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Isabel Kershner  |
The bonny Palestinian baby is lying on the ground crying, swaddled in white clothing next to a bloodied figure, presumably his dead mother. A couple of Israeli soldiers standing over the two have a brief discussion, after which the infant is shot in cold blood as the horror-stricken father looks on from his hiding place in the nearby bushes.

The scene is disturbing, to say the least. It was aired on June 8 on official Palestinian Authority TV as part of what Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli non-governmental monitoring organization, says was billed as a "historical" series about events before and during Israel"s War of Independence in 1948 - referred to by Palestinians as the Nakba, or catastrophe.
Israel had hoped that this kind of fabricated horror theater would have disappeared from Palestinian screens by now. With the election of Mahmud Abbas, or Abu Mazen, to power early this year, the Israeli government announced that any political process would be conditional on the PA putting an end to incitement. During the past four years of intifada, PA TV in particular stood accused of airing a steady diet of inflammatory anti-Israel programs, including video clips glorifying Palestinian child "martyrs" and live broadcasts from hospital emergency rooms and morgues following Israeli army actions.

Abu Mazen pledged to deal with the issue, and PA TV is undergoing a spring cleaning. The new PA deputy prime minister and minister of information, Nabil Shaath, has appointed his former spokesman, Muhammad Weheidi, to revamp the service. Weheidi, who sits in an office the size of an apartment in the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation (PBC) building in Gaza City, says he wants to modernize the channel"s look and has given an instruction to bar all images of dead bodies from the screen because of their traumatizing effect on Palestinian children.
Itamar Marcus, the Palestinian Media Watch director and veteran anti-incitement czar, attests that there has been a change of sorts. "In general, we [are] back to a normal schedule," he says. The martyrdom clips have faded out along with the intifada, and there has been a sharp reduction in what Marcus calls the "Kill the Jews" messages encouraging outright violence.
Still, he says, the consistent message that comes across is one of hate. "We are not getting the message that "Israel is our neighbor and we want to live in peace."" Rather, he argues, items that crop up between the children"s cartoons and light entertainment shows, such as the baby killing scene described above, reinforce the notion that Israel is a cruel enemy that was born in sin and has no legitimate right to exist. It reminds him of PA TV in the period from 1997 up to 2000, when the intifada broke out.

Even if nobody is watching, he adds, alluding to PA TV"s legendary low ratings, it is important because, as a strictly controlled channel, it provides a window into the Palestinian leadership"s thinking.

By contrast, the independent Palestinian media seems to be emerging from the intifada era in strides, pushing the limits of openness. One chain of leading local stations, partners in the Maan (Together) non-governmental TV network, plans to run a four-part documentary series, "The Shape of the Future," on Israeli-Palestinian final status issues starting in early July. The programs are to air simultaneously on Israel"s Channel 8 and the satellite news channel Abu Dhabi TV with Hebrew and Arabic translations.

Produced by Search for Common Ground, a Washington-based conflict resolution organization, each part of the series is supposed to be followed by an unprecedented debate between Palestinians, Israelis and the Arab world over the Internet, with comments posted on the Shape of the Future website.

Maan, meanwhile, may find itself having to tread a thin line between fair journalism and what less liberal Palestinians might construe as a controversial "normalization" of ties with the Israeli occupier.

Itamar Marcus is not short of examples from the darker side of Palestinian broadcasting. Among his latest selection is the widely publicized Friday, May 13 sermon by PA mosque preacher Ibrahim Mudayris, who called for the Muslims "to bring every Jew to his end" on PA TV. There"s a visual "subliminal message" of a dagger piercing a Star of David that flashed on screen for eight seconds in the middle of a program on refugees on May 15, when Palestinians mark Nakba Day. And he points to the unhealthy PA media focus during International Women"s Week in March on the traditional Islamic figure of Al-Khansa, a converted Muslim and poetess who rejoiced at the death of her four sons in battle against the infidels, as a role model for Palestinian girls and women of today. (Marcus notes that there are at least five...schools [for girls] in PA cities named for Al-Khansa.)

On top of that are the countless images of Palestinian refugees holding keys to their former "stolen" homes in pre-1948 Palestine, waiting to return. This, Marcus argues, all amounts to "a tremendous promotion of hatred of Israel and its delegitimization."

Radwan Abu Ayyash, head of the PBC, reports that the prevailing period of calm, or truce, has allowed PA TV to move away from a "bloody agenda. People are sick of watching funerals on TV," he says. At the same time, he says, "you cannot control every word and create dramas that fit with Itamar s thinking."

Abu Ayyash has been verbally sparring with Marcus on and off for years, since the two sat on the short-lived U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian Anti-Incitement Committee set up in the wake of the Wye River accord of 1998. Speaking by phone from Ramallah, Abu Ayyash says that Marcus "forgets we are not in Switzerland. We are still under occupation, and have open wounds. The mood of the people cannot immediately switch. It [is] a gradual process. We believe things should be changed, but we [cannot] suddenly say OK, Israel is nice, the army is good, there are no checkpoints and no wall. We [cannot] work according to Itamar."

Acknowledging that "from time to time" there are problems, Abu Ayyash refers to the Mudayris sermon as the "worst address." He says he raised the issue in the cabinet with Minister Nabil Shaath. As a result, a new mechanism is in place whereby the waqf (Islamic Trust) religious authorities are required to submit a written script to the TV for approval before sermons will be aired.

When asked about the depiction of the events of 1948, Abu Ayyash retorts that this is "history. I [do not] want to compare, but every year on Holocaust Day, Israel has all sorts of official memorials even though its relations with Germany are the best. Shall we say nothing happened in 1948?"

Unsurprisingly, PA TV dwells on the Nakba during May. But to replace the war programming of the past four years, Shaath appointee Muhammad Weheidi is trying to lighten up the schedule with morning breakfast shows filmed on the Gaza seashore and performances of music and dance. (Some criticism has already been heard from militants in the southern Gaza Strip who complained about the official TV showing Palestinian maidens and young men dancing the dabke while people were still dying.)

In a belated attempt at modernization, PA TV now has a news scroll running across the screen to update viewers watching time-fillers like nature programs. That is unlikely to create any real competition with the popular Arabic satellite news channels such as Al-Jazeera, Al-Arrabiya and Abu Dhabi, or even with some of the local independent channels that have had news scrolls for years. Abu Ayyash believes that PA TV "might improve" if money and technical assistance are forthcoming, but he doesnt sound so sure.

The Palestinian media"s face of the future is perhaps rather that of Raed Othman, the general director of the Maan Network and former director of the private, independent Bethlehem TV.

Bethlehem TV is one of Maan"s 10 "partner" stations in the West Bank and Gaza. Maan also runs nine local radio stations. The potential audience, says Othman, is "all of Palestine."
Othman, who started out as an electrical engineer at Bethlehem TV, takes a refreshing approach to covering the conflict. For example, Bethlehem TV airs a popular nightly program providing simultaneous translation of the Hebrew news broadcasts on Israel"s Channel 1, 2 and 10. Othman reports that 95 percent of the people who get Bethlehem TV - picked up with a regular antenna in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Ramallah - watch it at least twice a week.

In late 2003, Maan broadcast a series of talk shows on the subject of incitement, attempting to define what constitutes it and how to reduce it on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

Ironically, the idea came after Bethlehem TV was itself accused of incitement by Israeli officials following a 20-minute interview with wanted local members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade militia. Several of the programs were produced with the help of Search for Common Ground, while Washington"s National Endowment for Democracy provided funding.

So it was only natural that Common Ground Productions should turn to Maan to air its new documentary series. "The Shape of the Future" will include programs on Jerusalem, the settlements, refugees, security and borders, and will reflect both Israeli and Palestinian points of view.

"The theme of the series is compromising the dream," says John Marks, the president of Search for Common Ground, which promotes nonviolence in conflict areas around the world and maintains a staff in Jerusalem. "The point is that neither side can have 100 percent."
Marks sees Othman as "the voice of the independent media in Palestine. [He is] really extraordinary, a social entrepreneur. Raed takes the initiative and makes things happen, but not in a way that offends people," he says.

The Palestinian arena remains volatile, however, and some elements, it seems, have taken offense. Originally, each of the four episodes of "The Shape of the Future" were to be followed by half-hour town meetings discussing the programs on the air. The meetings were to be held simultaneously in Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Cairo, with live link-ups between them, and were scheduled to be recorded in mid-June.

In the event, the town meetings were canceled for what Search for Common Ground cited as "security and technical reasons" after militants in Ramallah made threatening phone calls to Search staff. The militants reportedly said that the programs were pro-Israeli and that the whole exercise constituted "normalization," a dirty word experiencing a revival in Palestinian political circles now that the hard-core violence of the intifada is over.

"We didnt want to put our staff or audience at risk," says Marks, explaining the cancellation. "They would have been on TV for all to see. This was hardly a discreet affair." A majority of the 55 Palestinians who had confirmed their participation in the Ramallah town meeting had informed the producers that they wouldnt come.

Raed Othman, for his part, intends to go ahead with screening the series. "There [is] nothing radical about them. They give both voices, and feature people who see the possibility of a solution," he says. "For us, its not a big deal. Every year at Nakba time we broadcast 15 documentaries from all sides - Palestinian, international or Israeli." This year, he notes, Maan aired "Forget Baghdad," a documentary produced by the London-based Espresso TV about Iraqi Jewish Communists who came to Israel.

As a secular and independent NGO, Othman says, Maan aims to "use media for change." The network"s stations have their own dictionary of "common language," avoiding terms like shahid, or martyr, for members of militias who are killed. Othman refers to neither the "Israeli Occupation Force" nor the Israeli Defense Force, but just to the Israeli army. And when he feels it necessary for a particular news story, he picks up the phone to the army spokesman and publishes the response, "even if I dont believe it."

Maan has just launched an Internet news agency, the first independent Palestinian one of its kind, and will soon provide sites in English and Hebrew. Since advertising revenues are slim in the current Palestinian economic climate, Maan relies largely on foreign donations for its own productions. The news agency, for example, is being funded by Dutch and Danish aid.
Asked if he isn"t afraid of being accused of "normalization," Othman replies that for him, normalization is "selling an idea" or "saying that Israel is nice and beautiful. Giving the truth, or two sides of the picture, is not normalization," he declares. "I am not a peacemaker or a judge, but a journalist," he adds.

As for incitement, Othman believes it exists on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, but the real incitement, he says, is the "occupation itself. Twenty-two bodies coming into a hospital is reality." Hanging on Othman"s office wall in Bethlehem is a portrait of his uncle, Ahmad Numan, a doctor who was accidentally killed by an Israeli tank in March 2002. "To reduce the incitement," he says, "you have to let the journalist see something different." On this, Othman and PBCs Abu Ayyash agree. "Let Itamar withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank," says Abu Ayyash, referring to his old nemesis Marcus, "and we [will] be dancing."

Abu Ayyash says that John Marks recently approached him to see if he might consider airing "The Shape of the Future" on PA TV. Abu Ayyash hadnt had time to review the tapes of the episodes yet when we spoke, but says he "hopes to be able to screen them. If they are balanced, there should be no problem."
Marcus would be happy to see that.
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