Neighbors / Give Us Pictures, We'll Interpret Them

Whenever Mahmoud al-Zahar, Hamas' foreign minister, issues announcements, or when the BBC broadcasts a detailed report about what is happening in Gaza; when Al-Jazeera shows footage of bleeding bodies in the streets of Gaza, or CNN broadcasts an expos?, the logo of the Palestinian news agency, Ramattan, appears in the upper corner of the TV screen. This week, the newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat called this agency the "local star in the skies of Arab satellite communications." This local star aspires to far more than coverage of the war in Gaza. Ramattan is apparently striving to be the new Al-Jazeera.

The war in Afghanistan, followed by the war in Iraq, gave Al-Jazeera a near monopoly in transmitting the pictures to the world. For the first time, an Arab station had priority over Western stations, and the name "Al-Jazeera" became synonymous with a reliable source of photographs and information. American and European viewers suddenly saw tickers in Arabic running across their news broadcasts, and the U.S. administration noted a new enemy. It was an important breakthrough not only for Al-Jazeera but also for most of the Arab satellite stations. The bad name of Arab broadcasting was erased, and Al-Jazeera has since gained legitimacy in the the West and handsome financial remuneration.

During those years, Ramattan, established in 1998, was in its infancy. It was a production company with a film studio in the center of Gaza and one television camera. But the dream of Dr. Qassem Ali al-Kafarna, the architect for a Palestinian agency for news photography, did not stop there. Al-Kafarna, the chair of Ramattan's board, who has a doctorate from Oxford University and holds a U.S. passport in addition to his Palestinian one, decided to switch from producing documentaries to full press coverage. In the second intifada, he had a team of reporters with cameras in most of the cities of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip; and in 2001, the agency began to broadcast directly, bypassing the authorities in Israel.

Today the agency has about 150 reporters in the Strip and dozens more in the West Bank, in addition to its reporters in Washington, Kuwait, Yemen, Sudan and Cairo, as well as a Web site in Arabic and English for the past three years, which provides up-to-date news from Gaza and from the countries covered by the agency. Al-Kafarna now lives in Cairo; he moved there after being unable to move freely between Gaza and the West Bank and Jerusalem because of Israel's restrictions.

Ramattan describes itself as an independent network that does not belong to any of the political streams in the territories. Last week it decided to stop covering the internal battles between Fatah and Hamas. Its directors say this step was taken to prevent the agency's exploitation by political rivals and mainly to avoid unnecessary pressures. This self-censorship has not prevented attacks from both camps.

"The Ramattan agency is 100 percent pro-Hamas," wrote one of the Fatah forums. "It hosts Hamas activists and provides a broad platform for the representative of the movement." But that very forum contained a complaint against the agency for not doing anything to oppose the arrest of its crew by Hamas. "What did you do when your press photographer Ra'ed Kafarna was attacked by Hamas forces? Why didn't the agency do anything when Hamas men kidnapped journalist Tamer al-Jamal and moved him to an unknown location when he was covering the general strike in Gaza last year?"

Shahdi al-Kashif, Ramattan's managing editor, feels that the complaints coming from both directions prove that Ramattan is doing its work faithfully, and last week he called on his people to stick to their journalistic task despite the difficult conditions. According to the Palestinian journalists who held an anti-Israel protest on Sunday in Gaza, three journalists were killed in Israel Defense Forces attacks and the press center was also bombed from the air. Palestinian journalists in Gaza are also having difficulty reaching bombed sites for fear of being harmed. Some of them stay in the office for days on end without seeing their family and hear about their situation only via telephone.

'We have become targets'

"There is a great fear now of walking in the streets, because we understand that we have become a target of attacks, just like Hamas members," a Gazan journalist told Haaretz this week. "There will always be someone who will justify the attack against us by saying that he thought the camera we carry on our shoulder was a missile." But he admits there is great difficulty involved in news coverage because of the pressure from the surroundings as well. "Today it is impossible to report anything that is opposed to the line determined by Hamas. They control the content and the photos. They report to us where it's worth filming and where bombs or shells have fallen, and they convey the information about the number of dead or wounded, and there is no way of fully confirming the information. It's a battlefield in the area of communications, too."

Information really is the merchandise that is lacking, one that does not benefit from a humanitarian corridor. Ramattan, whose name means a pair of deer (according to their Web site), symbolizing Gaza and the West Bank, is now the main source of information joining the Arab satellite stations taking over the airwaves, even in the West.