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Leaving an Impression
by Judy Lash Balint
November 2, 2003

There are two ways to get to Ariel from Jerusalem. One is to head down the main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, continue on to Rosh Haayin and then turn east to the largest town in Samaria.

That's the route taken by the chartered bus that ferried participants to the Second Annual David Bar Illan Conference on Media and the Middle East at the College of Judea and Samaria (CSJ) today.

Running late after attending the britot of twins in the Old City, I missed that bus and took the bulletproof Egged instead. The Egged route is far more direct, heading north through Pisgat Zev into the heart of Samaria with stops at Ofra and Maale Levona, past Eli and Maale Efrayim to the Tapuach junction and then a short cut on a new road past Rechelim and into Ariel. Over the past three years, many Jews have been murdered on these roads.

I wonder which route the panelists at the conference took? Did BBC producer Simon Wilson notice the rampant expansion of every Arab village along the way? Did former Foreign Press Association president and Dutch journalist Conny Mus see the lavish materials used in the construction of the three and four story Arab villas? Did they pay attention to the difference in Jewish and Arab building density?

Arabs are not afraid to build their houses far apart, since despite the presence of Israeli troops in the area, they have no security fears. The Jews of Samaria, on the other hand, huddle together, their communities built with little space between them to allow for perimeter security and afford a measure of protection from Arab terrorist incursions.

One can't help wondering why it's just the Jewish villages with the red roofs that are an obstacle to peace�what about the Arab expansionism that is so blatant to anyone driving by?

But these were not the issues on the table of the conference. In the final session of the day, Mus, Wilson and Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Gideon Meir took part in a panel moderated by CSJ political science professor Alex Bligh that addressed �European Media Coverage of the Middle East.'

Mus told the audience that his Dutch editors have toned down the attention paid to the Middle East recently, having reached the conclusion that people are more interested in what's happening in their own back yard.

He said Israel's foreign press corps is facing an unprecedented wave of hostility the likes of which he has never encountered in his twenty years in the area. Mus attributed this to the old "don't like the message, shoot the messenger" syndrome.

Mus did his part to increase the hostility as he cited 60 cases of journalists being wounded or killed claiming "in 90 percent of these incidents it's clear that IDF bullets hit them." He accused Israeli authorities of not taking the incidents seriously even though it appeared that "eight journalists were deliberately targeted" by IDF troops.
Mus charged the Government Press Office (GPO) with treating foreign journalists as if they were "enemies of the state," referring to last year's GPO decision to diss the BBC. BBC reporters are not granted interviews with Israeli government officials and new reporters face delays in receiving press credentials.

"The European press is no enemy of Israel," Mus stated. "We may be critical, but being critical among friends doesn't mean you're an enemy," he continued.

His words were met with polite applause.

The boos of a few undisciplined members of the audience didn't seem to bother Wilson of the BBC after he was introduced. Wilson chose to scrap his prepared remarks since "I wholeheartedly agree with everything Conny Mus has said."

After praising Israel for being a place where "people can speak their mind," he went on to inform conference participants that he grew up as a non-practicing Christian in the predominantly Jewish NW London suburb of Golders Green. He went to school with Jews, fell in love with some Jewish women and the best man at his wedding was Jewish (several audience members couldn't help blurting out: "and some of my best friends are Jews..")

Thus, said Wilson, "I have a little understanding" of Jewish sensibilities.

Wilson defended BBC coverage of the Middle East as "impartial, fair and accurate." He claimed that his company uses "extreme neutral language" in their broadcasts, "but we still get complaints."

"The BBC and CNN are not going to go away," he reminded us. Thus, there are two choices in how to deal with them. One is the "befriend a journalist" approach cited by Doreen Gainsford, a speaker in the previous session on media activism and practiced by groups like the British Israel Group (BIG). Very effective, noted Wilson. The other is the unofficial boycott imposed by the GPO, which is "Israel's loss," according to Wilson.

The final presenter of the afternoon was Foreign Ministry spokesman Meir. Using a power point presentation prepared for a conference in Germany, Meir outlined problems with media coverage of Israel's positions. Meir acknowledged some recent Israeli PR mistakes such as refusing journalists access to Jenin until three days after Arab accusations surfaced.

He defended Israeli reaction to the BBC. "Their language is totally inaccurate," he said. Meir revealed that high -level negotiations are being conducted with the venerable British broadcasting outlet, but "they're the only organization that never acknowledges they make mistakes," he charged.

Following the presentations, audience members rose to castigate the BBC. Wilson appealed to them to "forget the words. What's important is the impression left."