Palestinians suppress crowd coverage


Published September 16, 2001

The Washington Post

JERUSALEM Yasser Arafat"s Palestinian Authority is trying to suppress broadcast images and photos of Palestinians glorifying the terrorist attacks on the United States and hailing their suspected mastermind, exiled Saudi financier Osama bin Laden.

Palestinian officials have told local representatives of foreign news agencies and television stations on several occasions that their employees" safety could be jeopardized if videotapes showing Palestinians celebrating the attacks were aired. Broadcast news organizations operating in the Palestinian-ruled portions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip have complied.

The suppression of the images is part of a concerted campaign by Arafat and his lieutenants to avoid being perceived in the West as part of the international terrorist scourge. Having sided with Iraq during the Persian Gulf War, the Palestinians are eager to avoid a similar political blunder this time, analysts say.

Palestinian officials acknowledge suppressing the images, arguing that they distorted actual public opinion and would be used by Israel to mount a smear campaign against Arafat and his government.

"These measures were not against the freedom of the press but in order to ensure our national security and our national interest," said Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian information minister. "We will not permit a few kids here or there to smear the real face of the Palestinians. This is a real insult to our people and our nation."

Meanwhile, Arafat was filmed donating blood for the victims of the attacks in Washington and New York, and he seemed suddenly more receptive to negotiations with the Israelis. Palestinian schoolchildren were made to stand in silence to commemorate the American victims, Palestinian officials and journalists signed a petition of sympathy and the Palestinian Legislative Council met in a special session to express its grief. Palestinians also held a candlelight vigil outside the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem.

Still, many Palestinians deeply resent the United States for supporting Israel and supplying it with weapons that have been used against them in the past year"s Middle East violence. On several occasions since Tuesday, those anti-American sentiments have burst into public view.

Hours after the attacks Tuesday, Associated Press Television videotaped a small group of Palestinians, some of them children, rejoicing in East Jerusalem.

That footage infuriated Americans and alarmed Palestinian officials, who moved swiftly to block the release of similar images elsewhere.

The same day, Palestinian police stopped photographers from covering a celebratory rally in the West Bank town of Nablus. Drivers honked their car horns, gunmen fired into the air and revelers handed out sweets, according to journalists at the scene.

Shortly thereafter, a Palestinian militia member threatened an Associated Press cameraman who managed to videotape the rally, demanding that the tape not be released. A high-ranking Palestinian official, Ahmed Abdel Rahman, told the AP bureau chief in Jerusalem, Dan Perry, that the cameraman"s safety could not be ensured if the footage were released. AP decided not to release the footage, said Jack Stokes, a spokesman for the news agency in New York.

The Foreign Press Association in Israel, which Perry chairs, condemned the "direct threats" and "harassment" of journalists by the Palestinian authorities and gunmen.

On Friday, Palestinian police arrested five journalists in the Gaza Strip who were covering a rally of the militant Hamas organization in memory of an Israeli Arab suicide bomber who killed himself and three Israeli Jews. At least one person at the rally held up a poster of bin Laden.