Wednesday, December 15, 2004

On the Air, Palestinians Soften Tone on Israelis

The New York Times
December 15, 2004

On the Air, Palestinians Soften Tone on Israelis

RAMALLAH, West Bank, Dec. 10 - It was another inflammatory broadcast on Palestinian public television.

"We are waging this cruel war with the brothers of monkeys and pigs, the Jews and the sons of Zion," Sheik Ibrahim Mahdi, a cleric, said in September on his weekly program. "The Jews will fight you and you will subjugate them until the Jew will stand behind the tree and rock, and the tree and rock will say: 'O Muslim, observant of God, there is a Jew behind me; come and kill him.' "

For most of the past four years, since the second Palestinian uprising began in September 2000, Palestinian airwaves have welcomed such talk. Video clips of young men maimed in fighting with Israelis were repeatedly shown, accompanied by wailing mothers and patriotic music. News broadcasters routinely called Israeli troops "the savage occupation forces."

But something significant has shifted in recent weeks, since the death of Yasir Arafat, according to those who monitor the broadcasts. Suddenly there is talk of reconciliation. Israeli troops are called by more neutral terms. Scenes of destruction have fallen away. And the regular Friday sermons have become considerably more moderate.

"We must respect the human mind, recognize the 'other,' respect his humanity and show tolerance to him," a cleric, Muhammad Abu Hunud, said in his sermon on Dec. 3 from a mosque in the Gaza Strip, broadcast across the area. Several senior Palestinian politicians attended, including Mahmoud Abbas, the favorite in the election for president to be held next month.

"One must not coerce," the preacher added. "Through this Islamic way of preaching, the ideas of 'the golden mean' and moderation and the avoidance of any kind of extremism or inclination to violence or fanaticism becomes ingrained in people's minds."

Although Palestinian officials have been hesitant to discuss the change, the more moderate voice in the Palestinian news media seems to be part of the overall improvement in the atmosphere between Israelis and Palestinians as both sides reassess their positions after Mr. Arafat's death.

Mr. Abbas, who has taken over as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, has delivered "a clear declaration of intent against incitement," said Yigal Carmon, an Israeli who is president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, or Memri, a group based in Washington that has a Jerusalem office.

On Palestinian television, the archival scenes of violence were already appearing less frequently in the past year and had not been seen recently at all. Even some Palestinians had begun to complain about them, saying they could no longer stomach the stream of gory images.

"At the beginning of the intifada the media was totally different, showing fighting and playing national songs," said Nashat Aqtash, a Palestinian professor of mass communications at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah. "Now there is much more talk about social and political issues. After four years of violence, both sides are interested in changing the tone."

The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, demanded that the new Palestinian leadership deal with incitement, saying it was something it had the authority to act on immediately.

Palestinian officials do not seem eager to acknowledge any concession to Israel on the issue. Also, many Palestinians feel that Israel's military is still waging an aggressive crackdown in Palestinian areas.

Since Mr. Arafat's death, six Israelis have been killed, all of them soldiers in the Gaza Strip. During the same period, more than 40 Palestinians have been killed, including militants and civilians, according to the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group.

Radwan Abu Ayyash, the head of Palestinian Broadcasting, which is part of the Palestinian Authority, said he had not received any instructions to alter the tone of broadcasts. "But in the light of Sharon's statements," he said in a telephone interview, "I told my colleagues that we have to be sure that all the programs are free of incitement. We don't want to give Sharon any pretext for not negotiating."

Palestinians have also complained about Israeli oratory, accusing Mr. Sharon of constantly demonizing Mr. Arafat and asserting there was no Palestinian partner for peace negotiations.

Prominent Israeli religious figures, like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of Shas, the largest religious party in Parliament, have also delivered incendiary messages.

Speaking of Arabs in a sermon in 2001, he was quoted as saying: "It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable."

On the Palestinian side, there has been a decrease in "the extreme incitement to genocide, to kill all the Jews," said Itamar Marcus, the head of Palestinian Media Watch, an Israeli monitoring group.

But he said the problem was far from solved, adding that "incitement to hatred" continued in many forms as part of an effort to "delegitimize" the existence of Israel.

Mr. Marcus said some of the most egregious Palestinian material had been directed at children.

Two months ago, a show for children featured a talking yellow bird that responded to questions from youngsters in the audience.

A little girl asked what the bird would do if someone cut down the olive trees in front of her house.

The bird replied: "I'll call the whole world and make a riot. I'll bring AK-47's and the whole world and commit a massacre in front of the house."

Shortly afterward, Mr. Abu Ayyash, the broadcasting chief, acknowledged that it was inappropriate and removed the show.

The recent developments are merely the latest chapter in a battle that has raged for years.

As part of an interim agreement brokered by the United States in 1998, the Israelis and Palestinians established an anti-incitement committee, with an American mediator.

But such efforts collapsed when the violence erupted four years ago. Since then, Israel has occasionally called on its air force to deal with incitement, bombing Palestinian broadcasting sites more than once.

Mr. Abu Ayyash says his organization simply reflects what is happening in Palestinian areas.

"Sharon is our director of programming," Mr. Abu Ayyash said in an interview in 2001. "I'd like to show more entertainment programs. My kids are upset that I've pulled 'Sesame Street' off the air. But when Sharon launches a military operation, then I have to cancel our animal programs and show the bloodshed."

Palestinians are still observing a traditional 40-day mourning period after the death of Mr. Arafat on Nov. 11, and he is dominating the airwaves more than he did in life.

Taped programs paying homage to Mr. Arafat are broadcast throughout the day, and talk shows often focus on his legacy.

The Israeli monitoring groups say they are not sure whether the new, more moderate climate will last beyond the mourning period. Still, a survey of 1,200 Palestinians this month found that 52 percent opposed "military operations" against Israel, believing that they were harmful to Palestinian interests.

That was nearly double the figure in June, 27 percent, according to the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center, the Palestinian group that conducted the poll, and it was the first time in four years that a majority of Palestinians opposed attacks.