Ethan Bronner
The New York Times
January 6, 2009 - 1:00am

Three times in recent days, a small group of foreign correspondents was told to appear at the border crossing to Gaza. The reporters were to be permitted in to cover firsthand the Israeli war on Hamas in keeping with a Supreme Court ruling against the two-month-old Israeli ban on foreign journalists entering Gaza.

Each time, they were turned back on security grounds, even as relief workers and other foreign citizens were permitted to cross the border. On Tuesday the reporters were told to not even bother going to the border.

And so for an 11th day of Israel’s war in Gaza, the several hundred journalists here to cover it waited in clusters away from direct contact with any fighting or Palestinian suffering, but with full access to Israeli political and military commentators eager to show them around southern Israel, where Hamas rockets have been terrorizing civilians. A slew of private groups financed mostly by Americans are helping guide the press around Israel.

Like all wars, this one is partly about public relations. But unlike any war in Israel’s history, in this one the government is seeking to entirely control the message and narrative for reasons both of politics and military strategy.

“This is the result of what happened in the 2006 Lebanon war against Hezbollah,” said Nachman Shai, a former army spokesman who is writing a doctoral dissertation on Israel’s public diplomacy. “Then, the media were everywhere. Their cameras and tapes picked up discussions between commanders. People talked on live television. It helped the enemy and confused and destabilized the home front. Today, Israel is trying to control the information much more closely.”

The government-commissioned investigation into the war with Hezbollah reported that the army had found that when reporters were allowed on the battlefield in Lebanon, they got in the way of military operations by posing risks and asking questions.

Maj. Avital Leibovich, an army spokeswoman, said, “If a journalist gets injured or killed, then it is Central Command’s responsibility.” She said the government was trying to protect Israel from rocket fire and “not deal with the media.”

Beyond such tactical considerations, there is a political one. Daniel Seaman, director of Israel’s Government Press Office, said, “Any journalist who enters Gaza becomes a fig leaf and front for the Hamas terror organization, and I see no reason why we should help that.”

Foreign reporters deny that their work in Gaza has been subject to Hamas censorship or control. Unable to send foreign reporters into Gaza, the international news media have relied on Palestinian journalists based there for coverage.

But it seems that many Israelis accept Mr. Seaman’s assessment and shed no tears over the restrictions, despite repeated protests by the Foreign Press Association of Israel, including on Tuesday.

A headline in Tuesday’s issue of Yediot Aharonot, the country’s largest selling daily newspaper, expressed well the popular view of the issue. Over a news article describing the generally negative coverage so far, especially in the European media, an intentional misspelling of a Hebrew word turned the headline “World Media” into “World Liars.”

This attitude has been helped by supportive Israeli news media whose articles have been filled with “feelings of self-righteousness and a sense of catharsis following what was felt to be undue restraint in the face of attacks by the enemy,” according to a study of the first days of media coverage of the war by a liberal but nonpartisan group called Keshev, the Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel.

The Foreign Press Association has been fighting for weeks to get its members into Gaza, first appealing to senior government officials and ultimately taking its case to the country’s highest court. Last week the justices worked out an arrangement with the organization whereby small groups would be permitted into Gaza when it was deemed safe enough for the crossings to be opened for other reasons.

So far, every time the border has been opened, journalists have not been permitted to go in.

On Tuesday, the press association released a statement saying, “The unprecedented denial of access to Gaza for the world’s media amounts to a severe violation of press freedom and puts the state of Israel in the company of a handful of regimes around the world which regularly keep journalists from doing their jobs.”

At the same time that reporters have been given less access to Gaza, the government has created a new structure for shaping its public message, ensuring that spokesmen of the major government branches meet daily to make sure all are singing from the same sheet.

“We are trying to coordinate everything that has to do with the image and content of what we are doing and to make sure that whoever goes on the air, whether a minister or professor or ex-ambassador, knows what he is saying,” said Aviv Shir-On, deputy director general for media in the Foreign Ministry. “We have talking points and we try to disseminate our ideas and message.”

Israelis say the war is being reduced on television screens around the world to a simplistic story: an American-backed country with awesome military machine fighting a third-world guerrilla force leading to a handful of Israelis dead versus 600 Gazans dead.

Israelis and their supporters think that such quick descriptions fail to explain the vital context of what has been happening — years of terrorist rocket fire on civilians have gone largely unanswered, and a message had to be sent to Israel’s enemies that this would go on no longer, they say. The issue of proportionality, they add, is a false construct because comparing death tolls offers no help in measuring justice and legitimacy.

There are other ways to construe the context of this conflict, of course. But no matter what, Israel’s diplomats know that if journalists are given a choice between covering death and covering context, death wins. So in a war that they consider necessary but poorly understood, they have decided to keep the news media far away from the death.

John Ging, an Irishman who directs operations in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, entered Gaza on Monday as journalists were kept out. He told Palestinian reporters in Gaza that the policy was a problem.

“For the truth to get out, journalists have to get in,” he said.


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