Prime minister Ariel Sharon resoundingly won general elections in January 2003 to retain the post he had held since 2001, but his popularity slumped during the year, largely because of a flagging economy and the continuing Palestinian rebellion. The election campaign was fought amid corruption scandals and the Israeli media came under fire for disclosing that a South African businessman had lent $1.5 million dollars to Sharon and his sons. The questioning by legal officials of a journalist of the daily paper Haaretz for "obstructing an investigation" was denounced by all the media as a government "witch-hunt."
Sharon formed a new coalition government in February of hardliners of his Likud party, representatives of Occupied Territory Jewish settlers, extreme right-wingers and centrists. Continuing suicide bombings and a serious loss of credibility by the army at the end of the year made Israelis wonder whether the government could ensure their safety.
A major row erupted between the government and army chief of staff Gen. Moshe Yaalon, who publicly blamed Sharon for undermining former Palestinian prime minister Mahmud Abbas by refusing to make concessions. At the end of September, the Israeli security cabinet decided to "get rid of" Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, without saying how. The daily Jerusalem Post called in a 10 September editorial for him to be killed, saying it was the only possible solution for Israel.
At the end of the year, the US government again intervened in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and took a frosty attitude to the Israel government. President George Bush criticised the "security fence" being built by Israel, supposedly to stop Palestinian suicide bombers getting into the country, and also condemned Israeli settlements on the West Bank. On 20 November, the UN Security Council unanimously endorsed the internationally-drafted "road-map" for creation of a proper Palestinian state by 2005, in its resolution 1515.
At the same time, an unofficial peace plan, "The Geneva Initiative," was signed in Geneva by moderates led by former Israeli and Palestinian cabinet ministers Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, and a publicity campaign was launched in the major Israeli dailies Yediot Aharonot, Haaretz, Maariv and the Jerusalem Post. The Palestinian media published in full the text of the plan, which was implicitly backed by Arafat but opposed by Sharon. Israeli settlers drew up their own peace plan that ruled out any Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza or any creation of a Palestinian state.
Relations between the international press and the Israeli government remained tense. The Government Press Office (GPO) continued its longstanding campaign to curb the activities of foreign journalists, who it accused of sympathising with the Palestinians, opposing Israel and being anti-Semitic. Border and airport controls became stricter for foreign journalists.
Palestinian journalists, who have not been allowed official press cards since Israel stopped renewing them on 1 January 2002, remained the most exposed to danger in covering events on the West Bank and Gaza and were harassed, threatened, insulted, physically attacked and wounded by the Israeli army. A Palestinian cameraman and a British journalist were killed in 2003 by the Israeli army, which only investigated the death of the journalist, with no punishment announced by the end of the year. For the first time, the traditionally robust and independent Israeli media had to defend itself against efforts by the authorities to harass and intimidate it.
Two journalists killed
Nazeh Darwazi, cameraman for the US news agency APTN (Associated Press Television Network), was killed on 19 April 2003 in the centre of Nablus (West Bank) by what eye-witnesses said was a bullet in the head fired by an Israeli soldier from about 20 yards away. The journalist, 42, was wearing a yellow jacket marked "press" and was with a group of half a dozen journalists covering clashes between a group of young Palestinians and Israeli soldiers.
Three people filmed the incident, including a Reuters cameraman. APTN asked the Israeli authorities to make a full and speedy investigation into what it deplored as a pointless death. Army spokeswoman Maj. Sharon Feingold said first indications were that the soldiers had been fired on by armed Palestinians who had also hurled explosives as the troops were helping an Israeli tank in difficulty.
Witnesses said a soldier got out of a jeep which had come to help the tank and shot the journalist in cold blood without any exchange of fire. The Israeli army said a more thorough enquiry would be made but its conclusions were not announced.
A Reporters Without Borders fact-finding mission said in July that the army had not done a proper investigation, since eye-witnesses had not been interviewed. The soldiers involved had been questioned but apparently not punished. The case had probably been closed, it said, despite strong suspicions that military regulations had been violated, meaning the military prosecutor should have called in the military police to investigate.
An Israeli soldier in Nablus told Reporters Without Borders that a colleague had hastily fired a warning shot at the cameraman without meaning to kill him. However, the way he did so violated military regulations. Reporters Without Borders continued to call for the soldier and his superior to be punished.
British documentary-maker and cameraman James Miller, working for his TV production company Frostbite, was shot dead near midnight on 2 May in Rafah, near the border between Gaza and Egypt. He was with journalist Saira Shah and an assistant, Daniel Edge, also with Frostbite, as well as two Palestinian translators.
Miller, 34, was killed by a bullet in the neck as he was leaving a Palestinian house from which he had been filming for three hours. An APTN cameraman who was with the crew filmed what happened. Eye-witnesses said an Israeli soldier fired from a tank though there was no other shooting at the time. The journalists waved a white flag lit up by a torch and shouted towards the tanks.
The army at first denied any of its tanks were in the area at the time. Then it said troops, who had found a tunnel inside a house, had been fired at with an anti-tank rocket and had fired back. Military spokesman Jacob Dalal said Miller had apparently been hit during this exchange of fire. The army said it regretted the incident but said the journalist had taken great risks by being in a war zone.
Col. Avi Levy, deputy military commander in the Gaza Strip, told Israeli state-run radio on 4 May that Miller had been shot in the back while facing an Israeli tank, which he said meant he may have been killed by Palestinian gunfire. However, an Israeli autopsy two days later showed he had been killed by an Israeli bullet in the neck which entered from the front, confirming the evidence of journalists, who said they had been spotted by the Israeli soldiers as soon as they arrived.
A Reporters Without Borders on-the-spot investigation said pressure from the British government and Miller’s family had forced the Israeli army to continue its enquiry. But undue delays and false statements by senior officers had been made and the site of the incident deliberately altered so that the events could not be reconstituted. A statement was not taken from a key witness until July. Military police were finally brought into the case in September by military prosecutor Menahem Finkelstein. Miller was the fifth journalist killed since the start of the second Intifada in September 2000.
At least three journalists wounded
Palestinian photographer Saïf Dahla, of the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP), was wounded in the right leg on 28 January 2003 by two machinegun bullets fired by Israeli soldiers as they entered the West Bank town of Jenin. He said he was wearing a helmet and a bulletproof jacket with "press" written on the front. The soldiers had fired from a tank about five metres away and there was no fighting at the time. A Reuters cameraman and an AP photographer were with him.
An Israeli army spokesman confirmed there had been no exchange of fire and that Dahla may have been hit by Israeli shrapnel. He said Israel was a democracy whose army did not deliberately shoot at journalists, but added it was dangerous for journalists to go near Palestinian fighters sought by the army and to be in areas of shooting. Reporters Without Borders asked for an enquiry but received no reply from the army. About 20 Israeli tanks entered the centre of Jenin early that day and met fierce resistance.
Ahmed Jadallah (photographer) and Shams Odeh (cameraman), both of Reuters, were wounded on 6 March as they were covering an Israeli army incursion into the Gaza Strip refugee camp of Jabalia. Jadallah was seriously wounded in the legs by shrapnel and Odeh less seriously wounded in the foot. Palestinian sources said a shell was fired into a group of civilians trying to put out a fire, killing eight of them. An Israeli army officer said a bomb had previously gone off inside a building and an Israeli tank had then fired a shell at a Palestinian carrying a rocket-launcher. Reporters Without Borders asked the army to investigate but got no reply.
A journalist held in administrative detention
At least 13 journalists were held in 2002 in administrative detention, which human rights organisations unanimously denounced as arbitrary. The last of them was freed in 2003.
He was Nizar Ramadan, of the Qatari newspaper As-Sharq and the Internet website Islamtoday.net, who was released on 26 September 2003 after being held since 27 June 2002, when he was arrested in Hebron and taken to the Ofer military detention camp. The Israeli prime minister’s office said in a letter on 17 November that he had been charged by a military court for "belonging to an illegal organisation" (Hamas) and sentenced on 31 December 2002 to 16 months in prison plus a suspended prison term of 10 months.
A journalist arrested
Ahmed al-Khatib, a Palestinian cameraman with Reuters news agency, was arrested on 23 February 2003 while covering an Israeli army incursion into Beit Hanun, in the northern Gaza Strip, during which seven Palestinians were killed. He was accused by the army of being involved in "terrorist activities." Reuters protested at once and Khatib was freed the next day without explanation.
Five journalists physically attacked
Palestinian photographers Jaafar Ashtiyeh (Agence France-Presse) and Nasser Ashtiyeh (AP) were attacked by Israeli border police on 21 January 2003 as they tried to take a picture of a speeding army jeep with two Palestinians clutching onto the outside. The Israelis got out of the jeep and punched the photographers in the stomach. Ashtiyeh said the police threatened to kill them if the photos were published.
Palestinian journalists Joseph Handal, of the French TV station France 2, and Chaaban Qandel, working for a Palestinian TV station, were attacked and pushed to the ground by Israeli soldiers in Bethlehem (West Bank) on 20 May, despite showing their press cards. Handal was badly beaten, treated for an injured hand and was unable to work.
Majdi Mohammed, a freelance Palestinian photographer working sometimes for the Associated Press, was attacked by Israeli soldiers near Nablus on 21 October while taking pictures of one of them beating a man who had broken the curfew. He said a soldier approached, asked why he was taking photos and then twisted his arm. The two then hit him several times in the back, held his face against the burning-hot hood of their jeep and seized his camera, bag and journalist ID. The digital photos he had taken were destroyed. He said that as they left they threw his papers and ID through the window of the jeep. An Israeli military spokesman said the same day the army would investigate and if necessary punish those responsible for what he said were "very serious" allegations of misconduct.
Harassment and obstruction
A special justice ministry commission questioned Baruch Kra, of the daily Haaretz, on 21 January 2003 about his disclosure that a $1.5 million loan to Prime minister Ariel Sharon was being investigated. The ministry said Kra was questioned not about his sources but because he was suspected of obstructing the investigation.
The scandal created a storm in the Israeli press, with Haaretz publisher Amos Schocken criticising the lack of a convincing reason to question Kra and deploring it as unprecedented and a violation of press freedom. The daily Yediot Aharonot called it a "witch-hunt" but attorney-general Elyakim Rubinstein, who ordered the questioning of Kra, told a press conference he had had no intention of harming press freedom and had not acted for political reasons. Nitza Shapira-Libai, acting head of the Israeli Press Council watchdog body, said Kra was clearly doing his journalistic duty.
Sharon and leaders of his Likud party had asked Rubinstein to find the source of the leak, saying it had occurred in the month before the 28 January general elections. The revelation led to a sharp drop in support for the party in opinion polls. Haaretz had reported on 7 January that Sharon and his sons Omri and Gilad were suspected of corruption, fraud and breach of trust over a $1.5 million loan from a South African businessman. Israeli law does not protect the confidentiality of journalists’ sources but court decisions have recognised the right to it.
Israeli soldiers evacuated and closed the offices of two local Palestinian TV stations, Nawras TV and Al-Majd TV, and a local radio station, Al-Marah, in the West Bank town of Hebron on 30 January during a large-scale army operation. Khaled Masade, head of Nawras TV, said he did not understand the move since his station only broadcast music and films. An Al-Majd TV employee, Samer al-Masri, was detained for several hours and beaten by soldiers. An army spokesperson refused to tell Reporters Without Borders the reason for the closures.
A group of journalists from the French TV station Canal+ were detained for several hours at Tel Aviv airport on 17 April before being let into the country. Reporter Arnaud Muller and cameraman Harold Bellanger had come to make a programme about international civilian and pacifist missions in the country. They were warned they would be held overnight in the interior ministry’s detention centre and deported the next day. The journalists had planned to meet the family of British pacifist Thomas Hurndall, who was seriously wounded by the Israeli army in the Gaza Strip and was in hospital in a coma in the southern town of Beersheba.
The supreme court on 27 April gave the authorities 30 days to justify their refusal to issue press cards to Palestinian journalists working at the Ramallah (West Bank) office of the pan-Arab TV station Al-Jazeera, after which the court would order the Government Press Office (GPO) to do so. It asked the GPO to issue press cards using the same criteria for all foreign journalists. Al-Jazeera had appealed to Israeli courts and welcomed the ruling.
In January 2002, the GPO refused to renew the press cards of nearly all Palestinian journalists, whether they worked for local or foreign media. The GPO, which answers to the prime minister’s office, issues the cards that foreign and Israeli journalists need to move around in the Palestinian Occupied Territories and enter government buildings.
Palestinian journalist Nabil Khatib, of MBC TV and the Media Centre at Bir-Zeit University (West Bank), was banned in late April from travelling to Helsinki (Finland) for a conference organised by UNESCO to mark World Press Freedom Day. Israeli journalists Smadar Perry (Yediot Aharonot) and Menahem Hadar (Channel One TV), who were also invited to the conference, failed to get the authorities to lift the ban on their colleague.
The Israeli Foreign Press Association (FPA) protested strongly on 12 May against an indefinite ban on journalists going to the Gaza Strip as a blatant attack on press freedom and called for it to be lifted at once.
GPO director Daniel Seaman announced in an interview to Haaretz on 4 June that rules about press cards for foreign journalists would be tightened. The enquiry into a 30 April suicide bombing that killed three people and injured a dozen more at Mike’s Place restaurant in Tel Aviv showed that an unnamed Italian journalist had driven the two British attackers in her car through the West Bank and then to the Gaza Strip.
The journalist was questioned by police and then released. Seaman told the state-run Israeli radio she had been deported, but the journalist said she left the country freely. Seaman said the case showed the links that existed between foreign journalists and Palestinian "elements" and accused such journalists of being "blinded" by a desire to support the Palestinian cause.
He said in Haaretz that the journalist did not know the two men were suicide bombers but knew she was illegally transporting them. He said the GPO would stop issuing press cards to journalists working for small far-left publications and that documentary filmmakers would no longer be recognised as journalists. He denied the GPO was trying to curb press freedom and said the measure was to save lives. He said the media had more freedom in Israel than in Britain or the United States.
The FPA said it was disturbed by the incident and urged its members to only give lifts to other journalists. It deplored allegations that it said insulted foreign journalists as a whole when most did everything they could to report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a balanced way.
Overall security measures were stepped up between May and July, affecting tourists (especially French and Italians), diplomats and journalists alike. Charles Enderlin, member of the Foreign Press Association and Jerusalem correspondent of the French TV station France 2, received more than 30 official complaints in late July. Foreign journalists said they were harassed and interrogated at border-posts, where they were often detained for hours, minutely searched and their computer equipment confiscated.
GPO director Seaman said on 30 June that the Israeli authorities were cutting off all ties with the British BBC TV because it systematically criticised Israel and had put out programmes that were virtually anti-Semitic. He said no government officials, ministers or spokespersons would speak to the BBC until further notice but because Israel was (despite what the BBC said) a free country, its journalists would not be barred from press conferences at the prime minister’s office, for example. He said BBC attempts to get press cards and work permits might take longer than before.
The BBC categorically rejected any anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic bias in its programmes or news broadcasts and said it regretted the government’s refusal to take part in some programmes. It stressed that the Israeli measures would not stop it covering the situation in the region in an impartial and professional way.
The FPA warned on 2 July that such measures, in reprisal for a media’s content, were the first step in a slide towards illegal efforts to exert political pressure that violated press freedom in a democratic country. Seaman had said a documentary about Israel’s nuclear programme ("Israel’s Secret Weapon") had been the last straw. The foreign ministry announced the suspension of the boycott of the BBC on 16 November, as the BBC announced the appointment of one of its former editors, Malcolm Balen, as a "senior editorial adviser" on Middle East affairs.
The Israeli government announced on 2 July that it would press the Australian state-run TV station ABC (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) not to broadcast the BBC documentary.
The GPO announced new rules in early November for issuing press cards, making them subject to approval by the Shin Beit secret police starting in 2004. The measure, which already applied to Palestinian journalists, would be extended to Israelis and foreigners.
The FPA expressed great concern about the move, which it called a flagrant violation of press freedom and a new step in a two-year campaign to harass and intimidate the foreign media. The Israeli Press Association said it was worried that Arab Israeli journalists would be systematically refused press cards. Its director, Yaron Enosh, said journalists specialising in military matters were already under very strict surveillance and there was no professional justification for the tighter rules.
The Israeli Press Council also protested, saying that despite legitimate security concerns, it was unacceptable that the security services should decide who could be accredited as a journalist. Many Israeli journalists were angered and said that if Shin Beit was indirectly becoming the press card issuing authority in Israel, journalists would not dare to question or investigate it despite it being a key institution of Israeli society. The measure would intimidate journalists generally, it said.
GPO director Seaman said the measure also aimed to reduce the number of accredited journalists in Israel, from about 8,000 (some of whom he said were not real journalists) to around 1,000.
Prime minister Sharon’s office suspended the planned change on 11 November pending what it called consultation with the country’s leading editors.
The FPA expressed concern on 18 November that many journalists had not been allowed to go to Bethlehem that day even though the town had not been declared a closed military zone.