JERUSALEM — The story that appeared recently in Al Quds, the oldest Arabic-language newspaper in Israel, was much the same as those that appeared in other papers here: an account of a failed attempt by Palestinian guerrillas to infiltrate Israel from Lebanon.
But immediately after Al Quds came out with the story, its editor, Mahmoud abu Zuluf, was summoned before the military censor and told the paper had been banned for 45 days from circulating on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where 90% of its readers are found.
"I was told that I had violated regulations by adding lines to the story after it had been cleared by the censor," Abu Zuluf said. "It wasn't true. My story was the same as in every Israeli newspaper and on Israeli radio and television."
Israeli Media Not Punished
No other Israeli newspaper or news agency was punished, even though all the news media in this country are subject to military censorship.
It was not the first time Al Quds has been prohibited from circulating in the area of its heaviest readership. The paper had just reappeared the previous week after a 30-day ban triggered by publication of a Reuters news agency photo and a story about a demonstration in Gaza.
"We thought there might be trouble over the story," Abu Zuluf said, "so we simply reprinted the story and the photo from Yediot (Aharonot)," a major Hebrew-language newspaper that often supports Israel's right-wing political parties.
"It was truly silly," Abu Zuluf went on. "The picture even appeared in the (International) Herald Tribune."
Israeli military officials will not discuss these or any other instances of censorship in detail. They say the action was taken in the interests of national security.
The Al Quds incidents are far from unique, and they provide revealing insight into the contradictions of a relatively democratic society that feels compelled to impose anti-democratic methods against nonviolent opposition.
According to an Israeli appeals court judge who was upholding a military court's order of six months' administrative detention for a journalist, censorship is necessary because political activities are far more dangerous than violence.
But some Palestinian editors contend that censorship simply drives readers to more extremist outlets for their news.
Administrative detention--imprisonment for three months or six months with the term renewable at the military's discretion--is a form of punishment often used by the Israeli military. Exactly what is it that Arab newspapers and journalists in East Jerusalem print that so angers the Israeli government?
Not much by comparison with the sharp criticism of government policies, including disclosures of official and military wrongdoing, that appears in the Hebrew press.
One of the most provocative recent items in the Arabic press was an editorial in Al Ittihad. It referred sarcastically to the Israeli government's order for 10,000 police clubs for use against Palestinian rioters "despite the fact that the government is financially (not to mention politically) bankrupt."
But it was mild in comparison with the Jerusalem Post's graphic account of a bloody site in the West Bank city of Ramallah, where Israeli soldiers beat Palestinians during recent demonstrations.
Government officials point out that Israeli newspapers must submit their material for censorship and are often told to withhold or modify certain items, but they say these changes almost always deal with strictly military matters.
According to Ibrahim Karaeen, co-owner of the news agency Palestine Press Services and the magazine Al Awdah, the regulations for Arabs operating a newspaper or magazine are so vague and the punishment so severe that few take chances.
"Every journalist has a censor in his head," Karaeen said.
There are three basic rules for the Palestinian journalists to follow: They cannot support the Palestine Liberation Organization, incite the population or cause public disorder.
Military censors decide whether a story or picture violates any of these rules. In a private conversation, one censor said, "After me, there is only God for an appeal."
Besides the personal punishment that can be meted out to an individual journalist, the censors can enforce their rules by withdrawing a publication's license.
Karaeen said that three Jerusalem newspapers and magazines have been shut down by license revocation in the last three years.
"The next harshest penalty is censorship itself," he said. "Everything must be submitted to the censors."
Abu Zuluf said he offers the censor everything, "even the crossword, society stories and birth announcements."
"We were not allowed," he said, "to print a story that Lebanon has asked the (U.N.) Security Council to condemn Israel, even though it was in all the Israeli papers and on Israeli radio. . . . We expect that 50% is crossed out."