‘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.
Johnston’s captivity may have been prolonged by what Steve Erlanger of the New York Times called “the madness,” the climactic war between Hamas and al-Fatah. Erlanger, who had himself been the victim of a very hushed-up kidnapping attempt, described “the madness” as “putting bullets in the back of the heads of men on their knees. Shooting up hospitals. Killing patients. Kneecapping doctors. Executing clerics. Throwing handcuffed prisoners to their deaths from Gaza’s highest (and most expensive) apartment buildings.”
After Johnston’s kidnapping, the strip became “a no-go zone for our members,” in the words of the Tel Aviv–based chapter of the global Foreign Press Association (FPA). “There is a huge load of frustration over Alan Johnston’s condition,” Simon McGregor-Wood, bureau chief for ABC and then chairman of the FPA, told Anshel Pfeffer of the Jerusalem Post, “and of course that is linked to the failure of the Authority to fix law and order.”
Despite their rage and frustration about Johnston’s treatment, foreign reporters exercised a great deal of self-censorship in discussing the anarchic conditions that had allowed Johnston’s captivity to drag on. “Despite widely publicizing Johnston’s plight,” Pfeffer wrote, “not all the details on his kidnapping . . . have been reported by the mainstream news organizations.”
McGregor-Wood reassured Pfeffer that “there was not any attempt to hide information. The main problem is that no one really knows for sure even what group is holding him; obviously we wouldn’t like to offend groups who might be helping him.”
McGregor-Wood doesn’t seem to have seen how that statement reflects the brutal atmosphere in which he was working. In a more civilized world, inadvertently “offending” some group won’t get your colleague killed.
There are other reasons Israeli officials are wary about an access-for-all-anytime policy.
Reporters and photographers, especially young macho photographers, have a way of getting wounded or even killed when they begin scurrying around in combat theaters. “They want to get a shot of the bullet coming out of the gun,” is the way one Israeli official put it. (Remember CNN’s Ben Wedeman, hit in the buttock by an Israeli bullet when he planted himself between the IDF and Palestinian militiamen.)
Government press office spokesman Danny Seaman explained restrictions on the press in past Israeli offensives by saying: “We are concerned about our soldiers and we wanted them to concentrate on the mission at hand and not worry, ‘Is that a terrorist? Is that a journalist?’”
There are other security issues. Israeli officials no doubt still have nightmares about the ebullient Mideast novice Ashley Banfield of MSNBC in the fall of 2000. An IDF unit was mustering for a raid on a West Bank target. It was going to be a surprise raid–until a breathless Banfield proudly released video that allowed anyone who knew the area to pinpoint the unit’s location.
According to Nachman Shai, a former Israeli-army spokesman, some of the current restrictions are a result of what happened in the 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. “The media were everywhere. Their cameras and tapes picked up discussions between commanders. People talked on live television. It helped the enemy and confused and destabilized the home front.”
There are good arguments on the other side. Keeping reporters out of the Jenin refugee camp in 2002 allowed PLO spokesmen like Saeb Erekat to tell wild stories of “massacres” under way. It took months for the U.N. to determine that there was no evidence of any massacre, and by then the term “Jenin massacre” had become a permanent part of the Mideast lexicon.
In the end, the quality of the reporting all comes down to the experience, the ethics, and, yes, the courage of the reporters in the field. There are many reporters working the Israel/Palestine beat who have these qualities. Unfortunately, because of the bad behavior of their colleagues (the FPA itself cites Charles Enderlin of France 2, who was behind the deceptive Mohammed Al-Dura videotapes, and Connie Mus of Holland’s RTL TV, famous for his flouting of IDF regulations), they will have to suffer the indignity of restricted access.
– Stephanie Gutmann is the author of The Other War: Israeli, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy.