ANALYSIS: Palestine PROs try to put a human face on tragedy

As the battle between Israel and the Palestinians intensifies then relents, PROs in the West Bank are striving to get their people's message across. Exclusively for PRWeek, Kurt Pitzer reports from within the occupied territories.

RAMALLAH: From the National Insurance building in war-weary Ramallah, a fresh breed of Palestinian fighters wearing button-down shirt and tie wages intifada on a new front - a comms effort aimed at Western hearts and minds.

Rather than resorting to rocks and bomb belts, their weapons are press releases, faxes, Pentium II computers and web-editing software. They issue data-intensive reports on the effects of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. They gather at the water cooler to discuss strategy. And they have given new meaning to the concept of a Palestinian campaign.

Neither side in the Middle East is satisfied with its press. Israelis - in suicide-bomber hell since the latest uprising began two years ago - grumble that they are portrayed as the villain of the piece. Palestinians complain that, despite international sympathy, no one has yet put sufficient pressure on Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders and allow a Palestinian state.

On a sweltering summer day inside the Palestine Meda Centre, harried-looking PR co-ordinator Mohammad Agawani shifts his gaze from his paper-strewn desk to the third-floor window, as several Israeli armoured vehicles rumble past into Ramallah. 'We are outgunned in so many ways,' he says.

'And there is no way to compete with the Israeli PR machine. But we've finally realised we must try to reach Western ears in new ways.'

Until two years ago, Agawani says, Palestinian authorities followed a disastrous strategy for getting their message across to the West. All press communication was done wholesale and handled by the Palestinian Ministry of Information, which failed to differentiate between media in the Arab word, whose support was inherent, and the Western press, whose support was dubious but needed.

'We used to give the same information to everyone,' Agawani says. 'During the first intifada in the late 80s and 90s, we'd collect the numbers of our dead and injured from an Israeli attack and figure that was enough to move people's emotions and sway opinion all over the world. That was a mistake.'

Two years ago, Agawani says, as the Middle East conflict again descended into bloodshed, Information Minister Yasser Abed Rabbo and a few colleagues realised that grim numbers weren't enough to outrage the West. They needed to help Western media and its audience identify with Palestinian victims.

The Palestine Media Centre (PMC) - formed in early 2001 with a £750,000 grant from the governments of France and Switzerland, and supported with funds from the Palestinian Authority - swung into action. Twenty hired staff began interviewing family members of Palestinian victims, and getting their stories out to Western media.

'We've started focusing on putting a human face on our tragedy,' Agawani says. 'We now understand the Western audience will be less likely to respond to the killing of "a child than to that of "seven-year-old named Mustafah who loved to play soccer and was afraid of the dark". It helps Western audiences understand the effect on people who are real.'

For now, the Palestinian comms effort is split into two. The Ministry of Information handles the Palestinian and Arabic press, as well as media accreditation research and fact gathering, which it shares with the PMC.

The PMC deals with foreign press. producing between four and six press releases each day and holding at least three press conferences a week, according to Ministry of Information media adviser Samir Rantissi, who acts as an intermediary between the two agencies. The PMC website - www.palestine-pmc.com - states its focus as 'accurate, timely and informative news relevant to the Palestinian reality'.

'Ministries are often viewed as propaganda offices,' says Rantissi. 'The idea with the PMC is to have an agency that provides factual information, and for it to gain credibility.'

Admittedly, the PMC is hamstrung by a number of factors, including funding constraints and a fatigue amongst Western news editors for the Middle East conflict, says Agawani.

Although the PMC has been spared the bulldozing and shelling that has, on occasion, wreaked havoc in the functioning of the Palestinian Authority, staff members have been forced to set up alternative comms sites in recent months as Israeli forces have restricted movement within West Bank towns.

'We have never been directly attacked,' he says. 'But conditions make it difficult to work.'

The existence of the PMC, however, sets the PA's comms efforts in contrast with those of militant opposition groups. Hamas, for example, maintains its own secretive and limited comms headquarters, dedicated - in terms of Western press - mostly to claiming or denying responsibility for attacks on Israeli civilians. And so far it seems unconcerned with winning over Western public opinion.

'Trying to change the situation through media is not the best use of our resources,' says Dr Abdul Aziz Al Rantisi, a Hamas political leader based in Gaza city. 'It would be expensive. Western powers are going to support Israel. It's not media that is going to change this, but force.'

At the PMC, however, some young Palestinians hold a different point of view. By reaching out to Western media, they hope to someday be seen as equals in the conflict.

KEY PLAYERS IN PALESTINIAN PR

Yasser Abed Rabbo

Information minister in Yasser Arafat's administration who drove through a fresh comms strategy that moved Palestinian PR 'beyond grim numbers alone'.

Mohamad Agawam

Runs Ramallah's Palestine Media Centre. Has revamped strategy to give a 'more human face' to stories of the Palestinian situation.

Samir Rantissi

Works at Information Ministry but acts as intermediary between the ministry (which handles Arab media relations) and the PMC (for foreign media relations).

Dr Abdul Aziz Al Rantisi

Part of the leadership of militant group Hamas. Believes PR work to be futile: 'It is not media that will change things, but force.'

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