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Reaching the enemy; Israelis on Arab TV

By JOSHUA BRILLIANT, UPI Israel Correspondent

JERUSALEM, Nov. 3 (UPI) -- Last summer, a crew from Abu Dhabi TV joined the long convoy of cars entering the Israeli army's main training base for combat units. There it boarded a bus to "Chicago," a mock Arab village where soldiers usually train before going to the occupied territories. That time they were training for the pullback from the Gaza Strip.

A few weeks later, when the Gaza Strip was closed, an Arab TV crew put up its camera near the strip's border and had an exclusive interview with the military's Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Dany Halutz. The other reporters and TV crews gathered there were left at a distance, jealous.

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Many Arab stations would not dare interview Israelis, let along put army officers on the air, but times are changing. The change began nine years ago when Al Jazeera began broadcasting, hired graduates of the BBC's Arabic Service and sought to present all sides to a news story, even those that might -- and in Israel's case did -- annoy people.

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Al Jazeera's bureau chief in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Walid al-Omari, recalled interviewing Israelis from day one.

"All the time we have interviews with Israelis. There is no limit on that," he said.

Other stations, such as Al Arabiya, Abu Dhabi and the Saudi-owned MBC, followed. Gradually Israeli officialdom opened up to them. The Foreign Ministry and the army spokesman's office assigned Arabic speakers to appear.

Contacts had been sporadic until 2000, when the intifada erupted, and have picked up since then, noted the Foreign Ministry's deputy spokeswoman, Amira Oron. Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya now contact her several times a week, she said.

Maj. Eitan Arusy, who had been her counterpart in the army until he quit for a job in New York, recalled taking an Arab TV crew to an airbase and letting the reporter sit in the cockpit of an F-16. That had been previously unimaginable.

"No one thought that would have been possible, mainly because of reservations among the Jews," Arusy said. "People asked me 'are you crazy?' and I said there are some Israeli journalists who are worse (than the Arabs)," he recalled.

Israelis are eager to appear on Arab TV stations, Oron noted. Through Al Jazeera, for example, they can reach more Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip than through all the other TV stations put together. It beats using leaflets, Arusy said.

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"There is no problem," getting Israeli interviewers, al-Omari confirmed. Some Israeli extremists "refuse to have interviews with Al Jazeera but most of the Israeli officials agree," he said.

Arab viewers vehemently opposed featuring Israeli spokesmen, officials and journalists, recalled Abu Dhabi TV's Deputy Director Mohamed Dourrachad in an interview with the Adham Center for Television Journalism in the American University in Cairo, published in 2002.

Al Jazeera had been condemned as a "Disseminator of Zionist poison" and being "in the service of the Mossad," Israel's intelligence agency, S. Abdallah Schleifer of the Adham Center recalled.

Arab TV viewers called Al Jazeera to complain that Israeli spokesmen call resistance fighters, "terrorists," and justify Israel's policies, United Press International Correspondent in Amman Sana Abdallah noted.

Most people do not like to see Israeli army spokesmen on Arab TV, especially when they try to defend their country's bombing of Palestinian territories, according to a report by UPI's Correspondent in Beirut, Dalal Saoud.

Palestinians are more accustomed than other Arabs to a dialogue with Israelis, but some of them are unhappy with those broadcasts. They feel the broadcasts put the Israeli case on an equal footing with theirs, maintained Aref Hijjawi, who heads the Media Institute in Birzeit University in the West Bank.

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"The Palestinians usually expect from the Arab world sympathy and support and they do not like to see the Arabs just watching both sides and thinking of them as equals," he told UPI.

However, people are gradually accepting these appearances as "part of being a professional channel with credibility," Abdallah said.

Often anchors end up asking tough questions and corner the spokesmen.

"If Palestinians believe their case is just they should not be afraid of their opponents putting their case as well," Hijjawi said. With it they are much better informed, he added.

The broadcasts help Israel get its message to millions of Arabs in a way no other media, or official, can. "They see we don't have horns on our heads," Oron said.

The message is sometimes indirect. When TV shows Israeli Arab Knesset Member Mohammad Barakeh heckle Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Speaker Reuven Rivlin trying unsuccessfully to shut him up, the message getting across is this is a show of "democracy at its best," Oron said.

According to Arusy, a live broadcast from the army's ceremony in the Gaza Strip, in which the flag was lowered after the 38-year occupation, deflected Hamas' claims that the Israelis were forced out.

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However, Yotam Feldner, who heads the TV branch of the Middle East Media Research Institute, said he believes the Israeli speakers do not influence the viewers.

"It's better than nothing," he said.

One of the major difficulties Israeli officials face is finding qualified Arabic speakers to represent it.

The generation that came from Arab countries, which went through its schools and speaks fluent Arabic, is now in its late 70s. Israeli children do not want to study Arabic and the teachers are usually bad, noted a high-ranking intelligence officer who asked not to be identified.

Even Israeli ministers who were born in Arab countries, such as Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, who came from Tunisia, do not speak Arabic. Some of the others who claim to speak the language do it so badly that officials wished they had shut up. They make mistakes that make you laugh, the source said.

It's not only the vocabulary they lack, but their accent is wrong, and Arab viewers are not very tolerant of foreign accents, he maintained.

Some Israelis do know Arabic well, but are not well enough informed, he added.

He complained Al Jazeera presents Israel in a bad, distorted light. Speakers are sometimes cut and "if someone will talk nonsense," Al Jazeera will broadcast the funniest part.

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Many times the interviewers are hostile, especially when Israeli officials appear, Feldner said. However, there were exceptions.

When Hamas brought rockets to a mass celebration in Jabaliya, and the explosion killed people, Hamas tried to shift the blame to Israel.

A Hamas spokesman told Al Jazeera he had seen four rockets flying in the air. The picture shifted to Arusy.

"I called him a liar," Arusy recalled.

The Hamas representative refused to appear alongside an Israeli and Al Jazeera's anchor cut off the Palestinian. "It's your problem, not our problem," he said, according to al-Omari, and turned instead to a Palestinian minister for comment.

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