That the West Bank is a dangerous place is no surprise. With the rash of suicide bombings over the Passover holiday, no one from a diner in a café to world-famous newsman Dan Rather can be safe.
But, although it was a nearby terrorist bombing that endangered Rather and his CBS crew, journalists and journalism organizations last week were stunned by the hostility to both their work and their safety that they faced from Israeli forces during a crackdown in Ramallah.
CBS' David Hawkins faced the barrel of an Israeli tank last week; while he didn't think soldiers inside were going to fire, he said, they likely intended to frighten. In fact, Israeli soldiers did fire in the direction of NBC's Dana Lewis and crew as they were driving away from Ramallah. And, according to CBS, Kimberly Dozier, WCBS-TV New York's Jerusalem-based reporter who also files for the network, had bullets fired over her head while reporting from a place that had not been under fire.
"It's a night-and-day difference this week," said Fox Vice President for News Operations Shari Berg, compared with the atmosphere during other tense times in the region. West Bank reporters now travel in armored cars and wear Kevlar vests and helmets that say "TV" or "Press."
"I don't think they're shooting to kill," said ABC's Dan Harris, speaking from Ramallah. "It's my sense that they're shooting to scare. They're saying, 'Look, it's a closed military zone. If you don't want to get shot at, get out.' It's phenomenally stupid to shoot journalists. I don't think they're that dumb or that cruel. I'm not so much afraid that the Israeli soldiers are going to try and kill us as kill us by mistake. Or kick us out."
The Israeli Government Press Office last week revoked two Abu Dhabi TV journalists' credentials and threatened legal action against CNN and NBC for ignoring military orders and broadcasting from Ramallah.
Whether fear of execution or expulsion, it was affecting the journalists' work. "We try to stay with stories that are close to where we are," Harris said, referring to the centralized Arab TV facility where many Western journalists are headquartered. Because of the difficulty in getting around, a frustrated Harris said, he'd had to delay reporting a story about an obstetrician who, due to the dangers of travel, was delivering babies by phone.
"We weigh carefully every decision to move out of here," Harris said. "We don't venture out after dark." That further restricts reporting: If a reporter and crew do a live shot for a net's morning show, it's mid-afternoon in the Middle East, and, by the time it's over, few hours of daylight are left.
"It makes you question every single thing you're doing," said CBS News Senior Vice President for News Coverage Marcy McGinnis. "With the suicide bombers, you never know where it's going to hit. Now we've been barred from certain places, and we've been escorted out," she said, noting that a CBS News crew was expelled by Israeli forces last Monday.
The crackdown brought protests to the Israeli government from news organizations. CBS News President Andrew Heyward met with Israeli Consul General Alon Pinkas Wednesday to voice concern over recent events affecting CBS and other journalists; other groups wrote letters noting their concerns. CBS News said Pinkas would convey the network's concerns to Israeli leaders.
In letters to Israeli diplomats in Washington and to the Israeli delegation to the United Nations, Radio-Television News Directors Association President Barbara Cochran asked the Israeli government to preserve the right of journalists to cover the events "without obstruction, threats or endangerment." The Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Federation of Journalists, and the Foreign Press Association also protested military attempts to block reporters from working in Bethlehem, Ramallah and Qalqiliya.