‘Israel must immediately allow foreign journalists access to Gaza. As in every war zone, reporting by journalists–and human rights monitors as well–can discourage abuse and is essential to full public understanding of the conflict,” trumpeted the New York Times last week, responding to restrictions Israel has placed on when reporters can pass through the Erez checkpoint from Israel into the Gaza Strip. (Reporters can also enter from Egypt, but most haven’t, presumably because they think they shouldn’t have to travel that far. “This is an Israel-based press corps!” New York Times reporter Ethan Bronner huffed in a phone call when I asked him why he didn’t “try Egypt.”)
The question of press access to Gaza it isn’t simply a matter, as Shepard Smith of Fox News recently put it, of “Israel not letting us in.” For a long time, nobody got in. The Erez checkpoint had been closed for several months, because of bombardment by Hamas–with a rocket even landing in its main entry hall. The checkpoint was forced open again only recently, after Israel’s Foreign Press Association petitioned the Israeli supreme court. The court ruled that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) would have to man the checkpoint once again and open it for traffic a few hours a day, with a caveat that it should be opened only when it seemed safe to do so. Undoubtedly many of the 18-year-old soldiers at the checkpoint are quite confused about when to open it, with the result that a number of reporters have found themselves cooling their heels just outside the gates–so near, yet so far from the journalistic Shangri-La of war-torn Hamastan.
Residents of Israel will recognize these mixed signals as nothing more than a good old Israeli balagan–a mess. Newcomers, however, most notably newly parachuted-in foreign reporters, tend to experience the balagan as directed expressly at them. This paranoia is fed by the myth promulgated by the MoveOn.org crowd that Israel works like a well-oiled police state. In fact, a balagan is likely to crop up when one part of the government (in this case, the supreme court) is pulling one way, and another part (defense minister Ehud Barak is supposed to be the culprit here) is pulling the other way. Government policies end up seesawing back and forth, with confused civilians caught in the middle.
But what of the Times’s argument that having reporters in the combat theater is “essential to full public understanding of the conflict”?
The argument sounds unimpeachable–until you learn what reporters are up against in the course of trying to do their jobs in the Gaza Strip. Here are some of the more famous incidents:
In December 2005, British aid worker Kate Burton was kidnapped along with her parents. She was held for three days. During this time she was asked, as the British paper the Guardian put it, “to read a statement in which Britain was castigated for its past and present role in the Middle East.” Did her reading the statement for video cameras affect whether she was released? The Guardian did not ask her to speculate.
In August 2006, it was the turn of Fox News reporter Steve Centani and his cameraman to be held in a mysterious location for two tense weeks, during which they were also filmed apologizing for past sins and promising to do better. An obviously shaken Centani has not returned to his Israel/Palestine beat and now covers Washington, D.C.
In September 2006, in the Jerusalem Post, Khaled Abu Toameh detailed a crackdown by Hamas on Palestinian media: “At least 15 gunmen stormed the offices of the local Sawt Al-Hurriya (Voice of Freedom) radio station” in Gaza City and forced a popular, but anti-Hamas, radio host “to accompany them to an unknown destination.” A week before, a Palestinian journalist working for WAFA (a sort of Palestinian AP) “was severely beaten by masked gunmen who stormed his office and destroyed all the equipment and furniture.”
In March 2007, Palestinian gunmen fired 14 bullets into the armored car of a United Nations official. “This is unprecedented, to shoot at a clearly marked U.N. vehicle with a U.N. flag flying in broad daylight,” said the official, John Ging. Ironically, Ging was Gaza director of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA), the largest nongovernmental employer in Gaza. It supplies food, medicine, and schools for about 70 percent of Gaza’s 1.5 million people.
Then, for reporters at least, there was the last straw: the kidnapping in March 2007 of the BBC’s Alan Johnston. Johnston, who had always gone out of his way to “tell the Palestinians’ story,” was held for nearly four months, during which he was given the full Baghdad-style hostage treatment. In the videos released by his captors, relatives could see him getting gaunter and more frightened with each appearance.