Attacks on the Press 1999: Israel and the Occupied Territories

Since Israel began turning over parts of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) six years ago, its repression of the local press has noticeably declined. The censorship, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests of Palestinian journalists that marked full-fledged Israeli occupation are now practiced by Palestinian president Yasser Arafat and his coterie.

Nevertheless, Israel still used its control over significant portions of the occupied territories to trample on press freedoms. Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and police continued to pose a threat to Palestinian reporters through violent attacks and arrests. In May, for example, Israeli policemen assaulted a group of mostly Palestinian reporters and cameramen who were attempting to cover a demonstration against Israeli settlement activity in the Ras Al-Amud neighborhood of East Jerusalem. The journalists and a number of demonstrators, including members of the Palestinian Legislative Council, were beaten as police moved in to break up the protest.

Israeli authorities also continued to restrict the movement of Palestinian reporters. Like most West Bank Palestinian residents, journalists found it difficult or impossible to enter East Jerusalem and Israel. Israeli press cards and official government permission, which Palestinian journalists need in order to travel to these locations, are distributed arbitrarily and sparingly. To get to Jerusalem, many West Bank journalists are forced to enter the city illegally by circumventing army checkpoints. And even with the proper permission, journalists may be denied entry into Israel during total closures of the territories–a common occurrence during Israeli holidays and after suicide bombings or other violent incidents. For Palestinian journalists in Gaza, access to Jerusalem and the West Bank is almost impossible, except for a handful of reporters who have the necessary documents.

In October, veteran Gaza-based reporter Taher Shriteh was prohibited from traveling via the newly opened “safe passage” route between Gaza and the West Bank, which opened on October 25, supposedly to facilitate the free movement of Palestinians between the two territories. Since 1995, Israeli authorities have denied Shriteh permission to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank, apparently in reprisal for his years of reporting about the Intifada and the activities of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in Gaza. Shriteh was also forbidden to use the Israeli security-escorted shuttle-bus service that was set up to transport Palestinians whom Israel deems security threats.

In Israel proper, the Hebrew and Arabic press enjoyed considerable freedoms, but military censorship remained in effect for both local and foreign media. Under the so-called censorship agreement now in effect, newspapers that are party to the agreement must “voluntarily” submit national-security-related news to the censors. The latter can bar publication of such news, although journalists have the option of a judicial appeal. Most local media are able to circumvent the restrictions by attributing sensitive news to foreign news outlets. Foreign journalists, meanwhile, say censorship regulations are enforced erratically, so the entire system seems arbitrary.

Government meddling, however, often went beyond censorship. In April, the Israeli daily Haaretz published a disturbing report alleging that the IDF’s psychological-warfare unit was actively trying to plant news items in the Israeli press about threats posed by Iran and the militant Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. The Haaretz article, written by reporter Aluf Benn, said that the IDF regularly attempts to place stories with the Israeli press that its agents have previously planted in Arabic newspapers and that agents have pressured reporters to publish certain materials. Officers of the psychological-warfare unit “are in constant contact with Israeli journalists and give them translated material from Arabic newspapers,” Benn wrote.

Israeli-occupation forces in southern Lebanon continued to spell trouble for local journalists. Sound technician Kassem Dergham was seriously wounded by IDF gunfire while attempting to cover the aftermath of the IDF’s occupation of Arnoun in April. In September, Israeli or pro-Israeli forces of the South Lebanon Army detained journalism-school graduate and free-lance reporter Cosette Elias Ibrahim while she was visiting her family in the town of Rumaish. She was accused of collaborating with the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. Ibrahim had reportedly planned to carry out investigative reporting about the situation in south Lebanon. The precise motive for her arrest is unknown, given that she has been denied due process of law and remains outside a legal framework while being held in the notorious Khiam detention facility in Israel’s “security zone.”

March 29
Palestine News Agency HARASSED

A ministerial committee headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the closure of the Jerusalem office of the Palestine News Agency (WAFA), the official press agency of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). WAFA was ordered to close, along with two other Jerusalem-based Palestinian offices–the Palestinian Prisoners Club and the office of the PNA’s deputy minister for Christian affairs.

Israeli authorities claimed that WAFA’s Jerusalem office represented an illegal challenge to Israel’s sovereignty over the city. After the decision, Prime Minister Netanyahu said that “all of these are official…[ PNA] offices in Jerusalem, and their activity is unacceptable to us. Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and only of Israel.”

In a March 31 letter to Netanyahu, CPJ protested the move and urged that the ban on WAFA be reversed immediately. On April 8, after lawyers for the PNA filed an appeal at Israel’s Supreme Court, Israeli authorities dropped their demand that WAFA’s office be closed. The agency’s office remains open.

April 16
Kassem Dergham, Abu Dhabi TV ATTACKED

Dergham, a sound technician with the gulf-based station Abu Dhabi TV, was wounded by a rubber-coated metal bullet fired by Israeli soldiers near the town of Arnoun in Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon. Dergham had gone with a group of journalists to cover the occupation of Arnoun by Israeli forces the previous night. He was fired on as he approached an elderly woman and her husband fleeing the town.

According to Dergham, Israeli soldiers warned him and a group of 10 other reporters to leave the area around the entrance to the town, where soldiers had erected a barbed-wire fence. The soldiers then threw smoke bombs in their direction, immediately following them with a barrage of six shots at close range. Dergham was wounded in the back; the bullet was lodged between his spinal cord and his lung. He was taken to the hospital, where surgeons removed the bullet.

Dergham told CPJ that he received an anonymous phone call at the hospital the next day, warning, “This time it is your lung; next time it will be your head.”

September 5
Mazen Dana, Reuters ATTACKED, HARASSED
Imad al-Said, Associated Press ATTACKED, HARASSED
Hussam Abu Allam, Agence France-Presse ATTACKED, HARASSED
Nasser Shyioukhi, Associated Press ATTACKED, HARASSED

Israeli soldiers detained six Palestinian photojournalists near the West Bank town of Hebron. They were Dana of Reuters, al-Said of the Associated Press (AP), Abu Allam of Agence France-Presse, Shyioukhi of the AP, Haikal of Germany’s ARD TV, and Shahin of WTN.

The journalists had been attempting to photograph Israeli bulldozers at work on land confiscated from Palestinians outside the Israeli settlement of Kiryat Arba. They initially came under attack from a Jewish settler who threw stones at them and brandished his firearm in a threatening manner. Israeli soldiers then detained the six journalists, confiscating their identification cards. The soldiers accused them of trespassing in a closed military area. According to Dana, however, “the purpose behind the arrest was to restrict our movement and to prevent us from showing the world what the bulldozers are doing on the ground.”

The six journalists were held for about four hours at a police station in Kiryat Arba and then released.

October 11
Kawthar Salam, Al-Hayat al-Jadeeda HARASSED

The Israeli Civil Coordinating Committee in Hebron refused to renew the travel permit of Salam, a veteran reporter for the Palestinian daily Al-Hayat al-Jadeeda. Palestinian journalists need travel permits to enter Israel and areas under Israeli control in the occupied territories.

Salam had held a travel permit for nearly eight years, thus becoming one of the few Palestinian journalists to have regular access to Israel and Israeli-controlled areas.

The apparent justification for refusing Salam’s request for a permit was her recent reporting on the alleged failure of Israeli authorities to implement decisions by the Israeli High Court allowing Palestinian families to be reunited in Hebron.

The refusal may also have been prompted by articles that Salam published about allegedly improper activities of Israeli liaison officers responsible for approving residency permits in Hebron. Israeli authorities claimed, without further explanation, that her writings constituted “incitement.”

In an October 15 letter to Maj. Gen. Yaacov Orr, Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the West Bank and Gaza, CPJ urged that the matter be resolved quickly so that Salam might “continue her journalistic work without undue official restrictions in areas under Israeli control.”

On December 2, Col. Amnon Cohen, the head of the Hebron District Civil Liaison Office, renewed Salam’s permit.

October 20
Taher Shriteh, The New York Times, BBC, Yomiuri Shimbun HARASSED

Shriteh, a veteran Gaza-based reporter for The New York Times, the BBC, and the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun, learned that Israeli authorities had rejected his application for a permit to travel via the safe-passage route between Gaza and the West Bank, which opened on October 25. Israeli authorities provided no explanation for their decision.

Shriteh was also forbidden to use the Israeli-security-escorted shuttle-bus service that operates between Gaza and the West Bank to transport people barred from entering Israel on security grounds.

Since 1995, Israeli authorities have denied Shriteh permission to visit Jerusalem and the West Bank, effectively barring him from gathering news outside Gaza and from meeting with current and prospective employers.

These measures appear to have been taken in reprisal for Shriteh’s years of reporting about the activities of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in Gaza.

On October 21, CPJ wrote to Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, urging that the restrictions on Shriteh’s freedom of movement be lifted immediately.

October 20
Kawthar Salam, Al-Hayat al-Jadeeda HARASSED

Israeli soldiers detained Salam, a veteran reporter for the Palestinian daily Al-Hayat, while she was photographing a group of Palestinian workers at Israel’s Hebron District Civil Liaison Office.

The journalist was preparing a story about difficulties encountered by workers seeking permits to travel to Israel. Claiming that Salam had illegally photographed a military area, the Israeli soldiers confiscated her film. She was held for three hours and then released.