Israel resists pressure to lift Gaza ban

Israel has banned journalists from entering the Gaza Strip for almost three weeks now. Despite international pressure, the Israeli government shows no sign of going back on its decision. This week, the Foreign Press Association took the matter all the way to the Supreme Court.
Israel says it will not reopen the Erez crossing until the Palestinians stop firing Qassam rockets. © Reuters

BEIRUT/GAZA, November 26, 2008 (MENASSAT) — It has been nearly three weeks since the Israeli authorities decision close the Erez-Beit Hanoun crossing into Gaza, effectively barring international journalists from entering and reporting on events in the Strip.

Initially, Israel denied that the ban was directed against the international media covering Gaza.

"There is no policy to prevent the media from entering Gaza, and the minute the security situation allows for the normal functioning of the crossings, journalists, like all of the others who have been inconvenienced, will be able to return to using the crossings," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister.

Shlom Dror, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, said journalists would be allowed back in "once the militants stop shooting."

But Dror set off a controversy when he suggested that Israel was unhappy with international media coverage of Gaza. "Where Gaza is concerned, our image will always be bad," Dror said. "When journalists go in it works against us, and when they don't go in it works against us."

Legal action

Last week, leaders of the world's biggest media organizations filed a protest with Israel's prime minister Wednesday criticizing the government's decision to ban journalists from entering the Gaza Strip for the last two weeks.

"We are gravely concerned about the prolonged and unprecedented denial of access to the Gaza Strip for the international media," they wrote in the letter to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. "We would welcome an assurance that access to Gaza for international journalists will be restored immediately in the spirit of Israel's long-standing commitment to a free press."

Despite the letter, and support from Israel's Foreign Press Association (FPA) and United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, the ban remains in effect.

On Monday, the Foreign Press Association decided to take the matter one step further by appealing to Israel's supreme court to overturn the government's ban.

The court petition, which names Gaza's military commander, the defence minister and the interior minister, claims the ban constitutes "a grave and mortal blow against freedom of the press and other basic rights and gives the unpleasant feeling that the state of Israel has something to hide."

"The FPA demanded to meet with the Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak who made the decision, but we didn't receive an answer," Ahmad al-Bedairi, a member of the board of the FPA who also works as a BBC reporter in Jerusalem, told MENASSAT. 

"It's because we are the weak link. We are not politicians or party officials, but we have a mission, which is usually humanitarian," he said. 

Al-Bedairi says the FPA is also looking into organizing protests that they hope they will lead to the cancellation of the decision and the return of the foreign journalists to Gaza.

Weakening the story

The ban was put in place after a series of Qassam rockets were fired on Israel from the Gaza Strip nearly three weeks ago. It affects mainly freelance journalists and smaller media agencies who don't have permanent bureaus in Gaza.

The ban is not news to Israeli journalists; they have been banned from entering the Gaza Strip for over two years.

According to one foreign journalist, who has been reporting in the region since 2002 and prefers to remain anonymous, "There is a deep suspicion towards Western media. I would say that 90 percent of the Israeli public believe that we are biased," she said.

She explained that foreign journalists entering Israel can work without formal permission inside Israel. "But once you want to go to Gaza, you need to get in touch with the government press office and apply for accreditation. It has been about one year that journalists need this press card and for a lot of people it’s difficult to get."

The journalist felt that the ban has had a great impact on the Gaza

"We still report what is happening, but we are unable to do feature stories or reportages, which have a much more emotional impact. The Israeli government is not able to totally stop coverage but they can keep us outside. In the end they want to weaken our stories."  

Steven Gutkin, the FPA's chairman and Jerusalem bureau chief of the Associated Press, echoed her words.

"We believe the Israeli government has an obligation to keep the Gaza border open to international journalists," Gutkin saId . "The foreign media serve as the world's window into Gaza and it's essential that we be allowed in."

(Olfat Haddad reported from Gaza City, Tania Tabar from Beirut.)