Attacks on the Press 2003: Israel and the Occupied Territories

The Israeli army continued to imperil reporters and restrict their work in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, making the area one of the most complicated and dangerous assignments for journalists in the Middle East. During 2003, two journalists were shot and killed by Israel Defense Forces (IDF) fire. Others encountered harsh treatment at checkpoints or had to contend with army-imposed limits on their movements.

As in previous years, the press freedom climate in the Occupied Territories changed depending on the conflict. With fewer armed clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in 2003 than during the first two years of the second intifada, which began in 2000, journalists say that working in the territories has become in some ways less dangerous. However, conditions remain violently unpredictable.

Within two weeks in late April and early May, Israeli forces shot dead two cameramen, bringing to six the number of journalists killed by Israeli fire since 2000. On April 19, Associated Press Television News cameraman Nazih Darwazeh was shot in the West Bank city of Nablus while covering clashes between Palestinian youths and Israeli troops. Darwazeh was filming an Israeli tank stranded at the corner of an alleyway when an Israeli soldier took a position on one knee near the tank and fired a single shot at where Darwazeh and several colleagues were standing, about 11 to 22 yards (10 to 20 meters) away. Darwazeh, who was wearing a fluorescent jacket marked "Press," was hit in the head and died instantly, according to eyewitnesses. (See CPJ's Web site, www.cpj.org, for more details.)

The IDF maintains that troops had been rescuing the stranded tank when they were attacked with stones, and that "explosive devices and shots were fired from the crowd." Journalists said that although gunfire and clashes had occurred nearby, none took place in the alley at the time of the shooting. Despite eyewitness accounts and video footage, the IDF argues that it cannot say who fired the shot that killed Darwazeh. The IDF says it is conducting an investigation into the incident but has yet to make public any results.

Thirteen days later, on May 2, British freelance cameraman and film director James Miller was fatally shot in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, Miller was with a crew filming an HBO documentary about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When they attempted to leave the area that evening, Miller and several crew members came under fire while they tried to identify themselves as journalists to Israeli troops in armored personnel carriers about 109 yards (100 meters) away. The journalists, who were wearing jackets and helmets marked "TV," shined a flashlight on a white flag they were holding and shouted at the troops. As they approached, Miller was hit in the neck by one of several rounds that were fired, and he later died of his injuries. The Israeli army said troops in the area returned fire after being attacked with rocket-propelled grenades. Army officials claimed that Miller was struck by a bullet from behind, suggesting that he may have been hit by Palestinian fire.

A detailed investigation sponsored by Miller's colleagues, family, and friends and conducted by British security consultant Chris Cobb-Smith of the security company Chiron Resources Limited, however, concluded that IDF soldiers "consciously and deliberately targeted" Miller and his crew. The report noted that the area where Miller's crew was operating had been quiet for about an hour before he was killed. Prior to that time, only sporadic gunfire was heard, but not in the journalists' vicinity. According to the report, it is reasonable to assume that the IDF troops heard the crew calling to them, and that they were aware of the crew's presence. At year's end, an Israeli military police investigation into the incident was under way. The IDF's investigation into the shooting has not been made public.

The military's previous record of investigating such incidents does not bode well for the official inquiries launched into the deaths of Darwazeh and Miller. Over the years, the army has failed to conduct thorough investigations into cases where journalists have been wounded or killed by IDF gunfire, let alone punish those responsible for the attacks. The same can be said for troops who physically attack or otherwise mistreat journalists in the field.

A number of such incidents occurred during 2003 in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In January, Israeli border police in Nablus assaulted Nasser Ishtayeh, of The Associated Press, and Jaafar Ishtayeh, of Agence France-Presse. (The two are distant relatives.) Troops punched and threatened the journalists when they attempted to photograph Israeli border police who had forced two Palestinian youths to ride on the hood of a moving jeep. The journalists claimed that the troops were using the two as "human shields" to deter attacks from stone-throwing youths.

The army closed a number of Palestinian radio and television stations in late January. On January 30, troops entered the building housing the private, Hebron-based Al-Nawras TV and Al-Marah Radio and ordered the stations closed without providing a reason, according to staff members. Troops also shuttered the private Al-Majd TV a few hours later after soldiers asked the staff if they had contacts with the militant organizations Hamas and Islamic Jihad. An IDF spokesman said the stations were closed "based on information of broadcasting and distribution of incitement to terror." In October, troops briefly raided the Ramallah office of the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite news channel during a larger sweep of a nearby mosque.

Since the second intifada began in September 2000, journalists trying to report from the West Bank and Gaza Strip have experienced sharp limits on their freedom of movement. The Israeli army has created a web of checkpoints throughout the West Bank and has sealed off towns and cities with large barriers. Moving from town to town can be a logistical headache or, depending on the security situation or the whims of individual soldiers, impossible. Since the army reoccupied most West Bank towns in April 2002, it increased the number of roadblocks and has regularly imposed curfews on Palestinian cities, which has also curtailed reporting.

Today, only a few Israeli journalists venture into the Occupied Territories because of army restrictions and safety concerns. The few who do go must sign a waiver absolving the army of responsibility for their safety. Foreign journalists are generally not required to sign waivers.

It is extremely difficult for Palestinian journalists to work in the Occupied Territories. 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. Because GPO press cards help facilitate journalists' movement through army checkpoints, news organizations complain that the measure has hurt their ability to cover the territories since many employ Palestinian stringers and fixers. During 2003, Israeli forces detained several Palestinian journalists working during curfews because, without GPO press cards, they were unable to prove they were accredited journalists.

Foreign correspondents say they have experienced increased hostility from some Israeli officials who accuse international media outlets of bias or unfair coverage of Israel. Journalists cite the GPO's accreditation suspension as one result of that hostility, but there were other examples. In June, Israel ceased all official cooperation with the BBC after the network aired a documentary about Israel's arsenal of unconventional weapons. The government said officials would not give interviews to the BBC and would make it difficult for BBC reporters to get accreditation and work visas. In April, security authorities at Ben Gurion Airport detained two French journalists from TV channel Canal Plus and held them overnight. The journalists had arrived to work on a story about international peace activists in the Occupied Territories, some of whom were shot and wounded by Israeli troops.

The Foreign Press Association of Israel (FPA) and foreign correspondents cited numerous other examples of foreign journalists who endured protracted delays, interrogations, and the confiscation of their equipment at various ports of entry into Israel. Some foreign media workers also encountered excessive bureaucracy while attempting to secure residency visas.

In November, the GPO announced new administrative guidelines for press accreditation that included a provision requiring the country's internal security service, Shin Bet, to vet all journalists seeking accreditation. The new regulation appeared to give the GPO and Israeli security authorities broad discretion to deny applications based on vague or unsubstantiated security concerns. After vocal protest from Israeli press groups and the FPA, the guidelines were quietly scrapped in November.

Israel's Hebrew-, Arabic-, and English-language press are mostly free, but government and military officials can censor media outlets if authorities deem certain news--such as troop buildups and death counts--harmful to the country's security interests. Journalists, however, have the option of appealing such censorship to the High Court of Justice. Most media can circumvent restrictions by attributing sensitive stories to foreign news outlets, whose information is not subject to censorship.

Israeli journalists objected in January when Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein sub-poenaed the cell phone records of Ha'aretz journalist Baruch Kra. The subpoena came as part of a criminal investigation to determine the source of a leak Kra received about an undercover government criminal inquiry into a questionable loan to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's sons from a family friend. The phone records were obtained and officials eventually fingered the source of the leak--a state prosecutor who is now facing prosecution herself.

PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY TERRITORIES


Journalists operating in areas under the control of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian National Authority (PNA) faced several obstacles in 2003, but overt press freedom abuses by the PNA have diminished as its power has faded. For years, the PNA and its various security apparatuses have routinely harassed the local media by arresting, intimidating, and censoring those who publish dissenting views. However, with the PNA weakened by repeated Israeli military assaults and the IDF's reoccupation of most of the West Bank, the authority's ability to impose control has been greatly reduced.

Palestinian journalists said they received fewer phone calls in 2003 from officials pressuring them to change their reporting. As a result, some journalists were more likely to criticize Palestinian authorities. Nonetheless, the mainstream Palestinian media engage in self-censorship because of the close financial or political ties they have with Palestinian officials.

Authorities still crack down on the media, particularly in the Gaza Strip, where Palestinian institutional control has long been concentrated. In January, Palestinian security forces detained Saifeddin Shahin, the Gaza correspondent for the Qatar-based satellite channel Al-Jazeera, for several hours. They questioned him about an Al-Jazeera news bulletin during which a news anchor conducted a telephone interview with a man claiming to be a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade who said the group was responsible for a recent suicide bombing. The caller also criticized the PNA.

In July, when Palestinian groups and Israel reached a temporary cease-fire, the Palestinian Information Ministry warned print and broadcast editors to tone down their political coverage. Specifically, editors were warned to avoid interviews with armed militants not under PNA control, to avoid overly nationalistic editorializing, and to support the cease-fire.

While the PNA's weakness limited official interference in the press in 2003, it created other potential threats to journalists, because armed groups and political factions now have more power. On September 13, five armed masked men stormed the Ramallah offices of the Dubai-based satellite news channel Al-Arabiyya and destroyed office equipment. The assailants, who identified themselves as members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militant group loosely linked to Arafat's Fatah organization, told the staff to stop working from the office. The journalists said the men never gave a reason for the attack, but staff members believe that the attack may have come in retaliation for Al-Arabiyya's recent reports on internal struggles in the PNA, including control over security services and the role of the Palestinian prime minister.

The PNA controls the official Palestine TV and Voice of Palestine radio, which reflect PNA views. Private Palestinian broadcast stations have proliferated across the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the last decade but have endured financial hardship, closure by Israeli and Palestinian forces, and the destruction of their facilities by the Israeli army.

March 11, 2004 12:04 PM ET |

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