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Israel briefly detains two Post journalists, calls it an ‘unfortunate misunderstanding’

Washington Post Jerusalem Bureau Chief William Booth, center-right, and reporter Sufian Taha were detained by Israeli police outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem's Old City, Israel, on Feb. 16. (David Vaaknin/For The Washington Post)
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Updated at 3:38 p.m. with a new statement from Israeli police.

Israeli authorities briefly detained two Washington Post journalists Tuesday, an incident the government initially said was "probably the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding."

William Booth, The Post's Jerusalem bureau chief, and Sufian Taha, a reporter, were conducting interviews at Damascus Gate in the holy city when Israeli border police detained them for just over half an hour.

"While they have now been released, we regard the detention of any of our journalists anywhere as extremely troubling," Post Foreign Editor Douglas Jehl said in a statement.

The two journalists — who have government-issued press cards — were reporting on a recent spasm of violence and were interviewing Palestinian youths at Damascus Gate when they were detained. They were held without questioning at a police station for about 30 minutes before being released.

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Israel's Government Press Office quickly apologized in a statement, saying: "Freedom of the press is a supreme value in the Israeli democracy. Israel is doing its utmost to enable the foreign press to work freely, without any pressure. We call upon the security forces and journalists to act with restraint and to avoid confrontations during these tense times. The GPO endeavors to prevent such incidents; we shall examine today’s events and draw the necessary conclusions."

Israeli police later said that information given to the officers "was without foundation" and noted their "regret if any distress was caused,” according to a statement posted online by spokesman Peter Lerner.

The Associated Press noted that "the incident came against the backdrop of a series of tense encounters between Israeli authorities and the international media. Officials have accused the foreign media of anti-Israel bias in coverage of the past five months of violence between Israel and the Palestinians."

Earlier this month, an Israeli police officer was killed in Jerusalem in what appeared to be the first coordinated Palestinian attack against Israeli security forces.

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The Israeli Foreign Ministry called it "a regrettable incident, casting an unnecessary shadow over the work of an excellent journalist."

The Foreign Press Association issued a strong statement about the arrest, writing that it was based on an "absurd accusation."

"We do not think it is coincidental that a baseless accusation of 'incitement' was made at a time when blanket accusations of bias are being leveled against the foreign press by Israeli officials and commentators," the FPA said.

Booth has served as The Post's bureau chief in Mexico, Miami and Los Angeles.

He and Taha were detained exactly one month after The Post's Tehran correspondent, Jason Rezaian, was freed by Iranian authorities after more than 500 days in captivity. Rezaian was detained in July 2014 and was finally released from prison last month as part of a deal with the U.S. government.

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