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Israel learns to fight a media war

By Andrew L. Fish

(Editor's note: Andrew Fish spent three weeks in Israel on a trip for college newspaper editors sponsored by the World Zionist Organization. The following is last in a series of reports.)

Israeli military spokesman Col. Raanan Gissen believed his country was battling the 14-month-old Palestinian uprising on two fronts -- the ground and the airwaves. Many Israeli officials agreed that the fight for world opinion through the mass media was as important for their nation as attempts to quell the unrest.

"The public relations game is deadly," Gissen said, "and it has implications on the streets," affecting the behavior of both Palestinians and soldiers. While the ground war was "a tie, maybe points for us," Gissen said, Israel had lost "the battle over the media."

The story coming out of the territories is a Palestinian story, not an Israeli story, Gissen said. "I don't believe in the first six months we had a chance to make our case. We had to roll with the punches."

In the battle for public opinion there is "a big advantage for the weaker power," said Foreign Ministry Spokesman Alon Liel. "A child throwing a stone at a soldier who is armed gets sympathy, even though he is committing a violent act."

Gissen acknowledged that Israel was "not prepared for the scope of the uprising" or "the sophisticated use of the media" by the Palestinians. The country has improved their training, including training on "how to deal with the media."

"We have lost the [public relations] battle but not the war," Gissen said.

Second largest press corps

"We are hosts to the largest press corps in the world after Washington," noted Israeli President Chaim Herzog. He attributed this to both the incredibly complicated and interesting environment in the nation and the fact that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.

But Herzog noted that "a problem is a problem only if television is there." While not denying that the intifada was a problem, Herzog believed foreign media were "not showing the whole picture."

He said that much greater atrocities have been conducted in the Iran-Iraq war, yet these received scant attention compared to rock-throwing youths in the occupied territories.

At the height of the intifada, there was violence in only about 10 of the 450 West bank towns and villages on a given day, he said; now that number is down to two or three a day. Yet, Herzog charged, the media (especially foreign television) presents its story with "complete imbalance." It is "like turning all of Ireland into the Falls Rd. area," he said.

The difficultly with television is that it features a single dramatic instant through which the viewer must extrapolate a general picture, Herzog said.

Gissen also complained about the "tunnel vision of television," which only shows what is occurring at one place at one time. It does not show what happened 10 minutes before or 10 minutes after the clip of film that makes it on the air.

Foreign coverage of the Middle East is analogous to a soap opera like "Dynasty," Gissen believed. "In this chapter we are the villain. We have to go on to a new chapter."

Media provokes violence

Israeli officials defended their treatment of media in the country; one foreign ministry official said there were "no limitations on press access."

But some said it was necessary to close certain area to the media on occasion to prevent violence.

Herzog believed that television journalists, while not having malicious intent, helped to incite violence in the territories, as the leaders of the uprising need the media attention and start riots.

David Kreiselman of the government press office, who also is a reserve officer in the Israeli army, said commanders face difficult decisions with regards to media presence in the territories. On one hand, as a democracy there is a presumption that the media should be permitted to have total access. But in some cases banning cameras could save lives, as riots would not be instigated.

Kreiselman said soldiers sometimes vent their frustration at foreign journalists because they realize the role cameras play in starting violence. But he, and most Israeli officials I spoke with, did not believe there was an active bias in the Western media.