- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL (AP) - The Israeli government has offered no plausible explanation for its unprecedented ban on international journalists entering the Gaza Strip, representatives of the foreign media said at a news conference Thursday.

With the ban entering its fourth week, appeals to the Israeli government from foreign governments, the United Nations and the leaders of major news organizations have gone unanswered, the journalists said.

Earlier this week, the Foreign Press Association, which represents international media operating in Israel and the Palestinian territories, asked Israel’s Supreme Court to overturn the travel ban. The court gave the government 15 days to respond.

“We believe the current denial of access amounts to a serious violation of freedom of the press, and runs counter to Israel’s own claims that it is a democracy that respects media liberties,” said the association’s chairman, Steven Gutkin, who also serves as Associated Press bureau chief in Jerusalem.

Leaders of the world’s biggest media organizations filed a protest with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert last week, urging the government to lift the ban _ imposed after a 5-month-old truce began unraveling three weeks ago in a flurry of Israeli airstrikes against militants and Palestinian rocket barrages targeting Israeli towns.

Olmert has not responded to the letter.

Those signing the letter included AP Chief Executive and President Tom Curley, Reuters Editor-in-Chief David Schlesinger, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, ABC News President David Westin, BBC News Director Helen Boaden and other top executives from CNN, the Canadian TV network CTV, the German broadcaster ZDF, and the French news service Agence France Presse.

Israeli authorities have said little about why journalists are not allowed into Gaza, saying reporters are not being singled out because many others are also being kept out and that access will be restored when Palestinian militants stop firing rockets.

Israeli Defense Ministry Shlomo Dror has mentioned what he called unfair Gaza coverage when speaking about the ban, and other officials have cited security concerns for the denial of access.

At their news conference Thursday, journalists said none of these explanations is plausible. Israel cannot justify the ban on security grounds, they said, because in the past the Erez crossing _ the only entry point for foreigners into Gaza _ has remained open during far worse fighting than now. In addition, they noted that the crossing is still being opened for limited humanitarian traffic.

“The safety argument falls down when you go to Erez crossing and you see an old sick woman crossing Erez in a wheel chair, and if it’s safe enough for her, it’s safe enough for me and my staff,” said British Broadcasting Company journalist Jo Floto.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev rejected the notion that the Gaza ban violates press freedom.

“Israel cherishes the freedom of the press,” he said. “All journalists who work in Israel know that freedom for a fact.”

Floto noted that the only countries in the world where BBC journalists are currently denied access are North Korea, Burma and Zimbabwe.

“We don’t want Gaza to join that very select and regrettable club,” he said.

The Israeli government has long banned Israeli journalists from entering Gaza because of fears for their safety, but foreign reporters have been permitted to go in, even during times of heavy fighting.

In the past two weeks, coverage in Gaza has been largely left to local Palestinian staffers and a handful of foreign journalists who entered before the closure went into effect, including two AP reporters.

Gutkin noted Olmert’s comments earlier this week after a visit to Washington D.C.’s Newseum, a museum dedicated to journalism, expressing his pride in Israel’s record on a free press.

“Now Israel has a chance to match those words with policy,” Gutkin said.

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