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Looking in from the Outside
by Judy Lash Balint
April 20, 2002

I've been looking at Israel through outside eyes this week. Since Israel's fight against terror has become the hottest new world media story, hordes of eager journalists are converging once again on the city. From Dan Rather to Wolf Blitzer to young Japanese TV crews, they're all eager to document the only war in the world where the government provides the TV cameras armed escort into the war zone.

I spent the past week trying to help a CBS radio team from Seattle navigate their way through the hype and the tragedy. Their plan was to broadcast their regular three hour prime time show live from Jerusalem, and to feed CBS stations around the country with five minute snippets by phone throughout the day.

This was not sound bite journalism, however. We didn't track Colin Powell at his news conferences. We didn't sit around at the American Colony Hotel waiting for the call from Palestinian fixers to take us to Jenin or Nablus. We didn't hang around at the Israeli Government Press Center where daily briefings from IDF officers and government ministers are fed to the pack.

Instead, we talked to Issa Jabber, an Israeli Arab in Abu Ghosh. We spent a morning in Efrat with a mother of seven kids. We visited Jewish families living peacefully amongst Arab neighbors in the Shimon HaTzaddik neighborhood of Jerusalem. We interviewed the political editor of Al Kuds newspaper. We paid a visit to Hadassah Hospital to talk to terror victims, wounded soldiers, the head of the Trauma Department (a Jew) and the head nurse of the pediatric oncology division (an Arab). We took a tour of Yad Vashem and got out of our car to stand at attention as the two minute siren brought the country to a standstill to remember Israel's fallen soldiers on Memorial Day. We took two guided tours--one through the Old City of Jerusalem, the other with a volunteer Border Patrol guard who showed us his beat in the hills surrounding Beit Shemesh. We spoke with former Seattleites who now make their homes in Israel, and spent time at an Independence Day barbecue with two young families whose countries of origin are the US, Morocco, and Ukraine.

This was the first visit to Israel for Dave Ross, talk show host, and his chief of staff, Bill Zito. Since 9/11, when Islamic fundamentalism became a topic of almost daily conversation on US talk shows, the importance of the Israeli connection has entered the equation in a big way. For too many in the media, the issue remains far too complex to deal with in anything except a cursory fashion. But for a seasoned veteran reporter like Ross, the Middle East is a topic he could sink his teeth into. Arriving with a list of requested interviews from people on all sides, Ross set out to experience the full brunt of the current conflict and to allow his listeners to share his discoveries.

Several of my Seattle Jewish friends expressed concern over how Ross would interpret his visit. "You know he's not sympathetic to Israel," wrote one. During the week, another asked why he was interviewing so many Arabs. I'm positive Arabs in Seattle were thinking exactly the opposite. They evidently don't realize that it just wouldn't be good radio if opinions on all sides were not challenged.

On the last morning of the show, Ross took calls from Seattle listeners. Hardly anyone asked a genuine question--they were all strong proponents of either Israel or the Arabs, stating their point of view. After almost a full week of listening to both sides, Ross found himself answering each of them with the response of the other.

There were many moments of surprise for Ross and Zito. Arriving in the country just one day after a female Islamikaze bomber blew herself up in the central Jerusalem market killing six passers by, the Seattleites said that they didn't feel fearful on the streets of the city. Terror-wise, the week they were here was quiet. Many attempted attacks as usual, but all thwarted by the IDF and Israeli police. Still, anxious KIRO personnel back in Seattle kept asking if we were safe.

Another eye-opener was the prosperous Israeli Arab village of Abu Ghosh, with its spacious villas and citizens who consider themselves loyal Israelis. "Why is this village able to live in peace with Israel, but it doesn't work in places like Jenin and Ramallah?" Ross asked a resident at his home.

After weeks of on-air talk prior to the visit about "settlements," a drive through Efrat and a visit with an articulate resident made Ross see how unlikely it would be that any kind of eviction of the thousands of Jews who make their homes there could take place.

But it was, after all, a visit of only five days. No reporter could be expected to shed his western outlook to fully grasp the ways of the Middle East in that short time. "Do you view everyone with an Arab license plate as a threat?" Ross asked almost every Israeli he met. "No," they answered, but could Ross understand the mistrust engendered in Israelis when every recent poll indicates that more than 75 percent of Palestinians support Islamikaze bomb attacks?

American reporters don't expect to be fed bald-faced lies. But it's standard operating procedure in the Arab world. The president of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society told Ross on the air that the recent apprehension of a Red Crescent ambulance carrying explosives hidden underneath a patient didn't happen and was "part of a media game of disinformation." Go explain to an American reporter that the Ramallah woman who told him in a live interview that her town had been under "gunfire from settlements" was lying.

I could tell that the intractability of the conflict wore heavily on the Seattle visitors, as it does on all of us who live it day by day. Still, the twelve hours of broadcast time flew by, leaving many important issues untouched. The way things look now, if Dave and Bill come back a year from now there will still be plenty to cover.