From Gaza to Amona
By Jay Bushinsky Posted Apr 1 2006
Covering the Israeli government’s expulsion of Israeli settlers in January from their illegal Amona outpost in the West Bank was simple compared to the obstacles that faced the foreign press last August when it deployed to report the much bigger evacuation of the Gaza Strip.
There were problems in Amona, but they were insignificant compared to those encountered in the Qatif Bloc of settlements in Southern Gaza and those further to the north.
Ultimately and unexpectedly, coverage of the Gaza Strip pullout became a rehearsal for the expulsion of Jewish settlers from Amona, an illegal West Bank outpost, six months later. The situation there was different, however.
“Most of the media personnel who covered that story were locally based and did not come here from abroad,” says Daniel Seaman, Director of the Government Press Office. “On the one hand, there was less control, but on the other, there was more access. There were preliminary agreements with the journalists. The main purpose of which was that they not get between the two sides for their own safety.”
The victory by Hamas in the Palestinian election on Jan. 26 also had an effect on coverage by foreign journalists. Hamas’ leaders quickly surfaced, willingly speaking to the world’s TV cameras as well as radio and newspaper correspondents. Israel’s political establishment and military command did not like what they had to say, but could not interfere. The interviews were conducted well inside the Palestinian Authority’s domain—mainly the city of Gaza. Although Israel continued to control passage from its territory to the Strip through Checkpoint Erez and to the West Bank through dozens of heavily guarded condits, its troops and civilian personnel did not prevent or delay access.
“The police line at Amona was just as easy to cross as the ones they put up in Israel proper,” says Elif Ural of Turkey’s Ihlas News Agency. As INA’s correspondent and bureau chief, she was in both Amona and the Gaza Strip with her TV crew. “We could not move around much in Amona,” Ural says, describing the police forces placed there. “I guess they had to keep us in check because otherwise there would have been an even bigger ‘balagan,’” [Hebrew slang for chaos].
In the Gaza Strip it was a different story. At the outset, the foreign correspondents who converged on it were hamstrung by stringent regulations, but they faded away in relatively short order.
Charles Enderlin, the Jerusalem-based bureau chief of France-2 (TV), says he had no communication problems. He credits the Foreign Press Association with having made the necessary breakthrough.
Glenys Sugerman, the FPA’s Executive Secretary, recalled the eve of the pullout. “Basically, the army didn’t want coverage,” Sugerman says. “They said the presence of journalists in the Qatif Bloc after Aug. 15 would be illegal,” Sugerman says. “Anyone moving between the settlements would be shot.” In practice, however, no one was intercepted. In fact, there were no casualties.
The military commander, Brig. Gen. Dan Harel, and the Israeli Defense Forces spokesperson, Brig. Miri Regev, insisted that if they agreed to admit journalists once the pullout began, they would have to know where they were at all times.
However, this rule soon proved to be counterproductive. At the political level, the Israeli authorities realized they could be doing something to win goodwill, even admiration, from local and foreign media audiences and improve their image worldwide.
The IDF held to the mistaken view that 70 percent of the journalists covering the evacuation would be Israeli and only 30 percent foreign. Accommodations and arrangements for the media would be based on that ratio. For example, seats on the shuttle buses from the ad hoc media center were the only means by which journalists could access the area.
Several TV personalities were embedded with local families. At first, relations were strained, but eventually, the settlers changed their attitude.
When Scott Wilson of The Washington Post began coverage early on he found that coverage was easy. “There was a tremendous amount of access and I was able to witness firsthand the soldiers and settlers,” Wilson says.
Other journalists, however, were more critical of the IDF. Stephen Farrell of The Times described the conditions that prevailed at the outset as “extremely rigorous.” The situation improved after the violent resistance at the once-elegant hotel erected in the Qatif Bloc.
“The government then realized that it had a public relations problem,” Farrell says. He was told by a general that Israel wanted the settlers to protest their removal, if only to prove to the outside world that their departure was not a simple matter.
As it turned out, the settlers and their supporters who infiltrated the Gaza Strip resisted their own initiative. In Kfar Darom, for example, they fought pitched battles with the oncoming troops until they were overcome and physically carried away.
Farrell also arranged for concurrent coverage of the Gaza Strip’s preponderant Palestinian sectors. He stationed a reporter at Khan Younis, he says, referring to the impoverished town that overlooked the relatively posh settlements. Several of the major news organizations kept up a simultaneous flow of information from Gaza City. Some correspondents moved between the two sides, but this was time-consuming and inconvenient, mainly because of the delays caused by heavy Israeli security at the Erez Checkpoint (entering and leaving the Gaza Strip) and the dicey situation in Gaza, Khan Younis and other cities where armed Palestinian extremists posed a constant threat.
Indeed, it was a large and meticulous military operation, which Gen. Harel completed without any loss of life and few injuries. The logistics were awesome, but the results were faultless.
The construction projects designed to absorb the Strip’s unemployed labor force still are on the drawing boards, but funding and implementation were put into limbo when the Islamic extremist Hamas movement won the Palestinian Authority’s parliamentary election in January. Financial support has been reduced, and as a result, working as a journalist in the Strip has changed profoundly since the Israeli settlers’ removal.
Correspondents and photographers working there must be on the lookout for local terrorists who intermittently kidnap members of the foreign press corps and hold them incommunicado– briefly, so far, and without ransom demands (monetary or political), but that may change. The anarchy and chaos in the Strip after the Israeli pullout have made it an even more dangerous place than it was prior to the settlers’ and soldiers’ evacuation. No journalist wants to be caught in the crossfire.