- The Washington Times - Monday, March 2, 2009

SHARM EL SHEIK, Egypt — The State Department invited Palestinian bloggers to cover Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton‘s visit to the Middle East this week and paid their travel expenses, but it was unable to win the release of one of them from an Egyptian airport.

In an effort to ensure that the U.S. point of view is reflected in Arabic-language new media, the department invited two bloggers to join Mrs. Clinton’s traveling press corps in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik, where she participated in a donors’ conference for Gaza on Monday.

“We feel it’s important to reach out and engage the new social media, and bloggers are a significant part of this new media,” department spokesman Robert A. Wood said. “It’s essential that the work of the State Department be disseminated as widely as possible, and they help get our message out.”

The bloggers, Daoud Kuttab and Fadi Abu Sada, said they first were contacted by the U.S. Consulate-General in Jerusalem and the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and later were sent official invitations, along with airline tickets from Amman, the Jordanian capital.

Mr. Kuttab, a native Palestinian, is founder and director of the Amman-based Radio Al Balad. Mr. Sada, who lives in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, is edito in chief of the Palestine News Network, a popular Web site. In addition to their full-time jobs in traditional media, they both write blogs on Palestinian-related issues.

The two had reserved desk space in the press filing center at the hotel where Mrs. Clinton and her traveling party stayed in Sharm el Sheik. Their rooms also were paid for by the State Department.

Mr. Sada’s room and desk, however, remained unused.

In an interview, he said that he arrived at the local airport early Sunday afternoon, just hours before Mrs. Clinton, but he was refused entry into Egypt. He was told that, as a Palestinian under the age of 40, he should have obtained an Egyptian visa in advance. He said his understanding was that all he needed was the official U.S. invitation, but the Egyptian officers would not budge.

“People from the U.S. Embassy came to the airport and said they had done their best but weren’t successful,” Mr. Sada said by telephone from the airport, where he said he had spent the night.

He initially was scheduled to fly back to Amman on Tuesday, but the Egyptian authorities told him that he would be put on the first available flight Monday. It was not clear whether there would be a penalty for changing his plane ticket and, if so, who would pay the fee.

“It’s really sad what happened to him,” said Mr. Kuttab, who did make it to the hotel and the conference site. He did not need an Egyptian visa because he is older than 40.

Egypt’s visa policy is linked to a potential terrorist threat from young Palestinian men, some of whom belong to militant groups such as Hamas.

Mr. Sada said he still plans to cover Mrs. Clinton’s visit Wednesday to the West Bank, where he will travel by land once he gets back to Amman. Neither Mr. Sada nor Mr. Kuttab was invited to join Mrs. Clinton’s party in Jerusalem, they said.

The State Department charges news organizations thousands of dollars to travel on the secretary’s aircraft, as well as hundreds of dollars for using desk space and phone and Internet lines in filing centers. Reporters are also responsible for paying their hotel bills.

Bloggers were invited to cover Mrs. Clinton’s trip to Asia last month, but none of them needed to travel.

Mrs. Clinton is on her first Middle East trip since taking office, during which she is emphasizing the Obama administration’s deep concern about the plight of Palestinians in Gaza in the aftermath of Israel’s recent offensive against the Hamas-controlled territory.

She pledged about $900 million in U.S. aid, about a third of which will be used for the humanitarian needs in Gaza. The rest will go to the U.S.-backed Palestinian Authority to help with its budget shortfall and other projects, which could include Gaza and the West Bank.

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