Israel bans press in the Gaza Strip
For nearly three weeks Israel has blocked access to the Gaza Strip. Foreign journalists are challenging the Gaza ban in court, calling it a 'blow' to freedom of the press.
Jerusalem — For more than 40 years the Gaza Strip has played a key role in the Arab-Israeli conflict, making it a place of keen interest to journalists.
But for nearly three weeks now, Israel has blocked media access to the 25-mile-long coastal territory in what journalists are calling a "mortal blow against freedom of the press."
On Monday, the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Israel filed a petition to the Supreme Court asking it to rule on the issue, essentially forcing an overturn of the ban.
"We believe the Israeli government has an obligation to keep the Gaza border open to international journalists," says Steven Gutkin, the FPA Chairman and Jerusalem bureau chief of Associated Press. "The foreign media serve as the world's window into Gaza and it's essential that we be allowed in."
The border has been closed in the past during periods of heightened tensions and violence, but never for more than a few days at a time.
"It's been open throughout very difficult periods, and it's been closed during periods of heavy fighting. But it's been open during more tense periods than this one, and we've received no plausible explanation of why this period is any different," says Mr. Gutkin.
Israeli officials have given no specific reason why it has been closed for such a long period of time, except to indicate that opening the border – the only legal route into Gaza – would endanger the personnel who work at the heavily guarded Erez crossing.
Israel's Supreme Court responded on Tuesday by giving the state 15 days to respond to the FPA demand. But lawyers for the FPA appealed the decision, suggesting that it was an old-fashioned schedule in an age of real-time news.
"We're trying to make it clear to them that 15 days is too long," says Naomi Vestfrid, one of the lawyers on the case.
"We're in the 21st century: news travels in minutes, even seconds. We're trying to tell them that obviously, you didn't understand the urgency in the matter," says Ms. Vestfrid.
Israel has long maintained careful control over the amount of goods and people allowed to come in and out of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, home to about 1.5 million Palestinians living under great economic hardship.
As part of its disengagement from Gaza in September 2005, Israel withdrew soldiers and settlers from the territory it had occupied for 38 years and said that the Gaza Strip was no longer its responsibility. However, Israel still controls all access to Gaza via land, sea, and air. Gazans are also dependent on Israel for electricity and fuel.
Since Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007, Israel has further tightened its control over the territory, allowing an on-again, off-again trickle of commercial or other traffic over the border.
Israeli officials say they allow humanitarian aid and other necessary supplies into Gaza, but Palestinians say they are living under siege.
The latest clampdown on any access to and from Gaza stems from recent rocket attacks on southern Israel from militants in the Gaza Strip. Israel and Hamas had agreed to a temporary truce – called tahdiya in Arabic or regia in Hebrew – but the quiet was shattered by both sides over the past two weeks.
Human rights groups have also brought attention to the blockade of Gaza over the past month.
A new "Free Gaza" movement has sent boats from Cyprus to Gaza in defiance of the Israeli ban. Some boats have managed to dock, while in other cases, the activists were arrested.
By blocking the press from entering Gaza, the FPA charged in its petition to the Supreme Court that the ban "gives the unpleasant feeling that the state of Israel has something to hide."
Observers here theorize that Israeli defense officials are enforcing the ban as a way to put pressure on Hamas. The FPA says that there are indications that, in the interest of avoiding additional negative publicity, the Israeli army may order the border to be open on Wednesday.
"If that happens, we will explore the option of moving forward with a legal case anyway, because of the precedent," Gutkin wrote in an urgent e-mail update to members on Tuesday.
United Nations studies of the region suggest that due to the ongoing closure, conditions for Palestinians in the territories, particularly the Gaza Strip, are deteriorating.
On Wednesday, several UN offices that aid Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will launch a consolidated appeal process for 2009, during which they will release figures showing the state of decline.
"At the end of 2008, nearly 80 percent of the population in Gaza was dependent on food assistance which combined with restricted access to basic social services and movement can be described as a major human dignity crisis," said a press release from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.