The Area Was Closed. But Journalists Reported Anyway

A moment of grace was chalked up to the Israeli media on the eve of the evacuation of Yamit, 23 years ago. On April 20, 1982, two days after the security establishment announced the total closure of the Yamit region to the media, all of the daily newspapers joined together in a protest.

A moment of grace was chalked up to the Israeli media on the eve of the evacuation of Yamit, 23 years ago. On April 20, 1982, two days after the security establishment announced the total closure of the Yamit region to the media, all of the daily newspapers joined together in a protest: A white frame appeared on front pages, on the upper right, and beneath it the words: "This white space appears as a protest by the entire Israeli press against the damage to the freedom of the press by the government's decision to close the Yamit region to journalistic coverage."

The white patch was just one indication of the battle over freedom of the press that went on for several days - the media (both Israeli and foreign) vs. the government and the Israel Defense Forces. Those days Channel 1 had a monopoly on television coverage in Israel, it was the twilight of the party newspapers like Davar and Al Hamishmar and the institution of the Editors' Committee, which served to reach goodwill agreements between the authorities and the press about not publishing certain reports, was still influential and had real status.

Despite the enormous changes in the media since then, anyone who pages through the newspapers of that period cannot help but smile: The disputes are about the same issues, the headlines could have been written today and even some of the protagonists have not changed. It was Ariel Sharon, then the defense minister, who informed the chairman of the Editors' Committee and the editor of Al Hamishmar at the time, Mark Gefen, of the decision to close Yamit to journalists on the eve of the final stage of the evacuation.

Now it is Prime Minister Sharon who is leading the move to evacuate Gush Katif and beneath him there is a team that is currently formulating the arrangements with the media that will exist during the course of the evacuation. Despite the plethora of discussions in recent months between the media chiefs and the IDF Spokesman's Office and the chief of staff, it is still not clear what the final arrangement will be on coverage of the disengagement. Some of the editors at news desks are expressing concern: They are suspicious about the control that the IDF will have over the movement of journalists and possible interference. IDF Spokeswoman Brigadier General Miri Regev is, however, promising transparent and constant coverage of the process (see box). The current lack of clarity at present makes what happened before relevant again.

The editors' demonstration

In March, 1982, about three weeks before the evacuation of Yamit, an agreement was reached between the Editors' Committee and defense minister Sharon, whereby the evacuation of Yamit would be open to journalists. Two days before the start of the final phase of the withdrawal, on April 18, Sharon contacted Gefen in his capacity as the chairman of the Editors' Committee and informed him that the government had decided to close the Yamit area to journalists. Gefen was furious. "An event of major significance like the evacuation of Yamit," he was quoted in the mass-circulation daily Yedioth Ahronoth, "even if it is extremely painful, must not be concealed from the public in Israel and abroad."

The National Association of Journalists expressed "shock and amazement" and the protesters were joined by the Foreign Press Association ("An arbitrary and worrisome decision"). The reaction was especially acute because the government's decision came on the heels of another decision by Sharon that interfered with freedom of the press: the closure of the Druze villages in the Golan Heights to journalists after they were put under siege because of the inhabitants' refusal to accept Israeli identity cards.

The media organized quickly a united front against Sharon's decision: The very next day urgent meetings were held between the Editors' Committee and the presidium of the National Association of Journalists and an urgent telegram was sent to then prime minister Menachem Begin. On Mabat, the only evening news program on television, there was a minute of silence that evening, as there was also on the radio news program "Hayom Hazeh." And the Foreign Press Association decided to petition the High Court of Justice against the decision.

The Defense Ministry spokesman, in an attempt to calm the uproar, hastened to announce that a small number of media crews would be allowed to enter, but not television crews, and this, according to the spokesman, to allow the evacuation to proceed calmly.

Two days after the government's decision, the Editors' Committee and the National Journalists' Association decided to take action: Parallel to the publication of the framed white on news pages, the editors left their chairs at the editorial offices in Tel Aviv and went down to the Yamit area to hold a demonstration there. Haaretz editor Gershom Schocken, Davar editor Hannah Zemer, Ma'ariv editor Shmuel Schnitzer, Al Hamishmar editor and Editors' Committee chairman Gefen and others succeeded in getting as far as the road near Kerem Shalom and there their way was blocked by a barbed wire fence. At a press conference they held there, Gefen said: "This is the first time that journalists in Israel have demonstrated in this way of protest and not as they had done until now - in writing. It is untenable that in a free society there will not be free coverage."

But that day the media suffered a defeat: The High Court of Justice rejected the foreign correspondents' petition and ruled that the arrangement that was presented to the court on behalf of the State Prosecutor's Office, whereby a number of representatives of the media would be allowed entry, balanced the important interests of freedom of the press, on the one hand, and the proper implementation of the authorities' functions, on the other. The person who presented the arrangement on behalf of the State Prosecutor's Office was attorney Dorit Beinisch, now a Supreme Court justice. The Editors' Committee issued a statement to the effect that the state had lied to the High Court in that it claimed that an agreement had supposedly been reached with the media on admitting several representatives, and announced that it would continue the struggle.

Telephone lines cut

But the heroic struggle for the principle was continued far from the reality of the journalists in the field. Did the evacuation get covered in the end? Yes.

Channel 1 even managed to provide daily reports from Yamit, with the pictures that have since been etched into the collective memory: the removal of the students from the monument in Yamit, the soldiers using water hoses to drench people who barricaded themselves, the break-in into the bunker where Rabbi Meir Kahane's people had barricaded themselves and finally the demolition of the city of Yamit. Was the coverage entirely free? No. Journalists worked (and were thus limited) by concealing their presence and faced difficult technical conditions for sending material out.

However, the moment the difficult and final stage of the evacuation began (on the night between April 20 and April 21), the following of journalists was pushed aside. Thus Ma'ariv journalist Zvia Granot reported on April 22: "The security forces' pursuit of journalists was stopped yesterday and representatives of the media celebrated the sudden freedom of the press by coming openly out into the streets. And, suddenly, it was hard to distinguish between them and the settlers. Many of them wore skullcaps to deceive the pursuers."

In the bread van

Ron Ben-Yishai, one of the three Channel 1 people who reported from Yamit (the others were Ofer Teller and Yigal Goren), stole into the area after it was closed with the help of Benny Katzover, one of the leaders of the opposition to the evacuation.

"Katzover went into Yamit with a van carrying large crates of bread," relates Ben-Yishai. "We took the loaves of bread out of three of the crates and a member of the crew (a cameraman, a sound man) and I got into them, covered over with loaves of bread. The moment I was inside Yamit I stayed on the roof of one of the houses for three days together with the cameraman." Ben-Yishai says that he sent the materials to the television station only after he exited the area (the report was broadcast on April 23), but the archive reports show that Channel 1 people managed to send out reports daily.

Haim Handwerker, who reported from Yamit for Haaretz, recalls a case in which soldiers with weapons drawn searched the area for journalists. "But over time a status quo between the sides developed," he says. "They knew that we were there, but they let us be." The main difficulty, according to him, was in sending out the material: "It was hard to get a phone line, because most of them had been cut, so it was necessary to ask favors of the pullout opponents who went out. When Gershom Schocken came to demonstrate, I gave him some scrawls on paper to take to the newsroom. In the end, the event was covered, but, of course, it would have been better had the paper had five more reporters there, and not just me."

The enormous technological changes that have occurred since the evacuation of Yamit make the scenario then almost impossible now. All the large media organizations have managed to provide settlers with small cameras, and inside Gush Katif there are well-equipped journalists. Despite concern about mobility and restrictions on independent coverage, hardly anyone believes that a situation will develop in which there will not be a flow of information during the course of the evacuation.

But the years have seen another change: The organized solidarity of the Israeli media has all but disintegrated. The media chiefs maintain contact but each looks after his interests independently vis-a-vis the IDF Spokesman's Office. The Editors' Committee has lost its status; the Israel Press Council, which is supposed to defend the freedom of the press, has not been functioning for nearly two years; and the National Association of Journalists has become an appendage of the Israel Broadcasting Authority and its journalists. Thus, for example, association chairman Arieh Shaked says: "We are not active on the issue of coverage arrangements; this is being done by the various editorial boards vis-a-vis the IDF Spokesman's Office. We are concerned about people's working conditions. For example, at the IBA, they have doubled the insurance policies and it has been decided that for every five days in the field, the journalists will receive special monetary compensation."