RAMALLAH, JAN. 29 -- The television crews seemed to outnumber the soldiers on the winding, foggy streets of this market town in the occupied West Bank yesterday morning.
The soldiers moved from shop to shop, ordering reluctant Arab merchants to open their shops, or prying open padlocks and metal shutters with crowbars and sledgehammers. Each patrol was followed by a camera crew, faithfully recording the harsh clang of hammers on metal, the grim determination on the faces of the young troops and the resigned, bitter expressions of the shopkeepers.
At one point a young officer, bemused by the videocamera lurking constantly over his shoulder, took out his own camera and snapped shots of the television crew taking pictures of him.
There are now between 600 and 700 foreign reporters, cameramen, soundmen, photographers, editors and television producers covering the seven-week-old wave of unrest in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to the Government Press Office here.
That includes 250 to 300 journalists who are permanently based here and 350 to 400 who have been temporarily accredited during the violence.
CBS News blanketed the country for two days this week with camera crews working on a "48 Hours" documentary special, due to appear in March. ABC News' "Nightline" is planning a five-day series -- similar, Israeli officials note uncomfortably, to a series on South Africa broadcast two years ago -- of interviews and on-the-street footage to appear around the same time.
Israeli officials call it "the other war" -- the propaganda struggle that Israel and its Palestinian foes have been waging inside the larger contest for control of the occupied territories.
For several weeks Israel has been treated to saturation coverage from the cameras and front-page treatment in the press. Officials, who at times are hard-pressed to justify some of the scenes the cameras capture, profess to see a degree of anti-Israeli bias, even anti-Semitism, in the massive media invasion.
"Why don't you cover riots in Bangladesh or the dispossessed in the slums of Rio de Janeiro the way you cover the refugee camps here?" an Army spokesman named Danny asked reporters as he watched CBS descend on Ramallah yesterday morning.
"The Israeli feeling that the world is against them is being fed by the enormity of the coverage," said Harry Wall, director of the local office of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
The cameras have been on the scene since the beginning. Scenes of Israeli troops opening fire on rioters armed with stones, of a lone plainclothes security agent spraying machine gun rounds into a fleeing crowd and of soldiers tying an Arab man onto their jeep to serve as a human shield -- all helped thrust the story onto western television screens and to refocus world attention on the predicament of the Palestinians and their Israeli rulers.
The Israeli government also was not pleased when television broadcast scenes of police hurling tear-gas canisters into a mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem two weeks ago, side by side with a blanket denial from Cabinet ministers that such an action had taken place.
"At first the Israelis didn't respond well to all the media attention," said Wall. "They weren't just shooting Palestinians, they were shooting themselves in the foot as well. At the same time, a lot of reporters who come in here for a few weeks don't understand the situation and don't realize that Gaza isn't Berkeley in the 1960s. They're throwing stones out there, not making peace signs. Some of the reporting has been exaggerated and extremely unfair."
For two weeks, the Army declared large portions of the Gaza Strip off-limits to reporters and cameras even while government officials still were contending the press was free to cover the story. The rationale was that cameras often incite demonstrators who want their anger and desperation conveyed to Americans on the evening news.
Lately, however, as the unrest has begun to recede, the Army has tried smothering the press with kindness. A new information center has been opened in Jerusalem, operated 16 hours a day by military spokesmen to provide daily updates.
The center is working to give the military a human face, offering trips into the field with Israeli soldiers and interviews with some of the Army's articulate and motivated officer corps.
But problems still arise. Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin announced a policy 10 days ago of "force, power and beatings," and Palestinians and United Nations officials alleged that hundreds of broken bones and other injuries ensued.
Some officials blamed the press, saying reporters had misinterpreted Rabin's hard-line statements -- he had intended that only alleged rioters be hit during violent incidents, they said -- and had inflated the number of beatings that followed.