FPA irate over humiliation of Al Jazeera cameraman

Analysis: But should it turn to the president rather than the Shin Bet?

Peres greets Arab journalist 311 (photo credit: GPO)
Peres greets Arab journalist 311
(photo credit: GPO)
On Tuesday night, the Foreign Press Association in Israel published the following statement: “The Foreign Press Association demands that Israeli Authorities immediately cease undressing foreign and Arab journalists at official events.
This outrageous policy is an affront to common sense, an assault on human dignity and a blight upon the State of Israel. It simply must stop.
“The latest outrage occurred earlier today when an Al Jazeera cameraman was asked to remove his pants upon arrival for an interview with President Shimon Peres – an interview that came at the invitation of the president himself to criticize anti-Muslim violence! The explanations we have received – that such inspections are necessary for Arab journalists – are deeply troubling in a country that bills itself as the Middle East’s only democracy.
“It is not the first time this has happened. This pattern has existed for years and has become more entrenched and aggressive over the past year.
“We respect Israel’s need to maintain tight security. But when there is so much technology available to scan both people and their belongings, such practices cannot be justified and have nothing to do with security. The truth is darker and sadder: This lamentable policy combines blatant racism with systematic and ham-handed media harassment.
“Sadly, by now we expect nothing better from the Shin Bet. Frankly, we have ceased hoping that the Prime Minister’s Office – scene of some of the most persistent abuses – will intervene. But it is deeply disappointing that this policy is also accepted and enabled by the office of Shimon Peres – a Nobel Peace [Prize] Laureate and outspoken advocate of human rights and progressive thinking.
We respectfully call on the president to use the influence of his office to end this abomination.”
The fact of the matter is that the president has no authority over the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), and journalists are not the only people who suffer indignities and humiliation at the hands of its employees.
Interviewed by Yaakov Ahimeir on Israel Radio on Wednesday morning, Government Press Office director Oren Helman denied that there was a policy of discrimination against Arab journalists. He said that Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein is concerned about the way that foreign journalists are treated, and conceded that what was done to the cameraman was a blow to Israel’s image.
He also publicly apologized to the cameraman who had been subjected to special security scrutiny.
In his interview with Ahimeir, Helman said that security was not the province of the Government Press Office, implying that if it was, there would be fewer complaints.
Al Jazeera bureau chief Walid al-Omary told Ahimeir that while he understood security concerns, Arab journalists should not be treated differently to non-Arab journalists. If additional security precautions must be taken, he said, they should apply to everyone and not just to Arabs.
When the cameraman had called him, he said, he had instructed him to abort the assignment and to leave.
Al Jazeera representatives have frequently been targeted by security personnel.
In January of this year, Al Jazeera reporter Najwan Simri Diab was among many journalists who responded to an invitation issued by the Government Press Office to attend a New Year’s reception that would be addressed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
The event is held annually at the David Citadel Hotel, where security is very tight.
Nonetheless, very few of the invitees are asked to strip. Diab, who was pregnant, was taken out of the line by security officers and asked to remove her clothes. She did so, but refused to take off her bra. She was told that unless she did, she would not be allowed to enter. She chose to preserve what was left of her dignity, and gave the prime minister a miss. This was the sixth time she had been at such a reception, and she carries a press card issued by the GPO, but that was of little use to her.
Jewish and other non-Arab journalists were also subjected to strip searches, including photographer Menachem Kahana and the bureau chief of The Wall Street Journal, among others. Some had to wait in their underwear for as long as twenty minutes until their papers were checked In another instance, a haredi rabbi attending another ceremony at the President’s Residence was kept waiting outside in the heat for well over half an hour because his name was not in the computer, even though he had an invitation and various documents testifying to his identity.
On another occasion, soldiers who came to the President’s Residence on Independence Day to receive citations and scholarships for outstanding service, were made to remove their belts, their pants and their boots before being permitted into the compound.
There is little consolation in the fact that Jews receive similar treatment.
Too often the dignity of the individual is sacrificed on the altar of security, when a polite word of explanation and something in the nature of an apology would go a long way in avoiding resentment at loss of respect.
Maybe, especially with Yom Kippur almost upon us, the Shin Bet which sets the rules for guarding the key figures of the state, should review its actions so that the people it protects, such as the president, should not have to apologize for the security service’s trampling on human dignity.