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Foreign press: Israel ignoring IDF shooting of reporters

By Tamar Hausman

Gunfire injuries inflicted on foreign journalists by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) - deliberately or through negligence - have been more numerous and more serious since the start of the current Intifada than in the first Palestinian uprising, says Howard Goller, chairman of the Foreign Press Association (FPA). Worse still, he says, the Israeli government is refusing to deal with the matter.

"I don't remember the situation being as bad as this," says Goller, who has worked as a journalist in Israel for 17 years - the last 16 of them at Reuters.

And despite asking many authorities on dozens of occasions to investigate shootings of correspondents and to clarify rules with IDF soldiers, the FPA has not received a single response. Twenty foreign correspondents in the West Bank and Gaza have been shot at and hit with live ammunition or rubber-coated bullets since the start of the crisis, and the FPA is demanding an IDF investigation into nine of the cases.

"We are angry at the apparent failure of the government and the IDF to send clear and constantly reiterated directives to its troops in the field that reporters have an absolute right, an obligation, to be present at confrontations and clashes and are not mere 'civilians' - as one officer suggested to the New York Times - caught unluckily in some dangerous place," the FPA chairman wrote in the report he presented at the association's annual meeting on Sunday.

"Does someone have to be killed for [the government] to wake up?" Goller said in an interview this week with Anglo File. "We don't accuse the army of deliberately targeting journalists. But we would like the army to find out whether these occurrences have been deliberate or just [result from] negligence." In either case, he added, the IDF should do what is necessary to prevent further such incidents.

The most recent shooting of a journalist occurred during Nakba Day demonstrations last week at the Ayosh Junction, when French TV reporter Bertran Aguirre of TF1 was shot in the stomach by an IDF officer who, according to film footage, seemingly aimed at Aguirre. Aguirre was wearing a flak jacket, which absorbed the shot and saved him from injury and possible death. His case is one of the nine about which the FPA is requesting an investigation.

"It's not just his luck that he was wearing a flak jacket. It's the government's too. They'd face serious problems if Aguirre were to have died," says Goller.

The FPA has voiced its concerns to the Ministry of Defense, the IDF, the Government Press Office, President Moshe Katsav, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, Yossi Gal - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's head of information - and former prime minister Ehud Barak, while he was premier. However, while Goller says that the FPA has received no response from any of the authorities it has contacted, he says that in two cases an Israeli official has contacted the journalist directly.

Goller attributes the high casualty rate among foreign reporters in the current Intifada to the presence of "more clearly-defined places where clashes happen" than was the case in the last Intifada. The Ayosh junction in the West Bank, and the Erez junction and Netzarim junction in Gaza, for example, are places where clashes occur regularly, so journalists very frequently hang around there and are often caught in the fray, he says. In contrast, the sites of clashes during the previous Intifada were less predictable, so journalists often arrived on the scene after the clashes had taken place.

Despite the violent situation, correspondents aren't shying away from covering events in the territories. "They are big boys and girls, and they're trained to stay out of the way. At the same time, they're angry," Goller says.

The FPA has also lodged complaints with government bodies and called for improved access within the West Bank and Gaza for Israeli foreign correspondents, and within Israel for Palestinian foreign correspondents - access which the Israeli government has often limited since the onset of the crisis, says Goller.

Goller was re-elected on Sunday as FPA chairman, but he is leaving his job as deputy bureau chief of Reuters in Israel in August to become the deputy head of the Reuters World Desk responsible for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The FPA will hold an election this summer for his replacement.

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