Attacks on the Press 2005: Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory
February 16, 2006 11:28 AM ET
ISRAEL and the OCCUPIED PALESTINIAN TERRITORY
In August, Israel facilitated access to hundreds of foreign journalists
to witness its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, even providing shuttle buses to the Jewish settlements that were being dismantled. Such cooperation with the press by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was rare the rest of the year. Journalists working in the Occupied Palestinian Territory faced dangerous and unpredictable conditions daily. While no journalists were killed there, the Israeli army and security services continued to commit abuses against journalists, including beatings, arrests, destruction of equipment, and restrictions on freedom of movement. Palestinian journalists bore the brunt of the attacks.
The most serious attack came on January 2, when Palestinian cameraman Majdi al-Arabid, on assignment for Israel's Channel 10 TV, was shot and seriously wounded near Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip. Channel 10 reporter Shlomi Eldar, who witnessed the shooting, told CPJ that IDF troops were responsible. Eldar was standing with al-Arabid about 300 meters (1,000 feet) from a building that was surrounded by Israeli tanks and had three Israeli soldiers on its roof. Al-Arabid waved to the soldiers with his microphone to show them he was a journalist. The area was quiet. Minutes later, Eldar said, a shot rang out from the direction of the rooftop, and al-Arabid fell to the ground. He was hit in the stomach. The IDF said it was investigating the incident.
Fire from Israeli forces has killed several journalists and injured dozens during the years of intense conflict that followed the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000. In most cases the Israeli army failed to conduct either a thorough investigation or any investigation at all. On the night of May 2, 2003, an Israeli soldier fatally shot British cameraman James Miller in the town of Rafah. Miller was wearing a flak jacket but was shot in the neck. Witnesses said that he was wearing a helmet marked with the letters "TV," and that he held a white flag illuminated by a flashlight. The soldier, who was not named, was the commanding officer in Rafah.
In March 2005, the military prosecutor general decided against bringing criminal charges but told members of Miller's family that the officer, a lieutenant, would face disciplinary measures for violating the rules of engagement and for changing his account of the incident. An investigation by private British security company Chiron Resources Limited, commissioned by Miller's colleagues and family, found that IDF soldiers had "consciously and deliberately targeted" Miller and his crew.
Yet on April 14, 2005, the IDF said that it would not take disciplinary action against the officer. Brig. Gen. Guy Tzur, head of the army's southern command, acquitted the lieutenant of improper use of weapons after a disciplinary hearing, according to international news reports.
Throughout 2005, Palestinian photojournalists and cameramen were often injured covering weekly Friday demonstrations against Israel's security barrier in Bi'lein, west of Ramallah. On March 18, Israeli forces used rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse hundreds of Palestinians peacefully demonstrating in Bi'lein. Several people were injured, including Enric Marti, an Associated Press correspondent and cameraman, who passed out as a result of inhaling tear gas. On May 1, Israeli forces again used excessive force to break up a protest at Bi'lein, injuring several demonstrators and Associated Press cameraman Mohammad Muhaisena, who was hit by two rubber bullets, one shattering his protective head gear, another wounding his shoulder. On September 16, Israeli forces closed the western and northern parts of Bi'lein, surrounding dozens of Palestinian civilians, members of foreign solidarity groups, and Israeli peace activists who were demonstrating peacefully. The soldiers fired rubber bullets and tear gas into the crowd, and beat some of the demonstrators. Euro News cameraman Ala' Badarneh was severely beaten by an Israeli soldier and had his arm broken. On November 4, Nabil al-Mazzawi on assignment for the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera news channel, was covering a demonstration in Bi'lein when several soldiers attacked him, the journalist told CPJ. He said the soldiers punched and kicked him and threw him to the ground.
On several occasions, Israeli forces prevented journalists from carrying out their assignments and resorted to excessive force when the journalists refused to abide by their orders. On February 22, Israeli forces stationed at Tarqomia checkpoint, west of Hebron, chased and threatened a group of journalists covering the release of a number of Palestinian prisoners, who were being greeted by their families. When Yusri al-Jamal and Ma'moun Wazwaz, a cameraman and a soundman, respectively, for Reuters, and Husam Abu A'lan, a photographer for Agence France-Presse (AFP), tried to resume their work, Israeli soldiers detained them for more than an hour.
On April 24, Israeli forces in Hebron fatally shot a Palestinian. The soldiers then banned journalists from entering the area where the shooting took place. Deutsche Presse Agentur cameraman Abed Al-Hashlamon, who was nearby, was assaulted and severely beaten. He was transferred to Al-Ahli hospital to receive treatment for a head injury. On April 25, Israeli forces at the al-Shaufat checkpoint in east Jerusalem assaulted Awad Awad, an AFP photojournalist and president of the Palestinian Photojournalists Association. The journalist was filming Israeli soldiers preventing hundreds of Palestinians from crossing the checkpoint to attend Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa mosque. The soldiers beat Awad when he refused their orders to stop filming. Awad was detained in a small room at the checkpoint for hours, where he was beaten, then dragged to the police station and held for several hours before being released, Awad told CPJ.
The IDF on several occasions designated certain areas as closed military zones, banning foreign and local journalists from reporting in those areas. On March 31, the Israeli military launched an incursion into the town of Wadi Rahal, northwest of Bethlehem. Soldiers surrounded a number of Palestinian homes, situated to the south of the village, and forcefully evacuated the area, giving the residents merely 25 minutes to collect their personal belongings. The army then began a huge house demolition operation and imposed a strict curfew. Local and foreign journalists were barred from reaching the area and covering the demolitions. On June 30, the army closed the entire Gush Katif area, a bloc of Jewish settlements in the southern Gaza Strip, to all journalists based in Israel. The IDF said the area was unsafe for journalists because of the actions of settlers opposed to the withdrawal.
On September 14, the army prevented Israeli journalists and those with dual Israeli and foreign citizenship from entering the Gaza Strip for 10 days because of what it called security concerns and intelligence that they would be kidnapped. This hindered the coverage of several foreign media outlets, which rely on reporters who are permanent residents of Israel. The Foreign Press Association in Israel complained that this restriction was excessive given that the veteran journalists being barred from entering Gaza were aware of the risks. Israeli and foreign journalists must sign a waiver absolving Israeli authorities of responsibility for their safety before entering the Occupied Territory.
Only a handful of Israeli journalists now venture into Palestinian areas, according to Gideon Levy of the Hebrew-language daily Ha'aretz, because of declining interest in Palestinian coverage from Israeli editors.
Palestinian journalists faced severe limitations on their freedom of movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many Palestinian journalists found that they were virtually locked down in a single area. However, on August 21, following Israel's disengagement and removal of all checkpoints within the Gaza Strip, foreign and local journalists no longer faced Israeli restrictions on movements. Gaza had been divided into three separate parts in December 2002. The army blocked the main road, which cuts through Gaza, isolating the southern city of Khan Yunis, the central city of Deir al-Balah, and Gaza City in the north. Palestinian journalists faced particular hardships at the Abu al-Houli checkpoint, which stretches over several hundred meters and divided the Gush Katif settlements from the Green Line, the border that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip.
In January 2002, the Government Press Office, which issued press cards, suspended the accreditation of most Palestinian journalists from the territories, including those who worked with foreign media outlets, citing security concerns. GPO press cards facilitated passage through Israeli checkpoints and gave access to government offices and news events inside Israel. Israel's High Court of Justice ruled in April 2004 that the GPO could not impose a blanket restriction on accreditation for Palestinian journalists. In reality, little has changed since the ruling, and only a small number of Palestinian journalists have received new cards. The Foreign Press Association in Israel proposed that the GPO issue Palestinians cards valid only in the territories. This would have allowed Palestinian journalists to pass through checkpoints but denied them access to press functions in Israel itself, where Israeli officials said they posed a security risk. The GPO, however, rejected the proposal.
Israel continued to bar nuclear whistle-blower Mordechai Vanunu from speaking with the foreign press. It also restricted his movements. In March, a court charged Vanunu with violating these restrictions. While he was not arrested and some of the charges had expired, Vanunu still faced draconian measures that prohibited him from speaking with foreigners, traveling outside Israel, and using the Internet. Israeli officials maintained that the restrictions imposed on Vanunu were necessary for reasons of national security, and they accused Vanunu of passing on sensitive information about the Dimona nuclear facility in recent interviews with the foreign press. Vanunu and his supporters, however, maintained that the former technician revealed everything he knew about Dimona in 1986, and that he did not possess any information that could jeopardize national security since he had not worked at the facility for two decades. Vanunu completed an 18-year prison sentence last April for treason and espionage.
With Israel's withdrawal from Gaza in late August 2005, foreign and Palestinian journalists no longer faced Israeli restrictions on their freedom of movement; however, the power vacuum created by Israel's disengagement made covering the Gaza Strip extremely risky. Journalists were now more vulnerable to attacks by renegade armed groups, whose means of settling internal disputes included kidnappings of foreigners. Moreover, journalists, whether foreign or local, were harassed, threatened, and beaten by Palestinian security forces and the various factions in retaliation for their coverage of Palestinian politics.
The Palestinian National Authority (PNA) was created after the 1993 Oslo peace accords to administer the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank. Both areas were captured by Israel in the June 1967 Middle East war. The territories were not considered to be fully autonomous, since Israel still controlled their land and sea borders, as well as their airspace. Israel also reserved the right to carry out military operations there.
On October 12, 2005, Dion Nissenbaum, a U.S. reporter for the Knight Ridder newspaper chain, and British photographer Adam Pletts, a freelancer working for the news organization, were abducted in Gaza by renegade members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization's governing Fatah party, and held for several hours. On August 15, soundman Mohammed Ouathi of France 3 television was kidnapped and held for eight days by unidentified gunmen. In separate incidents during August, gunmen seized five U.N. workers in the Gaza Strip, but released them unharmed the same day. On September 10, Italian journalist Lorenzo Cremonesi, of the newspaper Corriere della Serra, was abducted by masked gunmen in the town of Deir el-Balah in the central Gaza Strip. He was released later that day unharmed. All the abductions ended in the safe release of the journalists.
During the Israeli pullout from Khan Younis, the Abu Reish Brigade, an offshoot of Fatah, threatened to kidnap foreign journalists working in the area, forcing them to hide in their hotel. The threat was never carried out. According to AFP Bureau Chief Patrick Anidjar, the Gaza kidnappings and threats may have been efforts to garner media attention. Palestinian factions often kidnapped foreigners to embarrass the PNA or to use as bargaining chips to win the release of imprisoned comrades.
Hospitals were frequent scenes of tension between Palestinian police and the press. Police and security forces regularly prevented Palestinian photojournalists from taking pictures of the wounded in hospitals, several local journalists told CPJ. The photojournalists endured shoving and verbal assaults from police, confrontations that often aroused the crowds against the journalists and made it impossible for them to carry out their assignments.
Infringements of press freedom by Palestinian security forces were often arbitrary. On April 27, journalists were prevented from covering Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' visit to the police headquarters in Gaza; when they tried to follow Abbas, police attacked them. Several journalists were beaten, and their equipment was destroyed. In protest, journalists in Gaza refused to cover any police events for a week. Abbas witnessed the incident but did nothing to discipline police.
Foreign and local journalists also faced restrictions on coverage from the PNA. On August 3, the Foreign Press Association in Israel protested a statement by the Palestinian Interior Ministry ordering journalists to inform the ministry in advance whenever they planned to write a story about police or security forces and directing them to fill out a form about the story. Reuters said the directive was issued following the publication of unspecified news reports and photos that the ministry said were "harmful to national security." According to journalists, the Palestinian prime minister's office said it was not aware of the directive, and that it would follow up. There was no sign of the order either being enforced or officially repudiated, and journalists simply ignored it. In 2004, the Palestinian Journalist Syndicate, a journalists' union controlled by the PNA, ordered reporters in the Gaza Strip not to cover protests by militants or any internal Palestinian clashes.
Continuing a trend from the previous year, journalists were regularly warned against using certain video footage. In mid-September, the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a faction associated with Fatah, held a press conference outlining its political goals and strategies for the future. Shortly after the conference ended, Fatah warned journalists not to broadcast the footage.