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http://www.observer.co.uk/international/story/0,6903,508164,00.html

The first casualty of war

Israelis say Western reports are biased. But the media complain Israel is harassing them.

Report by Peter Beaumont, Brian Whitaker in Jerusalem and Edward Helmore in New York

Sunday June 17, 2001 The Observer

Members of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem sat down over drinks at their annual meeting at the Inbal hotel a few weeks ago to discuss harassment of reporters covering the intifada. There was much to discuss. A few days earlier Josh Hammer, the bureau chief of Newsweek magazine, had been detained by Palestinians while working in Gaza.

Hammer had said he had been well treated and had enjoyed one of the best meals he had eaten in the Middle East.

What was bothering the journalists, however, was not Hammer's brief detention, but the Israeli government's use of the incident as an opportunity to accuse the Palestinian Authority of harassing, threatening and killing journalists as they went about their work in the flashpoints of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The members of the FPA begged furiously to differ. If journalists were facing any intimidation during the present intifada, complained the assembled reporters, it was not from the Palestinians but from the Israeli army, which they accused of directing gunfire at them. Eight journalists in as many months had been wounded, some seriously, including AP photographer Yolah Monakhov, CNN bureau chief Ben Wedeman and French television correspondent Bertrand Aguirre.

In each case the FPA had complained. In each case the Israeli authorities had declined to reply.

That harassment, correspondents say, is not confined to physical threats. It is psychological as well, and from both official and unofficial sources. At its worst it has smacked of the tactics of the Soviet bloc countries during the Cold War. Correspondents the Israeli authorities feel have stepped out of line - including the Guardian's award-winning correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg - have been threatened with having their accreditation removed.

Dossiers of alleged anti-Israeli bias have been sent to editors, and correspondents who have fallen foul of the authorities have complained of being the target of humiliating searches when they leave the country.

On the unofficial front, the attacks on Goldenberg have been nastier and more insidious. She has been abused in the Jewish media as naive, inexperienced and a 'self-hating Jew'. Goldenberg has been forced to change her email address after being bombarded daily with hundreds of complaints about her coverage. She is not alone.

Last week the sense of siege among journalists covering the intifada was ratcheted up another notch as the offices of the BBC in Jerusalem were deluged with calls complaining about the content of a Panorama programme unseen in Britain and Israel alike. It will be shown in the UK tonight.

A new front is opening in the intifada. Faced with increasing international criticism of its handling of the Palestinian uprising, the Israeli government of Ariel Sharon and its allies in the powerful and influential pro-Israeli lobby, have stepped up their efforts against international media reporting the current crisis. News organisations that fall foul of Israel are accused of being pro-Palestinian at best, and at worst anti-Semitic.

'You only have to look at some of the things that are being said about Israel in the international media,' complains one high-ranking Israeli official in the Ministry of Information. 'You only have to look at the Spanish media. Every time they mention the Middle East they talk about "a holocaust". Of course that is going to offend us.

'And what bothers us is the way in which many organisations - especially the news wires and broadcasters - use Palestinian stringers in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. So, of course, we think they are biased.'

The BBC, which has faced repeated accusations of bias, has been shocked by the response of the Israeli government to Panorama, which examines the well-documented involvement of Sharon in the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982 when, as Defence Minister, he allowed his country's Christian militia allies to enter the camps.

On the basis only of advance publicity material for the programme, the BBC has been accused of bias in the Israeli press. In London the Israeli embassy has already complained to the corporation's deputy director for news. The Israeli leader's lawyers have warned the BBC it must take account of Sharon's views.

And while some harassment of reporters who are felt to be 'biased' against Israel is not new, correspondents say that what has changed has been the intensity of both the lobbying and the intimidation.

For many years, pro-Israeli organisations have organised letter-writing campaigns to protest against articles and programmes they dislike. With the development of email, this activity has grown enormously. Websites, such as honestreporting.com, target individual journalists and provide ready-written letters of complaint for subscribers to send out.

This weekend the site had already produced a pro forma letter of complaint against tonight's Panorama.

Honestreporting.com also issues awards. One recently went to Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of the US magazine New Republic, who 'has consistently stood by Israel's side', and another to Conrad Black, proprietor of the Daily and Sunday Telegraph newspapers and the Spectator magazine, for lashing out against 'rabidly anti-Israel' journalists and governments.

The intensity of the lobbying, admits Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger - who returned recently from a fact-finding mission to Israel - can have an insidious effect. 'There are all sorts of non-governmental and ad hoc groups who blitz you with letters to complain about allegations of bias in your coverage. It is ignorable stuff on the whole,' he says, though he admits: 'It does get into the bloodstream of the wider debate.

'The pro-Israeli lobby is also very well organised. And the truth is that they do have better access and influence in the media than Palestinian lobbyists.'

It is a lobby too that - despite the accusations of systematic media bias - has powerful allies. Black has never tried to hide his support for the Israeli cause, sending his wife, the journalist Barbara Amiel, to report on it.

The Times under Peter Stothard has also been broadly sympathetic to Israel in its coverage, an editorial line that has been blamed for the departure of its Middle East correspondent Sam Kiley, who is understood to have been uncomfortable with it.

But where the pressure from the pro-Israeli lobby has been most intense has been on media organisations felt to be out of line. Among those groups in Britain are the Conservative Friends of Israel, which invites senior journalists to lunches at the House of Commons. For those working for organisations perceived as being biased against Israel these can be uncomfortable affairs.

One member is the Conservative MP Gillian Shephard, who is at pains to explain the sense of persecution that Israelis and the wider Jewish community feel at the hands of the media.

'Let's not forget that Israel feels under siege. And it literally is. That is what drives the feeling of ultra-sensitivity. They feel that there is bias and there is a conspiracy against them. There is a perception that Israelis are portrayed as instigating the problems and that the historical context of the threat against Israel is forgotten. There is a feeling too that Israel - which is a tiny island of democracy amid much less democratic neighbours - never gets enough credit for what it has achieved.'

It is a view that is not confined to London. In New York, with its large Jewish constituency, questioning Israeli policy in the press is considered close to, if not actually, anti-Semitism and all that entails. Thomas L Friedman, the celebrated New York Times columnist who writes regularly about the Middle East, is in no doubt why it has become such a difficult place to report.

'This is a charged political environment,' he says. 'Everyone wants to own you, and if they can't own you they want to destroy you. That applies just as much to the Arab world as it does to Israel. There is no middle ground. There is no time and no place that someone will put their arm around you and say, "Gosh, I really appreciate your fair and balanced reporting".'


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