Israeli police forces briefly detained The Washington Post's Jerusalem bureau chief and another reporter near Jerusalem's Damascus Gate on Tuesday after a witness said a group planned to stage a confrontation by Arab youth directed at the police.
The bureau chief, William Booth, and the reporter, Sufian Taha, a Jerusalem resident, were detained on grounds of incitement while interviewing passersby in the Old City. Ruth Eglash, another Washington Post reporter who witnessed the incident, said that Booth and Taha were told not to speak to each when they were taken in for questioning.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld says the journalists were questioned in connection to an unspecified "incident" and quickly released after it was clear they were not involved.
Jerusalem Police issued a statement saying that a "passerby had complained that he was witness to the intention on the part of a number of people to stage a provocative situation and a disturbance of the peace by young Arabs directed at police." The incident was apparently to be staged for "propaganda purposes," the police added.
"In light of the complaint, the police detained a number of suspects to clarify the facts – in a sensitive and discreet manner at the adjacent police facility. When the circumstances of the incident became clear, and no suspicion of criminal activity was found, the detainees were immediately released by the investigating officer without proceedings of any kind in the matter."
"This is a regrettable incident, casting an unnecessary shadow over the work of an excellent journalist," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon said, adding that "the MFA will ask the Police for the necessary clarifications."
Israel Police later released another statement, apologizing for any emotional harm caused to the journalists, saying that an investigation of the incident showed that the detainment was necessary in light of the information that had been received, which later turned out to have been false.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Berlin on a state visit, said that while he was unaware of the details, Israel does not arrest journalists. "As I can personally testify, the media in Israel is lively and free, very dynamic and free to say what it wants. And you know what? That's what it's doing. It not the situation in our neighborhood, but it is the situation in Israel, and that's how it'll continue to be."
The Foreign Press Association protested the detention and the "absurd accusation" of incitement, noting that it came in the context of "heavy-handed tactics – including violent attacks - deployed in recent months by border police against foreign journalists and their Palestinian co-workers covering the unrest in Jerusalem and the West Bank."
According to the FPA, Booth and Taha were trying to interview Palestinian high-school students near Damascus Gate when they were waved away by police. They then moved under a tree, and tried to interview the teens there, when they were stopped again by police officers, who asked for their IDs. The journalists showed their Government Press Office cards, but the officers rejected them, asking for official identity documents, and then detained them, the FPA statement said.
"We do not think it is coincidental that a baseless accusation of 'incitement' was made at a time when blanket accusations of bias are being leveled against the foreign press by Israeli officials and commentators," the FPA said in a statement.
The FPA also urged Israeli authorities to recognize journalists bearing GPO credentials and let them work without hindrance.