Palestinians curb Israeli reporters’ access to West Bank

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinians gathered here Wednesday to commemorate the day they call al-Naqba, or the catastrophe, when the state of Israel was born in 1948.

They heard their leaders repeat an old promise that someday, somehow, the scattered people would return. They posed for pictures, too, to prove that the Palestinians are still here, that they will not be forgotten.

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This was the 65th anniversary of al-Naqba, and the day unfolded according to the script. In Hebron, Nablus and Jenin, they sang folk songs. At the checkpoints into the occupied territories, Palestinian teenagers threw rocks at Israeli soldiers, who answered with tear gas. Everything was the same, except for one thing.

Today there are fewer journalists from Israel covering these events.

Palestinian journalists, who complain of their treatment at the hands of the Israeli government, are waging a campaign to make it harder for Israeli reporters to cover stories in the occupied West Bank. The result is that two peoples who live side by side may soon know even less about each other.

Israeli journalists have been barred by Israel’s security forces from entering the Gaza Strip since 2007, when the Islamist militant organization Hamas took over the government there. Israeli officials fear that the reporters would be tempting targets for kidnappers.

Now, members of the shrinking Israeli press corps that regularly covers Palestinian affairs face being ejected from news conferences and questioned by Palestinian security forces in the West Bank.

Palestinian journalists who are friendly with their Israeli colleagues have had their photographs taken, posted on social media sites and labeled “collaborators.”

Organizations that once brought Palestinian and Israeli journalists together for professional conferences no longer sponsor such events, because Palestinian reporters say it will hurt their careers to participate.

“There’s now a generation of Israelis and Palestinians who don’t even know what the other looks like, except for the stereotypes,” said Suheir Rasul, co-director of the group Search for Common Ground, which focuses on media in conflict zones. “All Israelis are soldiers or Orthodox Jews in black hats, and all Palestinians are construction workers or terrorists.”

She said the obstacles faced by Israeli and Palestinian reporters will only make the situation worse.

For the first time, Palestinian authorities say they will require all Israeli journalists to apply for press credentials; those without may be escorted away by police.

A petition endorsed by 200 Palestinian journalists and circulated in April urges officials to limit access for Israeli reporters in the West Bank, noting that the Israeli government restricts the Palestinians’ access in Israel.

“These are journalists fighting for their press freedom by denying us press freedom,” said a veteran Israeli journalist, fluent in Arabic, who has covered the West Bank daily for a decade and spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

About 50 Palestinian journalists have Government Press Office cards issued by Israel, but almost all of them work for international organizations. Only a handful of Palestinian journalists working for West Bank or Gaza media can report in Israel, and their movements can be severely restricted.

Some Palestinians accuse their Israeli colleagues of providing a false picture of the West Bank. “We have noticed that 95 percent of the Israeli journalists present a line that is aligned with the Israeli military and intelligence services,” said Omar Nazzal, a documentary film maker and member of the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, a union representing 1,500 reporters.

The Israeli journalists who cover the West Bank say that is not true. “I felt myself an ambassador to the Palestinian people. I wanted a solution. For us, for them. I wrote stories; I was crying when I wrote them,” said an Israeli journalist and author with decades of experience covering the “other side,” who also spoke anonymously because he did not want to be singled out for complaining.

The Israeli journalists concede one point in the petition against them: They often did have better access to top officials, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, than their Palestinian colleagues.

“Instead of giving Israeli journalists all the interviews, give better access to us,” Nazzal said.

At the al-Naqba rally Wednesday in the central square in Ramallah, there were scores of Palestinian journalists. But the days when one would see a TV crew from Israel may be gone.

“Their coverage is biased against us, so we don’t really care,” said Ahmed Sahah, a Palestinian Interior Ministry employee who stood before the stage in a ball cap that called for the Palestinian right to return.

“I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing,” said Meha Siyam, a Palestinian American attending Rutgers law school in New Jersey, who was visiting relatives in the West Bank, when asked about the absence of Israeli reporters. “But it is understandable. It is natural to want to block someone who is blocking you. It’s a reaction to the situation. It is a reaction to the stress.”

Sufian Taha and Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.

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