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'Israel must allow journalists access to this important story'

Dec. 30, 2009 8:57 A.M. (Updated: Jan. 10, 2010 8:47 P.M.)
Part four of a series recounting the findings of South African jurist Richard Goldstone's UN Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict.

Nablus - Ma'an - At least 375 Palestinians were dead and 1,720 injured, hundreds seriously, by the end of the fourth full day of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza one year ago today.

In Beit Hanoun, Israeli missiles killed two Palestinian girls, four- and 11-year-old sisters, just one day after a mother lost five daughters in a strike on Jabaliya refugee camp the day before.

The attacks, two of dozens that had killed more than 20 children since the military embarked on its operation, sparked a flurry of media reports despite Israel's best efforts to prevent international journalists from reporting the devastation in Gaza.

While Israel's Foreign Ministry opened an international media broadcast center in Sderot the day after its assault began on 27 December 2008, and organized tours for members of the press in the city and its environs, the country banned foreign reporters from entering the war zone. The army also banned reporters from approaching Israeli soil within two kilometers of the coastal Palestinian enclave, declaring both areas a joint "closed military zone."

On 30 December, a coalition of hundreds of locally-based journalists petitioned Israel's High Court over the ban. "[T]he world’s media is unable to accurately report on events inside Gaza at this critical time ... Despite our protests, the Israeli authorities have refused to let journalists in ... Never before have journalists been prevented from doing their work in this way. We believe it is vital that journalists be allowed to find out for themselves what is going on in Gaza. Israel controls access to Gaza. Israel must allow professional journalists access to this important story."

In an open letter published the day before, the Foreign Press Association also protested "in the strongest terms the army's imposition of 'closed military zone' on everything along the Gaza Strip border inside Israel. The Foreign media should have unrestricted access to all Israeli villages and towns under attack and the freedom to cover all sides of the conflict zone at a time like this. The claim that this is being done 'for our protection' is patently ridiculous."

Israeli citizens, including journalists, had been barred from entering Gaza since the abduction in 2006 of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier, on security grounds. One journalist, Amira Hass, has been arrested on two occasions, in December 2008 and May 2009, for being in Gaza "illegally."

"The media ban, coupled with the comments made by the director of the Israeli Press Office have raised concerns, aired in the media, that the ban was aimed at controlling the narrative of the conflict for political reasons," according to the final report Richard Goldstone's UN fact-finding mission.

After the closure, on 5 November 2008, of the Gaza Strip to journalists (among other groups, including human rights monitors), there was international and domestic protest; the ban was lifted briefly on 4 December 2008, but reinstated the following day. At the start of the military operations in Gaza, Israeli security officials indicated that there would be a complete ban on access of the media to Gaza for the duration of the operations.

On 19 November 2008, the heads of many international news organizations, including the BBC, CNN and Reuters, protested against the ban in a letter to the then President Ehud Olmert.

On 24 December 2008, the FPA petitioned the Supreme Court over the ban.

On 31 December 2008, the Supreme Court ruled on the FPA's petition, ordering that the Government of Israel grant 12 journalists entry into Gaza each time the Erez crossing opened. The army refused. On 2 January 2009, the court amended its order to state that eight journalists, rather than 12, should be admitted whenever the Erez crossing opened.

On 8 January 2009, the Israeli authorities briefly gave the BBC and two Israeli channels access to accompany Israeli forces into Gaza. On 22 January 2009, access was granted to eight journalists to accompany Israeli forces into Gaza. The media and non-governmental organizations continued to complain about the lack of independent, unfettered access to Gaza. On the same day, the United Nations Chief of Communications and Public Information called on the Israel to ensure immediate access to the international media to Gaza, stressing the need for “full and independent” coverage of events.
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