PMW in the Media
Screen Test
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Palestinian TV’s continual screening of inflammatory intifada scenes started to abate several weeks ago. But Israel’s anti-incitement czar ltamar Marcus charges that the deeper-seated anti-Israeli indoctrination goes on.
ONE OF THE MOST harrowing images of the intifada of the past nine months must doubtless be that of Muhammad al-Dura, the Palestinian child whose tragic death in the first days of October was dramatically captured by France 2 TV correspondent Charles Enderlin. The scene of 12-year-old Muhammad crouching, terrified, behind his father in the dust near the Netzarim junction in Gaza while a gun battle rages around them has become a Palestinian icon of suffering; a symbol of the martyrdom of innocents.
The original footage, aired around the world, captures Muhammad’s father frantically gesticulating to stop the shooting. Seconds later, the dust swirls up as bullets hit the pair. The injured father slumps over his dead son who has crumpled to the ground. Israel at first apolgized, arguing that the boy was killed in crossfire, and later tried to prove, inconclusively, that Muhammad was more likely to have been hit by Palestinian bullets than Israeli. The Palestinians never doubted that Israeli guns were responsible for Muhammad’s death.
The footage of Muhammad’s last moments was shown “thousands of times” on Palestinian Authority TV in the early weeks and months of the intifada, says Itamar Marcus, director of Palestinian Media Watch, a privately funded outfit that has been monitoring anti-Israeli incitement in the Palestinian media for six years. Within a few days, he notes, PA TV came up with a new, improved version of the sequence in which the swirling dust was replaced by a clip of the barrel of an Israeli soldier’s rifle aiming and firing.
For Marcus, though, the visuals of Muhammad al-Dura’s death have since become a symbol of something more sinister. In December, Palestinian Media Watch’s video recorders, working overtime in the organization’s modest Jerusalem offices, picked up a video clip that was being repeatedly aired on PA TV. The clip begins with a re-enactment of the killing of Muhammad, and consists of a montage of images set to a rousing and lengthy song performed by popular soloist Aida - one of hundreds of songs and poems written in praise of the child martyr. Interspersed between long minutes of typical intifada footage of Palestinian stone-throwers confronting Israeli troops, injured Palestinians being carried to ambulances and views of the shimmering Dome of the Rock are idealized fragments in which the child actor who plays Muhammad is running on an empty beach, is surrounded by majestic fountains and plays in a lush green field. For an instant, a giant, illuminated ferris wheel beckons in the night sky. The images add up to a message: Muhammad is now at peace in a children’s wonderland, as far from the troubled plains of Gaza as one’s vision of paradise could possibly stretch.
Marcus says he might have accepted an argument that such treatment of the Muhammad al-Dura tragedy could be therapeutic for young Palestinians traumatized by his violent death, if it weren’t for the fact that the whole clip was preceded by a black screen with stark white wording that read: “I am not waving to you to say good-bye, but rather to tell you to follow me.” It was signed “Muhammad al-Dura.”
Throughout the clip, lyrics sung by Aida and a back-up choir repeat lines such as “how sweet is the fragrance of the martyrs,” and “Till we meet, O Muhammad, till we meet.”
This is not therapy, Marcus charges. This, he says, is nothing less than Palestinian official TV enticing children to seek death. He goes on to extrapolate that the Palestinian leadership sees dead children as a means of furthering its demand for international protection in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. “There is often a connection made in the Palestinian media between the numbers of dead children and the need for international protection,” he says. “The political goal is an international force. The children can provide the reason. Therefore, they encourage them to go out and get killed,” he suggests.
Plenty of other examples seem to idealize young martyrdom: One video clip tells an elaborate, imaginary tale of a love-struck young Palestinian woman shot in the back by “Israeli soldiers.” She is immediately transported to a bucolic afterlife in which she is seen dancing in a cool and watery glen in a group of white-robed virgins. Later on in the film, she is reunited with her lover: He also gets killed by Israeli troops and joins her in heaven.
Another heart-wrenching clip has an angelic-looking Palestinian schoolboy riding off on his bicycle, school bag on his back, having kissed his loving father and little brother good-bye. He ends up at a demonstration aiming a slingshot at Israeli troops, and gets shot through the heart. A series of flashbacks show his friends bringing his family a bloody farewell note retrieved from the boy- martyr’s breast pocket.
Some of these clips are intertwined with evocative sepia-colored archival footage. In one case, joyous Jewish immigrants are seen disembarking from the “Kedmah” in 1947. That image - the “cause” - is immediately juxtaposed with the “effect” in Palestinian eyes: scenes of sprawling, desolate Palestinian refugee tent camps from the late 1940s and early 50s.
While conveying the message that the Palestinian tragedy goes on, the video clips at the same time try to imbue Palestinian youth with a sense of heroism and responsibility. One long, involved segment ends with a Palestinian boy-actor throwing his toy car to the ground, purposefully picking up a stone and running off to confront the army. A young girl drops her rag doll and does the same. The time for playing is over.
SUCH CONTROVERSIAL footage, released by Palestinian Media Watch in May, has earned Marcus, Israel’s self-styled anti-incitement watchdog, a spot in the limelight after years of being shunned by most of the local and foreign media as some kind of Oslo peace party pooper. His recent recordings from PA TV have been widely aired in Israel, he’s been invited onto local TV and radio talk shows, and in a particularly gratifying coup, his material was used in a report by NBC correspondent Martin Fletcher, who also visited Muhammad al-Dura’s former classroom in Gaza and found the dead boy’s desk turned into a shrine.
And surprisingly, though the PA routinely dismisses Palestinian Media Watch as a right-wing propaganda machine, Marcus’s campaign also had an effect at Palestinian TV. Following the publicity, the Muhammad al-Dura clip disappeared from the screen for a week or so. When it returned, it was sans the opening message from “Muhammad” calling others to follow him, and without the flash-image of the great ferris wheel in the sky.
“They obviously felt they’d gone too far,” Marcus remarks.
On the other side of the transmissions sits Radwan Abu Ayyash, a PA deputy minister, chairman of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation and the official head of the TV and Voice of Palestine radio. Abu Ayyash, a veteran journalist and long-time advocate of dialogue and the peace process, is the first to challenge Marcus, his nemesis of the past six years.
“Itamar Marcus doesn’t understand the Arabic language, nor the soul of Islam, nor is he a poet,” Abu Ayyash retorts from PBC headquarters in Ramallah. “This song about Muhammad al-Dura was written by a poet. He means that in our religion - like in the Jewish religion, as Marcus well knows - anyone who’s killed unjustly, in a war, goes to paradise. The singer is telling the children that their peers who are killed go to paradise, therefore they needn’t grieve so much.”
Nevertheless, Abu Ayyash acknowledges that because of the “Israeli allegations,” he personally saw to it that the controversial opening message from Muhammad was removed. “I intervened because the Arabic word itba’uni could have two meanings: ‘Follow me,’ literally, and ‘follow me’ as in ‘Come to see that I’m being true, that I’m in paradise.’”
For most of the past eight months of the intifada, Palestinian TV has been working on a footing of what Abu Ayyash calls “emergency programming.” Normal programs were suspended, and the video montages put together to accompany intifada songs were about the only let-up in what had become hours on end of coverage of confrontations, funerals and graphic, live-from-the-emergency-room pictures of dead and maimed Palestinians. The corpse of four-month-old Iman Hijjo,-killed by Israeli tankfire in Khan Younis in early May, was shown over and over, complete with gruesome close-ups of the gaping wound that had taken away half the infant’s back.
To Israel, PA TV’s continual screening of such emotive scenes constitutes incitement to violence in its most blatant form. But again, Abu Ayyash vehemently defends his corner. “Three major factors decide what kind of programming we have,” he says, listing the political climate; the pulse of the street and needs of the people; and technical and budgetary means. The emergency programming, he insists, merely covers the reality and mirrors the street.
“We are not the doers of the action. We don't have the F-16s. We don’t have artillery to fire against civilians. Whatever we do is like a mirror. We are a reflection of incidents on the ground,” he claims. “The Israelis are the occupiers. They steal the land, they rob the lives of children, they plunder the ground, the sky, the frequencies and the water. My problem is that I don’t have enough cameras to show their fascism and racism and their deeds.”
There are “terrible stories that I’m hiding,” adds Abu Ayyash, “because I don't want to provoke more … I show the minimum. The Israelis know that. The Israelis want us to be killed without a funeral.”
Marcus retorts that PA TV’s coverage has been a case of promotion rather than reflection. But it’s an open, chicken-and-egg question. There’s no doubt that the Palestinian reality is harsh, and the pulse of the street is racing with rage. A Palestinian Jerusalem Media and Communications Center (JMCC) poll conducted in December 2000 indicated that over 66 percent of Palestinians considered suicide operations against Israelis an “appropriate response under current conditions.” (in March 1999, only 26 percent had supported suicide bombings.) Asked to evaluate the performance of Palestinian TV in the same poll, over 82 percent found it good or average; only 15.3 percent found it bad.
Another poll conducted in late May by researcher Nabil Kukali’s Palestine Center for Public Opinion, which is based in the Bethlehem area, found that 76 percent of Palestinians support suicide bombings. Only 12.5 percent opposed them; 11.5 percent had no opinion.
Asked by The Report whether he thinks that Palestinian TV has had an effect in encouraging the violence and the concept of martyrdom, Kukali replies in the negative. “The issue is far beyond that,” he says. “The TV tries to convey to the Palestinians, as well as to the Israelis and the entire world, what the Palestinians are subject to. The local psyche is already devastated because of despair and frustration.” The support for suicide attacks, he goes on, “stems from an amalgam of various factors, which include the daily indignation, killing and lack of job opportunities. People may emotionally feel like venting their anger by supporting such bombings.”
Meanwhile, the daily TV fare of blood and gore has apparently become too much even for many Palestinians to stomach. Marcus has noticed a gradual decline, since sometime around early May, in the most vivid intifada coverage and the screening of the “martyr-glorifying” video clips. He notes a slow return to normal programming for several weeks now something that Abu Ayyash confirms.
When asked, Abu Ayyash acknowledges that Palestinian TV has been subject since the beginning of the year to strong pressure from Palestinian social workers and psychologists, as well as international organizations dealing with children’s welfare, requesting a halt to the horror show.
“Many of these professionals have asked us to stop showing the most disturbing pictures in front of the children. Months ago we started putting warnings on the screen telling parents that their children may find the following pictures disturbing. Still, we have to carry on reporting.”
In particular, he says, complaints were received about the pictures of corpses, of Iman Hijjo’s back, the repeated showing of Muhammad al-Dura’s death, and of hospital scenes showing Palestinians who’d been shot in the eye. The social workers and psychologists made no comment, says Ayyash, about the made-up video clips.
ISRAELI EYES ARE NOW TRAINED on the Palestinian media. In early June, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon listed a halt to incitement as a main criterion for judging the sincerity of Yasser Arafat’s early June call for a cease-fire. A certain amount of confusion has ensued. The day after the cease-fire was announced, Voice of Palestine (VOP) radio reported that two Palestinians had been killed when “settlers” fired on their truck at the Burka junction near Ramallah. Israeli army sources were adamant that the two had died in a road accident. Days later, Abu Ayyash, having checked with his news team, stands by the VOP’s version. Settlers and soldiers fired at the truck, he says, killing the driver. The truck then overturned, killing one of the driver’s brothers and injuring a third. This information, he says, came from the injured brother and VOP’s Ramallah correspondent.
On June 5, the Ha’aretz daily reported a significant drop in anti-Israeli incitement in the Palestinian media since Arafat’s cease-fire call. On June 7, the same paper quoted political sources as saying that the incitement was continuing, and had even got worse the day before.
Since Arafat’s cease-fire declaration, Marcus has received daily calls from journalists eager to hear whether the incitement has stopped. He reports a further decline compared to the past few weeks, but points to the Palestinian media’s mixed messages.
After all, for Marcus, the answer to whether or not the incitement has stopped can never be a simple yes or no. The blatant “bursts” of incitement - the video clips glorifying martyrdom, along with hours of bloody intifada broadcasts - may indeed be petering out. But what remains, he says, is a subtler and, long-term, more worrying form of incitement whose damage will take years to repair.
Marcus finds little to be complacent about in the “normal” programming either. He has come to the conclusion that the problem lies not so much in the blatant calls to violence which come and go, but in a more deeply entrenched process of indoctrination that he perceives as being fed to Palestinians throughout the official media.
The underlying ideology being peddled by the PA media, he claims, paints Israel as an illegitimate foreign implant in the region, and as a temporary entity that will one day disappear. Historians and Islamic clerics who have regular slots on PA TV continually convey the message that the Jews have no history in Israel. One “house” ideologue and historian, Abdallah al-Hourani, recently described Israel as “like a tree planted on someone else’s land that won’t take root.” When the tree stops getting “fertilizer,” he went on, apparently referring to foreign aid, “it will whither and die.”
“The first pillar of the ideology is that the Jews were never here, absurd as it may sound,” says Marcus. “One historian stated that not a single ancient Hebrew coin had ever been found here.” Even in newspaper crossword puzzles, Marcus argues, the line between Israel and historic Palestine is continually erased. The clues for Jaffa and Haifa, for example, are always “a Palestinian port.” This, he says, is “what people are growing up on. And this is the tragedy.”
Abu Ayyash, for his part, charges Marcus with “picking and choosing” and with selecting “peculiar” cases. “We cannot run away from our history,” he declares. “When we interview a historian, we cannot tell him what to say. I cannot say there was nobody called Balfour, or that the British didn't bring immigrants here, or that we don’t have refugees. These are facts.”
History aside, Abu Ayyash insists that the political line at PA TV and radio is unambiguously to “support the peace accords and the evacuation of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza; an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel within the 1967 border - and no settlements. We are criticized by many,” he adds, for sticking to this line.
“Who are we interviewing all the time?” Abu Ayyash goes on. “Sa’eb Erekat, PA cabinet secretary Ahmed Abd al-Rahman - all the officials most identified with the peace process. How many Hamas people do we bring on? None. And not because of the Israeli eyes watching us, but because of our own line.”
Ironically, Marcus rejects the calls by Israeli right-wingers for the army to bomb the PA’s TV and radio transmitters into the world to come. Israel’s first helicopter gunship raid in the PA territories following the October lynching of two army reservists in Ramallah targeted the radio, putting VOP briefly out of action.
“I say no way,” says Marcus. “It's such a controlled media that it gives us a valuable window into what’s going on. I’m waiting for the day when I can report that the Palestinian TV says they’re hoping for peace with Israel.”
Abu Ayyash says he is waiting for more or less the same thing: “I wish I could reach the point where all our programs are about fashion, love, music and flowers.”
In the meantime, states Marcus, the deep-level incitement he perceives is “not a light switch to be turned on and off.” Palestinians have been exposed, he says, to years of ideology that “the Jews have no right to be here, and are not going to be here. And we’ll be paying for that for years to come.”