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Who Really Won? Print E-mail

By Jay Bushinsky
March 1, 2009

Time will tell who really won the war between Israel and the Gaza Strip’s Hamas regime, but one thing is certain:  the news media, especially based in Israel, will not be the victor.

The hostilities began December 28, 2008 with airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Islamic organization’s bases, tunnels, used to smuggle missiles and arms, depots and included a ground offensive that began a week later and terminated in a unilateral cease fire by Israel on January .19, 2009.

Hamas followed up two hours later with a concurrent cease fire that had an initial duration of one week.

From start to finish the international news media were denied access to the Gaza strip by the Israeli troops who control the main crossing points – Checkpoint Erez, 25 miles south of Tel Aviv.  Even their Israeli colleagues including accredited military correspondents who normally have total access to military information were kept out.

TV reporters, many of whom had to stand on the hilltops overlooking the strip, if only to give the impression of being close to the action, (in some cases -- BBC among others -- donned flac jackets or bullet-proof vests -- and acted as  if they risked being hit at any moment.

The residents of Sderot, an Israeli city that was struck by dozens of missiles launched by Hamas gun crews during the previous eight years did not wear that kind of attire, nor did those who live in Ashkelon, Ashdod or other cities within range of Hamas’ Grad and Qassam projectiles.

The Foreign Press Association in Israel campaigned vigorously to end the ban.  In fact, its chairman, Steve Gutkin, the AP's Jerusalem bureau chief said that entry to Gaza actually was restricted several weeks before the war began.  But the government paid no heed. Spokespersons for the military command attributed this policy to the Defense Ministry implying that the army was not to blame. 

In turn, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, Dror Shlomo said,” We did not want to risk the lives of our people in order to allow journalists to enter.  We knew that there were journalists in Gaza. 

The issue of freedom of the press is very important to us, but on the other hand when it comes to lives of people we did not want to take risks Dror cited the policy implemented by the United Kingdom during the Falkland Islands War and the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying “We acted in the same way” By way of explanation he added: “when you have a military operation you don’t want to have the army taking care of journalists as in the last war with Lebanon. The army should be focused on the battlefield and not in protecting journalists.”

This policy was also endorsed by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party when he mentioned the same precedents.  “There is obviously a decision to interdict information during the events leading to a crisis; I think sometimes we have no choice. 

Sometimes people say that if World War II had been fought with the kind of intensive media blow by blow coverage that we have now, it is not clear that the war could have been prosecuted let alone won by the Allies. Gutkin, who was authorized by the FPA’s  board to engage one of Israel’s top lawyers to plead before the Supreme Court, l said, “The foreign press corps is mandated to cover the Gaza Strip for the rest of the world.  This is a story of vital interest and banning foreign correspondents is a violation of press freedom. 

Actually the ban went into effect before the fighting began.  The truth is that many correspondents already were working inside the Strip and were there during the hostilities.  We believe that any war must be covered.  The presence of foreign correspondents is vital to provide news and watch out for abuses by both sides.”

As the legal dispute smoldered it drew the attention of the local press.  The daily Haaretz produced evidence that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert himself initiated the ban and upheld it despite a series of Supreme Court rulings against it.

One important consideration which has not been taken into account here by any of the parties is the personal risk entailed in entering a theater of war without minimal back-up by army medical personnel and without any guarantee of safe passage by the opposing side.

Unlike the conventional Middle East wars that preceded the Gaza Strip conflict, there was no frontline in this one.  Firing and pockets of resistance, booby-trapped buildings and vehicles were literallyu all over the place.  

Nor could any objective or neutral observer disregard the fact that Hamas kidnapped a foreign correspondent (Alan Johnston of the BBC) and held him hostage for four months.  It also seized James Bennett of the New York Times and detained him for more than 24 hours.  Neither of the captives' respective media ever revealed how their releases were obtained -- neither in monetary nor political terms.

The mundane, but practical problem is that once a correspondent walks from the Israeli to the Palestinian side at Checkpoint Erez, he or she must either get into a Palestinian taxi or use a pre-arranged pick -up vehicle to drive through areas under aerial bombardment and artillery shelling by the Israel.  It is unclear how or whether the drivers would know the best route to take for maximal safety. 

Departure poses the same problem. Under a deal worked out by the FPA, but not implemented by the IDF (Israel Defense Force) correspondents had to leave the Strip by sundown the same day.

Eventually a compromise reluctantly was accepted by the FPA whereby six members and two non-members would be allowed through daily.  When the approved correspondent (the six were chosen by daily FPA lotteries and the other two were hand-picked by the director of the Government Press Office) arrived at Erez, they were summarily told to go back, ostensibly because the situation on the ground was too dangerous.

Meanwhile, the FPA's highly-publicized campaign won unequivocal endorsement by the head of Israel’s National Press Council, former Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner.  Reacting to reports mainly by Palestinian journalists based in Gaza that the casualty toll was horrendous and property damage enormous, she said that the presence of international correspondents in Gaza as eye witnesses might offer an opportunity for more balanced coverage.

In other words, the foreign correspondents would be less prone to pressure by Hamas agents and thereby might reveal the true nature of the targets hit.

In any case, when the foreign correspondents were finally able to enter immediately after the cease fire, their reports were not necessarily in line with what Israel’s official publicists might have wanted.  For example, The London Daily Telegraph’s Tim Butcher who filed from Gaza is an FPA pooler filed a story that contained a harrowing quotation:

“I have been to the house of my brother and this is all what was left” Auni Najar, 44, said pointing at a cart of blankets and curtains sodden with rain." 

“He has no home now so he has come with his wife and nine children to live in my house, a house that I already share with my wife and three children. I don’t know how we are going to survive.”

Among the civilian families like the Saqars there was a terrible sense of helplessness and anger at both the Israeli armed forced and the militant fighters who robbed them of a home.

“I don’t know why the Israelis came here,” Khadija Sawar , 57, said.

“Maybe there were some people firing rockets from here but they were not my people.

“All I know is that I no longer have a home.” 

Similarly, the BBC’s Paul Wood, who was there the same day described the town of Beit Lahiya where he saw “the first real destruction and a hint of how so many lives were lost here.”  There were streets churned up by the Israeli heavy armor; overturned cars; a lake of raw sewage in the street and a mosque left a broken charged ruin.  Smoke was still rising from a large school building. 

A Palestinian man carrying a white cane told me how his 13- year-old son had been killed by a tank shell.  “We were sleeping in our beds,” he says, “I am nearly blind.  We were no threat to the Israelis.” Everyone denied there were military targets in the homes fired on by the Israelis.

Arab journalists such as Daud Kuttab who was filing from Amman Jordan, wrote:
"Following the bombardment of the UNRWA school in Gaza again I was frustrated by the absence of independent journalists on the scene where the attack took place.  While UNRWA emphatically denied that anyone had shot from the school area, Israel quickly claimed that their action is justified because according to their claim – shots had been fired at them from the school. International journalists could have helped settle the issue and could have pointed out the potential of a war crime.”

In addition to instituting the ban on the entry of foreign correspondents, the chief Israeli military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Avi Beniyahu , was reluctant to imbed any journalists -- Israeli or foreign -- with the Israeli forces.  There were only a few exceptions and their impact on the general public was minimal.

Since the TV footage was taken exclusively by Palestinian cameramen especially those working for major outfits like Al Jezeera, Gen. Beniyahu tried to offset this by ordering the IDF' as film unit to shoot combat scenes.  This was video made available to all the international networks, but the FPA, enraged over the ban imposed against its members urged the organization's component foreign TV networks to boycott it.

After the flimsy pool arrangements got under way, it appeared that several of the poolers failed to make their coverage available to the FPA membership.
This violation of the FPA’s pool rules was blamed on the non members of the FPA who were allowed to enter The Strip.  As a result, The FPA executive Secretary, Glenys Sugarman, issued notice that the pool arrangements had been suspended until further notice. 

That notice is yet to be rescinded.




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