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Foreign journalists freely cover Gaza operation
By LAHAV HARKOV
19/11/2012
GPO allows 500 journalists free access to conflict zones; Guardian correspondent says treatment of press different to Cast Lead.
 
Foreign journalists are enjoying unprecedented freedom in covering the Gaza conflict this week, especially in comparison to the situation in 2008- 2009 with Operation Cast Lead.

According to the Government Press Office, as of Sunday, 500 foreign journalists applied for press credentials allowing them free access to conflict zones, in addition to nearly 1,400 journalists and crew members already covering Israel and the Middle East.

Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein instructed GPO Director Nitzan Chen to grant the journalists access as quickly and efficiently as possible. As such, the GPO has been working extended hours and organizing tours to the South led by Edelstein, including to the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon.

The New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Jodi Rudoren was not immediately authorized to enter Gaza on Thursday, although eventually the IDF let her cross the border.

“I spent three hours in Yad Mordechai, roaming around the kibbutz [near the Gaza border],” she recounted on Sunday. “A soldier kept saying we were approved to enter Gaza, but nothing happened. We were quite worried we wouldn't get in.”

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Rudoren tried calling the IDF, the Defense Ministry, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, and personally went to the roadblock near Yad Mordechai to try to put pressure on soldiers to let her through.

“They let us through in the end. It wasn’t so much waiting, at the end of the day,” she said.

The Guardian Jerusalem correspondent Harriet Sherwood said she was able to get into Gaza easily on Thursday.

“I drove to the Erez crossing and was stopped in Yad Mordechai, because the road was blocked,” she explained.

“There were lots of journalists, and the IDF allowed us to cross through.”

The only limitation on foreign journalists entering Gaza, according to Sherwood, was that they were asked to sign a disclaimer that they would not blame the IDF if they are injured or worse.

Sherwood, who was foreign editor at the Guardian during Operation Cast Lead, said the GPO’s current treatment of press is very different from what it was four years ago.

“[In Operation Cast Lead], foreign journalists weren’t allowed into Gaza until it was over. Israel came under a lot of criticism. People should be allowed to report. [This time,] Israeli authorities are incredibly forthcoming to foreign journalists.

The GPO is working overtime,” she said.

The Guardian correspondent said the GPO must have understood that it “can’t stop people from reporting the conflict. In this Internet age, we’d still get reports from the inside, from people tweeting or blogging.”

“It’s very last-century to try to stop news from getting out,” she quipped.

Similarly, Chen said the GPO learned its lesson from Operation Cast Lead, and came to the conclusion that openness and transparency are preferable.

“We let journalists cover what they want, so they can see themselves that Israel has nothing to hide,” he said.

“They go where they want without any limitations.”

Chen says international press coverage of Operation Pillar of Defense has been significantly more positive than that of Operation Cast Lead.

“The Israeli narrative is more prominent in the media,” he explained. “The openness has been indicated in the press, which is naturally critical.”

Once inside Gaza, both Sherwood and Rudoren did not feel any limitations or pressures from Hamas.

Describing the press situation in Gaza as a “free for all,” Rudoren recounted Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil’s visit, together with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to al-Shifa Hospital on Friday, in which 200 journalists gathered in a crowded hallway.

“People were screaming and pushing, and a huddle of security guards and doctors kept people back. The two of them were ready to give a press conference and nobody would shut up – there wasn’t even a person trying to get them to shut up. No one asked if anyone has more questions, or for us to sign in, or see press passes,” the New York Times reporter said.

Rudoren explained that many foreign reporters were staying in the same hotel, but not a single Hamas official or Palestinian Center for Human Rights representative approached members of the press gathered in the lobby to “peddle an angle.”

According to Sherwood, members of the press weren’t asked to get accreditation from the Hamas Interior Ministry, because government offices were closed in recent days.

“You don’t feel like you’re being followed in Gaza,” she said, pointing out that “Hamas officials went underground.”

Meanwhile, the IDF took to Twitter to defend itself from accusations it had aimed at members of the press, tweeting that it had “targeted senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives who were hiding in a media building in Gaza.”

BBC Middle East Bureau Chief Paul Danahar tweeted: “The last strike on this media building in Gaza was called ‘precision’ by IDF. This one is not, it’s hit the lower floor.”

“Was the Islamic Jihad man killed in a Gaza media center there because he was giving an interview, or because he was hiding?” The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted.

Soon after, the IDF Spokesman tweeted that Palestinian Islamic Jihad operatives were not being interviewed in the media building and were using reporters as human shields.

“We targeted only the second floor, which is where the senior terrorists were. The rest of the building was unharmed. Direct hit confirmed,” the IDF tweeted.

A photo Danahar posted on Twitter indicated the IDF tweets were accurate, showing smoke billowing in the front of the media building, but only the second-floor windows blown out.

Also Monday, the International Federation of Journalists called on the international community to probe the IDF’s targeting of an antenna on the roof of the Al-Quds TV building in Gaza on Sunday.

“We demand a full inquiry by the United Nations to investigate the attacks and to take action against the government of Israel,” IFJ President Jim Boumelha said.

“ The rights of journalists in conflict zones have been particularly highlighted by the United Nations and member states cannot stand by when one state acts in a reckless and dangerous manner.”

Boumelha added that “the reckless intimidation of media by the Israeli Defense Force on a shocking scale should not go unpunished. If it does, it leaves journalists and media exposed to the threat of attack in any conflict at any time in the future.”
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