Israel Launches 'Image Management' Campaign ; the City of Ramallah Continued to Be off Limits to Reporters Yesterday after Two Journalists Were Shot

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As Israel embarks on an openly declared war against "terrorist infrastructure" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it is making it difficult for the world to know what the Palestinians or the Israelis are doing.

For the fourth straight day, the city of Ramallah, which troops took over Friday, was closed off yesterday by Israeli authorities, who cite not only concerns about journalists' safety, but also a need for image management.

"In America's war in Afghanistan, none of us saw even one civilian killed," says Arye Mekel, a foreign ministry spokesman. "Can we imagine that no one was killed? The bottom line is this. You only saw remote pictures."

Journalists are also being thwarted on the Palestinian side. In Bethlehem yesterday, gunmen confiscated film from Reuters television after they had dragged a suspected collaborator through the streets and then shot him dead in a car park. "We will hold you personally responsible if these pictures appear," they said.

The difficulties come as the 18-month Israeli-Palestinian confrontation moves to a climax with daily Palestinian bombing attacks in Israel and the call-up of Israeli reservists for a major military push.

During this decisive period, strictures on the media, as well as mounting danger faced by journalists, promise to significantly curtail the flow of information for shaping opinion and making policy decisions. And, according to Aviv Lavie, who writes a media column for the daily Ha'aretz, the strictures have moral implications. "When a city is occupied, horrible things happen," Lavie says. "The Israeli and world media need to be there in order to document what is going on."

Two journalists were shot in Ramallah over the weekend, Anthony Shadid of the Boston Globe and Carlos Handal of Nile Television, becoming the latest in more than 40 casualties among journalists, most of them attributed to Israeli fire, since the start of the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation in September 2000. There has been one fatality, Italian photographer Raffaelli Ciriello, shot by Israeli troops in Amari Refugee Camp last month. On Saturday, soldiers took over a six-story building in Ramallah housing the offices of Reuters and other foreign and Arab media.

Foreign journalists are also feeling the impact of new Israeli curbs on their Palestinian stringers, relied upon heavily by the correspondents for translation, news gathering, and even personal safety in Palestinian areas. Several veteran Palestinian journalists have been refused renewal of their press cards, thus preventing them from getting past the army checkpoints.

"The increasing hardship in getting accreditation for the Palestinian journalists and the extremely dangerous circumstances you can find yourself in all have the effect of intimidating people and deterring them from doing their jobs," says Graham Usher, who covers the occupied territories for British and American publications. The director of Israel's Government Press Office, Daniel Seaman, says that cards of some Palestinian journalists were not renewed for "security reasons." A new credential that would enable some of the Palestinian journalists to get through checkpoints is being devised, but "we have no reason to hurry," he says.

"The question is whether these Palestinian employees of the foreign press are providing nonbiased objective coverage of events, or deliberately distorting the truth to serve the Palestinian cause," Seaman says. …