Reporters Allege Police Violence at Temple Mount, Police Say They’re Protecting Journalists

Palestinian, Israeli and foreign journalists say the Israel Police aren’t letting them do their jobs properly, but the Jerusalem police chief says ‘when I think you’re in danger in a certain situation, I won’t let you in’

FILE PHOTO: Israel officers block the entrance to the Lions Gate in Jerusalem. July 14, 2017
Olivier Fitoussi

Journalists covering the Temple Mount clashes over the past 11 days say the police have restricted access and sometimes even reacted with harassment and violence, though the police say they’re only trying to protect reporters entering dangerous areas.

“Journalists are being prevented from coming in those specific areas where there have been disturbances and riots,” police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Wednesday. Palestinians have been protesting in and around Jerusalem’s Old City since the middle of the month, after Israel put up metal detectors outside the Temple Mount, or Haram al-Sharif to Muslims, a holy site to both Jews and Muslims.

That move followed the shooting of two Druze police officers at the Mount by three Israeli Arabs from the city of Umm al-Fahm.

On Wednesday, the Israel Press Council called on the police to protect journalists’ right to cover the news in tense areas anywhere across the country. The council said the Jerusalem police must realize that reporters need freedom of movement at the center of events.

The Foreign Press Association, meanwhile, called restrictions by the police “sweeping and unjustified,” adding that some of its members had encountered aggressive behavior and in some cases violence.

The Ynet website’s Hassan Shaalan, for example, was covering clashes around the Old City’s Lions Gate when the police began dispersing people. He says he was standing to the side when a policeman told him to “go away, get out of here.”

“I told him I was a journalist and I was taking photos for Ynet, but he said ‘I don’t care, we don’t want to see you here,’ and he pushed me,” Shaalan said. “Then another policeman arrived and started kicking and pushing me until I fell on the road.” He says his hand, leg, back and head were all injured, and he was hospitalized for eight hours.

Shaalan says that while still at Lions Gate he tried talking with one of the commanders about what had happened, and he was told he could file a complaint at the nearest police station. Shaalan later filed a complaint with the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of police officers.

Palestinian, Israeli and foreign journalists have all complained about the police’s behavior.

But Yoram Halevi, the head of the Jerusalem police, says the goal is to protect journalists. “When I think you’re in danger in a certain situation, I won’t let you in,” he said at a press conference Wednesday.

FILE PHOTO: Israel officers in Jerusalem after deadly terror attack. July 14, 2017
Olivier Fitoussi

“My responsibility is to make sure you’re safe .... We defined the danger as coming from the direction of the worshippers. They’re the ones who attacked and injured us, and they could’ve injured you as well had you been in the same place.”

Haaretz’s Yotam Berger says the Jerusalem events marked the first time he had encountered such police restrictions in Jerusalem. On Sunday morning, Berger and Haaretz photographer Emil Salman entered the Old City at Lions Gate.

“We were sitting talking with people; it was impossible to claim we were disturbing anyone or the police,” Salman says. He says security forces arrived after a few minutes and asked them to leave, telling them the regional commander had decided that journalists couldn’t be inside the Old City; a space had been allotted for the media outside.

“We told them that it was impossible; we’re journalists and this area was open to the public — and they could arrest us if they wanted,” Berger says. He says two policemen then approached him; one pressed him on the chest, pushed him back, took his hand and bent it backward.

In the name of the public

According to Yael Freidson, the daily Yedioth Ahronoth’s Jerusalem correspondent, “the police think that if they’re dispersing a protest, we shouldn’t be there.”

“They’ll later send us their own footage and version and say — here, we’ve provided it to you. They don’t understand that we should cover it ourselves, to be there in the name of the public and see it with our own eyes . There’s some sort of assumption that the press is unnecessary,” she says.

“We’ve covered a lot of events in Jerusalem and we’ve never seen anything like that. Our press card doesn’t mean anything: The whole Old City was full of barriers, and when we showed them our cards they just said — we don’t know what is this.”

Faiz Abu Rmeleh being detained by police near Lions Gate in Jerusalem.

Some journalists are describing even harsher encounters with the police. Faiz Abu Rmeleh, a freelance journalist, a member of the photojournalism group ActiveStills and an Old City native, was arrested Tuesday night while covering clashes at Lions Gate. He says he was standing with other journalists outside the gate in an area fenced off by the police that reporters had used throughout the week. He says that on Tuesday, while he was taking pictures, security forces approached the reporters, told them to move and pushed them.

“We told them we couldn’t move away because clashes were ongoing and if we moved we would’ve either been hit by stones or the police’s anti-riot weapons,” Abu Rmeleh says, adding that the police continued pushing them. He says he was arrested after he suggested that the journalists move to a higher location. He says a policeman replied: “Only I will decide where you move.”

He has he was told he was arrested for interfering with the police. A foreign journalist who was there and requested anonymity says the journalists repeatedly told the police that Abu Rmeleh was a journalist. He says that while the journalists were walking away, the police threw stun grenades very near them.

Banned from Temple Mount

Abu Rmeleh says the police tied his hands in a way that left marks that hadn’t gone away by the following day. He also says that he still has marks from the pushing, some of it done by a gun. He adds that at the police station he was asked to state his religion, which he refused, calling it a racist question.

He says another policeman told him, “If you don’t shut up, I’ll break your teeth.” He says he was moved to another police station and was released late at night with a 15-day order keeping him from the Old City's gates and from Temple Mount compound, even though he lives and works in the Old City. The investigator told him he was arrested for interfering with the police and pushing a policeman.

“But I have videos that show otherwise,” he says, referring to videos documenting his arrest that were shared on social media, in which security forces can be seen approaching the journalists, followed by policemen arresting Abu Rmeleh. He says police at the station teased him about his long hair, asking him if he was a man or a woman.

Following Abu Rmeleh’s arrest, the Union of Journalists in Israel published a statement calling on the police to provide clarifications and explanations about Abu Rmeleh’s arrest. “Since false arrests of journalists have become a routine that harms their ability to do their job and serve the public we will not be silent about arrests and violence against journalists.”

In another case, a CNN producer tried to document an arrest during the Friday clashes and was pushed to the ground by security forces, injuring her, says Amnon Perry, the CNN bureau manager in Jerusalem.

Perry says it was clear she was a journalist — she had a backpack holding a kit for live-streaming from the field. Sky News Arabia correspondent Shireen Younis says her photographer went to take pictures of Palestinians being detained near Lions Gate and was grabbed by the police and taken away. Earlier this week the Sky News Arabia team released a video showing Younis’ team beaten by policemen as they were broadcasting at Makassed Hospital last Friday.

“We were standing with the crowds covering what was happening, as they [the police] set upon everybody. I shouted ‘be careful, we’re journalists,’” Younis says. “As we were walking outside I told one of them ‘why did you did that, we are journalists’.... he policeman who beat us then passed by and said ‘kick them out of here or I’ll beat them up more.” Younis and her team plan to file a complaint to the Justice Ministry’s department for the investigation of police officers.

The Palestinian journalists’ union said earlier this week that six Palestinian journalists were injured covering clashes with Israeli security forces, as Amira Hass has reported in Haaretz. One of these journalists was Sinan Abu Maizer, a cameraman on assignment for Reuters who says he was beaten on his head with a baton while he was filming clashes at Lions Gate a week ago Thursday.

According to Carsten Seibold, the chief producer for Reuters TV in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Abu Maizer was holding a camera with a microphone displaying the name Reuters, which meant it was clear he was a journalist. Seibold says Abu Maizer went to the hospital later that night, was diagnosed with a concussion and still hasn’t gone back to work. Seibold filed a complaint with the Foreign Ministry and the Foreign Press Association but isn’t very optimistic.

“We have been discussing the brutality, especially of the Border Police, for quite a while, and we’re very concerned about it — especially because it happened to us, but many journalists are describing the same,” Seibold says. ”Complaints never get treated. We are demanding an investigation of this incident.”

Police: The events will be examined

The Israel Police said: "Most of the incidents took place during violent riots by Israeli Arabs in Jerusalem, when the police responded and removed demonstrators. Some of them refused to evacuate the areas and even clashed with the police and some of them were even injured during the clashes.

"The riots that took place were after the terrorist attack on the Temple Mount in which two policemen were killed in a terrorist attack. Police units are operating in areas under life-threatening situations and respond accordingly. In such cases of riots, all those present, including journalists, are required to obey the specific instructions of the police officers and evacuate areas, in accordance with the clear instructions.

"With no connection to one case or another, we emphasize that no one, including journalists, are permitted to break the law. However, at the same time, the circumstances of the events will be examined and if necessary will be referred to the relative authorities."