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Reports From a Tightrope

Palestinian journalist working for Israeli TV may have the toughest job in news media as his allegiance is questioned by both sides.

November 14, 2002|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

GAZA CITY — The boys were not armed, but there were a lot of them. They surrounded Suleiman Shafhe and accused him of killing the militant Islamic commander they had come to mourn and avenge.

"I'm just a journalist," Shafhe told the shoving youths.

Shafhe is a Palestinian, and Arabic his native tongue. But he is a reporter for Israeli television, and on the streets of Gaza, that's a problem.

Shafhe and his two-man camera crew steeled themselves and quickly finished their report on Israel's use of a one-ton bomb to assassinate a senior official of the radical Hamas organization. They hurried from the scene, and their report led that evening's broadcast of Israel's most popular nightly news program.

Days are like that for Shafhe, who has one of the most difficult jobs in journalism. Because he works for Israel's Channel Two and his reports are in Hebrew for an Israeli audience, many Palestinians see him as a traitor. But because he is an Arab, many Israeli viewers see him as little more than a mouthpiece for the enemy.

"I get asked all the time, 'How can you do that job?' " he said.

Shafhe, 37, is an Israeli citizen because his family decided to stay in Israel after it became a nation in 1948, when many other Arabs were forced to flee. That means he holds an Israeli passport and can vote in Israel's elections.

He is Palestinian by virtue of his ethnic and historic identity.

His identities clash head-on, and his allegiances are forever tugged and questioned. In a world that is increasingly black and white, he represents gray, defying standard definitions and straddling two societies at war. Every day, he crosses the front lines, carrying news that some on either side don't want broadcast.

It's akin to walking a tightrope and traversing a minefield at the same time. Two years of devastating war have left little room for nuance, and even journalists are cast in "with-us-or-against-us" molds. Propaganda is often valued over truth, patriotism over complexity.

Some Israeli viewers complain about his reports, saying they are sick of seeing people on TV whom they consider to be terrorists. Others worry about the dangers for someone representing an Israeli entity who ventures into the lion's den. Shafhe has been attacked, arrested or harassed by both the Israeli army and the Palestinian police. Palestinian authorities were especially incensed when he smuggled out of Gaza footage of a firing squad executing a Palestinian man accused of collaborating with Israel.

Shafhe carves his constituency out of those Palestinians who realize the benefits of getting their message across to an Israeli audience, and those Israelis who want to find out more about the neighbors they are fighting.

"Palestinians know a lot about Israelis, but Israelis don't know enough about Palestinians," he said. "They need and want to know more and more. Their sons are soldiers working in Gaza. They need to know the atmosphere there."

Channel Two also reaches most homes in the Gaza Strip, and is the main source of information there about Israelis and Israeli politics. Its daily broadcasts of the soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful" also bring in thousands of viewers.

Shafhe gives a platform to Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual founder of Hamas, and he shows impoverished Palestinian families whose homes have been flattened by the Israeli military. But he also shows masked Palestinian militiamen planning to attack Israelis, and young Palestinian children at summer camps learning to make bombs.

"Gaza is one big factory of news," Shafhe said. "Every street, every corner, every family -- there are lots of stories."

Shafhe figures that by showing Israelis the lives, tribulations and successes of Palestinians, he can help Israelis understand why they fight and resist.

"Israelis need to hear the story," he said. "Israel has occupied the Palestinians for nearly 40 years, but they only know them as workers .... They don't try to know their lives, their traditions, their plans for the future.

"For Palestinians, it's a different question. Palestinians need the press, especially the Israeli press. Maybe they want to influence me, use me as a journalist."

It is not clear what impact this window into Gaza has on ordinary Israelis.

Rogel Alpher, TV and media critic for the influential Haaretz newspaper, said Channel Two news programming is generally tepid and uncritical because, as a commercial network, it cannot afford to offend too many people.

Consequently, Alpher says, Shafhe tends to be exceedingly careful and lacking an edge. Shafhe, and his numerous admirers, counter that he's careful, yes, but professional, and that he strives for balance.

Any impact Shafhe might have on Israeli Jews is undercut, Alpher says, by the fact that he is an Arab. News of Palestinian suffering or an Israeli atrocity is easily dismissed when it comes from an Arab, he argues.

But on the streets of his beat, Shafhe is a star.

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