Palestinian photographers are claiming that undercover Israeli security officers have been posing as photojournalists covering the recent Muslim demonstrations in Jerusalem.
Awad Awad, chairman of the Palestinian Photojournalists Committee, said a group of local residents had confirmed the presence of an Israeli police unit known to imitate Arab civilian dress, as well as Israeli security personnel posing as photojournalists and then arresting protesters.
"People in east Jerusalem claimed they saw this on Thursday, but at first I just thought they were talking," Awad told The Media Line. "But then on Friday lots of people saw three policemen dressed as still-photographers suddenly detain one of the protesters. Lots of Palestinian photographers started calling me and one resident caught it on his cellphone camera, but he says he doesn't want to get in trouble and he hasn't given me the pictures."
"This is a dangerous trap," he added. "It opens the door for anyone to say they don't want us to photograph."
Residents of the Ras al-Amud neighborhood told the Palestinian Center for Development and Media Freedoms that they witnessed Israeli agents carrying cameras and disguised as photojournalists arresting "several" young men who participated in demonstrations last Thursday and Friday.
The Center for Development and Media Freedoms claimed residents of the area have reported identical incidents.
The Israel Police said the rumors were baseless.
"There was no police operation that involved officers disguised as or dressed up as journalists in any way whatsoever," spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told The Media Line. "We have undercover units that work in Jerusalem but not using these kinds of tactics."
"We are not aware of any complaint from Palestinian photographers," Shmulik Ben-Ruby, a spokesman for the Jerusalem district police, told The Media Line. "They can file a complaint with our investigators."
There was disagreement among photographers at the scene of last week's clashes as to whether the incident took place, and the Foreign Press Association decided not to issue a statement on the matter. While other photojournalists on the scene confirmed the presence of police in civilian dress, many said they did not see Israeli officers posing as media people.
"I'd be the first one to stand up on the rooftops and shout this is not kosher, but as far as I know this did not happen and I think it's just a rumor," said a foreign photographer, who asked that his name not be published. "If it did happen, it wouldn't be the first time, but I was there and while I saw the undercover police I did not see this happen, and neither did other foreign and local photographers I asked."
"The problem is that even if it didn't happen, the fact that people may believe that it did makes it more difficult for the press to work, because people don't trust the press," the photographer told The Media Line. "So I think it needs to be squashed as soon as possible."
Yizhar Be'er, executive director of Keshev, the Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel, said such claims endangered journalists whether they turned out to be true or not.
"These kinds of claims, whether they are true or pure rumor, are very serious and greatly endanger journalists," Be'er told The Media Line. "As a former Israeli journalist in the occupied territories I often heard of such cases, and in one instance I personally met security forces posing as journalists, and I remember how scary such reports and even rumors were for us."
"Of course there are many rumors that are actually not true," he said. "But any attempt to pose as a journalist is illegal, violates freedom of expression and is a dramatic violation of the security of journalists."
The Israel Police is known to employ undercover officers dressed to look like Palestinians, a tactic that goes back at least as far as the first intifada. Claims of Israeli officers posing as members of the press or medical personnel, however, are much more rare, and have led to campaigns by Israeli and foreign press associations to ban the practice.