-language magazine that traditionally has had a progressive slant.

"Israelis have read that there was a lot of territory up for relinquishing [last summer], and Arafat chose violence, and therefore the country and its media have come to a conclusion that Arafat is not a peacemaker," adds Mr. Horovitz. "The stress right now is on protecting the country."

Horovitz says another reason the Israeli media have shifted to stories of only Israeli victims is the perception that international coverage is now biased in the Palestinians' favor.

"There's this tremendous sense of outrage and this feeling that Israel's side is not being told, and the facts are being distorted," says Horovitz.

He cites reports that the Israeli army attacked Palestinians, without mentioning that Palestinians fired first. That has Israel feeling that "this conflict is not being fairly reported in Western media, particularly in the European media," he says.

And the sense of distortion in the eyes of the public here is only further warped in the Palestinian media, where most television and radio channels and newspapers are under government control.

In Jordan and Egypt, average people asked about the conflict believed Israeli tanks and guns were slaying Palestinians armed only with stones - an anachronism since the police forces of the Palestinian Authority were armed as part of the Oslo Accords.

While Israel has a comparatively free press, Hass of Haaretz says that the media here are not free from the same tendency - taking their cues from the government. "When the officials were talking about Oslo as a peace process, the Israeli media echoed it, and gave a very positive portrait of some Palestinian figures," she says.

"I don't think that the Israeli press is very independent from the official version of things ... so it is standing out now that much more. I wouldn't say it's a whole shift to the right, but in practice it's the same, because the media have done very little to question the official version of events."

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