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Israel bars media from covering Gaza evac

Neve Dekalim, GAZA – Despite multiple promises media access to Gaza’s Jewish communities would not be restricted during the upcoming withdrawal, Israel yesterday demanded as condition for entering the area that journalists first sign a contract they will depart before next month’s evacuation.

Meanwhile, several reporters who were inside Gaza before it was closed are stuck there unless they sign the agreement or leave permanently.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon yesterday ordered the Gaza Strip and towns in the northern West Bank completely closed, declaring the areas military zones in an effort to thwart plans by protesters to flock here. The order permanently bans all non-residents from entering the Jewish communities slated for evacuation.

An Israeli Defense Forces spokeswoman said commanders at Gaza checkpoints would have the authority to issue temporary entry to select individuals, such as resident family members, businesses providing services to the area and humanitarian workers.

It was expected credentialed reporters would be allowed to enter Gaza and cover events during the withdrawal. But the IDF spokesperson’s office yesterday faxed contracts to media outlets in Israel conditioning entry into the Gaza Strip on reporters agreeing to vacate the area three days prior to the Aug. 17 withdrawal.

The contract, to be signed by individual reporters, states, “I am aware that in any case, I must leave [the communities slated for withdrawal] no later than August 14, 2005.”

The agreement also requires reporters to coordinate their travel with the IDF, provide the IDF with continuous contact information, and agree to “leave the Restricted Area, without delay, immediately after being told to do so by the authorized IDF officials.”

The Foreign Press Association in Israel has taken issue with the restrictions.

Glenys Sugarman, executive secretary of the Foreign Press Association, told WND: “We think the agreement is entirely excessive. If the settlers can stay until the 17th, why can’t the media? The obligations required by the forms represent an attack on journalistic freedoms and free movement of our members.

“The restrictions regarding being out by the 14th contradict and disregard ongoing negotiations between us and the authorities to permit a core number of journalists to remain inside the area during evacuation.”

The Association is awaiting responses from lawyers before deciding on any course of action.

Added Sugarman: “We understood Gaza was going to be a closed military zone, we’ve been fighting that and trying to negotiate the most extensive coverage we can get under the circumstances, but we didn’t expect this kind of agreement.”

An IDF spokesman told WND that while reporters will not be allowed to stay inside Gaza’s Jewish communities during the evacuation, there will be daily media shuttles to the area. He would not say whether journalists would be allowed to travel freely once inside, or whether the shuttle would go to areas being evacuated or communities already emptied.

“There also may be some opportunities for reporters to be embedded with army units. We’re still working on that,” said the spokesman.

Many journalists have taken issue with the contract.

“The situation is very disappointing,” said one reporter, a correspondent for an American cable network. ” The media must be allowed to cover the events of the withdrawal as they happen. Israel is clearly trying to keep the cameras and correspondents away from scenes sure to be controversial.”

Another, a reporter from a major British daily, told WND: “Aside from not being able to freely cover the evacuation, I take issue with the stipulation that says any authorized IDF officer can tell me to leave at any time. It gives them free reign to throw anyone out. They can technically do it just for not liking my coverage.”

Meanwhile, about a dozen reporters who were inside Gaza’s Jewish communities before the area closed down now cannot leave unless they vacate permanently or sign the agreement denying them permission to stay during the withdrawal.

A reporter for an Israeli daily who was in Gaza one day before it closed, told WND: “I’m not going out. I will be here for the withdrawal. If I’m stopped, I’ll be in a much better position having not signed the document.”

The reporter added, “I was taken by surprise by the closure. Now I don’t have enough clothes. I also wish I had my CDs and DVDs.”

Israel last month was criticized in multiple editorials after it banned reporters from covering the removal of Jewish activists from a Gaza hotel.

After declaring the area a “closed military zone,” Israeli soldiers, police commando units and border guards on June 30 stormed the Palm Beach Hotel – a seafront structure alongside Gush Katif – and forcibly evicted its occupants, many of whom were anti-withdrawal activists. There were reports by activists of excessive use of force on the part of some officers.

Journalists were restricted from covering the hotel operation. Two journalists who defied the ban order were arrested and briefly detained.

Said Sugarman: “We expect more open media coverage. My side is negotiating in good faith. I hope the other side is too.”

Editor’s note: “ISRAEL BETRAYED?” – the July issue of WND’s acclaimed monthly Whistleblower magazine – is devoted entirely to an in-depth exploration of the controversial forced removal of thousands of Jewish residents from Gaza planned for August, and the likely creation of a Hamas-run terror state many believe will follow. Read more about “ISRAEL BETRAYED?”

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