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Palestinian Media say they inform, not incite

JERUSALEM - When PLO chief Mahmoud Abbas, a leading candidate to succeed Yasir Arafat, was reported this week to have told the Palestinian Broadcasting Corp. to eliminate programming that incites violence against Israelis, it seemed a new day had dawned in Palestinian-Israeli relations.
Recognizing that a Palestinian crackdown on violent factions will take time, if it happens at all, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded to Arafat’s death last month by proposing a different benchmark for Palestinian commitment to peace: a crackdown on anti-Israel propaganda.
Sharon said he would consider efforts to stop incitement a goodwill gesture sufficient to restart moribund peace talks, dropping his previous demand for immediate elimination of Palestinian armed groups.
So Monday’s gesture by Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, was a step in the right direction, right?
Not so fast.
“It’s a misunderstanding,” Radwan Abu Ayyash, the general manager of Palestinian Broadcasting said yesterday. “We are not, first of all, inciting. If we needed to stop, it means we used to do it… Abu Mazen did not instruct us.”
On the contrary, Ayyash said, Palestinian radio and TV broadcasters routinely guard against programming “that gives Israel a pretext to attack us.”
Itamar Marcus, director of the Israeli group Palestinian Media Watch, which monitors the Palestinian Authority’s official media from Jerusalem, said the problem went well beyond spot incitement.
Throughout Palestinian media, Marcus said, “there has never been an acceptance of Israel… It just teaches that Israel doesn’t exist, or has no right to exist.”
That attitude is evident even in the crossword puzzles in Palestinian newspapers, where the clue “a coastal city in occupied Palestine,” has the answer “Haifa,” Marcus said.
It is on display when Issam Sisalem, former chairman of the history department of Islamic University in the Gaza Strip, likens Israel to “a parasitic worm that eats a snail to live in its shell,” as he did in a TV program aired a few years ago and rebroadcast this week.
“This, tragically, is what is going to keep this conflict burning until the next generation,” Marcus said.
Palestinians, for their part, accuse Israelis of incitement, too, as when Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the right-wing Shas Party, last year likened Arabs to “insects” in a broadcast sermon.
“What should I say to that?” said Ayyash, the Palestinian Broadcasting chief.
Marcus responded, “When Ovadia Yosef said terrible things about Arabs, he was ostracized” by most Israelis.
“Bad statements will pop up,” Marcus said. “But do you ostracize them, or promote them,” as he said the Palestinians did.
The problem, Ayyash said, is that despite efforts to monitor media on both sides, and with a trilateral committee that includes a U.S. representative in place since 1999, there are no shared criteria.
“What might be considered by us to be basic information might be interpreted by the Israelis as incitement,” he said. “If I say, ‘Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine,’ is that incitement? For the Israelis, yes it is.”
The London-based pan-Arab daily A-Sharq al-Awsat reported that the Palestinian directive against inflammatory material also applied to video clips, songs and music videos that call for the continuation of the armed intifadah.
A Palestinian Broadcasting official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Associated Press that changes were to begin after the 40-day mourning period for Arafat, who died Nov. 11. The official said talk shows would now be recorded and edited rather than broadcast live.
Ayyash said mosque preachers, whose Friday sermons will continue to be carried live, would be warned to avoid incitement or risk being barred from the airwaves.
Last week a televised sermon that often lashed out at Israelis was not broadcast for the first time in four years. Palestinian officials at the time would not explain why.
Israelis who monitor the Palestinian electronic media say it is too early to tell if new programming rules will engender a spirit of reconciliation.
But not much is likely to change unless other Arab broadcasters follow suit, they say.
Most Palestinians don’t watch state-run TV, preferring the livelier content of satellite stations Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya - which also have drawn Israeli criticism for purportedly fostering hate.