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The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Struggle for Media Supremacy
By Stephanie Gutmann
The intensified anti-Israeli terror war that began in the fall of 2000 was accompanied by a media pogrom that must be history's most startling case of blaming the victim. Repeated Palestinian massacres of Israeli civilians never deterred thousands of reporters from portraying the Palestinians as victims of the Israeli "Goliath."
Stephanie Gutmann is an American journalist whose Jewish father had taken her family for extended stays in Israel as she was growing up, and when she saw Israel regularly depicted on TV as a cold, regimented, Third Reich-type society even as its citizens were being slaughtered, she knew something was wrong.
So she spent time among media people as well as both Israeli and Palestinian civilians, and produced this insightful book on how organs like CNN, the BBC, Agence France-Presse, The New York Times and others give a grossly distorted picture of what's going on here.
The Other War is at its best in evoking the jeering, virulently anti-Israeli mentality of the legions of journalists who descend on Israel for a plum gig that combines the freedom and amenities of a modern democracy, plenty of blood to report on and a simplistic storyline of powerful Israel vs. weak, suffering Palestinians. Israeli hasbara efforts, in comparison, tend to be inept, confused and apologetic, though Gutmann sees an improvement in recent years as the Foreign Ministry and Government Press Office work more effectively to convey Israel's side.
The foreign reporters, while regularly lambasting Israel for "censorship" and Israeli soldiers for supposedly shooting at them during violent events, toe the line of trained, usually foreign-educated Palestinian "fixers" who take them on guided tours and give them the politically correct slant. This intrepid media community always forgives and forgets instances of actual, violent intimidation by Palestinians - as when Anna Mignotto, a producer for Italy's RTI TV, received death threats for its coverage of the Ramallah lynching and was recalled to Italy for her safety, or when Newsweek bureau chief Joshua Hammer and another journalist were seized for hours by Fatah gunmen in Gaza.
Another incident occurred on September 12, 2001, when thousands of Palestinians took to the streets of several West Bank towns to celebrate the previous day's massacres in America. When an AP reporter/photographer filmed the festivities in Nablus, he ended up in the Nablus governor's office with "gunmen on each side of him [holding] guns against his skull [who] had been ordered to shoot him if the video... went on the wire... AP agreed to let the governor's men destroy the film" -and that was the end of the story.
The reporters mostly stay at the posh, PA-run American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, where some of them wear keffiyehs as they browse through stacks of PA-supplied anti-Israeli propaganda and hobnob with the like-minded. Spending time among Israelis even when they have plenty of blood to display is uncool; the Palestinians are "the story." When, in the early part of the terror war, the southern-Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo came under regular fire by Palestinian gunmen, Gutmann found the reporters totally uninterested in covering this Israeli angle. Gilo, on the site of a former Jordanian army base, is considered a "settlement," its residents beyond the pale of humanity.
But the foreign media's role goes beyond parroting the PA line and portraying Israel as a military behemoth with little claim to continued existence. The media also collude with Palestinians in creating violent incidents, and are a major reason for their occurrence.
"It is impossible to separate the second intifada from its coverage," Gutmann remarks, pointing out that the coverage "propelled events, was used to justify events, and amplified events." An Israeli soldier at a checkpoint told her that "when the cameraman comes on, [the locals] act up and make a mess." And a journalist told her: "After eating [at the American Colony Hotel], we'd drive around the West Bank and wait for the Palestinian kids to throw rocks at Israeli soldiers, which we knew they would do once a critical mass of journalists had assembled."
Although this important book does a great job of describing the "how" of what happens - how the world media cooperate in a murderous assault on the Middle East's lone democracy, an assault that is spearheaded by Palestinians but directed and abetted by a far-flung terror apparatus in which Hizbullah, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Egypt play starring roles - it only offers some hints as to the "why."
No doubt, the pack mentality of journalists and the attraction many people find in the image of Palestinians as the underdog play a part. But the leering coldness toward Israelis even as they are being blown to bits in buses and restaurants calls for deeper explanations - explanations lying in the realm of anti-Semitism and the media corporations' thick ties with Arab lucre.
The writer is a freelance journalist and translator based in Jerusalem.