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It's a war of words at peace talks

January 08, 2000|By DAVE McMILLION, Charles Town

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. - You don't have to look any further than the press room at Shepherd College's Butcher Center to see the strained relationship between Israel and Syria.

The specially designated table for Israeli-based media and the designated table for Syrian media are only about three feet apart, but the reporters do not talk to each other.

Bitter relations between Israel and Syria are no surprise, but Israeli television reporter Keren Neubach said it is strange to see it spill over into the media.

After all, reporters are considered "ambassadors of free thinking," said Neubach, a correspondent for Channel One news in Israel.

Several Israeli reporters covering the peace talks between Syria and Israel in Shepherdstown last week talked about an uncomfortable incident involving a reporter for the Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

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Reporter Janine Zacharia had been assigned by the U.S. State Department to sit at the Syrian media table to write her stories. The State Department has set up numerous tables, phone lines and fax machines for U.S. and international media to use while working in the college's basketball complex.

Zacharia said that on Tuesday, State Department officials informed Zacharia that Syrian reporters had complained about her sitting at their table.

"I understand the sensitivity, but I thought it was odd," said Zacharia, who had moved to the Israeli table Thursday.

Zacharia said it is her understanding that Syrian reporters are forbidden from talking to Israeli reporters. If any photographs are taken of Syrian reporters with Israeli reporters, the reporters could get in trouble if the pictures ever made it back to Syria, Zacharia said.

A Syrian reporter working for an Arabic newspaper during the talks declined to comment on Zacharia's remarks.

"I think she can talk for herself. She cannot talk for us," said Ibrahim Hamidi, a bureau chief for the Al Hayat, an international Arabic newspaper based in London.

Hamidi said he is the reporter who complained about Zacharia sitting at his table.

He said the reason Israeli reporters and Syrian reporters cannot communicate is that both countries forbid their reporters to talk to each other before a peace agreement is reached, he said.

Other peace negotiations have worked the same way, said Hamidi, who heads up Al Hayat's bureau in Damascus, Syria."I have nothing against her. I believe in peace; that's why I came here," said Hamidi, who flew about 20 hours to get to Shepherdstown.

Uri Dan, an Israeli newspaper columnist and Middle East correspondent for the New York Post, called the situation involving Zacharia "shocking.""This shows you what kind of enemy Israel deals with," Dan said.

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