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Monday, 13 November, 2000, 12:32 GMT
Journalists caught in the middle
A Palestinian woman weeps during a funeral in Bethlehem
There is pain and recrimination on both sides
By Middle East correspondent Paul Adams

I was in Bethlehem, enjoying an excellent chicken sandwich during a rare moment of calm, when the eddies of a dull boom drifted across the hill from the other side of town.

In a minute or two cars started to race about, blowing their horns, and the streets were full of people waving their arms and brandishing guns.

Had the Israelis attacked?

Palestinians run, as shots are fired
Palestinians have kept up their protests
We raced to the scene, through agitated lines of traffic, past policemen gesticulating wildly. On the street outside the main Palestinian security headquarters, a crowd had gathered, full of men shouting, pointing and running. There was rubble lying in the road.

We parked, put on our flak jackets and got ready to film.

It did not take long for things to go wrong. The moment Andrew lifted the camera to his shoulder, someone threw a punch. Suddenly, parts of the crowd turned hostile, screaming at us to leave.


Never, in 10 years of reporting for the BBC, have I experienced quite the volume of feedback, almost all of it hostile, generated by our coverage

While our Palestinian soundman, Yousef, tried to explain who we were, we got back in the car. Angry hands beat down on the bonnet and another fist came out of nowhere, hitting me on the side of the head. Yousef, too, was punched, before securing the services of two plain-clothed security men to escort us from the scene.

Rattled, but unhurt, we left. As we made our way out of Bethlehem, we heard that the explosion had been caused by a leaking gas cylinder. There had been no Israeli attack.

Accusations

It was a nasty, if fleeting, experience, a moment in which the collision of fear, uncertainty and anger made just being there a risky thing.

After two or three weeks of extreme violence, passions were at their peak. The Palestinian streets were febrile. Israel's overwhelming military might meant that an attack could come at any time.

Israeli shell lands on Palestinian building in Ramallah
Israeli forces have shelled Palestinian targets
To complicate matters, Italian television pictures of the savage lynching of two Israeli soldiers the week before had already helped Israeli undercover units to track down some of those Palestinians responsible.

Slowly but surely, the media was being drawn into the conflict. Perhaps, Palestinians began to wonder, the enemy was close at hand, armed not with a gun but a camera.

At a time when the story was still boiling, with new and disturbing events to report almost every day, our disagreeable experience in Bethlehem hardly seemed newsworthy. No-one was hurt, no lasting damage was done. I told a few concerned colleagues about it, and moved on.


For every Jew who thinks the BBC is violently anti-Semitic, there is an Arab who fervently believes that we are pro-Israel

But not everyone, it seemed, was content to let it lie. Within days, the BBC was being bombarded by e-mail messages, asking why an attack on one of its own correspondents was being covered up. Kelly Rider, writing from the United States, demanded that the BBC stop, as she put it, withholding the truth.

"How dare you perpetuate a lie", she wrote, "Even at the demise or injury of your own countrymen. Shame on YOU!"

Several people wanted to know if this brutal assault was part of an orchestrated Palestinian campaign of intimidation against the free press.

Well, as it turned out, the messages were themselves part of an orchestrated campaign by a far-right, pro-Israel media watchdog based in the United States. I wrote to the organisation, describing what had happened and asking if they might consider ending their misguided e-mail campaign. They have not.

Some time later, another hardline group, familiar to all of us working in Israel, launched its own campaign. It took out a prominent advertisement in the Jerusalem Post, accusing the BBC and CNN of inciting violence. We should be exposed for what we are, it said: immoral, biased, poisonous and untruthful.

That morning a lone protester appeared outside the office bearing a placard with the simple message:

"BBC stop your bias against Israel."

Readers' response

Never, in 10 years of reporting for the BBC, have I experienced quite the volume of feedback, almost all of it hostile, generated by our coverage.

And it would be wrong to leave you with the impression that it is all coming from one side. For every Jew who thinks the BBC is violently anti-Semitic, there is an Arab who fervently believes that we are pro-Israel.

I have been inundated by messages critical of our failure to explain the background to what is happening, appalled by our lack of concern for the huge numbers of Palestinian victims, convinced that we are being spoon fed by Israel's superbly efficient propaganda machine.

As I return wearily to the office after another gunbattle or another funeral, I wade through my overflowing electronic in-tray, dismayed by the vehemence, and sometimes the blind prejudice, of what I find there.

But in this era of mass media, of internet and e-mail, it is only to be expected and, I would suggest, welcomed too. Our viewers and listeners are closer to us than ever before. They can, if they want, work their hardest to influence what we show and say.

And why not? Sometimes, they do highlight mistakes, or point us in the direction of new information. They are people who care passionately about the events that we describe, simply, as news.

The intifada you see is being fought out on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But there is another war being waged on fax machines and computers. It is heated, sometimes vicious, and it takes its own toll.

On the e-mail-strewn streets of cyberspace, it is the journalist's special privilege to be shot at by both sides.

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