Covering Gaza Israel Shuts Out World Press

The Israelis have shut the world press out of the Gaza Strip, forcing journalists to rely on Arab media and informants on the ground. The situation is making objective reporting on the war close to impossible.


Danny Seaman stands on a low hill in southern Israel. His legs are set wide, and his whole face is beaming. Whatever he is looking at is clearly filling him with satisfaction.

While a crowd of journalists scurries around the hill, television cameras stand at the ready and the logos of major television channels glint from the satellite dishes mounted atop broadcast vans. The area is swarming with photographers who sit and wait like paparazzi camped outside a celebrity villa -- except that the situation here isn't quite so glamorous. With little to see, the general mood is one of annoyance. And that's exactly how Seaman likes it. After all, he doesn't like these foreign observers very much.

Seaman is the director of Israel's Government Press Office. The Israeli government has barred all media coverage from the Gaza Strip, which has forced correspondents from around the world to take up position here, one kilometer (0.62 miles) back from the border. In the distance, they can make out the silhouette of Gaza City. And they can see the smoke that rises after each air strike, too.

At the moment, this hill provides the best view of the war available -- and it's the Israeli view. The journalists are close enough to film the impact of Israeli bombs but too far away to see the Palestinian casualties.

Our Way or No Way

"I'm happy that you are here," says Seaman, with barely concealed scorn, as he greets the assembled journalists. In front of him stands CNN's star reporter Christiane Amanpour. Next to her are her colleagues from the BBC and two dozen other television channels. Then Seaman lets everyone know what he expects from them: "You're here, and you are covering our side."

This means that -- even two weeks into Israel's Operation Cast Lead against the Palestinian organization Hamas -- no independent reporters are being allowed into Gaza. Seaman has no qualms about making it clear that Israel wants to keep the international media out of the Gaza Strip. The reason is that the foreign press is biased, unprofessional, and falls too easily for the other side's propaganda. His definition of professional, it would seem, is only putting out Israel's version of the war.

The fact that this is happening in Israel, of all places, is surprising. Israel prides itself on being the only democracy in the Middle East and for having always emphasized freedom of the press. But, now, it has suddenly reversed the way it treats the media.

"Israel has never restricted media access like this before, and it should be ashamed," says Ethan Bronner, Jerusalem bureau chief of the New York Times. CNN's Ben Wedeman complains it feels like North Korea. Media groups from around the world are protesting against the way they are being treated in Israel, and the country's own Foreign Press Association even took its case to court -- and won.

Israel and the Palestinian Territories

Israel and the Palestinian Territories

But the Israeli Supreme Court's ruling -- that the army must allow at least eight journalists into the Gaza Strip -- hasn't made matters any better. Those journalists have been waiting with packed bags ever since. "When it really comes down to it," says Christoph Sagurna, Middle East correspondent for the German television station RTL, "Israel bends and twists media laws in a way similar to its Arab neighbors."

Still, no matter how justified the criticisms levied at Israel are, when it comes to Hamas, freedom of the press is a completely foreign concept. Hamas, whose rocket-fire into Israel provoked the current war, has massively suppressed reports of casualties caused by its own mistakes, such as those from misfired Qassam rockets. It has stripped camera crews of their footage and even detained journalists it finds disagreeable.

From Vietnam to Gaza

The era in which journalists enjoyed almost unfettered access to combat operations has been over since the Vietnam War. By delivering horrific combat images straight into American livingrooms, journalists in Vietnam helped spark the anti-war movement back home.

Since then, the world has seen only the aspects of US military operations that the Pentagon wants it to see. The 1991 Gulf War, for example, was a war presented by censors, a war without victims, blood or suffering. Many correspondents covering the conflict sat in hotel rooms for months in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, without ever hearing a single shot. Meanwhile, the television screens back home ran antiseptic pictures of air strikes, images that looked more like those you'd see in a computer game than the death of a human being.

Likewise, in 2001, when the first rockets struck outside Kabul, the only pictures made available came from an Afghan night vision camera stationed 60 kilometers (37 miles) away. In the war that followed in Iraq, the journalists who were embedded among the American troops were only allowed to witness the war accompanied by the military and were subject to its authority.

Israel's rigid media policy grows out of bitter experience. In the 2006 war in Lebanon, members of the international media primarily reported from the Lebanese side. Although global public sentiment had initially sympathized with Israel's reaction to Hezbollah attacks, these journalists' images of civilian casualties tipped sympathies toward Hezbollah. And when Israeli soldiers gave journalists telephone reports from the front, the news was soon full of stories about the victims of friendly fire and mistakes being made in how the war was waged.

After the war, the Israeli press was sanctioned for its critical stance. Generals were outraged, and many citizens simply saw journalists as traitors.


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