The Washington Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief, William Booth, and an Arab colleague, Sufian Taha, were briefly detained and questioned by police on Tuesday for suspicion of “incitement” while conducting interviews outside the Old City’s Damascus Gate.
Booth and Taha’s detention followed a spate of three attempted terrorist attacks at the location in less than 48 hours, including a thwarted knife assault earlier Tuesday morning when a 26-year-old Arab man was arrested after police found the weapon hidden in his sleeve.
According to Washington Post correspondent Ruth Eglash, Booth and Taha, a contract writer for the paper who covers the West Bank, were pulled aside by police while interviewing Arab locals.
“They took them to the police station, and about a half hour later said they could go,” Eglash said shortly after both men were released. “He [Booth] doesn’t want to talk about it, and said it was just a misunderstanding.”
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Border Police detained Booth and Taha after receiving a report that they might be part of a staged protest that could lead to more violence.
“There was a report that Palestinians were being paid to stage a protest there to see how police officers would respond,” said Rosenfeld.
“Due to significant security concerns in that very sensitive area by Damascus Gate – where numerous attacks took place in less than 48 hours – police escorted [Booth] and a man working with him to another area.
“They were questioned and released after 20 minutes when it was clear there were no suspicions against the activities or work they were conducting in the area,” he said.
Noting the ongoing, acute tension by the east Jerusalem entrance to the Old City, compounded by the arrest that took place there hours earlier of a suspect from Jenin, Rosenfeld said police must remain hyper vigilant of any possible threats in the area.
Booth, who could not be reached for comment, has worked with The Washington Post throughout his career as a reporter and bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles, Miami and Los Angeles.
During a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated that Israel is resolutely committed to a free and open press.
“We do not arrest journalists,” he said. “The press in Israel is robust, free, extremely energetic and free to say anything that it wants… And you know what? It does.
“[Censorship] is not the case in our neighborhood,” Netanyahu added, referring to surrounding autocratic and theocratic Arab governments that do not allow a free press.
Following the detention, Israel’s Government Press Office issued a statement condemning the incident, and called for restraint among police and the foreign press in the volatile capital.
“The Government Press Office regrets today’s incident at Damascus Gate in which a correspondent for The Washington Post was unnecessarily detained by the Border Police – probably the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding,” the statement said.
“Freedom of the press is a supreme value in the Israeli democracy. Israel is doing its utmost to enable the foreign press to work freely, without any pressure.
We call upon the security forces and journalists to act with restraint and to avoid confrontations during these tense times.
“The GPO endeavors to prevent such incidents,” the statement continued.
“We shall examine today’s events and draw the necessary conclusions.”
The Foreign Ministry described Booth and Taha’s detentions as “unfortunate,” adding that it unnecessarily “cast a shadow on a great journalist.”
“We will ask the Israel Police for the necessary clarifications,” the ministry said in a brief statement.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Press Association issued a sharply worded statement to take issue with what it deemed “baseless” detentions.
“The FPA protests in the strongest possible terms the detention today by Israeli Border Police of William Booth, The Washington Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief, and Sufian Taha, the paper’s West Bank correspondent,” the statement said.
“Shortly after noon, the two were interviewing Palestinian and Jewish residents of Jerusalem at Damascus Gate, along with Washington Post correspondent Ruth Eglash. When Booth and Taha tried to interview some high school students on the steps opposite the gate, police waved them away.
They then retreated to interview the teenagers under a tree.
“Shortly after, Border Police waved the two journalists over and asked them for their IDs. They presented their Government Press Office cards as identification, but these were waved away and they were asked for official identity documents.
“Although the journalists made it very clear that they were reporting a story for The Washington Post, police took them to a nearby police station where they were held for about 40 minutes, then released. When they asked police why they had been held, police said they had suspected the journalists of ‘inciting’ Palestinians.”
The statement continued: “The FPA protests this absurd accusation against a respected international news outlet, as well as the detention, however brief, of an accredited foreign journalist and his Palestinian colleague.”
“We note that it comes in the context of heavy-handed tactics – including violent attacks – deployed in recent months by Border Police against foreign journalists and their Palestinian co-workers covering the unrest in Jerusalem and the West Bank.
“We do not think it is coincidental that a baseless accusation of ‘incitement’ was made at a time when blanket accusations of bias are being leveled against the foreign press by Israeli officials and commentators.
“We, furthermore, urge Israeli police and other authorities to recognize their own government-issued GPO cards and allow those holding them to work without hindrance.”Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.