Israel’s relentless air attacks on a besieged Gaza, which have killed over 1,000 Palestinians and destroyed hundreds of homes, continue to take place away from the gaze of the international news media.
A country that claims to be the only multi-party democracy in the Middle East, Israel has barred all foreign journalists from entering Gaza, triggering strong protests not only from the United Nations but also from human rights groups and media organisations.
Speaking from Beirut, Mohamad Bazzi, a journalism professor at New York University, told IPS there are hundreds of journalists from around the world who have gathered in Israel trying to get access into Gaza.
Without access to the battlefield, they are having a difficult time verifying the claims by either side, he said.
“As the fighting continues and the civilian death toll rises in Gaza, the United Nations has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe and the world still does not have a full picture of the extent of that crisis,” said Bazzi, who is also a board member of the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA).
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) fired off a strong letter of protest last week to Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak criticising the restrictions on the international media.
“By preventing journalists from covering its military offensive in Gaza, Israel is betraying its own democratic principles. It is also denying the world access to fact-based reporting,” says CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon.
He said Israel has a long history of allowing international journalists to cover conflicts.
“Why is it now restricting all access to a conflict zone? What is the legal basis for this restriction on the free movement of journalists?” he asked.
According to the CPJ, the Foreign Press Association in Israel appealed the ban to the Supreme Court, which suggested a compromise that would allow a small group of international journalists to file pool reports from Gaza.
The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) apparently agreed to allow eight journalists in through the Erez crossing in northern Gaza, but later scrapped the plan, “supposedly for security reasons, even as relief workers and others were admitted into Gaza”.
“Although crossings have been opened more than once since the Israeli offensive on Gaza started, no journalists have been allowed to enter,” Simon complained in his letter to Barak.
The letter also said there were more than 900 media personnel, mostly working for international news outlets, already in Israel who have been barred from crossing into Gaza for safety reasons.
“Israel has barred its own citizens from entering Gaza for the past two years, citing security fears. But the ban on international journalists is less than two months old and had been enforced sporadically until the latest military offensive,” said Simon.
Meanwhile, the only 24-hour reporting has come from the Al-Jazeera satellite channel, whose reporters were present in Gaza long before the fighting began.
Bazzi told IPS that Israel has a history of a free and vibrant press, with news outlets that often challenge their government.
“Israel also has a history of allowing journalists to cover conflicts,” he added.
During the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, the IDF took international journalists into the occupied zone.
And during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, journalists had access to the battlefield.
“This is the first time that Israel has banned all access to a conflict zone. Israel has not provided a legal basis or an adequate explanation for this ban on journalists,” Bazzi added.
U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Kiyo Akasaka has urged the Israeli government to provide “immediate access for international media into Gaza” and reminded the Israelis of the right to information enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
An equally strong protest has come from the director-general of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Koichiro Matsuura, who also condemned the killing of a journalist on the first day of the Israeli offensive against Gaza.
Basel Faraj, a cameraman for the Algerian TV network ENTV and the Palestine Broadcasting Production Company, died from wounds following an Israeli air strike.
Matsuura called on Israel “to allow local and international media professionals to report on events” in Gaza.
But these protests have had no positive response from Israel, which has continued with its devastation of Gaza minus international media scrutiny.
On Thursday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was “outraged” that another artillery shell had landed in a U.N. compound in Gaza even as he was on a visit to Israel.
Following his protest, Barak admitted it was “a grave mistake” and assured the secretary-general that “extra attention” would be paid to U.N. facilities, a frequent target of Israeli attacks, in the future.
Besides the rising death toll, mostly women and children, the casualties also include some 4,000 injured in the 19-day fighting between Israel and Hamas.
“I am sorry to report that the tragic horror continues, and will continue until the guns fall silent,” John Ging, director of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza, told reporters early this week.
Ging said his U.N. agency would continue to call for a media presence in Gaza “not only because the truth must be told, but also because those making important decisions must be able to base their information on the facts.”
Both the United Nations and the humanitarian community in Gaza regretted the absence of a “vibrant and impartial press corps on the ground”, Ging added.