Fighting the "other war"

Posted: Feb 20, 2006 12:05 AM

Every war and its aftermath is fought on two fronts. One front is where human life is destroyed by shot and shell, but the battlefield is not always where the winners and losers are determined. The other front belongs to reporters, photographers and pundits, who wage war with words and images. Through observation, selection and interpretation, the will of the people is wrought.

Julius Caesar knew exactly what he was doing when, returning to Rome triumphant, with great fanfare made the great gesture of turning down the crown. Mark Anthony, his talented public-relations flack, supervised the spin. All roads led to Rome, and the crowd went to the actor and orator who could best manipulate events. We lack great orators today, but we're awash in public actors. The image remains a powerful weapon, and outcomes are determined by those who manipulate best.

This truth is writ large in the Middle East, where as one realistic cynic puts it, "a picture is worth a thousand lives." Images suggest that what you see can't be a lie, which only makes the spin doctors laugh. The pervasive image as manipulated by the media is often merely deception by selection. This is demonstrated in the way the world sees the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and there's new peril as Hamas moves into a position of power.

Stephanie Gutmann, who covered the second intifada, documents in her book, "The Other War," how Israel, in spite of -- or maybe because of -- its strength as a democracy nearly always loses the battle for soft and sympathetic minds. The David and Goliath story is updated to "Large Mechanized Brutes versus Small Vulnerable Brown People."

During the second intifada, reporters were often called to specified places by "sources" who had staged compelling scenes where young boys were throwing stones at soldiers in armored cars. As soon as the cameramen arrived the fun began. In one iconic photograph, a young Palestinian boy is cradled in his father's arms, and the image became a postmodern Pieta. The death of the boy was of course blamed on the soldiers, but a careful investigation into what really happened cast the received version in deep suspicion. But the image, like Mark Twain's lie that goes halfway around the world before truth gets its boots on, lives. The Belgians even put the image on a postage stamp.
Death threats always inhibit good reporting. The Israelis never threaten reporters, and somehow that doesn't count. But when a photographer for the Associated Press got dramatic photographs of the massed thousands of Palestinians dancing in the streets of Nablus, celebrating the wicked events of September 11, the photographer was taken to the governor's office at gunpoint for a lecture, and the Associated Press was told by the Palestinian Authority that if its reporters and photographers were not "more careful" in future, the authorities "cannot guarantee their safety."

Stephanie Gutmann tells of a comic moment during a funeral procession in the city of Jenin. An Israeli drone flies over the city as the corpse falls from its bier into the street. The corpse dusts himself off and climbs quickly back on the bier, and the procession, awash in "grief" and lamentations, goes on. Sometimes live bodies must be used to swell the body count.

Once the Palestinian Authority said it had accepted the famous road map to peace, there were "hopes" that the press might become more "objective" in reporting what goes on in Israel. But when the Palestinian Authority couldn't force Hamas to put away its guns even on election day, and Hamas won decisively, reason rallied, if only briefly in seeing the danger ahead. But reason evaporated, as it always does in the Middle Eastern sun.

Now Vladimir Putin, who says he has never considered Hamas a "terrorist organization," is eager to entertain the terrorists in Moscow next month. Both Spain and France endorse that invitation, and there's movement among the Europeans, who were full of bravery and determination only weeks ago, to take the Hamas terrorists off the list of terrorists. Hamas insists that the only bad guys are the Americans and the Israelis who are plotting to destabilize the Palestinian people. "The United States, which claims herself to be the mother of democracy, must respect the election results and the will of the Palestinian people," says the Hamas spokesman for its leader Mushir al Masri.

There's nothing secretive about the strategy: The United States and Israel say, loud and clear, that Hamas is a terrorist organization and until it renounces violence in word and deed it will be treated as the criminal syndicate it is. Respect must be earned; it is conferred, willy-nilly, only by the weak and cowardly.