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Covering unrest from up close, Israel’s journalists increasingly in line of fire

At least 20 members of the media have been assaulted while reporting on raging national discord, and one channel has given extra security to anchors as threats proliferate online

Police shoving reporters near the scene of a car ramming attack in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem on May 16, 2021. (Yossi Zamir/FLASH90)
Police shoving reporters near the scene of a car ramming attack in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem on May 16, 2021. (Yossi Zamir/FLASH90)

Israeli journalists covering the ongoing conflict with Hamas in Gaza and raging ethnic violence in some cities have increasingly found themselves the target of assaults and threats from angry mobs and individuals in recent days.

According to the Union of Journalists in Israel, at least 20 reporters and photographers have been assaulted and wounded since the start of riots in East Jerusalem on May 6.

Both Jewish and Arab reporters have been subjected to the rash of anti-press violence, which has included harassment and physical attacks, especially while trying to document the actions of mobs that have rampaged through mixed towns, viciously beating members of the other ethnicity and vandalizing homes, cars, businesses and other property. Police have been accused of not only failing to protect journalists but of also attacking reporters and photographers themselves and hindering them from doing their jobs.

“In recent weeks, dozens of journalists and broadcast crews have been attacked while at work,” Yair Tarchitsky, head of the Union of Journalists in Israel, said Sunday. “The epidemic of violence must stop immediately. We demand that the police perform their duties and that charges be filed against the instigators and attackers.”

Israeli riot police face off with a Jewish man as clashes erupted between Arabs, police and Jews, in the mixed town of Lod, central Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Heidi Levine)

At least some of the harassment has been aimed at reporters for a perceived left-wing bent or insufficient support for Israel’s war effort against Hamas and other terror groups in Gaza.

On Tuesday, prosecutors charged two far-right rioters over an attack on a reporter and cameraman for the Kan broadcaster in Tel Aviv’s Hatikvah neighborhood who were covering a planned march by Jewish extremists on their way to attack Arab residents of nearby Jaffa.

Camera operator Rolan Novitzky required hospital treatment for injuries sustained in the May 13 assault, which was caught on video. Reporter Yoav Zehavi was also beaten.

Tarchitsky called the charges an “important first step.”

But several other documented attacks have gone unprosecuted thus far.

On May 11, Channel 13 chief legal correspondent Baruch Kara was attacked by a Jewish mob in Ramle as he broadcast live. The previous day, the channel’s anchor Ayala Hasson, cameraman Rami Sigawi and technician Kobi Shemer were attacked in Lod by a mob of Jewish extremists, and Channel 20 photographer Moshe Kadosh said his windshield had been smashed by Arab rioters, also in Lod.

Medics evacuate an injured man during clashes between Arab and Jews in Acre, northern Israel, May 12, 2021. (( Roni Ofer/Flash90)

According to the Seventh Eye, a nonpartisan media watchdog, most of the attacks on journalists appear to have been carried out by Jewish rioters, though it noted that part of the reason may stem from the fact that Israeli reporters are less likely to report from Arab areas.

Beyond the physical assaults, journalists have been subjected to serious threats for their reporting.

On Monday, Channel 12 said that a number of the network’s reporters, including Yonit Levy, Guy Peleg, Dana Weiss and Rina Matsliah, had been given security details after receiving numerous threats, including death threats, from angry rightists.

“We demand that the police keep journalists safe and deal harshly with the violence,” Tarchitsky said in response to the report. “To the public figures and politicians leading the incitement: We demand that it must be stopped immediately, before there is bloodshed.”

A settler with a cudgel (L) attacks Channel 12 news reporter Ohad Hemo during clashes with Palestinian olive harvesters in the West Bank village of Burka, October 13, 2020. (Screen capture: Twitter)

The channel has often been the lodestone for anti-press sentiment among right-wing Israeli Jews, an attitude that has been significantly bolstered by a campaign in recent years from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies. Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, has accused reporters from Channel 12 and other outlets — often by name — of taking part in a supposed witch hunt against him.

In some cases, groups have used messaging services, online forums and social media to plan and urge attacks on the press, calling journalists “traitors” and worse.

“WhatsApp groups, Facebook communities and Telegram are fueling the physical attacks,” said veteran journalist Anat Saragusti, who heads the Press Freedom section at the Union of Journalists in Israel.

One recent post flagged by the union called on supporters to gather at Neve Ilan, the Jerusalem suburb where Channel 12 is based, and included pictures of the channel’s anchors, one of whom had a Keffiyeh photoshopped onto her head, calling them “the IDF’s next targets.”

“Today we burn Neve Ilan. Today we show the traitors what we really think of them,” the call to action read.

Saragusti noted recent campaigns by Netanyahu’s backers targeting the media, include Likud electoral billboards in 2019 that featured Channel 12 reporters’ faces and the slogan “They won’t decide, you decide,” which was seen as an inciteful dog whistle at the time.

An election campaign poster for the Likud party featuring journalists (L-R) Raviv Drucker, Guy Peleg, Amnon Abramovich and Ben Caspit, saying, ‘They will not decide. You will decide’ in central Israel, January 20, 2019. (Twitter)

“When politicians attack them and the prime minister’s son Yair Netanyahu calls the broadcasters ‘Al Jazeera’ in order to defame them, then it’s no wonder we see photos of journalists’ faces in Muslim garb and marked as a target for assassination,” she said.

Pro-Netanyahu segments of the media have taken part in the anti-press campaigns at times. Shimon Riklin, a Netanyahu confidant and host on Channel 20 (sometimes referred to as “Israel’s Fox News” due to its political bent) recently went on Twitter to call out Israeli media as “terror supporters” and as the “root cause for anarchy and riots all over Israel.”

On Sunday, Communications Minister Eitan Ginzburg asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to consider opening an investigation into Riklin for inciting against the media.

The cops beat

But few have much faith that authorities will take action to protect journalists, and in some cases police have been accused of brutally targeting journalists themselves or failing to take necessary precautions.

“The police do not take things seriously,” said Saragusti. “The police are not investigating and trying to catch these offenders.”

On Sunday, following an apparent car-ramming attack in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, police were seen aggressively pushing journalists away from a nearby sidewalk where they were trying to cover the scene. According to Kikar Hashabbat photographer Haim Goldberg, who documented the incident, police threw stun grenades at the journalists and smacked one of them.

“[This was] a long time after the attack when they were dozens of meters away from the scene of the attack. The journalists were not hurting anybody,” tweeted Haaretz correspondent Josh Breiner, who regularly documented police violence against reporters during anti-government protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem last summer. “A total loss of control and a disgrace that must not be allowed to pass.”

Israeli security forces clash with protesters outside a home of a Jewish family in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on May 8, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Earlier in the month, while tensions were still mostly relegated to the Temple Mount and Sheikh Jarrah, police were also accused of attacking Channel 12 news reporter Moshe Nussbaum and Ynet’s Hassan Shaalan.

In one widely shared clip, police are seen manhandling Nussbaum and pushing him away as a scrum forms.

Even more brutal is a video from May 10 in which police appear to savagely beat and arrest Palestinian journalist Rami Al-Khatib on the Temple Mount.

While covering protests and riots in Jerusalem, several other Palestinian and Turkish journalists were hit by rubber bullets or had stun grenades or tear gas fired at them, according to Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

“We urge the Israeli authorities to desist from this disproportionate use of force against Palestinian reporters, who should on no account be treated as if they were parties to the conflict,” RSF’s Sabrina Bennoui said in a statement last week.

Police sources told The Times of Israel that journalists who want to be protected by the police should remain close to officers as events on the ground turn fluid. Doing so, however, raises conflict of interest issues for reporters who cover the police and seek to maintain a professional distance from them.

Israeli security forces deploy during clashes with Palestinian protesters at the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem, on May 7, 2021. (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

In an official response, police spokesman Eli Levy said that officers were serious about investigating any complaint in which there is a suspicion of criminal activity.

“The police are currently working with an increased presence throughout the country to prevent violent incidents and rioting, in order to maintain the safety and security of the entire public, including allowing the free activity of journalists and photographers, despite the complex working conditions for the media and police officers during these events,” Levy said.

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