Attacks on the Press 2009: Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory

Top Developments
• Israel bars international press access to Gaza fighting.
• Fatah, Hamas detain, harass media perceived as biased.

Key Statistic
4: News media buildings in Gaza hit by Israeli airstrikes.

As the year began, the Israeli military waged a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip in response to a series of Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli territory. A massive Israeli air bombardment preceded the ground action. During the monthlong conflict, airstrikes by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) destroyed the headquarters of a Hamas-controlled television station, Al-Aqsa TV, struck at least three other buildings housing news media, and injured several local journalists attempting to cover the assault. At the same time, Israeli authorities largely barred foreign journalists’ access to Gaza with restrictions imposed in early November 2008 and tightened after the start of the Israeli offensive.


Main Index
• Regional Analysis:
Human rights coverage spreads despite government pushback
Country Summaries
Israel, Occupied Palestinian Territories
Other developments

By the time Israeli forces withdrew on January 21, 13 Israelis and more than 1,000 Palestinians had been killed, according to figures released by the Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza and the IDF. Israel’s blanket news media restrictions severely limited coverage of the Gaza offensive and contravened a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court as well as international legal principles. The Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem declared in a statement that “the unprecedented denial of access to Gaza for the world’s media amounts to a severe violation of press freedom and puts the state of Israel in the company of a handful of regimes around the world which regularly keep journalists from doing their jobs.” Only 15 journalists, handpicked by the Israeli military and embedded with Israeli troops, were officially permitted to enter the Gaza Strip during the war. (In the waning days of the conflict, a handful of international journalists managed to reach Gaza through the Egyptian-administered Rafah Crossing, either by sneaking across or persuading Egyptian guards to let them through.) A small number of international journalists who had been in Gaza before the start of the offensive remained there throughout the fighting.

The press restrictions were part of a massive public relations battle over coverage in the international press. Israeli officials emphasized Hamas rocket attacks and the reported use of human shields, while Arab television stations continuously ran footage of Gaza casualties. The New York Times observed that as hundreds of foreign journalists who traveled to Israel to cover the war were repeatedly barred from crossing the border, reporters “waited in clusters away from direct contact with any fighting or Palestinian suffering, but with full access to Israeli political and military commentators eager to show them around southern Israel, where Hamas rockets have been terrorizing civilians.” Daniel Seaman, director of Israel’s Government Press Office, told the Times, “Any journalist who enters Gaza becomes a fig leaf and front for the Hamas terror organization, and I see no reason why we should help that.” Amid the ban, Palestinian journalists working for local and international news organizations came under frequent attack as they brought the news of the IDF’s military assault to audiences worldwide. The mobility of many of these Palestinian journalists was already limited by the lack of Israeli media accreditation.

On January 25, in response to a lawsuit brought by the Foreign Press Association, the Israeli Supreme Court overturned the ban on foreign journalists’ entering Gaza. A previous Supreme Court ruling, issued on December 31, 2008, had instructed the government to grant 12 journalists entry into Gaza each time the Erez Crossing on the northern end of the Strip was opened; the government, however, failed to carry out the court’s directive. Even after the January 25 ruling, Israeli authorities declined to commit publicly to the free movement of journalists throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory.

Long after the Gaza offensive ended, the battle over international opinion continued in the form of a diplomatic standoff over how to handle the findings of a U.N. fact-finding mission to Gaza. The mission’s 575-page report, known as the Goldstone report after its director, South African Justice Richard Goldstone, was released in September. It found that both Israeli security forces and Hamas militants had committed serious war crimes and breaches of humanitarian law during the Gaza conflict, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity. Among other findings, the Goldstone report stated that Israeli soldiers had deliberately targeted civilians in Gaza. (Israeli authorities denied targeting civilians, although they acknowledged collateral civilian casualties.) The report set off an international furor, with opponents vehemently accusing the mission of anti-Israel bias, and the Arab League lobbying for its adoption by the U.N. Security Council. The U.S. House of Representatives condemned the report in a resolution. For many, the debate over the report’s factual findings underscored the need for broader journalistic access in Gaza.

Local and international media facilities came under IDF fire on at least four occasions after Israel began its military offensive on December 27, 2008. During that time, the IDF also took over the frequencies of Al-Aqsa TV and Sawt al-Sha’b radio multiple times to beam Israeli military propaganda. On January 5, the IDF bombed the offices of the Hamas-affiliated Al-Risala newsweekly, according to regional news agencies. On January 9, the IDF hit the rooftop of Gaza City’s Al-Johara Tower, which housed more than 20 international news organizations. Al-Jazeera reported that at least one journalist was injured while filing a report from the roof.

On January 15, the IDF fired at least one missile at a Gaza City building, Al-Shuruq Tower, which housed more than a dozen international news and production companies, including Reuters, Fox News, and the Dubai-based television station Al-Arabiya. Two journalists working for Abu Dhabi TV were hospitalized with head and torso injuries. The blast also destroyed power generators and forced staff to evacuate the building. Multiple news organizations reported that they had provided the Israeli military with coordinates for their offices. Reuters also noted that the Israeli military had given the news agency numerous assurances that it would not become a target. An Israeli military spokesman told Reuters that Hamas militants had taken over a media office in the area. CPJ research found the IDF accusations of a militant takeover vague and uncorroborated by witnesses. Reuters publicly disputed the claim.

In April, CPJ wrote to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging the Israeli government to examine the press restrictions and military strikes on media facilities that had occurred during the Israeli offensive in Gaza and to bring official policies and practices in line with international standards. In particular, CPJ urged Israeli authorities not to impose blanket media restrictions in the future, to conduct immediate and thorough investigations into the apparent targeting of news media facilities during the conflict, and to make the findings public.

In June, months after the Gaza conflict had ended, an Israeli court sentenced two television journalists to two months in jail on charges of breaching the military censorship law during the offensive. Khader Shaheen, a correspondent for the Iranian satellite television news station Al-Alam, and his producer, Muhammad Sarhan, remained free on appeal, according to their lawyers. They had been arrested in January and held for 10 days on charges that they reported Israeli military movements the previous month. The military censorship law enables authorities to determine what material may not be published; local and foreign journalists are bound by this law as a condition of operating in Israel or the Occupied Palestinian Territory. CPJ research indicated that Shaheen and Sarhan had reported the same news as many other journalists. CPJ protested the Israeli court ruling against Shaheen and Sarhan and called on the courts to overturn their sentence.

In the Palestinian territories, the rift between Fatah, 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 operating in the Palestinian territories were subject to harassment and censorship by Hamas officials in Gaza and by Palestinian Authority officials in the West Bank. Each party maintained a ban on the distribution of publications they perceived as partisan, and they detained numerous journalists, generally for short periods, with a few held for days at a time.

In late January, the Palestinian Authority detained two journalists working for the London-based Al-Quds television station in the West Bank. Nablus correspondent Samer Khuaira was arrested by the authority’s Preventive Security Service and accused of having bias toward Hamas, which he denied. Khuaira told CPJ he spent a week in solitary confinement in Al-Junaid Prison in Nablus before he was transferred to a general holding cell. He was released in early March. Colleague Ahmad Bekawi, a correspondent in Jenin, was arrested after being called to the offices of Military Intelligence, and was held at the same prison until mid-April. Also in late January, Issam al-Rimawi, a cameraman with the Palestinian Authority-aligned Palestinian News Agency, was picked up by security forces, held at Beitunia Prison near Ramallah, and released on February 10. CPJ criticized the detentions and called on the Palestinian Authority to either charge or release the journalists.

In July, the Palestinian Authority instructed Al-Jazeera to cease operating in the West Bank for four days after the satellite channel aired controversial statements by Faruq al-Qadumi, a Fatah party leader, about Abbas. Al-Qadumi accused Abbas of being involved with former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a plot to assassinate Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders in 2004. According to Al-Jazeera’s Web site, the Palestinian Information Ministry described the allegations as untrue and accused Al-Jazeera of “devoting significant segments of its broadcasts to incitement against the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority.” Al-Jazeera has about 30 correspondents, camera operators, fixers, and technicians operating in the West Bank.

Journalists working in the Palestinian territories also faced harassment from Israeli authorities. In October, Israeli security forces assaulted a journalist working for the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA) in east Hebron, according to the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms, or MADA. Correspondent and photographer Abdel-Hafiz Hashlamoun said Israeli soldiers beat him with a gun and kicked him while he was filming Israeli soldiers alleged to have destroyed irrigation pipes belonging to Palestinian farmers, MADA reported. In a separate case in October, EPA photographer Najeh Hashlamoun said Israeli Civilian Administration workers had struck him in the face with his own camera, MADA reported. In June, Israeli soldiers assaulted five photojournalists working for international media and prevented them from covering a gathering of Palestinian and Israeli activists protesting the confiscation of farmers’ land, according to the Arab media advocacy group SKeyes. One journalist reported that a soldier pushed him down, causing him to hit his head and fall unconscious.

Also in October, according to MADA and other sources, Israeli security forces disguised themselves as journalists to infiltrate a group of Palestinian protesters in Jerusalem. Awad Awad, chairman of the Palestinian Photojournalists’ Committee, said the security agents were dressed as photographers and carried cameras. The agents arrested a number of young protesters at the demonstration.