With a shaky six-month truce coming to an end in late year, Hamas rocket attacks on Israel were met with the largest bombardment of the Gaza Strip since 1967. The headquarters of Hamas-controlled Al-Aqsa TV was destroyed and at least two journalists were injured amid massive airstrikes by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). As 2008 gave way to a new year, hundreds had been killed and Israel had undertaken a ground offensive into Gaza.
No fatalities were reported in the December 28 bombing of Al-Aqsa. The station, which had evacuated its personnel the previous day, continued broadcasting from a remote location. CPJ wrote to Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak seeking an explanation for the attack and noting that international law protects media installations during military operations. The government did not immediately respond. Separate IDF airstrikes injured Ihab al-Shawa, a Ramattan news agency cameraman filming outside Al-Abbas police station in Gaza City, and Mustafa Bakir, an Al-Aqsa cameraman working in Rafah.
As the air campaign got under way, Israeli authorities declared parts of Gaza, notably the strip’s northern boundary with Israel, “closed military zones.” An IDF spokesperson said the closed zones extended two miles into Israeli territory, effectively preventing local and foreign journalists from reporting on developments in those areas. The designation came on the heels of a November order barring foreign reporters from entering Gaza and a two-year-old order blocking access to Israeli journalists. The bans left reporting in Gaza to Palestinian staffers and a small number of foreign correspondents already there.
One journalist died in Gaza in April. Reuters cameraman Fadel Shana was killed and soundman Wafa Abu Mizyed was wounded after they stopped their vehicle to film Israeli military forces several hundred feet away. Shana was using a tripod-mounted camera when an Israeli tank fired on the men. Eight bystanders, most under the age of 16, were also killed. The cameraman was wearing a flak jacket marked “Press” and had gotten out of a sport-utility vehicle bearing the markings “TV.” The Israeli military’s subsequent investigation exonerated the soldiers responsible for the killing, saying that they had acted reasonably. “The tank crew was unable to determine the nature of the object mounted on the tripod and positively identify it as an antitank missile, a mortar, or a television camera,” wrote the advocate general, Brig. Gen. Avihai Mendelblit.
Writing in CPJ’s magazine Dangerous Assignments, Reuters Bureau Chief Alastair Macdonald responded: “To reach that ‘reasonable’ decision, the troops failed to note ‘TV’ signs plastered over his jeep as it drove, twice, along the road they were monitoring through high-tech sights during the preceding half-hour; they affirmed–questionably–that Fadel’s body armor was ‘common to Palestinian terrorists’; they failed to find the fact he stood in front of them, a mile away, for four minutes, an indication that he was not a threat; and they did not consider the 20-odd children playing behind him.”
Shana’s death underscored a perennial danger to reporters covering the border areas between Israel and the Palestinian territories. At least nine journalists have been killed in the West Bank and Gaza since 2001, eight of them in IDF attacks, according to CPJ research. And in the aftermath of these deaths, CPJ has found, Israeli military investigations are routinely marred by a lack of transparency and accountability.
Journalists working in the Palestinian territories said the Israeli military’s apparent disregard for the safety of the press hurt their ability to work. Reporters covering demonstrations over Israel’s construction of a security barrier in the West Bank found themselves particularly at risk. On April 18, in the West Bank town of Bilein, Reuters photographer Amar Awad was struck by a rubber bullet fired by a border officer standing just 100 meters away, according to Reuters Deputy Bureau Chief Julian Rake. A demonstration set for later that day had not yet begun when Awad was shot; the cameraman was wearing a flak jacket identifying him as press. Many journalists say that authorities at Bilein have targeted the press with rubber bullets, stun grenades, and tear gas to inhibit coverage and stop protesters from seeking media attention, according to Steve Gutkin, chairman of the Foreign Press Association. IDF spokesmen have told CPJ that it is not their policy to target journalists.
Palestinian journalists were harassed at Israeli border crossings and checkpoints, local journalists said. In one widely reported case, award-winning journalist Mohammed Omer was hospitalized after an interrogation at the Allenby Crossing between Jordan and the West Bank. Omer was returning to his home in the Gaza Strip after collecting the Martha Gellhorn Prize in London in recognition of his reporting for the U.S.-based magazine Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and the Rome-based news agency Inter Press Service. Men he identified as agents of Shin Bet, the domestic intelligence service, interrogated him, stripped him naked at gunpoint, and humiliated him, Omer told CPJ. The journalist said agents dragged him across the floor and stepped on his neck while he was on the ground. He was eventually placed in an ambulance and brought to Jericho Hospital in the West Bank, where he was treated for broken ribs and psychological distress.
In a written statement to CPJ, the Israeli government said Omer was not subjected to abuse and that his belongings were searched because of suspicions “that he had been in contact with hostile elements.” The statement acknowledged that Omer received medical care after the incident but cast doubt on the severity of his injuries.
The Israeli military was holding one journalist in prison on December 1, when CPJ conducted its annual census. On July 15, Israeli military forces arrested Ibrahim Hamad, a soundman for the Gaza-based Ramattan news agency, in a 4 a.m. raid on his home in the Kalandia refugee camp near Ramallah in the West Bank, relatives and station staff told CPJ. The reason for his arrest was unclear. Authorities held Hamad in “administrative detention” without disclosing any charges against him.
In the Palestinian territory, the rift between Fatah, which was once the main party of the Palestinian national movement, and the Islamist faction Hamas widened after a short-lived coalition fell apart in June 2007. Hamas consolidated control of the Gaza Strip while the Palestinian Authority under President Mahmoud Abbas retained Fatah rule in the West Bank.
Journalists reported continued harassment and censorship by Hamas officials in Gaza and by officials with the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Several journalists working for news outlets based in the West Bank and Gaza said they chose their words carefully in writing about human rights abuses and politics because they feared reprisals.
Violent clashes between the factions, including a bomb blast that killed six on a Gaza beach in July, initiated waves of arrests of Fatah and Hamas supporters in both places. Journalists were among those swept up in the arrests and held for weeks or months. At least three were being held by Hamas security agents in Gaza when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists.
Fatah maintained its distribution ban on Gaza-based publications Al-Risala and Falastin, local journalists told CPJ. The government halted their distribution in the West Bank in June 2007, accusing the two newspapers of favoring Hamas. The Hamas-led government in the Gaza Strip was similarly intolerant of media perceived to have pro-Fatah bias. In July, Hamas banned distribution of three newspapers, Al-Hayat al-Jadida, Al-Ayyam, and Al-Quds, local journalists and human rights activists said.
Palestinian journalists working for international news agencies were also targeted amid violence between Fatah and Hamas. On July 26, Hamas security agents arrested a camera operator for the German broadcaster ARD TV at his home in Tel Al-Hawa. The arrest of Sawah Abu Seif followed an explosion in southwest Gaza that Hamas blamed on Fatah. Abu Seif had not filmed the explosion or its aftermath, but was picked up in a roundup of Palestinians with suspected links to Fatah, AP reported. Abu Seif was held for five days and abused by security agents, ARD Bureau Chief Richard Schneider told CPJ. The agents interrogated him about his work and confiscated his laptop computer and cell phone, but did not charge him with any crime.
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