Working conditions for foreign journalists improved in 2004 with resumption of Israeli-Palestinian talks and fewer military clashes. But Palestinian journalists were still frequently threatened and obstructed in their movements by the Israeli army.

Fighting on the ground eased during 2004 as political negotiations resumed between Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli army switched from invading Palestinian cities to targeted assassination of guerrilla leaders. Suicide-bombings in Israel were also fewer. The death in December of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat raised new hopes of settling the conflict.

Prime minister Ariel Sharon decided to pull the army out of the Gaza Strip in 2005 and continued to build a wall between Israel and The West Bank that Israelis called a "security barrier" and Palestinians an "apartheid wall."

The calmer situation improved working conditions for journalists and relations between the Israeli government and the foreign media were better during the year. But the Israeli army still routinely obstructed the movements of Palestinian and foreign journalists and threatened their safety.

The Israeli media, robust and professional, was the only truly independent one in the region. Public radio and TV mostly stuck to the government line but the privately-owned media were bold and even "cruel," according to some politicians and other figures whose private lives were exposed.

The two main commercial TV stations (Channel 10 and Channel 2) and the three main daily papers (Haaretz, Maariv and Yediot Haaronot) compete fiercely with each other, so the government, political parties and even the army cannot pressure the media for long into hushing up scandals. The army, which describes itself as the world's "most moral" one, was tarred by scandals exposed by the national media at the end of the year.

Military clashes were less violent than the previous year and the government was less aggressive towards foreign reporters who, since 2001, it had accused of bias, anti-Semitism and lying. The hot-headed chief of the government press office, Daniel Seaman, calmed down and his fights with the European media and the Foreign Press Association were less frequent.

But British Sunday Times reporter Peter Hounam, who was doing a BBC documentary for the BBC on Mordechai Vanunu, who revealed Israel's secret nuclear weapons programme, was deported in May and banned from re-entering the country. Many Palestinian journalists were physically attacked and their working conditions remained dangerous because of Israeli military checkpoints in Palestinian territory and the sometimes insulting attitude of soldiers.

No progress was made in the enquiries or pseudo-enquiries into the deaths of journalists killed in 2003. No punishment or other action was taken by the Israeli army after the death of Nazeh Darwazi, a cameraman for the US TV news agency APTN, shot dead in Nablus on 19 April, and of James Miller, a British documentary filmmaker killed by Israeli gunfire on 2 May while working in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip.

Journalist student Mohammad Abu Halimeh was killed on 22 March while reporting on clashes at the Balata refugee camp in Nablus. Hospital doctors said he was shot in the stomach. Witnesses told Reporters Without Borders an Israeli soldier shot him from 50 metres away near an entrance to the camp. He was not identified as a journalist and just had a camera round his neck. No exchange of fire was heard.

The Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency said Israeli soldiers had fired at Palestinians throwing stones at them. Halimeh, 22, had been working free for several months for the city's An-Najah University radio station. About 10 minutes before he was killed he phoned in a live report about clashes taking place. The Israeli army told Reporters Without Borders in January 2005, without providing evidence, that an armed person was in the area and that it was probably Halimeh.

Banned military zones

Parts of the Palestinian Territories were declared "closed military zones" by the Israeli army in 2004 and journalists banned from them. After the army murdered Sheikh Yassin, spiritual leader of the Hamas militant group, in March, the Israeli authorities banned Israeli and double-nationality journalists from the Gaza Strip. Israeli press chief Seaman claimed it was to protect them from Palestinians wanting to take revenge on them for the killing and to target any Israeli citizen.

The Foreign Press Association protested against the ban and demanded that journalists be free to go where they wanted. After the brief kidnapping in Gaza in September of Riad Ali, an interpreter and journalist for the US TV network CNN, the ban was imposed again.

Since then, Israeli journalists have only been able to go to Gaza after signing a promise not to hold the army responsible for their safety. Conditions and entry procedures for going to the area were increased for all journalists, who had to say why they wanted to travel there and who they intended to meet.

Reuters news agency photographer Ammar Awad was beaten up on 2 April by a dozen Israeli police on the Mosque Square in Jerusalem, where he was covering clashes between them and Palestinians on the second Friday prayers after Sheikh Yassin's murder. His camera was smashed and ID papers seized. Police fired tear-gas grenades, injuring about 20 people.

Tensions in Israeli society also complicated the job of Israeli reporters, who were sometimes set upon by extremist groups. Dan Weiss, of the privately-owned TV station Channel 2, was roughed up and insulted by extreme right-wing militants who wanted to stop him interviewing supporters of Mordechai Vanunu as they waited for him to emerge from Shikma top security prison on 21 April. Weiss said police stood by, although the militants were familiar figures who often tried to break up demonstrations.

Media premises bombed

The army continued to target the premises of media accused of inciting "terrorism," as it has since 2001 in defiance of international humanitarian law.

An Israeli army helicopter fired several missiles at night on 28 June at the Al-Shawa and Husari building in the centre of Gaza City, destroying the Al-Jeel press centre run by Islamist Palestinian journalist Mustafa Al-Sawaf. The army said on its Internet website that it had aimed at the headquarters of a media outlet that incited hatred against Israelis and maintained continual contact with "terrorists." Al-Sawaf works for the Islam-on-line website, the Dubai-based TV station MBC, the Palestinian website Saberon and the Jordanian newspaper Sabil.

The building housed various local and foreign media, including Al-Jazeera, ARD, CNN, BBC, NBC and Kuwait TV. Two technicians working for the Ramattan production company were slightly injured in the attack, which Reporters Without Borders and the Israeli Foreign Press Association deplored as endangering the life of journalists reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

International humanitarian law say media premises (offices and installations) are not lawful targets unless they assist military operations, for example by broadcasting battle orders, or their destruction is an obvious tactical advantage. The Israeli army provided no solid evidence that Al-Jeel was helping Hamas operations. The views of Al-Sawaf do not justify such dramatic military action.

It was the third attack in two months against an Islamist media outlet. Two Israeli helicopters partly destroyed the offices of the pro-Hamas radio station Al-Aqsa on 2 May. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights in Gaza said Israel also bombed the offices on the weekly Al-Rissala, in the Gaza neighbourhood of Al-Nasr, on 16 May.

In 2004...

  • 4 journalists were wounded
  • 2 arrested
  • at least 5 physically attacked
  • and 1 deported

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