The violence in the Mideast has become a war of images, in which the press is the key to victory

Stephanie Gutmann is the author of The Kinder, Gentler Military (Scribner).

Day after day the seemingly incontrovertible evidence of Israel’s brutality rolls in. The snippets of videotape bounced around the world by CNN, BBC World News, and Sky TV are nearly always the same: A mob of dark-skinned teenagers armed with rocks pit themselves against phalanxes of faceless soldiers who respond by aiming rifles. Often, newscasts then cut from the videotape (as Ted Koppel’s Nightline did recently) to Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi thundering, “You cannot shoot our children and get away with it,” or Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat decrying the “daily massacre of Palestinians by Israel,” and TV delivers a message that hits adrenal systems around the world like a dose of amyl nitrate. As a foreign news-following acquaintance puts it, in a typical reaction: How can Israel want peace, when “all I see is the IDF shooting children?”

Spokesmen for Israel’s foreign ministry, its police, and its military (the Israeli Defense Force, or IDF) who set up a 24/7 press center in early October to cope with the flood of journalists there to cover Intifada II say they’re “fighting a war on two fronts.” There is the actual shooting war, where aggression is direct, weapons conventional, and damage visible and measurable. The other front is in the ethersphere, the digital bazaar where freelance photographers offer their most dramatic images and footage to the publication or agency that bids highest. More than almost any other commodity, the trade in images is truly global. Photos are ready for sale faster than news copy, and they need no translation and fewer intermediaries.

The Al Aksa Intifada as it is called (because it started when Ariel Sharon marched at a religious site known as Al Aksa) has been fought with images — the picture of the father and his dying son plastered against a wall to escape cross-fire, the Palestinian man proudly displaying his hands covered with the blood of the Israeli soldier — and on this front, Israelis admit they are getting clobbered.

But there are many reasons why the ubiquitous boys-throwing-stones-at-faceless-rifle-toting-soldiers photo does not tell the whole story. If we had a John Madden of the Intifada, with a grease pencil and a transparent overlay, he could freeze the frame and annotate the pictures. He could draw an arrow to the upper right-hand corner of the frame, for instance, and point out a smudge of black — an inch of rifle barrel protruding from a nearby minaret, a sign that a sniper is perched there. He might draw a circle around a man in the dense center of a crowd, a man who (one can see on closer inspection) is older and armed with something more than a slingshot. (Terrorist groups and ragtag rebel armies from Somalia to Iraq have learned to surround themselves with civilians, both for cover and to discourage the other side from shooting.) He might analyze minute differences in clothing and bearing and show us that some of these young boys are not just “children” drawn by what looks like a game, but militia who have been groomed Hitler Youth-style to kill Jews or die trying. He might point out that the Palestinian Authority ambulance parked on the side of the rock-throwing action is here not just to ferry the wounded; PA ambulances have been used as command and control vehicles, actually delivering “troops” and carrying the makings of Molotov cocktails.

There’s another element one has to understand to make sense of the kids-versus-soldiers tableau. “It is a subject that no reporters want to talk about,” says Noam Katz, a spokesman for Israel’s foreign ministry press center and a man who has known most of the region’s bureau chiefs for years. One has to understand that photographers and to a much smaller extent print reporters (everyone recognizes that pictures are more important) operate under unwritten rules of engagement when they work in troubled areas like the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Reporting in a combat zone is dangerous to begin with, of course. Camera crews often go out wearing crash helmets and body armor (during the first two months of Intifada II, two newspeople were shot and seriously wounded). But fear is amplified (and the investigative spirit curdled) by a pattern of intimidation of journalists who get connected — sometimes very loosely — with stories the terrorist groups who control these areas don’t like. Take the photos the militiamen want and you are generally fine, even helpfully ushered around; take pictures that show Palestinians in roles other than victim, and things can get nasty quite fast.

News photographers have been harassed by Israelis as well. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that Israeli settlers threw stones at a car driven by two Arab photographers, breaking a window and hitting one of the men in the shoulder. The photographers said IDF soldiers stood nearby and did nothing. Palestinian and Arab journalists are reportedly challenged and detained rather often, although it should be kept in mind that Palestinians as a group are subject to restrictions instituted by Israel to combat terrorism.

Western photographers have complained of being kept out of certain areas by IDF soldiers. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports also that a number of reporters and cameramen who have been grazed or hit by bullets claim IDF soldiers intentionally aimed at them. But there is still a clear difference between working in Israel-controlled areas and Palestinian ones. Israel, though of course not perfect, is still a modern, Western-style democracy, and there are channels of accountability.

In mid-November, an American photographer was seriously wounded by an IDF bullet aimed directly at her. Yola Monakhov was looking for pictures in Bethlehem. A squad of IDF soldiers were also there, because of a riot that had taken place earlier in the day. Monakhov was with a small group of Palestinian boys who were breaking pieces of concrete into throwable chunks when the IDF squad appeared from around a corner. A boy yelled “run” and Monakhov instinctively bolted in the direction everyone else was running. One of the soldiers fired a shot and hit Monakhov in the back. But IDF soldiers are not allowed to shoot live rounds (as opposed to rubber bullets) unless they are in mortal danger. As a result, the soldier and his commanding officer are being court-martialed, and the Israelis are paying Monakhov’s hospital bills.

The territories, on the other hand, are like the Wild West. Police protection is at best unreliable. Self-interest and brute force rule — as Jean Pierre Martin, a Belgian producer, found out one day in early October. Martin, who works for RTL TV1 (Radio TV Luxembourg), and his crew were on their way to Ramallah. They were at a Palestinian-Israeli clash site when four young men pulled up in “a blue Chrysler van” and began to give orders to stone-throwing children. Then the men produced Molotov cocktails from their car and began handing them out. (Kids on the scene later told Martin that the men were from Al Fatah, Yasser Arafat’s faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization.) Other crews on hand apparently didn’t see this development or didn’t consider it newsworthy, because Martin was the only producer who told his crew to begin filming.

After a few seconds, one of the young men saw the filming and strode over; several seconds after that, all the people on the scene, including the stone-throwing children, surrounded the crew. The men took the camera from the hands of the cameraman and disappeared with it. Meanwhile the crowd began to surge around them, trying to hit them. One youth got his hands around Martin’s neck and started choking him. A Palestinian cameraman who had been on the scene working for an American company came “to rescue us,” Martin says. Finally the Palestinian cameraman was able to calm “this very nervous situation.” Martin and his crew were taken to see the PA chief of police. Their camera was already there. Once again, the Palestinian cameraman began to argue on their behalf — eventually, after they assured everyone that the tape of the “cocktail incident” had been erased, the policeman agreed to return the camera. That night, Martin opened his segment by saying, “This is what you would have seen if we still had the tape…”

Martin continued to return to the area, but about two weeks later, just after he and his crew passed the Israeli guard shack at the border checkpoint on the way to Ramallah, they noticed that a white jeep without markings was tailing them. The car followed them to their filming site. There the men in the jeep parked and gave orders to the PA police at the scene (which led Martin to think they were from Palestinian intelligence). This time they didn’t wait for him to begin filming; they began to search his vehicle; again they erased his film, and they smashed one of the still cameras belonging to the crew. The men then told Martin to leave and tailed him back to the border. Just as Martin and crew pulled up to the Israeli checkpoint, a bullet fired from the Palestinian side whizzed by. Somehow this story reached the Israeli government, which described the incident at one of its daily press briefings. Martin says he is angry that the Israeli government “exploited” the story. And he complains that he now appears to be allied with the Israeli government. “They have made it very hard for me to go back,” he says.

Shifting anger from the actual perpetrators to the Israeli government is common. News bureaus in Jerusalem either downplay or refuse to talk about such incidents because, as one bureau chief who wanted to remain anonymous told me, they are afraid of becoming tools of “Israeli propaganda.” “They are trying to make out that we’re allies of the Israeli government — thank you very much,” spat a wire service editor I observed reading an Israeli government press release. All newspeople hate to think that they’re being used as tools — whether to sell a movie star or to support a government — and the struggle to maintain balance is endless. But the fear of being seen as “allied with Israel” seemed near phobic among the press people I observed on the job in Jerusalem.

My sense is that, rather than jeopardize their already tenuous access to the Palestinian territories or endanger their employees by appearing to collaborate with the enemy, many of the media covering the Intifada adjust by simply “not seeing” things or by finding elaborate justifications for ignoring stories that would displease their hosts in the territories. I was in Israel for several weeks during a lull in the violence, staying in a hotel in downtown Jerusalem full of press attracted by a special $80 a night “journalist’s rate” and by the Israeli press center on the ground floor, which offered free Internet connections, juice, cake, and espresso. Filling their plates at the sumptuous buffet breakfast (part of the “journalist’s special”), producers groused about the lull and about the American elections, which had kicked their beat off the front pages. But I didn’t meet anyone who was using the slowdown in daily news to investigate, say, the crucial question of whether the Palestinian Authority police were trying to enforce a recently declared cease-fire — which didn’t seem to be working very well.

Some photographers are simply so polite that they end up inadvertently influencing news coverage: One freelancer for “the majors” told me he’d never had a problem working in the territories. On the contrary, he bristled, the Palestinian people were only too happy to have him take pictures. At funerals for instance — which tend to be heavily attended by reporters — “they will ask you to take pictures. Here, ‘Take a picture of the body,’ they will say; they’ll actually push you to the front.” It’s different at night he commented; “I wouldn’t take a picture of a guy with an automatic weapon at night.” Why not? “Because he wouldn’t want me to, and I never take pictures of people unless they want me to.” It’s a policy that springs from a good heart. Still, what may seem like decency and fellow feeling to the photographer has the perverse effect of punishing democracies that do not censor media coverage, like Israel, and rewarding the authoritarian governments that strictly control imagery.

Have many journalists in the Mideast begun to practice this kind of quiet, even largely unconscious self-censorship? Does the access problem and, let’s face it, the I-don’t-want-to-end-up-getting-torn-to- pieces-by-a-mob problem, encourage a kind of Stockholm syndrome, an identification with those you are threatened by? The ingredients are certainly there in the petri dish.

On November 2, for instance, a letter appeared in Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, a Palestinian daily, ostensibly from “The Palestinian Journalists’ Union.” The “Union” announced that it had informed the Associated Press bureau in Israel that it believed AP had an intentional policy of presenting a false picture of the “just struggle of the Palestinians against the Israeli Occupation and its aggressive and inhuman actions which contradict all international human rights conventions.” The letter went on to say that if the bureau did not change its coverage, the group would adopt “all necessary measures against AP staffers.”

The journalists’ union did not return the calls placed to verify the Israeli Press Office’s translation of the letter from Arabic, and the AP says — via a spokesman in New York — that this is “not an issue we’re going to address at all.” In fact most newspapers receive a steady stream of communiques contesting their coverage and even implying violence — though in the United States the threats don’t often correspond with real-life beatings and seizures of equipment.

Many camera crews, for instance, were able to record the notorious lynching last fall of two Israeli reservists by a Palestinian mob. Only one came back with footage. Mark Seager, a 29-year-old photographer from Britain, was on the scene that day:

“I was getting into a taxi on the main road to go to Nablus, where there was a funeral that I wanted to film, when all of a sudden there came a big crowd of Palestinians shouting and running down the hill from the police station. I got out of the car to see what was happening and saw that they were dragging something behind them. Within moments they were in front of me and… I saw that it was a body, a man they were dragging by the feet. The lower part of his body was on fire and the upper part had been shot at and the head beaten so badly that it was a pulp, like red jelly. I thought he was a soldier because I could see the remains of khaki trousers and boots…. Instinctively I reached for my camera. I was composing the picture when I was punched in the face… A melee began in which one guy just pulled the camera off me and smashed it to the floor. The worst thing was that I realized the anger that they were directing at me was the same as that which they’d had toward the soldier before. Somehow I escaped and ran and ran, not knowing where I was going.”

The only crew to get out with footage — the bodies being tossed out a second-floor window to a mob waiting below — was an Italian TV crew working for a network called Mediaset. There was also a crew on hand representing RAI, another Italian network, led by a producer named Riccardo Christiano. Apparently fearing that Palestinians would think he was responsible for the terrible images that began to saturate news coverage, Christiano wrote a letter to the Palestinian daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida. “Let us emphasize that it is not the case [that we disseminated the video], as we respect the work arrangements between journalists and the Palestinian Authority,” Christiano wrote. “Thank you and rest assured that this is not our way and we would never do such a thing.” Acutely embarrassed for this abject promise of favoritism, Christiano’s superiors recalled him to Italy and then recalled the rest of their Jerusalem correspondents. Israel suspended Christiano’s official press card. A friend of Christiano’s defended him to the Jerusalem Post, saying that the letter may have been inaccurately translated from English (“Riccardo’s third language”) to Arabic, but then offered the not terribly helpful explanation that Christiano had been rattled by recent trauma. Christiano had been severely beaten in the Jaffa riots in early October, she told the Jerusalem Post. “His ribs were broken; his cheek caved in, there were fears that a lung might be punctured…. Of all the foreign reporters, he got beaten the worst.” Poor Christiano was even vilified by his colleagues — for exposing the fact that they were responsible for the videotape. Several days after RAI recalled Christiano, Mediaset recalled Anna Mignotto, the producer who, along with a Palestinian cameraman, had produced the surviving lynching footage. “As of today,” Mediaset editor Enrico Mentana explained, “our correspondents can no longer work [in Israel]. We know whom to thank.”

Most of the time, incidents like these don’t get much attention. In early November, three young freelancers — two from Britain, one from Singapore — made a foray into Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem just looking for some good shots:

“We’d met a local lad — he takes us through the back alley. There was a group of guys standing near a house, kind of huddled together talking,” explained 26-year-old Chris Dearden of Britain. “Without thinking I snapped them. They all dive out, and several of them have guns.”

One of the men shoved a gun barrel into Dearden’s face. They strong-armed the three into a stairwell and kept them penned there while they discussed what to do.

“There’s a lot of shouting, they take the camera; there was a lot of talking among themselves. The interesting thing was, there was no unity of opinion. There was one with a gun who had to be held back; then they hand the camera back, to my complete surprise. I open it up real fast; take the film out, [saying] ‘There, it’s yours!'”

To Dearden’s relief and surprise, the men let the photographers go. “We were just about to walk away, when someone came up and kicked the guy who’d been leading us around; he turned around and gets one in the face and then there’s like a complete melee.” “Hopefully our guy got away,” Dearden said, but as they hustled toward the border, he looked back and saw that “somebody got the absolute bejesus kicked out of him.”

Of the “handful of Arabic words he knows,” Dearden says the most important is now the word for picture. “I always say, ‘Sura?’ If it’s, ‘Sura,’ fine; if it’s, ‘No,’ I drop it really fast.”

A number of photographers have had problems with the Israelis, as well — in general their anecdotes were about being told that they couldn’t pass a checkpoint. By law Israeli officials are supposed to give journalists complete access, except when access — say to a hidden missile site — could endanger national security. Dearden and the other two photographers agreed that the Israelis generally leave them alone. “The Israelis don’t really care what you do unless you get right into their face when they’re trying to shoot, ” chuckled Renga Subbiah, a 30-year-old photographer from Singapore who spoke like an upper-class Englishman except when he affected a working-class accent for dramatic purposes. “I got one with a fooking IDF bloke pointing his rifle right into the middle of the frame.”

Operating under the venerable TV news slogan “If it bleeds it leads,” the brash young journalistic mercenary had filled his film satchel with “very good stuff.” This included a “dead guy” (“right up in his face I got”), a wounded child, and a lot of “people shooting.”

And throwing stones? In that particular week, that was the big action in town. “Course I got kids throwing stones,” he said, bragging about one in particular who looked about 6 years old.

With national, international, and local news coverage having become a sort of daily grievance parade — the daily displaying of stumps and wounds by victims of all kinds of real and alleged injustice as if in front of a global godfather — the Palestinians have learned to excel at bleeding. Or at least, the authoritarian leadership has found plenty of civilians it can cajole into doing the bleeding. (In contrast, the Israelis have made it a point of national pride to avoid signs of weakness, and now show a kind of distaste for displaying wounds.) A Palestinian leader recently told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, for instance, that the Palestinians would win this current round of Intifada because “our ability to die is greater than the Israeli ability to go on killing us.” “They want you to show their side,” which means showing “people dead and injured. What they have that the Israeli side doesn’t is lots of dead people,” explains Subbiah amiably.

It would have been more accurate for the Palestinian leader to say “our ability to sacrifice civilians is greater” — as most Palestinian leaders keep themselves well above the fray. In this, they are like the leaders of lots of developing nations. With plenty of passion and smarts but few armaments and even less high technology, the bleeding civilian has become the most potent weapon in the arsenal against liberal, media-saturated Westernized countries.

To the extent that civilians prove useful for their ability to die on camera for a world audience, we will undoubtedly see increasing use of the civilian body as both propaganda weapon and literal shield. In Mogadishu, for instance, American special forces soldiers found themselves facing a grotesque apparition: Rebels would seize a woman from a crowd (alive but usually very doped up), stick their arms under her armpits, so she hung in front of them, and then move towards the enemy line while hiding behind her voluminously-skirted body, and firing with both hands. We saw the civilian- as-sandbag (against bullets and world disfavor) technique immediately after the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein established his base of operations in the middle of a palace mostly inhabited by women and children. And we see it now abundantly in the Intifada, where Yasser Arafat (who stays very far away from the “front-lines” himself) can be quite confident that Palestinian parents will proffer their children to draw Israeli fire — mainly for the benefit of the Western media.

In fact, the problem of the civilian pawn is transforming Western war strategy and our image of “the threat.” The Marines now train for “urban combat” and the “three block war,” and military scientists are hard at work developing all kinds of non-lethal weapons to deal with the crowds of civilians who will inevitably — knowingly or not — surround the armed terrorist. Now if the strategists could only figure out what to do about the camera.

This article ran in the Weekly Standard on January 1, 2001