Covering the Disturbances on the Temple Mount: Insights into the Intimidation of Journalists

The following is an account written up by an Israeli journalist who feared for his life while covering the disturbances. S/he wants to remain anonymous for obvious reasons.

The following occurred on October 9, 2009, after a week of heightened tension in east Jerusalem and the Old City….

A group of reporters – myself included – had been covering a potential flashpoint in the Wadi Joz neighborhood of east Jerusalem, just opposite the Old City, on Friday morning, as hundreds of Muslim worshippers participated in a prayer session at the entrance to the neighborhood, meant to protest “Israeli aggressions” on the Temple Mount .

All ages of men from the neighborhood had come out into the street, and approached a police road block, which was meant to stop younger residents of the area from flocking to the Temple Mount for noon prayers, which were expected to be tense.

Nonetheless, tension made its way to Wadi Joz as well, as scores of police in riot gear faced the the massive gathering of worshippers, who in turn listened to a fiery speech from their imam, as he spoke through a bullhorn.

But nothing happened. The prayers concluded, and worshippers loitered in the street momentarily before heading home. The tension in Wadi Joz eased.

Around the same time, my police beeper went off, notifying reporters that a number of young men in the Ras al-Amud neighborhood, next to the Mt. of Olives Cemetery, were throwing rocks at police officers and setting fire to piles of debris.

A friend and I hopped into a cab and rushed up the hill from Wadi Joz (around the walls of the Old CIty) to Ras al-Amud, hoping to catch the story.

Upon arrival, the smell of burning trash was thick in the air, and a large Border Police presence was visible. But the main square of the neighborhood, which includes the local mosque, a few small grocery stores and vegetable stands, was quiet. A few people milled around, but, as we soon found out, the “action”, as it were, was down in the alleyways of the neighborhood.

So we made the descent, and almost immediately, saw a group of some six officers behind riot shields, being slammed with salvos of rocks. A group of young men, “shababs” as they’re called colloquially, were seen in the distance, their faces wrapped in t-shirts and keffiyehs, hurling the stones and other objects at the officers.

Now, for a reporter, this is certainly a story, and one in which every development can be used for “color” or extra detail in an article. And nothing beats being there, seeing it for yourself, and then relying on your own eyes and testimony to paint the re-paint the picture.

So I ventured farther in, at first behind the police, but in the chaos that ensued, I soon found myself in the crossfire – between the officers and the rock-throwers. While I am not required to take pictures, I do bring a camera with me, and I found a “safe” place between two cars, and began to snap some shots.

The shababs soon noticed me, and while other press were in the area, I could tell that a few of them had begun looking at me strangely. Suddenly, one of them ran up to me, his face shrouded in a t-shirt, and he grabbed me by the straps of my backpack.

“You’re an undercover cop!” he screamed in Arabic, a rock in his right hand as he grabbed onto me with his left.

“No, I’m a journalist!” I answered back, caught off guard at by the sudden jolt.

“No you’re not- you’re an undercover cop!” he screamed back. “Prove to me that you’re not an undercover cop!”

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my government-issued press card, thinking at the same moment that he would see the name of my publication, realize that it was an Israeli one, and my troubles would only grow.

But as he was scanning the card, another journalist, an Arab photographer, approached the both of us, and told the young man in Arabic that I was in fact a journalist.

“Enough, let him go,” he told him. And the young man did as he said.

But as the shababs made their way past me – onward towards the officers – another Arab photographer, from an Arab news outlet, told me, “You should get out of here.”

I didn’t heed his advice – in truth, I found it insulting – but was more careful from that point on. At a later point during the day, another young shabab, his face also wrapped in a t-shirt, yelled at me from a balcony – “Are you a journalist or an undercover cop?”

I wasn’t sure if it was me, an ongoing rumor in the neighborhood, or in fact a new initiative designed by the Jerusalem Police to deploy undercover officers posing as journalists. Regardless, the riots finally died down, and I went home.

Two weeks went by, and I noticed press coverage of the phenomenon here and there – stories mentioning this rumor – that Palestinians truly believed undercover Israeli security personnel had begun moonlighting as journalists, coupled with strongly-worded denials from police spokesmen. Still, the issue seemed marginal to me, and I believed it would die out like all rumors do.

A few days later, tensions in and around the Old City were up again, and riots broke out – this time on the Temple Mount itself. I was there, covering additional unrest that broke out in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City, and I ran into the same Arab journalist who had assisted me during the Succot riots in Ras al-Amud.

“Thanks man,” I told him in Hebrew. “You really saved my ass that day – it was a close call.”

“You have no idea,” he responded. “I have family in Ras al-Amud, and I had to go back there that night and spend hours convincing them that I wasn’t working for the Israelis. They thought because I vouched for you, I was in on it too.”

“Unbelievable,” I thought. “Not only did they not believe me, even after I offered my press credentials, they didn’t believe their own family member, and by standing up for me, he put himself in danger.”

“It’s a real problem,” he said. “I blame al-Jazeera.”

“Why?” I asked him.

“They reported this,” he said. “They reported that the Israelis were using undercover cops who pose as journalists, and since then, everyone believes it. It’s put a lot of people in danger – Palestinians too.”

As he was speaking, a bottle shattered, and a the rock-throwing that had been going on in a nearby alleyway picked up again. He dashed off to take pictures, and I didn’t see him again.

Later on, I tried to find the al-Jazeera report online, but to no avail. It may have been reported on TV, and therefore, lost to the searches of Google. Or, the photographer who mentioned it was mistaken – it’s still unclear.

Regardless, a new phenomenon of intimidation has been introduced into east Jerusalem, preventing reporters from covering ongoing stories freely. Someone, some source, has injected this rumor of undercover police activity into the minds of the young men in the neighborhood, seriously hampering reporters’ efforts to dig deeper and get closer to the stories at hand.

Was it al-Jazeera? It certainly could have been, as their reporters, with fluent Arabic and al-Jazeera press cards, would be immune to such rumors and have no trouble proving themselves. So what do they care? Hell, in strict business terms, it only slows down the competition.

But for Israeli or foreign reporters, who do their job and get “too close”, they will now be met with these fresh allegations, and apparently, for some time to come.

Comment (RL):

For me the most telling lines here are:

I reached into my pocket and pulled out my government-issued press card, thinking at the same moment that he would see the name of my publication, realize that it was an Israeli one, and my troubles would only grow.

This is something that foreign journalists don’t have to worry about, because they are all considered “friendly” to the Palestinian cause. For a journalist who’s been marked at hostile (whether it’s being Israeli, or just not “always respect[ing] the journalistic procedures with the Palestinian Authority for [journalistic] work in Palestine…,”) they become targets. As Daniel Moro said to me in an interview I’ll post soon: “When they think you are against them, they consider you the enemy.”

Every journalist who works in the Palestinian territories is subject to this pressure, and only escapes it by “making friends” with the Palestinians. Moro calls it “the American Colony syndrome” — they (the staff at the American Colony, your “fixer,” or even an honest Arab journalist who comes to your aid) protect you. What are you going to do, spit in their face?

Of course with Israel, which doesn’t retaliate for bad press, spitting in their face is a favorite practice.

4 Responses to Covering the Disturbances on the Temple Mount: Insights into the Intimidation of Journalists

  1. Solomonia says:

    Reporting in Jerusalem…

    Interesting letter from an Israeli journalist on what dangers they face when the rumors start circulating in Jerusalem: Covering the Disturbances on the Temple Mount: Insights into the Intimidation of Journalists …The shababs [young rioters] soon not…

  2. Awad Awad, the chairman of the Palestinian Photojournalists Committee is a key figure in the spreading the rumor.

    I just blogged this on
    MediaBackspin

  3. Eliyahu says:

    al-jazeera is a problem, constantly instigating the Arab “street,” and so on. Yet, there are mightily curious paradoxes involved with al-jazeera. Many of its Arab personnel were originally being trained by BBC for a BBC Arabic channel. Now, al-jazeera is owned by the Emir of Qatar, a quite wealthy fellow. Sometimes he insults his fellow Arab rulers.

    He is also a host. The HQ of CENTCOM, the US military high command in the Middle East, is hosted in Qatar too and can be seen from the offices of al-jazeera, so I have read. Quite a cozy place. While al-jazeera instigates and inveighs against Israel and the US, the HQ of CENTCOM is visible not far away. Does any hanky-panky go on between CENTCOM functionaries and al-jazeera revolutionaries, all sexes taken into consideration??

  4. E.G. says:

    Should I be surprised?
    Journalism, in Arabs’ view, is another propaganda tool. So it’s either totally subservient to “the cause” and OKayed, or it isn’t.

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