Police briefly detain Washington Post reporter for ‘incitement’

Border policemen question William Booth outside Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate after woman reportedly offers to provoke a demonstration; government calls move ‘unnecessary’

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative: Israeli police officers search a Palestinian man at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on February 15, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: Israeli police officers search a Palestinian man at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on February 15, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief William Booth and a colleague were briefly detained by Israeli police Tuesday outside Jerusalem’s Old City, in what what the government called the “the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding.”

Booth, along with journalist Sufian Taha and reporter Ruth Marks Eglash, had been planning to interview locals near the Damascus Gate next to the Old City of Jerusalem, which has been the site of several attempted attacks in the last three days.

Booth and Taha arrived together, while Eglash was supposed to meet the two at the Damascus Gate, she said. But by the time she arrived, Booth and Taha were already being questioned by a border police officer, Eglash said.

An Arab woman allegedly told Booth that if he paid some of the bystanders, they would provoke the nearby police officers and start a violent demonstration, Jerusalem Police spokesperson Asi Aharoni told The Times of Israel.

“Police officers were told that she said if you pay these youngsters, they will start the provocation and you’ll be able to take pictures,” Aharoni said.

However, Eglash disputed that claim, nothing that neither Booth nor Taha is a photographer or even had a camera.

William Booth in 2012. (screen capture: YouTube/The Washington Post)
William Booth in 2012. (screen capture: YouTube/The Washington Post)

A passerby complained to Border Police officers, who were standing a few feet away, the Jerusalem Police spokesperson said.

“In light of the complaint, officers detained a number of suspects to check the facts,” police spokesperson Luba Samri said.

Booth said after presenting government-issued press cards to an officer, he and his colleague were taken to a police station and held for half an hour before they were released. He said an officer told them they had been suspected of “incitement.”

All together, including the time they were being held at the Damascus Gate, the pair were detained for just short of an hour, Eglash said.

“He was not arrested,” Aharoni said.

Booth and Taha, whom police identified as a cameraman but who is the Post’s West Bank correspondent, were taken to the Shalem Police Station, located a few blocks away, where they could be “questioned quietly in order to determine that they didn’t plan to do [what the woman had suggested],” Aharoni said.

They were released shortly thereafter, he said.

The Government Press Office, which accredits foreign journalists in the country, called the detainment unnecessary.

“The Government Press Office regrets today’s incident at Damascus Gate in which a correspondent for the Washington Post was unnecessarily detained by the Border Police – probably the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding,” the statement read. “Freedom of the press is a supreme value in the Israeli democracy. Israel is doing its utmost to enable the foreign press to work freely, without any pressure.”

The GPO added it would open a probe into the incident and called “upon the security forces and journalists to act with restraint and to avoid confrontations during these tense times.”

Speaking in Berlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was committed to a free press.

“We do not arrest journalists. The press in Israel is very energetic and free to say anything it wants,” he said during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Last week, the Knesset, under the umbrella of the powerful Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, held a hearing on anti-Israel bias in foreign media reports. The sparsely attended session focused mostly on ways to improve government spokespeople’s efficiency in updating the foreign press. During the hearing, Foreign Press Associated head Luke Baker denied any bias against Israel.

“We go through a very rigorous process whenever news happens, where you have to speak Hebrew in contact with police, the army and many spokespeople and people who are on the ground,” Baker, who is Reuters’ Israel/Palestine bureau chief, told lawmakers. “This is a pretty rigorous process of reporting and checking facts.”

Raphael Ahren, Marissa Newman and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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