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Monday, January 23, 2006

The PA's Propaganda War

You should put this book on your reading list:

The PA's Propaganda War

A review of The Other War: Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy, by Stephanie Gutmann. Encounter Press, 280 pages, $25.95. The Other War is available from the FrontPage Magazine Bookstore for only $18.17.


Gutmann believes that Israel has been steadily defeated on the media front, and with deadly consequences. In March 2002, for instance, Israeli army planners were preparing a full-scale assault against West Bank terrorist networks. But they recalled the public-relations pummeling the country had endured during the previous two years, in which the United Nations, Amnesty International, Physicians for Human Rights, and others routinely condemned Israel for “excessive force.” And so, instead of lightning air strikes, Operation Defensive Shield relied on door-to-door raids, resulting in the deaths of 23 Israeli soldiers. Military superiority over its enemies is no advantage if Israel is continually dissuaded from using it.

In the media war, Israel has three disadvantages. The first is an open society, which allows reporters (and filmmakers and activists and human-rights observers) the freedom to roam, record, and interview in first-world comfort. This has saddled Israel with what may be the world’s highest per capita concentration of reporters. Jerusalem is host to 350 permanent foreign news bureaus, as many as New York, London, or Moscow; the volume of reportage on Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank is 75 times greater than on any other area of comparable population. This obsessive attention necessarily distorts, by casting the Israel-Palestinian war in a theatric, world-historical light.

In the last decade, around 4,500 Israeli and Palestinian lives have been lost to the fighting. The Russo-Chechen war has killed 50,000 (11 times as many), the Darfur crisis has killed 180,000 (40 times as many), and the Congolese civil war has killed 3.5 million (778 times as many). But very few Americans can call to mind images of the ghastly violence in Chechnya, Sudan, or Congo—or even identify the warring parties—because these are places so dangerous that the New York Times simply cannot responsibly send a reporter there, much less a bureau.

If freedom is disadvantageous, this goes double when you happen to abut a shameless, propagandizing Arab dictatorship. According to Gutmann, the Palestinian Authority under Arafat used “the combat theatre (the West Bank, Gaza, and inside Israel) as a kind of soundstage.” Those famous scenes of Palestinian boys with rocks confronting soldiers, for example, are usually choreographed. Palestinian youths, exhorted by parents, teachers, and their televisions to pelt Israeli soldiers, are so conscious of the media presence themselves that they often don’t start in with the stones until photographers arrive. Israeli soldiers are actually forewarned of clashes when film crews suddenly materialize. (Coalition forces have experienced the same phenomenon in Iraq.)

How do these reporters or photographers, on a quest for dramatic stories and footage, know where the “spontaneous” violence is to “erupt”? One or another foot soldier in their “small army of Palestinian fixers” is tipped off by the attackers. The Associated Press, Reuters, and Agence France-Press (which together supply 80% of news images to the world media) require the assistance of natives who speak the local language, know who’s who, and can get things done. These hired locals, in turn, make decisions about where to drive and what to translate (or leave un-translated).

The Palestinian regime isn’t brutal in the way of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but its operatives are trained in the same school of media manipulation. On September 12, 2001, as the Middle East awoke to the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Palestinians in several cities took to the streets. The celebration in Nablus, estimated at 3,000 people, was filmed by an A.P. photographer who forwarded the footage to his bureau in Jerusalem. Before it hit the wire, the photographer called his bureau again, this time sitting in the Nablus governor’s office with guns to his head. The reporter lived, but the truth did not. The A.P. was told by the Palestinian Authority that it “could not guarantee their safety” in the future unless the A.P. learned to be “more careful.” [But it did live - and you can see it here. CiJ].

Regime propaganda is pervasive. TV spots feature inspirational poetry like “how beautiful is the scent of the land, which is fed from the waterfall of blood, springing from an angry body.” In April 2002, an Israeli drone flying above a funeral procession in the city of Jenin caught on tape a Palestinian corpse falling off his bier, reproving his handlers, then hopping back on. It happened again in the midst of a crowd, sending bystanders fleeing in terror. It was part of an effort to inflate both the body count and the number of photo-ops.

Israel’s third disadvantage is media convention itself. Gutmann reminds us that all news is constructed: “Behind every picture there is a long story and a regiment of people who brought that particular picture, of all possible pictures, to you.” And construction is rarely better than its architects: “producers sitting in carpeted, climate-controlled studios in New York and London are making war their subject…. [A]nd journalists, dumped on the ground with little prior knowledge, are forced to condense and ‘package’ terribly complex and crucial events.” The general leftism in the news media gives reporters and producers many ways of introducing their bias into the simplified narrative: “David and Goliath, Poor versus Rich, the Third World versus Western Colonialism, Man versus Machine, even you-in-third-grade versus those-guys-who-always-beat-you-up after school.” With Israel and the Palestinians, the overall result is “Large Mechanized Brutes versus Small Vulnerable Brown People.”

Read it all.


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