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The Middle East

Journalists Are Kept at Bay by Israeli Bullets

Media: Army seeks to prevent coverage of West Bank offensive. Gunfire apparently is meant as a warning, but some shots have come too close.

April 08, 2002|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — In his three decades covering wars in the Mideast, television producer Charles Enderlin has had his run-ins with Israeli soldiers--but never a nasty rebuff like the one he got last week.

Trying to reach Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's besieged West Bank headquarters, Enderlin and his TV France 2 crew were turned back at an Israeli checkpoint. Before leaving, they tried to film the soldiers but were ordered to stop.

"Show me a written order that I cannot film here," the producer demanded.

"Instead of a paper, you're going to get a bullet in your camera," snarled an Israeli reservist, raising his automatic rifle.

After more bickering, the producer turned his back and headed toward his car.

Then came the reservist's parting shot. A bullet sliced through the air between Enderlin and his cameraman at chest level.

As Israel wages its biggest military campaign in the West Bank in 35 years, journalists trying to cover it are running up against the ultimate roadblock--Israeli bullets fired at them, often without warning. Veteran correspondents and a media watchdog group say the restrictions are the tightest they have ever seen here and are meant to conceal what the Israelis are doing in reoccupied Palestinian cities.

At least 20 journalists have come under Israeli fire since the offensive began March 29, according to the Paris-based watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. In most cases, the fire apparently is meant as warning shots, but five journalists have been wounded, including one American, Anthony Shadid of the Boston Globe.

"It's a form of nonverbal communication, their way of saying, 'Please leave the area at once,' " said Cameron Barr, a Christian Science Monitor reporter who has been shot at twice in recent days. "They want to get a message across. Believe me, I left with alacrity. It was an extremely effective message."

A convoy of correspondents got the message Friday when it approached Arafat's compound in Ramallah and came under attack from two Israeli army jeeps. Without warning, one of the jeeps rammed a clearly marked CNN vehicle, and soldiers threw several stun grenades. As the convoy retreated, soldiers fired plastic bullets, chipping the CNN car's reinforced glass windows.

Five journalists from Agence France-Presse and Spanish television got the message Sunday as they walked into the West Bank town of Yatta wearing flak jackets bearing the letters "TV" in big white tape and waving a white flag. They retreated under Israeli gunfire.

And journalists who stayed in Ramallah after Israel declared it a closed military zone got the message all last week. Israeli snipers took potshots at their hotel, and passing tanks fired into the air.

"The Israeli army is knowingly targeting journalists in a deliberate policy of intimidation," Robert Menard, general secretary of Reporters Without Borders, said Sunday. "The Israelis want a news blackout so they can work in a vacuum and do as they like."

Israel now controls all the West Bank's cities save one and has declared most of them off limits to reporters. Israeli officials warn that any reporter who enters those cities is provoking Israeli troops and violating Israeli law, even though Israel ceded the area to Palestinian control in the mid-1990s.

To that end, senior army officials have defended the use of stun grenades against journalists but insisted that shooting at them is contrary to orders. They say various shooting incidents are under army investigation.

Reporters, editors and other critics of the restrictions insist that journalists must have freer access to the West Bank to report fairly on Operation Defensive Shield. Israeli leaders say the assault is to uproot Palestinian terrorist networks; Palestinian leaders say it is aimed at destroying Palestinian self-rule and has killed scores of noncombatants.

One of the enduring controversies of the offensive, for example, is whether dozens of monks, priests and nuns inside Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity are hostages or willing companions of the 140 or so Palestinian gunmen and civilians who took refuge in the shrine after Israeli troops surrounded it last week.

Journalists trying to get close to the church have been repelled by Israeli gunfire.

In a rare public debate on the subject on Israeli television Sunday night, Tami Allen-Frost, a producer for Britain's ITN television network, confronted Brig. Gen. Ron Kitrey, the army's chief spokesman.

"We are filming the tanks because we are not allowed in any deeper," she said. "Allow us to film the Palestinian population, the suffering."

"We are talking here about a war," Kitrey replied. "People are shooting at each other, and the instruction to minimize the journalists' presence in the area was made to minimize the 'teasing effect,' which instigates violence. We get enough from our enemies and work hard to save our soldiers' lives. At times we cannot deal with the media as well."

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