PMW in the Media
Volatile vocabulary of Mideast violence
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JERUSALEM - The television set is turned on 24 hours a day, the videocassette recorder quietly blinking beside it. Inside a nondescript office building topped with a high-powered antenna, every word uttered by Palestinian television is captured and parsed by a team of former Israeli army intelligence translators.
Those who monitor Palestinian television claim they can predict whether there will be bloodshed on the street simply by the rhetoric of the official Palestinian media.
“What is important is what they say in Arabic to their own people,” said Itamar Marcus, who started the service known as Palestinian Media Watch five years ago.
In mid-September, two weeks before violence convulsed the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Marcus saw trouble ahead, based on the appearance of MTV-style clips on Palestinian television showing youths throwing rocks of Israelis and crowds marching to martial music.
Words are key in the Middle conflict.
There are fighting words; and there are conciliatory words; and sometimes the difference between them is literally a matter of life and death. The battle over words is an indication of just how deep and ingrained is the divide between Israelis and Palestinians.
Words are so important that they sometimes seem to ring louder than actions. Two out of the three conditions that Ariel Sharon, the new Israeli prime minister, has set for the resumption of peace negotiations have to do purely with language. Sharon wants an end to what he calls anti-Israeli incitement in the Palestinian media and he wants Palestinian’ leader Yasir Arafat to make a statement - in Arabic- telling his people to shun violence.
The Israelis were furious that Arafat, in a speech March 10 to Palestinian legislators that was the equivalent of an annual state of the nation address, did not denounce violence. They were even more enraged by an interview Arafat gave to a Saudi newspaper the same weekend calling for the struggle to continue.
More outrageous, they say, is the insidious message of hatred spread by the official Palestinian media: “There is a constant barrage of brainwashing. If you do a content analysis of their media, it is worse than the Nazi propaganda,” said Ra’anan Gissin, Sharon’s spokesman. He blames the atmosphere of hatred for such violence as an attack Feb. 14, when a Palestinian bus driver mowed down a crowd of Israeli soldiers waiting at a bus stop, killing eight.
“You have a regular person who was not a member of any [terrorist] organization. He listened to radio and television and he went out to kill,” Gissin said.
A recent example cited by Israeli monitors is a movie that has aired several times in the past month on Palestinian television called Garden of Death, which depicts Israeli soldiers murdering a Palestinian family.
Even crossword puzzles foment hatred, according to recent report by Palestinian Media Watch. The report cited a puzzle in the newspaper Al Quds that called for the answer “treachery” to the clue, “the Jewish trait.”
Israelis have fixated on Palestinian rhetoric ever since the peace accord with the Palestinians was signed on the White House lawn in 1993. Along with the other trappings of self-rule, the peace pact allowed Palestinians to set up the Palestinian Broadcasting Corp., an official television and radio network. Soon, Israeli skeptics noticed a disconnect between the Palestinian pledges of accepting Israel as a neighbor and the venom of the Palestinian media.
Today; at least three nonprofit organizations monitor the Palestinian media, not including that which is army.
In 1998, a joint Israeli-Palestinian committee on incitement was set up under the auspices of the U.S. State Department. Uri Dan, an Israeli writer who is a close friend of Sharon’s, was named to chair the committee. Dan says that the committee held half-a-dozen meetings before if disbanded under Ehud Barak, Sharon’s predecessor as Prime Minister.
“Barak thought there would be an end to the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict and incitement would die naturally. Now we are dying; and incitement is alive and well,” Dan said. He expects Sharon to place more emphasis than his predecessor on the issue of incitement, and says that the topic came up last week during Sharon’s meetings in Washington.
Martin Indyk, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, has complained vociferously about the viciousness of the anti Israeli rhetoric by Palestinians, and, to a lesser extent, the anti-Palestinian statements by Israelis:
“The hate that spews forth from official Palestinian organs and stirs up the Palestinian street must be curbed,” Indyk said in a speech this month in Tel Aviv. As for Israelis, he cited calls by some right-wing settler leaders for Arafat’s assassination and references to Palestinians as “vermin”.
The Palestinians were also furious when Rehavam Zeevi, the Israeli tourism minister; recently said of Arafat, “A scorpion remains a scorpion.”
Marwan Kanafani, an Arafat spokesman who was the Palestinian representative on the anti-incitement committee, said that Palestinians had made several complaints about Sharon in 1998 and 1999 when he was foreign minister.
“Mr. Sharon was the subject of most of our complaints. Every time that man opened his mouth there was a problem,” Kanafani said. Kanafani cited in particular statements Sharon made in 1998 urging Israeli settlers to “grab more hills, expand the territory.”
Like the Israelis, the Palestinians are obsessed with press coverage, particularly in the Israeli media. Out of an office in East Jerusalem known as the Institute for Middle East Communications, 26 interpreters - most of them Arabs with Israeli citizenship - translate the Israeli press every morning for Arafat and other Palestinian officials.
When Israelis and Palestinians quarrel about language, it is often not about name-calling or incitement, but rather about subtleties that might elude the casual observer. Statements that might seem innocent on the surface can trigger nasty disputes between Palestinians and Israelis.
For example, the word settlement is the subject of much contention. While the word usually refers to Jewish developments in the West Bank and Gaza, militant Palestinians use the word for all Jewish communities - the implication being that all of Israel is an illegitimate development on Palestinian land.
Israelis get extremely upset when Palestinians refer to Haifa or Jaffa as “Palestinian cities,” although they once were predominately Arab and still today have large Arab populations.
“In the internal Palestinian world, Israel was created in sin in 1948 and all of it belongs to Palestine,” explained Marcus, the head of Palestinian Media Watch.
For their part, the Palestinians are enraged by the use of the word terrorism in the Israeli media. One side’s terrorist is the other’s freedom fighter and hero.
Ghassan Khatib, who runs a Palestinian media translation service in Jerusalem, says that for Israelis, “no matter how many Palestinians are killed, it is self-defense, but whatever it is that harms Israelis is portrayed as terrorism.”
At least in the immediate future, Khatib does not expect the Palestinians to agree to Sharon’s demands for a public renunciation of violence or for gentler media coverage.
“The media,” he says, “has to reflect the pulse of the street and right now the street is very angry.”