The Foreign Press Association in Israel is threatening to boycott briefings held by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if security procedures are not changed immediately.
"In a democratic country, security services are not permitted to do as they please," the association said in a open statement. "For a government trying to usher in a new era of relations with the foreign media, this is a peculiar way to begin."
The statement followed a complaint filed yesterday by Al Jazeera with the Government Press Office and the Foreign Press Association, over what the channel said was a humiliating and lengthy security check at the invitation-only foreign press briefing with Netanyahu in Jerusalem.
At the entrance to the briefing, which took place Tuesday night at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem, a number of journalists, including the Al Jazeera representatives, were stopped. According to the complaint, filed by Walid al-Umari, Al Jazeera's bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the technical and news team had presented themselves for the security check long before the start of the event and had provided the names, identity numbers and GPO cards of their team to the Government Press Office three days beforehand. However, he said, his channel's technical team and journalists were delayed by a humiliating and meticulous security check, while other groups only underwent ordinary checks.
Najwan Simri Diab, a producer and reporter, and another reporter, Shirin Abu Aqla, were part of the Al Jazeera team that arrived to the Jerusalem event. Abu Aqla was reportedly made to wait over an hour and not permitted to enter in the end, while Simri Diab was asked by security to remove her clothing, including her bra.
"I am not against a search and a security check, but I am against invasive humiliation," Simri Diab told Haaretz, adding that she believed she and her colleagues had been singled out because they are Arab and work for Al Jazeera.
She said this is not the first time she and her colleagues have undergone such a check, but that this time it was publicized because of media intervention.
"A few months ago, we had an interview with Minister Dan Meridor and we came to the Prime Minister's Office and encountered a similar attitude," al-Umari said. "The minister had to personally intervene to stop the check and let us in."
According to the Foreign Press Association, the members of the Al Jazeera team were not the only journalists treated in a humiliating manner at the event. Photographers and reporters were also asked to strip, among them Charles Levinson, the Wall Street Journal's correspondent in Israel.
"We waited 20 minutes on the side after the security man stopped us," said Menahem Kahana, who has worked as a press photographer for 23 years. "Afterward they took me down to a room for a security check."
Kahana said he was checked with a hand-held security wand, and then asked to remove his trousers. "I refused and told them I was going to leave, but the security man said I was in the middle of 'a security process' and could not leave. They simply went crazy."
The secretary of the Foreign Press Association, Glenys Sugarman, told Haaretz: "The Shin Bet [security service] responded by saying that the people who were asked to strip had not cooperated during the regular procedure. But that is a crude lie. In the United States they also do security checks, but the difference is that the security people are not allowed to act in a humiliating, insulting and hostile manner. To hold people for hours and threaten them with arrest is unacceptable to us. It's terrible treatment."
"The entire staff of the Al Jazeera bureau in Jerusalem was invited to the event," said the director of the Government Press Office, Oren Helman. "The bureau chief, Walid al-Umari, took part in the event and the briefing. Dozens of Arab reporters were invited from various outlets and they all went in and took part.
"I certainly intend to investigate the association's complaint and ask for answers from those responsible for the check - the Shin Bet," he continued. "I regret the mishap. We invited the journalists and clearly the intent was for them to get into the event. We acted so the entry would be speedy, efficient and convenient, but unfortunately the mishaps that occured are not our responsibility."
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