HAARETZ - ISRAEL NEWS
Wed, June 23, 2004
Tamuz 4, 5764
In the eye of the beholder
By Sara Leibovich-Dar
More than 1,000 foreign journalists have arrived in Israel in the past several weeks. While they have reported from war zones all over the world, many say they have never encountered such rough treatment as they are receiving from the Israeli army.
After a glass of beer in the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, Wes Hardman, a reporter and producer for Australia's Nine Network, is feeling melancholy. He arrived in Israel a week ago, and has since been covering the war in the territories with exhausting intensity. He hasn't slept in a week, his eyes are bloodshot, his face is sunburned and the cold beer is little consolation. Hardman grows sadder with each sip. "My life is one disaster after another. Israel is so right for me," he says.
It's hard to find a foreign journalist more sympathetic to Israel than Hardman. When the siren sounded on the eve of the Memorial Day for Israel's fallen soldiers, he stood silently at attention. Palestinian cab drivers at the entrance to the hotel made the V-sign and told his crew that they could keep walking, but Hardman insisted on standing still.
Hardman, 49, has worked all over the world. He was a bartender in Paris, a sailor in Tahiti, a journalist in London and New York, a journalism teacher in Kenya, a kibbutz volunteer and a model in Tel Aviv. Twenty years ago, he lived in Israel with his Tahitian wife ("Everyone thought she was Yemenite").
But, sympathetic as he may be, it is now harder than ever for him to be so: "Things are happening here that you cannot be proud of. Everything here is too intense. How I'd like to be back in Australia, talking with friends about cricket, swimming and surfing and not worrying about a thing."
Some 1,100 foreign journalists have come to Israel in the past several weeks. They have been to war zones all over the world, but many say they have never encountered such rough treatment as they are getting from the Israeli army. Soldiers have shot at journalists, confiscated their press passes and seized their film. All the reporters were infuriated by the closure of the territories to press coverage, and even after the area was opened, not all of them were permitted to enter.
For two weeks now, hundreds of journalists have been doing their best to elude the army. They have made their way into the territories by taking roundabout dirt paths, accompanied by Palestinian escorts. When they have run into soldiers, they have put their hands up and have had to plead for their lives. Many say they have never felt so humiliated, scared and helpless. Like Hardman, many would like to get away from here as soon as possible. The hostility directed at them, the tension, the terror attacks in Israel and the destruction in the territories, is more than they can handle.
Some of the journalists say that the awful treatment they have received here is damaging to Israel. "You can't say that the army's treatment of us is contributing to the Israeli objective," says Terry Milewski of Canada's CBC network. "If this is how they treat me," says Keith Miller, NBC's senior foreign correspondent, who hasn't been able to get past the army checkpoints and into the territories, "then I can imagine what they're doing to the Palestinians."
CBS sent an even more prominent representative, Dan Rather. As they go about covering the war, the foreign journalists are vying with each other for prestige as well as for scoops. This calculation includes things like: Who is staying in the more elegant hotel, who has the best bulletproof transportation, who brought the biggest stars to Israel, who got into the Jenin refugee camp first, and who is suffering more at the hands of IDF soldiers.
Though CBS sent its biggest star, NBC reporter Dana Lewis wins out in terms of having the most harrowing encounter with Israeli soldiers: A soldier shot at his car in Ramallah when Lewis was sitting in the driver's seat with his hands up. Lewis' close call dwarfs anything that Rather has experienced here, and has earned him special distinction among his fellow foreign journalists.
The prize for the biggest scoop goes to reporters from the French network France 2, who were the first to enter the refugee camp in Jenin. CNN reporter Rula Amin was the big loser in the race to Jenin. On the day when several reporters toured the refugee camp, she still hadn't managed to get in there. "We're here in the village of Burkin next to the refugee camp in Jenin," she reported excitedly. She went on to explain that they were broadcasting from there because they had tried unsuccessfully for four days to get into the camp in Jenin, saying that the Israeli army was not allowing anyone to enter, including journalists. She reported the Palestinians' claim that the army killed 500 people in Jenin and that Israel had denied it, saying there wasn't a massacre, but rather a hard-fought battle.
Tough competition also surrounds the vehicles used by the foreign press. All of the foreign reporters travel in armored vehicles that were formerly used in Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan. The vehicle used by the British ITN network is considered the best. Other reporters circle it enviously, checking out the thickness of the windshields, the special tires and other accessories.
Much importance is attached to the hotels where the journalists stay. The stars stay in luxury hotels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. CNN reporters were put up at an expensive Jerusalem hotel. Others were forced to make do with cheaper accommodation. The American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem is the most popular. Last week, there wasn't a single vacancy. "We've come home. It's good to be here again," some foreign journalists wrote in the hotel's guestbook. Those who were unable to get a room here still frequent the dimly lit bar at night in order to share experiences and inside jokes. They recall the naivete of the residents of the village of Muqabala near Jenin: When the army prohibited journalists from entering Jenin, dozens of reporters flocked to Muqabala, went up on the roofs of the houses and watched the battle from there. The American networks usually pay hundreds of dollars a day to use the roof of a home. The Muqabala residents offered their roofs for free and even prepared food for the visitors.
To the foreign press corps, Danny Seaman, director of the Government Press Office (GPO), is "the bad guy." He earned the title after he revoked the press accreditation of two Abu Dhabi television reporters and expelled one of them, Bassam Azawi, from Israel. Both reporters were summoned to Seaman's office in Jerusalem.
"He told us that Abu Dhabi television is anti-Israeli and that we were highlighting the Palestinian side," says Leileh Odeh, a Jerusalem resident and Abu Dhabi reporter whose press pass was confiscated. "This was after we reported the Palestinian sources in Ramallah claimed that Israel had killed 30 Palestinians and we broadcast pictures of five bodies."
Odeh says that she was very surprised: "I couldn't understand why he was picking on us. There were other networks that filmed the bodies. I'm still trying to find the answer as to why they specifically went after us."
Seaman says that they reported several hundred Palestinians killed, which was entirely baseless: "They stirred up the masses and brought them out to the streets. The preparedness in the battle in Jenin was due to their reports. They contributed to the battle."
To Seaman's dismay, dozens of foreign journalists documented the reporter's deportation two weeks ago. In the middle of the night, several Border Police officers and three men dressed in civilian clothing came to the American Colony Hotel and went up to Azawi's room. The journalists who were in the bar filmed Azawi being led out to the car that was waiting in the hotel parking lot. He managed to phone his wife in Abu Dhabi and tell her that he didn't know where he was being taken. A few hours later, he was on his way to Abu Dhabi. Last week, he was already back at work, and even went to Libya to conduct a series of interviews. He's hard to reach these days. In the chaos of the expulsion, his cellular phone was left behind in Jerusalem "and still hasn't been returned to him," says his wife from Abu Dhabi.
Seaman insists that the expulsion, which was broadcast all over the world, was the right thing to do: "It's the Interior Ministry, not me, that decides on deportations, but I certainly recommended it. Why should we be fair to them if they served as the enemy's mouthpiece? There's a limit to freedom of expression even in a democratic country."
Isn't it your job to assist journalists and not to expel them?
Seaman: "I am supposed to look out for the interests of the State of Israel in the media."
Odeh also continues to work despite having her press pass taken away. She was born and grew up in Bethlehem, and studied the Russian language at a university in Russia. When she returned, she married an East Jerusalem dentist and moved to Jerusalem. She has two children and an Israeli identity card. Seven years ago, she was hired by Abu Dhabi television.
"Israeli politicians love to be interviewed on our station," she says. "Two days before my press pass was taken, I interviewed Benjamin Netanyahu. I've interviewed Shimon Peres twice. We've also interviewed Ehud Barak and even Danny Seaman. Now, since my press credentials were taken away, we've become an enemy of the people. Israelis won't agree to be interviewed by me anymore. What do you hope to achieve by this? To have me present the Palestinian stand? Israeli journalists are ignoring me, too. No one has called to see how I'm doing or to express support."
She says she wants her press credentials back, "because it is one of my rights." Her lawyer, Suhad Bishara of Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, petitioned the High Court on her behalf. In the petition, Bishara is asking for a temporary injunction that would allow her client to keep her press credentials until the case is resolved. "The authorities have at their disposal familiar legal tools like censorship or closing areas to media coverage, but the director of the GPO does not have the authority to totally take away the right to cover and broadcast events from a journalist who has the proper credentials just because the content of the coverage is not to his liking," the appeal states.
In response, the state argues that the Abu Dhabi television station "exploited the state's hospitality by broadcasting, during Operation Defensive Shield, false reports to the effect that deliberate acts of slaughter were being carried out in Judea and Samaria ... that could almost certainly endanger the welfare of IDF soldiers and [Israeli] civilians and harm national security."
Six other journalists were asked to turn in their press passes, including the CNN reporter who broadcast from Ramallah after it was declared a closed military zone. "CNN went so far as to air a report that showed how they tricked us and managed to broadcast from Ramallah," says Seaman. "They're used to us going to great lengths to obtain the best filming angles for them because we're very sensitive about our image, and now they're threatening to slander us all over the world, but when we respect ourselves, others will respect us, too."
The GPO's Danny Seaman wants respect, but 20 foreign journalists who tried to cover the Anthony Zinni-Yasser Arafat meeting at Arafat's compound in Ramallah find that difficult to believe. ABC producer Deirdre Michalopoulos was there with network reporter Dan Harris, who has since returned to New York: "When we got out of the car, two Jeeps came toward us, honked their horns and shot rubber bullets without any warning. I'd been in many war zones. I was in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Albania and Bosnia. I was in Israel in October 2000. Soldiers had never opened fire on me before. It's hard to work when you find that you've become a target. There was a moment when I was very frightened. I didn't know how far they would go. The worst part was that they didn't say anything. They didn't order us to leave. They just shot without any warning."
The Israel Defense Forces Spokesman provided this version of events: "At this time, a group of journalists is trying to break into the Muqata compound in Ramallah in contradiction of the order declaring it a closed military zone that was given by the military commander in the area, in keeping with the instructions of the political echelon for isolating the area. IDF forces are attempting to keep the journalists away by tossing a number of stun grenades in their direction. The IDF Spokesman wishes to make clear that the stun grenades were used not just to keep them away, but also to reduce to a minimum the chance that they would be injured. No rubber bullets were fired at the journalists as has been reported."
All of this pales in comparison to what happened to Dana Lewis , NBC's Moscow correspondent, who came to Israel several weeks ago to assist in the coverage here. The war caught him in Ramallah. He realized that he had entered a closed military area, but he was determined to keep on working. "I asked soldiers what to do so as not to get hurt," he says from Moscow, "and they said that Ramallah is under a curfew and every car on the roads belongs to journalists, that if we drove slowly, with our lights flashing, nothing would happen to us."
But Lewis was scared nonetheless. Two days after the army took control of the city, he was on his way to the Al-Jazeera offices in Ramallah, intending to send his film through them. It was six in the evening. Lewis was careful not to travel on the roads after dark. Beside him in the bulletproof Jeep was a cameraman who had accompanied him from Moscow, and a sound engineer who sat in the back.
"When we approached the soldiers' position, we drove slowly - not out of respect, but out of fear. We were very wary of the situation. We flashed the lights, and `TV' was taped on the car in big letters to make it clear that we were journalists. Suddenly, seven bullets were fired at the Jeep ... When I recovered my wits, I saw that an Israeli soldier was standing in front of the car and shooting at us. I stepped on the brakes, turned on the light inside the car and we all put our hands up. I was very tense, but I told myself: Don't worry, it will be OK. And then he shot at us again. At this stage, I started to panic. I was sure he would kill us. I tried to turn around and only then did he stop shooting."
Two days later, Lewis was expelled from Ramallah. "I've been all over the world. I came to Israel from Afghanistan. I was in Lebanon, the Philippines, the Gulf War. I covered the funerals of Hamas militants in the territories. I had never been shot at before. Even before they shot at me, I felt that the soldiers were very aggressive this time. They shot endless warning shots in the air. I had the sense that the orders were coming from above. I told Danny Seaman that he should try to change the situation and, two days later, they shot at me. War zones are dangerous places. The Russian army shot at journalists in Chechnya, but I'm sure that you don't want to be like the Russian army."
Lewis, who has since returned to Moscow ("a stunning city with lots of nightclubs. The crime has never bothered me"), can hardly shake the experience. "I don't hate the Israeli army. I worked in Israel for six years. I covered the first intifada. But those days in Ramallah were different from anything I'd experienced up to then. Your readers will probably say that the foreign media should go to hell."
And how would you respond?
Lewis: "We were there before the army. When they invaded, it was hard to get out. Besides, we have an obligation to report what is happening there. We reported on the situation of the hospitals, on the ambulances and the shortage of food."
Martin Fletcher, the NBC bureau chief in Israel, filed a complaint with the army and the GPO. "The army told me that they [the journalists] were in a closed military area and what happened was their responsibility. I don't accept that argument. You can send journalists away or shoot in the air, but you can't try to kill them," he says.
The IDF Spokesman says in response that NBC did not submit an orderly complaint in writing and therefore no in-depth investigation was conducted, and comments: "We are unaware of a shooting incident that day in Ramallah."
On April 2, Marc Innaro of Italy's RAI television network passed through the IDF checkpoint at the entrance to Bethlehem. He was traveling in a bulletproof vehicle together with five other Italian journalists. He'll never forget what happened next.
"We were driving toward the Church of the Nativity. Then we heard gunfire around us and decided that it was too dangerous to approach the center of town, so we turned back. We'd gone only a few meters when we were stopped by two military vehicles. We told them through a loudspeaker in the car that we were journalists and that the road was dangerous. They ordered us to turn back. The photographers who were in the car got out, put their hands up and said that we were journalists and that we were afraid to go back. One of the soldiers aimed his weapon at us and other soldiers shot at the car. The photographers got back in the car. We turned around and headed toward the church.
"I know the Franciscan monks because I sometimes pray in the church. I called one of them, Father Ibrahim, and asked him to open the door to the monastery. We parked the car by the monastery and ran, under fire, to the door of the monastery. Those were the fastest hundred meters of my life. I was shaking with fear. The monks were afraid, too."
While Innaro took refuge in the monastery, his editors called the Israeli embassy in Rome, the Italian embassy in Israel and the Italian press agency. They hoped to bring political pressure to bear that would lead to the quick release of Innaro and his companions, but two hours later, the drama only increased. About 150 Palestinians burst into the church.
Innaro: "They [the Palestinians] aimed their rifles at us. We put our hands up and said that we were journalists. There were several civilians among them - two teenagers and a pharmacist from Beit Jala who got caught in the fighting and sought refuge in the church. There was a handful of civilians, 30 monks, four nuns, Palestinian fighters and Italian journalists all under one roof."
After a while, it was decided that the Italians would move to the Franciscan section of the church. They cooked pasta and transmitted reports to the entire world about what was happening in the church. "At night, they came up with a plan to get us out," says Innaro. "Someone from the army called and told us to be ready, that they would get us out at five in the morning. I immediately called the Italian foreign ministry and asked them to prevent the plan from being carried out. I said that I was not a hostage of the Palestinians as the army claimed, that I did not want to endanger soldiers' lives, and that I was afraid that if the Palestinians heard that soldiers were trying to break in to get us that they would shoot us.
"After a lot of talks, we agreed that we would leave in two bulletproof vehicles with Italian flags and without an Israeli escort. And that's what happened. In the evening, 24 hours after we entered the church, we opened the doors, got into the cars and drove. It shows that we were right - that we weren't hostages of the Palestinians - and not the army, which tried to claim the whole night that we were hostages."
The IDF Spokesman issued this statement on the day of the incident: "Tonight, the IDF offered a number of times that anyone in the church compound could leave peacefully. The IDF Spokesman regrets that Palestinian Authority officials at the site and Governor Madani are preventing people from leaving the church compound."
Innaro, 40, came to Jerusalem a year ago with his wife and son after seven years as his station's correspondent in Moscow. According to his contract, he is to serve a two-year stint here. If he could, he'd leave sooner. "Life here is not good. We don't eat at restaurants. You're afraid to go downtown. I live in constant fear. I'm even afraid to stop my car next to a bus for fear it will explode. The one who should change this situation is the strong side in the conflict, the Israelis."
In the first 10 days of the Israeli incursion in the territories, the Committee to Protect Journalists documented 17 violent incidents involving journalists, including a threat against a Japanese television reporter, shots fired in the direction of a BBC reporter, and the wounding of a Boston Globe reporter. In a letter dated April 2 and addressed to the prime minister, CPJ's executive director, Ann Cooper, demanded that Sharon instruct the army to stop attacking journalists.
A delegation from Journalists Without Borders visited Israel during the first days of the military operation. Seaman refused to meet with them. "In August, they said that Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz is one of the people who harmed freedom of the press. Their objective is to slander the State of Israel," he says.
According to the group's report, 40 journalists were injured, arrested or expelled from Israel during the first week of the fighting. "Freedom of the press has deteriorated more seriously than ever in Israel's history," they assert. "It's hard to understand why the Israeli soldiers behave the way they do," says Virginie Locussol, director of the organization's Middle East department, speaking from Paris. "In recent weeks, the territories have become a dangerous place for journalists."
In response, the IDF Spokesman says that the territories were declared closed areas because they are, in fact, dangerous places and whoever comes there does so at his own risk: "We are in a state of fighting. It's difficult to investigate what happened in each incident. In some incidents, journalists were shot and injured by gunfire that did not come from the IDF."
Keith Miller of NBC arrived in Israel about a month ago to relieve the network's regular reporter, who went on vacation. He lives in London, is married (for the second time) and is a father of five. "Most foreign reporters are single or divorced. It's hard to maintain a personal relationship when you're away from home most of the time," he notes. Before coming to Israel, he was in Angola. "And then I was asked to go to Kabul. I wasn't thrilled. The story there isn't interesting. It's not dead, but it's not really alive. Afghanistan can continue to exist, but if Israel ceases to exist, the world will stop turning. There won't be peace in the world until there is peace here."
Miller travels in a black Mercedes convertible - an impressive car, which, apart from the roof, is entirely bulletproof. "I hope no one decides to shoot at us from the roof," he remarks. At checkpoints, he says he has encountered haughty soldiers. "They made a contemptuous gesture telling me to go away. They could have politely told me that it was forbidden for me to enter because the army is concerned for my security. If someone would take the trouble to give them a 15-minute course, it would all look different. And then when the Palestinians scream that there was a massacre, you ask yourself - If the army treats you like a threat, how does it treat someone who could really be a threat?"
Last week, he managed to get to Bethlehem. He spoke, by telephone, with the besieged Palestinians. He says he hopes to be the first to interview them when they leave the church. Miller has covered wars all over the world.
"In comparison to the American army in Afghanistan, the Israeli army is an amateur. The Americans fed the journalists stories, they had countless strategic briefings, took the journalists on patrols, showed them a meaningless cave - and all the reporters came back excited. The Boy Scouts see more action, but the journalists loved it. When journalists wanted to interview prisoners of war, they supplied prisoners of war. They were able to spin the information. I kept my distance. I don't like to take part in exhibitions like this where everything is nicely choreographed but there's no content."
Miller is eager to go home: "I need a vacation. The despair here is too heavy." He says the first few days at home aren't easy, either. "It's just a five-hour flight from Israel to London and life there is so different. The first days back, I feel an emptiness - I want to know whether the injured woman I interviewed has recovered and if the soldier I filmed has returned homed safely. It takes a few days before I can relax."
Steffen Jensen, the Jerusalem correspondent for Denmark's TV2, has nowhere to escape to. He has lived in Jerusalem for 10 years. He was born in Copenhagen, studied at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and married an Israeli woman. He has covered most of the recent wars in the region. "The Israelis don't understand the importance of the media at all," he says. "Closing the territories was a terrible mistake and was perceived by the world as an attempt at a cover-up."
Jensen managed to slip into Ramallah in all the tumult surrounding the incursion. "I drove amid a convoy of tanks, amid all the clouds of dust, and no one noticed that I got in, too." In Ramallah, he came upon a surrealistic scene. "As we went down the streets, people yelled to us from the windows that they didn't have food. We went to a bakery and got 300 pitas, then we went to a grocery store and got hummus. People dropped plastic baskets from the windows and we filled them with hummus and pitas. We filmed it, but we haven't aired it yet. Maybe we'll use it sometime."
In Bethlehem, he encountered a patrol of soldiers who pointed their guns at him. "I got of the car with my hands up. I was afraid. The soldiers were very tense. I was afraid that someone in the area would start shooting and then they would shoot at us and kill us. And in the midst of all this, every day you have to relay the story back to Danish viewers living in the land of Hans Christian Andersen who can't understand why you all don't just sit down at the table and finally try to resolve the problems over a glass of beer."
Terry Milewski of the Canada's public CBC channel says that he is paid by the Canadian taxpayer to relay facts and not opinions. "And the fact is that in Nablus, I filmed soldiers firing in the air toward a group of journalists who were standing next to the Al-Qasr Hotel. No one knew why they were doing that. I realize that it was done by mistake. The problem is that the army does not correct these mistakes. The soldier that did the shooting wasn't even punished."
The IDF Spokesman: "We did not receive any complaint in writing and therefore we did not investigate the incident. Warning shots in the air are not the same as firing at a car." In Bethlehem, Milewski interviewed a family living under the curfew. One of the family members, a frail elderly man, needed medication. His wife was desperate. "She asked me to show the viewers in America what was happening in the territories so they would put a stop to it. The U.S. is merciful, Sharon doesn't know God, she told me. Her son said that the Israelis are like the Nazis."
Are you aware of Israeli suffering as well?
Milewski: "I have sympathy for the victims on both sides. After the suicide bombing in Mahane Yehuda [a Jerusalem market] , I interviewed an eyewitness whose hands were bloodied. She had helped to evacuate the wounded and she said that all the Arabs should be blown up."
Milewski, 52, grew up in Wales, studied modern history at Oxford University, worked at the Evening Standard and moved to Canada "because it is a wealthy and comfortable country." He lives in Vancouver, is married and the father of two small children. "Foreign reporters get married late. We are compulsive about our work. It's much more interesting than our personal lives. For us, work is like a drug." He covered the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, "but it's more dangerous here because the war is everywhere. I travel in a bulletproof car and work in a bulletproof office, but outside, it's very dangerous with all the terror attacks. I couldn't live here, on the Palestinian side or the Israeli side. How can you live in a place where you constantly have to worry about your children? I feel sorry for you."
He is due to return to Vancouver soon. But he's pretty sure he'll be back here before long: "In 1982, I was in West Beirut and I feel like I'm still there, with Sharon and Arafat. Sharon wasn't able to operate against the terror infrastructure there and I don't know a single Israeli who thinks that the potential for terror has been destroyed this time. The problem isn't the terrorist infrastructure. Until Israel leaves the territories, a political accord will remain a fantasy."