E-Mails From Palestine

Frantic e-mails are one of few things regularly breaking the sieges of Ramallah, Nablus and Bethlehem. Israel designates entire cities "closed military areas" to ban journalists, so there is no eyewitness media confirmation of accounts that appear on the one outlet that appears to have remained free: the Internet. I see them and my students see them, and we worry.

The stories come electronically from friends or appear on sites that I have in the past found reputable. They paint a grim picture: Palestinian cities lie in ruins and Palestinians are burying their dead at mind-numbing rates; entire towns, villages and camps have been emptied of men and boys age 15 to 40, rounded up in the night by the Israeli Army; a massive humanitarian catastrophe has begun to descend on thousands of families who have run out of water and food after a more than a week of heavy fighting. Human rights Web sites now contain the first eyewitness accounts of finding groups of bodies of activists summarily executed at close range; medical Web sites report on the deliberate targeting of Arab hospitals and ambulances.

My students, raised on the humanitarian crises of the 1990s, now ask about parallels in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda. How do I confidently tell them that this event is different? That Israel is not Serbia? I am at a loss when they ask, "Didn't the Serbians label the Bosnians and Kosovars 'terrorists' too?" How does one respond when there is a complete newspaper and other media blackout on what's happening on the ground?

Supporters continue to argue that Israel has the right to pursue terrorists in a war without limits, but no one yet has put forth a persuasive answer for why the Jewish state has forbidden all journalists from covering the scenes of devastation that attend war.

Indeed, what good reason does Israel have to hide the self-proclaimed justice and precision of its anti-terror operations? Its army has said that it wants to protect the lives of journalists. More astounding, perhaps, is the new line adopted by Israeli press handlers: They want to prevent the spread of pro-Palestinian propaganda among journalists. No doubt the military brass is still steaming over stories like the recent broadcast of close-up footage showing a chilling "accidental" death. Israeli television had accompanied soldiers in a raid on a refugee camp near Ramallah. As troops blew down the door of a private home in Bethlehem, Israeli television audiences watched in horror as a Palestinian woman injured in the blast died in front of her children. The Israeli reasons for a press blackout are not convincing, especially when accusations of war crimes are growing.

I want to think that reports of mass suffering in Palestine are not true. The accounts sent by distraught friends, the pictures that appear on respectable Web sites, the reportedly eyewitness stories sent out by established international agencies: They not only bespeak shocking human tragedy for the Palestinian people, but they will also, unless contradicted in the course of free press coverage, undermine the moral claims Israel has used to pursue its relentless war. Israeli human rights workers understand this and have been complaining even more loudly than the American press that the news blackout can serve no good.

Many of us would also like to tell our students that Israel is not Serbia and that Ramallah is not Srebrenica. But as long as the Israeli military closes off its military operations to news coverage, we have the moral duty to take seriously the reports of atrocity that arrive in our mailboxes each day.

Elliot Colla is an assistant professor of comparative literature at Brown University.

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