Journalists don’t get off easy. As has been widely reported, Australian journalist Peter Greste has been detained and held in appalling conditions in Egypt since December on charges of allegedly defaming their government and having ties to the ousted Muslim Brotherhood. He is one of many journalists detained by the Egyptian government for doing his job and reporting the news.
Reporters Without Borders documents how since the start of 2014, 19 journalists have been killed globally in the course of their work and 166 imprisoned, including seven journalists killed by militant groups in Syria.
Yet assaults on journalists aren’t isolated to Egypt and Syria – and sometimes journalists, rather than expressing solidarity with colleagues, actually abet such attacks.
Last week, two Israeli journalists were targeted by persons identifying themselves as Palestinian journalists – who then allegedly incited an angry mob to attack the pair whilst they were reporting on a demonstration in the West Bank.
Moreover, this attack was not an isolated incident – Israeli journalists report they are suffering ongoing threats and demands to keep out of the West Bank by many Palestinian journalists bent not only on restricting press freedom but promoting open hostility towards their Israeli counterparts.
Times of Israel journalist Avi Issacharoff and his cameraman Daniel Book were covering demonstrations near Ofer prison in the West Bank town of Beitunia. This wasn’t anything novel for Issacharoff who’d been covering the West Bank and Palestinian affairs for years. On this day, however, they were approached by two individuals identifying themselves as Palestinian journalists who ordered them to get out of the area and away from the demonstration.
Issacharoff objected that there was a joint agreement amongst Israeli and Palestinian journalists that they could both cover such protests. One of the pair shoved the reporter and told him to “get out.” Issacharoff refused to leave when one of the pair made a phone call. After the phone call – which appeared to end with the caller telling her friend it was “okay” – they were surrounded by dozens of angry men who threatened the journalists. Issacharoff was struck and kicked from behind several times on his back and legs by the mob. Fortunately, the Israelis were pulled away from the mob by PA security personnel just as things escalated.
Issacharoff and his cameraman feared it was a case of life and death. The journalist put the attack in context as follows:
For almost 14 years, I have been reporting Middle East affairs, and mainly the Palestinian arena. I’ve covered funerals, demonstrations, the lot. I’ve met with dozens of armed, wanted men. I’ve been at mass gatherings in Gaza, where tens of thousands of Hamas supporters, hundreds of them brandishing weapons, called out, “Death to Israel.” And yet, an incident like Friday’s had never happened to me.
This hostility is not isolated and actually accords with a wider campaign by many Palestinian journalists against the presence of their Israeli counterparts in the West Bank. Hundreds of Palestinian journalists signed a petition last year to ban Israeli journalists from the West Bank, as reported by Khaled Abu Toameh. Israeli reporters were labelled IDF soldiers and demands were made to withdraw all assistance and access provided to them by the Palestinian authority:
The Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, in a letter to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, called for banning Israeli journalists from entering Palestinian territories…Even Palestinian journalists working for Israeli or Jewish media organisations found themselves facing threats and attacks. In some instances, Palestinian journalists walked out of briefings by Palestinian Authority officials in Ramallah to protest against the presence of representatives of the Israeli media.
And unfortunately the threats to Israeli journalists have continued unabated as noted by Issacharoff:
For quite some time, those of us Israeli journalists reporting on the Palestinian scene have been finding it increasingly difficult to be “there” in the heart of the action in the West Bank, in the Palestinian cities. We’ve been threatened increasingly frequently, told to get out, to go away.
Of course, this attitude is not universal. Members of the Palestinian Journalists Association recently condemned the attack on Issacharoff and Book. Abbas also condemned the attack in a meeting with Issacharoff, with the PA leader being quoted as stressing the need to protect the freedom of media representatives in the Palestinian territories.
Yet other Palestinian journalists condemned Abbas for the apology and for meeting Isacharoff:
Palestinian journalists criticized Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas over the weekend for meeting with Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff.
Last week, Abbas received Issacharoff in his office and condemned the recent assault on him by Palestinians near Ramallah.
Palestinian photojournalist Fadi Arouri, who has been spearheading a campaign to ban Israeli journalists from entering Palestinian territories, said he was opposed to the meeting between Abbas and Issacharoff.
“I’m against Abbas receiving him and apologizing to him,” Arouri, who works for the Chinese news agency Xinhua, told Ramallah-based Wattan TV. “He [Issacharoff] is the one who should apologize to Palestinian journalists for involving them in this case.”
Arouri, who is a leading “anti-normalization” activist in Ramallah, said that Abbas’s advisers should have instead condemned “continued assaults on Palestinian journalists [by the IDF].”
Some of the motivation for this campaign comes from the anger by many Palestinian journalists who are currently denied accreditation in Israel. Issacharoff has himself argued that this denial of access to many Palestinian journalists is not ideal, and argues that unrestricted press would create a stronger, more informed discourse on the conflict.
However, the campaign against Israeli journalists is also motivated by the “anti-normalisation” movement which argues against virtually any contact between Israelis and Palestinians (for more on this, see FreshAIR’s past posts on the subject here and here).
Many Palestinian journalists who promote the divestment of both ties and co-operation with Israel – as well as those who are aligned with groups such as Hamas, a designated terrorist organisation – have rendered themselves unable to be accredited in Israel due to security concerns.
Abu Toameh has noted that there are a number of Palestinian journalists who promote the rejection of all ties with Israel and Israelis and nevertheless demand accreditation within Israel. He argues that they cannot have it both ways:
In recent years, Palestinian journalists have strongly opposed “normalization” with Israelis, including meetings with Israeli colleagues. Some Palestinian journalists who violated the ban and met with Israeli counterparts were denounced as traitors and expelled from the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate. So while Palestinian journalists are opposed to “normalization” with Israel, they are at the same time demanding that Israeli authorities grant them permission to work inside Israel.
Furthermore, independent press monitor Freedom House, which has consistently ranked Israel as enjoying the freest press in the region, has shown how press obstruction in the territories is not limited to Israelis but affects Palestinian journalists as well.
In their 2013 report Freedom House identified three actors as being responsible for press restrictions in the territories, the Fatah-controlled Palestinian authority, Hamas and the IDF. The report cited various instances of both Fatah and Hamas cracking down violently on many journalists reporting on conflict in the territories, especially those outspoken in their dissent of Palestinian governance.
Last year Hamas raided the homes of Palestinian journalists and detained them as part of a crackdown on those they considered dissident or opposed to the terrorist organisation. Since coming to power in 2007 they have repeatedly targeted Palestinian journalists and even sought to replace active Palestinian journalists with Hamas-affiliated media.
Meanwhile, the PA also cracks down on journalists not seen as toeing the party line. Khaled Abu Toameh describes a series of incidents last year which sparked protests from Palestinian journalists in the West Bank:
In the first incident, Palestinian policemen raided the home of George Canawati, director of Bethlehem Radio 2000, and arrested him in what eyewitnesses described as a violent manner.
Canawati, a Christian from the town of Bet Sahour, near Bethlehem, was accused of “slander” for criticizing the commander of the Bethlehem Police, Col. Omar Shalabi, during his weekly radio program.
The following day, Canawati appeared in a Bethlehem court with a black eye and a ripped shirt. He was quoted as saying that the interrogators had physically assaulted him before and during his interrogation.
In the second incident, Palestinian security officers arrested Sami al-Saee, a reporter for the Wattan news website in the West Bank city of Tulkarem.
The Palestinian Authority did not offer any explanation as to why al-Saee was arrested.
Hours after the Ramallah protest, Palestinian security officers raided the home of another journalist and blogger, Esmat Abdel Khalek, and confiscated documents and a laptop.
Abdel Khalek, who teaches journalism at a West Bank university, was arrested last year on suspicion of posting critical comments on her Facebook account about the Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas.
No reason was given for the latest raid on her home in Ramallah, although Palestinian journalists said that it could be linked to her ongoing criticism of the Palestinian Authority leadership….
The Palestinian Authority apparently does not want journalists to report about issues that could reflect negatively on its leaders – possibly the reason why criticism of Palestinian leaders is often denounced by the Palestinian Authority as an act of “treason.”
As for the IDF, the report acknowledges that the Israeli military has used its resources to combat terror and “restrict broadcasting by stations deemed to be advocating terrorism or affiliated with Hamas.” It is hardly unreasonable that Israel does not accredit and allow journalists inside its borders who align themselves with banned terrorist organisations like Hamas or the PFLP, and wish to use their purported title as a ‘journalist’ to promote violent extremism by taking advantage of the lack of press restrictions within Israel.
Dialogue, discussion and co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians will progress peace and lead to the freer exchange of information. Attacks on Israeli journalists and attempts to bar them from reporting on Palestinian issues and news are antithetical to this end. As noted by the victims of the most recent assault in Beitunia, a campaign of hostility and violence will not help anything:
The means employed by these young Palestinian journalists to protest this ban – by trying to bar Israeli reporters from Palestinians areas – helps no one…Keeping Israeli journalists from the West Bank’s Area A – fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority – will not lead to the lifting of the ban on Palestinian journalists from Israel.
As evidenced by the reaction to Issacharoff’s meeting with Abbas, the campaign against Israeli journalists is likely to continue. It bodes well neither for Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, nor for the safety of Israeli journalists doing an important job like Isscharoff, nor for Palestinian journalists operating in the territories.
But the fact that many Palestinian journalists are involved in these undemocratic and sometimes violent efforts is of great concern to the peace process. Many journalists within the territories as well as Fatah and Hamas have a long way to go to achieve anything resembling a free media, which will be essential if they are going to build a democratic and peaceful future state.