March 13, 2001
His Excellency Ariel Sharon
Prime Minister of the State of Israel
Office of the Prime Minister
3 Kaplan Street
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is writing to you on the occasion of the formation of your new government to express concern about the safety of journalists working in Israel and the occupied territories.
While CPJ recognizes that reporters in the territories have inherently dangerous jobs, we remain deeply concerned about the IDF’s record of harassing, intimidating, and attacking journalists, despite the Israeli government’s stated commitment to press freedom. Since the current unrest began last September, CPJ has documented nearly two dozen cases in which journalists were wounded by Israeli gunfire, beaten by security forces, or otherwise prevented from doing their work. Meanwhile, physical attacks by Jewish settlers against journalists continue with impunity.
On several occasions during the tenure of former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, our organization communicated its dismay about repeated restrictions and attacks on journalists by Israeli forces. Many of these concerns were highlighted in two separate CPJ reports issued in October and November 2000 (“Bloodied and Beleaguered” and “Peril in the Palestinian Territories.”)
In most of the cases documented by CPJ, the Israeli government has failed to adequately address attacks on the press committed by the Israeli army and security forces and Jewish settlers. Today, we fear that the safety of journalists remains in jeopardy. We have also communicated our concerns about the safety of journalists and their ability to work freely to the Palestinian National Authority.
In several recent incidents, journalists have been threatened and attacked by the IDF and Jewish settlers. These incidents appear to match a pattern of similar abuses documented by CPJ over the years. On March 8, for example, an IDF soldier in an armored carrier opened fire in the direction of three Reuters journalists at the Netzarim Junction in Gaza. According to Reuters, reporter Christine Hauser, cameraman Ahmed Bahadou, and free-lance photographer Suhaib Salem were about 50 meters (160 feet) from the armored carrier when the soldier started firing a heavy machine gun in their direction. The journalists quickly took cover.
Reuters reported that when the shooting occurred, Bahadou and Salem were pointing their cameras in the opposite direction from the carrier, and that Hauser had taken out her notebook. The journalists believed they made eye contact with the IDF soldiers in order to assure them that they were press. The Netzarim Junction was described as quiet at the time.
Army spokesman Olivier Rafowicz later characterized the gunfire as “warning shots,” according to Reuters, claiming the journalists had approached the IDF outpost. Due to the “tense security situation in Gaza,” Rafowicz told Reuters, “civilians are not allowed to approach Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) outposts because of a present threat of terror activity.” He added that the journalists failed to inform the IDF ahead of time of their presence in the area. However, Reuters pointed out that the IDF requires no such notification from journalists working in that particular area.
Two days after this disturbing incident, Jewish settlers in the West Bank town of Hebron assaulted three journalists. At around 4:00 p.m. on the afternoon of March 10, Reuters cameramen Mazen Dana and Nael Shiyoukhi and Agence France-Presse photographer Hossam Abu Allan were attacked by settlers while trying to film them throwing stones and empty bottles at local residents near the Jewish settlement of Tel Rumeida.
When Dana, Shiyoukhi, and Abu Allan arrived at the scene, they were immediately assaulted. Dana was struck in the leg by a bottle and in the face by a stone, which cut his lip and broke three teeth. The settlers also threatened to smash their cameras. Shiyoukhi, meanwhile, was kicked in the leg and hit in the neck with a stone, before fleeing. Israeli soldiers finally intervened to break up the attack, escorting Dana and Abu Allan to a separate area. However, the journalists were again attacked by a separate group of settlers, who broke Abu Allan’s camera. All three journalists were taken to a hospital for treatment.
CPJ has documented or is investigating numerous other reported cases of journalists attacked by soldiers and settlers or wounded by IDF gunfire. Recently, our organization sent a letter of inquiry to the IDF requesting information about the wounding of French photographer Laurent Van der Stock, 36, a veteran photographer working with the Gamma photo agency and Newsweek. On February 9, Van der Stock was seriously wounded by live gunfire near the West Bank city of Ramallah. Based on CPJ’s investigation into the case, it appears likely that he was hit by IDF gunfire. We have urged the IDF to conduct a thorough investigation into this incident and to release its findings and any other relevant information.
Of the several cases that CPJ has brought to the attention of the IDF and Israeli government, only a handful have been addressed let alone investigated.
As a nonpartisan organization of journalists dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, CPJ urges you to adopt the following measures aimed at ensuring the safety and freedom of journalists covering events in Israel and the occupied territories:
- Publicly state your concern and commitment to the protection and safety of journalists;
- See to it that the IDF launch an immediate and thorough investigation into the March 8 shooting incident in which Reuters journalists were fired upon by the IDF and make their findings public;
- Ensure that the Jewish settlers responsible for attacking journalists in Hebron on March 10 are prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Ensure additionally that Israeli police respond to and work to prevent future attacks carried out by settlers against members of the press;
- Ensure that the IDF conduct a thorough investigation into the February 9 wounding of Laurent Van der Stock and other cases of journalists who have been shot or wounded by Israeli forces;
- Order the army and security forces to review their operational guidelines with special attention to protecting journalists from the attacks that they have been facing on a regular basis for many years.
Thank you for your attention to these important matters. We look forward to a reply at your earliest convenience.
Ann K. Cooper