Attacks on the Press 2004: Israel and the Palestinian Authority Territories

Israel and the Occupied Territories, including the Palestinian Authority Territories

With Iraq dominating media security concerns in the Middle East, journalists covering the region’s other main flash point quietly faced a familiar array of hazards on the job. The occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip remained two of the most dangerous and unpredictable assignments for journalists in 2004, largely because of the conduct of Israeli troops. Although the situation was not as dire as in other years, like 2002, when fighting was at peak levels, Israel’s army and security services continued to commit a range of abuses against working journalists, who faced the possibilities of gunfire, physical abuse, and arrest, in addition to sharp limits on their freedom of movement.

Since the second intifada began in 2000, fire from Israeli forces has killed several journalists and injured dozens. Although the overall intensity of the conflict in the Occupied Territories has decreased, the risks to journalists remain real. And as in years past, Palestinian journalists suffered the most casualties.

At least one reporter was killed in 2004: Mohamed Abu Halima, a journalism student at Al-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus and a correspondent for the university-affiliated Al-Najah radio station. Abu Halima was killed by gunfire, apparently from Israeli troops, while reporting on their activities near the Balata refugee camp outside Nablus. Local journalists said that when he was shot, Abu Halima was standing among a crowd of people in an area where Palestinian youths and the Israeli army had earlier clashed. A spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said that “as far as we know, [Abu Halima] was not a journalist”; that he “was armed and he opened fire on IDF forces”; and that the IDF “returned fire.” Eyewitnesses denied those allegations.

Journalists came under IDF fire in a number of other incidents, narrowly escaping serious injury. On March 9, Agence France-Presse (AFP) photographer Saif Dahla was wounded in the leg by either bullets or bullet shrapnel while covering an IDF incursion into the West Bank city of Jenin. Dahla and other journalists had been covering Palestinian youths throwing stones at an Israeli tank when they said a machine-gunner opened fire in their direction. Dahla and another colleague near him at the time were wearing flak jackets, helmets, and clothes marked with “Press.” AFP photographer Mahmoud Homs was wounded in the leg in Gaza in May while covering youths throwing stones at Israeli troops.

During a major Israeli military operation in Gaza in October, the Foreign Press Association of Israel (FPA) protested that journalists in marked media vehicles were “targeted with live rounds of ammunition” in at least three instances while covering clashes. The FPA said that while it was unclear who opened fire, the group identified some cases in which IDF soldiers were responsible.

The IDF continued to launch military strikes against media outlets accused of “incitement.” In June, the IDF carried out a missile attack in Gaza on a building that houses several media organizations, including the BBC, the Qatar-based broadcaster Al-Jazeera, and the German television channel ARD. Officials said they targeted the building because the Palestinian militant group Hamas used it as a base for distributing “incitement material.” Israeli authorities also said it was a “communication center which maintained constant contact with terrorists,” as well as a “channel through which Hamas claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks.” The intended target may have been the Al-Jeel Press Office, which had previously housed a weekly magazine with Islamist sympathies. Two employees of Ramattan Broadcast Services, a company that provides studio equipment and services to international news outlets in Gaza and that also operates from the building, were slightly injured in the attack.

At least seven journalists have been killed in the Occupied Territories since 2000–

all by Israeli gunfire. The army has failed to conduct public and serious investigations into most cases, including the deaths of British freelance cameraman James Miller and Nazih Darwazeh, a cameraman for Associated Press Television News. Both men were killed by Israeli army gunfire within a two-week span in the spring of 2003. In February, CPJ wrote to IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon requesting information about the status of IDF investigations into both cases. In its response, the IDF said that an investigation into Miller’s death was still under way and was expected to be concluded “in the near future.” The IDF also said that the Military Advocate Generals Corps was reviewing an inquiry into Darwazeh’s death. There were no new developments in either case by year’s end.

Attacks against reporters by militant Jewish settlers and Israeli forces continued. In June, Israeli border police beat unconscious veteran freelance photographer Ata Oweisat when he resisted attempts to confiscate his camera. Oweisat had been covering a demonstration against Israel’s West Bank separation barrier.

Since 2000, the Israeli military has made it difficult and dangerous for journalists to move around the Occupied Territories. Army checkpoints often produce long delays for foreign reporters, whom soldiers may on a whim decide not to let through. The army frequently designates areas as closed military zones, which are off-limits to the media. Foreign journalists, however, are sometimes able to use alternate routes and back roads to circumvent these restrictions.

In 2004, it was harder for foreign reporters to get into the Gaza Strip, the scene of increasing violence and several intense Israeli military operations. Journalists were briefly prevented from entering Gaza in March following an Israeli military strike that killed Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin, and during army operations in the fall. In April, the army temporarily instituted cumbersome regulations that required at least five journalists to be present at Gaza’s Erez crossing before being allowed to pass.

Palestinian journalists face much more stringent limitations on their freedom of movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It is nearly impossible for most to pass through the army checkpoints located throughout the West Bank because they lack proper press accreditation. In January 2002, Israel’s Government Press Office (GPO) suspended the accreditation of most Palestinian journalists from the territories, including those who work with foreign media outlets. Accreditation in the form of a GPO press card helps facilitate journalists’ movement through checkpoints.

A welcome decision by Israel’s High Court of Justice in April ruled that the GPO could not impose a blanket restriction on accreditation for Palestinian journalists, and that Palestinian journalists should receive press credentials provided they are given security clearance. While news organizations had hoped the ruling would translate into more press cards for Palestinian journalists, little has changed in reality, and only a handful of Palestinian journalists have received new cards. In a meeting with CPJ, GPO Director Danny Seaman said that journalists who apply for GPO cards must be given a security clearance and show that they are required to work in Israel. He made it clear that the process of obtaining cards would be difficult for Palestinian staff.

In recent years, the GPO has also made it more difficult for foreign camera crews to receive permits to work in Israel and the Occupied Territories. Permits are now given only after considerable wrangling and are temporary. The GPO claims that the new policy is the result of pressure from Israeli unions; however, foreign journalists say it is another pretext to hamper their work.

Unlike during the first intifada (1987-1993), few Israeli journalists now venture into the Occupied Territories, with the exception of a handful of enterprising reporters or those embedded with Israeli military units. Journalists cite fears of attacks by Palestinian militants as the determining factor. In March 2001, the army issued an order banning all Israelis from entering the Occupied Territories unless they signed a waiver absolving Israeli authorities of any responsibility for their safety. During the army’s incursion in late September and October, the government issued a stricter ban on Israelis entering Gaza that prevented even those willing to sign a waiver from entering.

Security forces deported at least two journalists during 2004. In May, 60-year-old British journalist Peter Hounam, who was working on a BBC documentary, was detained after arranging a video interview with whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu, who had just finished serving an 18-year sentence for treason for passing on information about Israel’s nuclear program to the foreign media. After his release, Vanunu was barred from speaking to foreigners or talking about his time as a technician in Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility. Hounam, who initially broke Vanunu’s story in the British newspaper The Times in 1986, had arranged for an Israeli woman to conduct the video interview on his behalf since Vanunu was not allowed to speak with foreigners. Police detained Hounam and passed him on to Shin Bet, Israel’s security service. Hounam said he was accused of espionage, held in a cell with excrement on the walls for a day, and finally released without charge on the condition that he leave the country within 24 hours. A month later, the government barred Hounam from entering Israel in the future because he was deemed a potential security threat.

In another case, authorities detained activist and freelance journalist Ewa Jasiewicz upon her arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in August, when she was denied entry for “security reasons” and for her affiliation with a pro-Palestinian activist group. She was held for about three weeks when she attempted to contest her detention through the courts, but she eventually gave up and was deported to England. Officials cited Jasiewicz’s involvement with the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-Palestinian activist group that stages high-profile protests against Israeli military policies in the Occupied Territories, and her “contact with members of terrorist organizations.” Jasiewicz said she came to Israel to write about the Israeli peace movement for the leftist monthly magazine Red Pepper.

Palestinian Authority Territories

The death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat marked the end of an era in both Palestinian and Mideast politics. Whether Arafat’s passing would translate into improved conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, as some proclaimed, was far from certain. Throughout 2004, lawlessness prevailed throughout much of the West Bank and Gaza Strip amid the power vacuum left by a debilitated Palestinian Authority (PA). As a result, journalists found themselves increasingly imperiled by armed gangs, renegade political factions, and the remnants of the Palestinian security forces, which frequently targeted journalists. As in 2003, these groups assaulted journalists and ransacked media offices in what were widely viewed as retaliatory strikes against unwelcome news coverage, particularly about political struggles among Palestinian factions.

In February, three masked Palestinian men carrying automatic rifles stormed the offices of Ramallah-based Al-Quds Educational Television, assaulted staffers, and destroyed equipment for reasons that remain unclear. That same month, unknown perpetrators destroyed computer equipment in the office of the Gaza City weekly newspaper Al-Daar, which was allied with former Gaza Security Chief Mohammed Dahlan. In February, unknown assailants set fire to the car belonging to Al-Hayat al-Jadida reporter Munir Abu Rizk in Gaza in what was thought to be retaliation for his newspaper’s coverage, a local Palestinian human rights group reported.

Journalists working for the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera and the Dubai-based satellite channel Al-Arabiya said they received telephone threats from men identifying themselves as Palestinian Authority security personnel or dissident members of Arafat’s Fatah organization. The threats centered on the stations’ coverage of the fighting in the Gaza Strip that followed Arafat’s July 17 appointment of his cousin, Musa Arafat, as head of security for the Palestinian territories. Saifeddin Shahin, Gaza correspondent for Al-Arabiya, said a person claiming to represent PA security forces threatened to burn the station’s bureau if the station was not careful about what it reported, a reference to the station’s recent coverage of the internal political situation. An Al-Jazeera correspondent said a caller identifying himself as a representative of a dissident wing of Fatah told him that the station would “bear responsibility” for what it had reported.

In a particularly brutal attack, two masked men beat Agence France-Presse photographer Jamal Aruri with wooden sticks outside his home. Aruri believes that the assailants were PA security personnel or militants close to the PA. The attack came after a photograph that Aruri had taken in 2003–of three men wanted by Israel who had been holed up in Yasser Arafat’s compound–was posted on the Internet.

The pro-PA Palestinian Journalists’ Association threatened to take action against journalists who covered internal strife. In June, the association announced a ban “on dealing with or handling any type of statements that touch on internal events and carry between their lines words that slander, libel or harm others.” It said journalists who violated this code would be punished, though it did not specify how.

In a chilling new development, militants in the Gaza Strip abducted one reporter and failed in an earlier attempt to seize another. On September 27, veteran CNN producer Riad Ali was seized at gunpoint from a car in which he was riding with CNN colleagues. He was released the next day unharmed. In May, armed men attempted to bundle New York Times reporter James Bennet into a waiting car while he stood outside a hospital in Gaza during an escalation in the fighting. He resisted his attackers and avoided capture.