Foreign Journalists Vie for the Few Slots to Get Into Gaza

A limited team of eight journalists will be allowed into Gaza when the Erez crossing is opened.

Since the Israel Defense Forces operation began in the Gaza Strip late last month, Sderot has become a communications hub, mainly for journalists from around the world. Earlier this week the IDF agreed to allow eight journalists into Gaza itself, but the army is still not coming through on its promise despite the increasing pressure.

"There are masses of requests," says Noam Katz, director of public relations at the Foreign Ministry. "A reporter from CNN stands there and protests the state's decision on the air."

There are currently around 400 to 500 foreign journalists in Israel, and since the ground operation began, senior correspondents have begun to stream in. CNN's Christiane Amanpour is at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem, the producers of NBC television's "Meet the Press" are here from the United States, as is Bob Simon of CBS' "60 Minutes."

The BBC's Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, is also here. Everyone will have to wait for the policy to change and for Israel to allow the media into Gaza to cover the events.

In contrast to the open policy that prevailed during the Second Lebanon War, the Defense Ministry decided to close the Strip entirely to the press. This week the matter reached the High Court of Justice.

In a compromise, the parties agreed that a limited team of eight journalists would be allowed into Gaza when the Erez crossing opened, for example, to send in humanitarian aid. However, sources in the Foreign Press Association say that since the decision, the crossings have not opened.

Catrin Ormestad, who writes for The Economist and a number of Swedish papers, said the Israeli policy was very tough and she did not have much of a chance of being a member of the group of eight because she was not as high-profile as Fox or CNN.

Israel says it does not want the foreign press in Gaza due to concerns that something might happen to them that will hamper Israel's operations. "What if one of these media stars gets hurt? Even if it isn't Israel's fault, it will be perceived as fundamental for the Palestinians," an Israeli source said.

That is apparently only part of the reason. Keeping the foreign journalists in Israel, sources say, is good for Israel's image because the media is experiencing the war from the Israeli side. As soon as the IDF gets a hold in the Strip, it is expected that the IDF Spokesman will let Israeli and foreign journalists in with the army. For the time being, the only presence documenting events is the spokesman's office.

Israel is also being very strict about military censorship. On Saturday night, Channel 2 reported that a journalist from Iranian television in Israel broke censorship rules and an arrest order was issued against him. According to Danny Seaman, the director of the Israel Government Press Office, the reporter had been refused a press card for security reasons.

The approach is stricter in general, Seaman explained, because "too many times we have spoken in too many voices. This time it's clear that the system is unified and serious. That was also one of the Winograd Committee's conclusions, but this time there won't be censorship violations that won't be dealt with."