Attacks on the Press 2007: Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory

ISRAEL and the Occupied Palestinian Territory

A bitter power struggle between the Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah left journalists vulnerable to harassment and attack, with the slayings of two local media workers and the abduction of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston underscoring the risk. Journalists covering Israeli military operations in the West Bank and Gaza also had to contend with perennial abuses at the hands of Israeli forces.

The press was under constant suspicion—and danger—because of perceived partiality in news coverage. The popular pan-Arab satellite channels Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya were threatened from opposite directions: Hamas accused Al-Arabiya of bias, while Fatah alleged favoritism in Al-Jazeera’s coverage. A bomb exploded outside the entrance to Al-Arabiya’s office in Gaza City on January 22, causing heavy damage, journalists told CPJ. And throughout the year, Fatah officials called for the closure of Al-Jazeera in the West Bank and Gaza, according to news reports.

Amid a week of heavy factional fighting in May, a newspaper journalist and a manager were slain in Gaza. On May 13, presidential security forces stopped a taxi carrying Suleiman Abdul-Rahim al-Ashi, an editor for the Hamas-affiliated daily Palestine, and Mohammad Matar Abdo, a distribution manager for the paper, in a Fatah-controlled area southwest of Gaza City, Editor-in-Chief Mustafa al-Sawaf told CPJ. After being questioned by the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant Fatah group, the two were taken to a public street near Fatah’s Ansar security compound and shot, according to Abdo’s brother, Hamid.

Two days later, masked gunmen seized, bound, and interrogated a proofreader for the Islamist weekly Al-Risala, the journalist and his editor said. The proofreader, Osama Abu Musameh, said the men took him to a street near the presidential compound, accused him of working against them, and shot him twice in the legs at close range.

Dozens of journalists were under siege on May 16, when Fatah gunmen took over the roofs of the Shawa and Hosari Tower and Al-Johara Tower, which house local and international media outlets such as Al-Jazeera and the BBC. Journalists told CPJ that the Fatah gunmen skirmished with Hamas fighters who were on the ground, trapping the journalists in the middle of heavy fire. Journalists covered the fighting live from inside the building; no injuries were reported.

The shaky truce that followed would last less than a month, giving way to fresh factional violence in Gaza and parts of the West Bank. At least 116 Palestinians, mainly militants, were killed and hundreds more injured as Hamas routed Fatah forces in Gaza during five days of intensive fighting in mid-June. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dissolved the Palestinian government, firing Prime Minister Ismail Haniya of rival Hamas and ending three months of tenuous power sharing. Abbas set up an emergency government in the West Bank, with Salam Fayyad as prime minister. Hamas took full control of Gaza, with Haniya as its de facto leader.

This split between the West Bank and Gaza had a ripple effect on the Palestinian media, with increasing factionalism within the media and the targeting of media seen as aligned with specific groups. In June, Hamas gunmen in Gaza stormed the facilities of the official Palestinian broadcasting outlets, Palestine TV and Voice of Palestine, seizing equipment and burning transmission facilities, said Mohammed al-Dahoudi, head of the television station. The stations had operated under Abbas’ jurisdiction. The Hamas government later issued a statement banning Palestine TV from broadcasting in Gaza, al-Dahoudi told CPJ.

In the West Bank, Fatah forces engaged in their own crackdown on pro-Hamas media. On June 12, members of the Presidential Guard attacked the Hamas-operated Al-Aqsa TV office in Ramallah, confiscating equipment and detaining three employees, Reuters reported. By September, security forces shut Al-Aqsa altogether in the West Bank. The same month, Palestinian security forces and Fatah gunmen burned copies of pro-Hamas newspapers—the daily Palestine and the Islamist weekly Al-Risala—in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the papers’ editors told CPJ. Fatah Information Minister Riyad al-Maliki later banned distribution of the newspapers.

Renegade groups took advantage of the chaos in Gaza to kidnap foreign journalists as a means of pressuring authorities to accede to their demands. The Johnston kidnapping and the one-week abduction of Agence France-Presse photographer Jaime Razuri spotlighted the trend.

Eager to show that it could control splinter groups and restore security, Hamas leaders actively sought Johnston’s release by pressuring the powerful Dughmush family. One of the clan’s members, Mumtaz Dughmush, is believed to head Jaish al-Islam, the little-known Palestinian group that held Johnston, according to news reports and CPJ sources. For their part, local and foreign journalists staged numerous demonstrations seeking the reporter’s release. On July 4, the militant group released Johnston unharmed. The Dughmush clan denied involvement.

Palestinian security services had suspected the same militants of being behind the kidnapping of Razuri in early January, according to news reports and CPJ sources. Razuri, a Peruvian national, was seized by a group of armed men as he was entering the news agency’s bureau in Gaza City, AFP reported. He was released unharmed after a week in captivity.

Since 2004, at least 16 journalists have been abducted in the Gaza Strip, CPJ research shows. All were released unharmed. The abductions appeared to be the work of armed splinter groups. Often formed with personal goals in mind, such as the release of imprisoned relatives or the securing of government jobs, these groups have resorted increasingly to the abduction of foreigners, including journalists, for use as bargaining chips.

As Hamas sought to restore security in Gaza in late summer, it clamped down on protests and coverage of dissent. On several occasions in August and September, Hamas forces harassed, beat, and arrested journalists covering demonstrations by Fatah supporters in Gaza. In mid-August, Hamas gunmen stormed several Gaza media outlets, including Al-Arabiya, where they seized footage of a pro-Fatah protest, The Associated Press reported. Later that month, Hamas gunmen roughed up Reuters cameraman Abed Rabbo Shanah as he filmed a demonstration, according to news reports.

In November, the Hamas Interior Ministry in Gaza ordered that all journalists carry a Hamas press card, the AP reported. Several journalists told CPJ that they refused to comply and threatened to ignore Hamas news events; Hamas did not appear to enforce the order vigorously.

The Israeli army continued its incursions into the West Bank and Gaza, as it has done regularly since the second intifada in September 2000. In several instances, Palestinian journalists alleged that they were deliberately targeted by Israeli military fire—a charge the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) denied. During an Israeli search-and-seizure raid in the West Bank city of Ramallah in January, soldiers shot two journalists. AFP photographer Abbas Momani told CPJ that he and Al-Ayyam photographer Fadi al-Aruri were among a group of journalists covering the clashes between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants. An Israeli soldier fired several shots from less than 10 yards (nine meters), severely wounding al-Aruri, Momani said.

Al-Aruri, who was not wearing a bulletproof vest, sustained severe injuries that led to the loss of a kidney, Al-Ayyam reported. Momani was shot in the chest but escaped serious injury because he was wearing a vest. Momani said he and the other journalists were wearing clothing clearly marked “Press” and were standing in a sheltered area. He said the Israeli soldier appeared to have deliberately shot at them since there were no Palestinian militants in their immediate vicinity. An IDF spokesman said the military could not determine whether al-Aruri was struck by Israeli or Palestinian fire; the spokesman said the military was unaware that Momani had been hit. Momani said he had suffered head injuries in May, when he was struck by a rubber bullet fired by an Israeli soldier in the West Bank village of Bilein. The IDF said an investigation was pending in the May incident.

One of the more troubling incidents came in early July during an incursion in the eastern part of the Bureij refugee camp in central Gaza. Israeli tank soldiers shot Imad Ghanem, a cameraman for the Hamas-affiliated Al-Aqsa TV, and then shot him twice more in the legs after he had fallen to the ground, journalists at the scene told CPJ. Sameer al-Bouji, a cameraman for the Pal-Media news agency, filmed the incident, which was broadcast on Al-Jazeera. The footage showed Ghanem dressed in black clothes similar to those worn by Hamas gunmen. An eyewitness, who requested anonymity, told CPJ that some armed residents of the camp were in the vicinity when Ghanem was shot, but the clip indicates that they were not firing at that moment. Both of Ghanem’s legs were amputated.

An Israeli army spokesman who reviewed the footage said the incident was being investigated, but it was unclear who shot the cameraman, The New York Times reported. An Israeli military source quoted by international news organizations, including the Times and Reuters, said that Israel does not recognize cameramen working for the Hamas-affiliated channel as journalists.

On several occasions, journalists said, Israeli forces and border police intimidated, harassed, and obstructed them by firing tear gas and stun grenades. In mid-February, Israeli soldiers fired tear gas at several cameramen and photojournalists covering clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian stone-throwers near the West Bank city of Hebron, according to the AP’s Nasser Shiyoukhi and other journalists at the scene. Shiyoukhi told CPJ he was overcome by the gas and that colleagues brought him to a hospital in Hebron.

On March 8, Rami al-Faqih, a correspondent for local Al-Quds Educational Television, and Iyad Hamad, an AP cameraman, said they were each hit by stun grenades while covering a peaceful march marking International Women’s Day at the Qalandia Israeli military checkpoint between Jerusalem and Ramallah. Israeli National Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told CPJ that border police used minimum force to disperse protesters who had tried to enter an off-limits area.

Bilein, west of Ramallah, remained a flashpoint; several journalists were injured by Israeli forces dispersing weekly demonstrations against Israel’s border security barrier. Al-Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Aqleh told CPJ that she was delivering an on-air report on August 10, when an Israeli soldier fired a bullet at the front window of the channel’s uplink vehicle. No injuries were reported.

Over the course of the year, Israeli forces raided several Palestinian television and radio stations in the West Bank and confiscated equipment during military operations. They also often interrupted the signals of local television and radio stations to broadcast orders for residents to turn in or provide information about wanted Palestinians, local journalists told CPJ.

Two journalists were being held by Israeli forces when CPJ conducted its annual census on December 1. Walid Khalid Hassan Ali, Palestine’s West Bank bureau chief, was taken into administrative detention on May 18, the journalist’s wife told CPJ. According to court documents obtained by CPJ, an Israeli military judge found Ali had a “recent propensity for military activity.” Ali’s attorney, Tamar Pelleg, said she believed Ali’s work at Palestine played a role in the detention. Israeli authorities did not detail the factual basis for the detention, and the evidence remained secret.

Israeli authorities arrested Syrian journalist Atta Farhat in the Golan Heights northern village of Baqaata on July 30, according to the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression and the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights. The groups said they believed Farhat was suspected of “collaborating with an enemy state,” but noted that Israeli authorities had not disclosed the reasons for the detention. The center said it suspected the allegation was directly related to Farhat’s journalism for Syrian media. Farhat is editor-in-chief of the daily news Web site Golan Times and a correspondent for the Syrian daily Al-Watan and state-run Syrian TV.