EREZ CROSSING, Israel – Israel scrapped arrangements Monday to allow the first foreign reporters into the Gaza Strip since the military launched its offensive against Palestinian militants, adding to mounting media frustration at being locked out of the war zone.
The ban on foreign media, which has been appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, drew criticism from journalists that Israel is trying to manage the story.
Israel asserts that opening border crossings for journalists would endanger staff at the terminals, which have often been targeted by militants.
The Associated Press and some other news organizations have Palestinian reporters, photographers and cameramen based in Gaza. Many media have no reliable source of independent information.
"The barring of outside news organizations from Gaza hampers the flow of unbiased information of vital interest to the entire world. Authorities on all sides should work to allow access by journalists in keeping with the aims of press freedom," said John Daniszewski, the AP's managing editor for international news.
The Israeli government has long banned Israeli journalists from entering Gaza because of fears for their safety, but foreign reporters previously were permitted in, even during times of heavy fighting.
Human Rights Watch urged Israel to open Gaza to journalists and human rights monitors to report on the actions of both sides. "Their presence can discourage abuse by warring parties and help save lives," the New York-based organization said.
Some 350 reporters have descended on Israel since Dec. 27, when the military launched an intense air war aimed at halting rocket fire from Gaza. Those journalists bolstered a permanent foreign press corps of some 900 media personnel and hundreds more Israelis working for foreign companies.
"Israel has never restricted media access like this before, and it should be ashamed," said Ethan Bronner, The New York Times bureau chief in Jerusalem. "It's betraying the principles by which it claims to live."
The army initially was set to allow eight reporters to cross into Gaza on Friday, under a compromise engineered by the Supreme Court, then postponed it to Monday. But the plan was abandoned as combat intensified around the Erez checkpoint, the main civilian crossing from Israel into Gaza.
The Red Cross aborted the evacuation of 33 foreign passport holders from Gaza. Its bus turned back just 500 yards from the border because of the fighting and an obstacle in the road, Austrian Ambassador Michael Rendi said. Among the passengers were Austrians, Germans, Canadians and Filipinos, most of them married to Palestinians.
Dozens of trucks carrying food and humanitarian aid entered Gaza through a separate cargo crossing farther south.
Daniel Seaman, director of Israel's Government Press Office, said opening the Erez crossing would endanger its staff. But Seaman also asserted the absence of foreign journalists was good for Israel because the Hamas militants who rule Gaza fabricate coverage to make Israel look bad.
"And they get away with it because of the unprofessional cooperation of the foreign press, which takes questionable reports at face value without checking," he said.
Reginald Dale, director of the Transatlantic Media Network and a senior fellow with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Israel's decision to keep out foreign journalists was both practical and ideological.
Military commanders in democracies such as Israel and the U.S. know they are accountable to the press, but they also know the risk of negative public opinion, he said. "They have to establish some sort of balance and it's not easy."
Dale said Israeli officials probably worried about the impact of a foreign reporter being killed or taken hostage by militants or about Hamas learning military plans and positions through news coverage.
He said he found it unlikely Israel expected to limit coverage of civilian deaths, noting that "the Palestinians are sending out videos of casualties."
Mohamed Abdel Dayem, coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa program of the Committee to Protect Journalists, declined to speculate on Israel's motivation but said it was important to have reporters present during fighting.
"There is a need for journalists to be on the ground to document the news stories, and frankly to monitor the behavior of all beligerant parties, whether it is Hamas or the Israeli army," he said. "The presence of the media in any place where war is raging has helped keep violations under check."
Reporters who cannot enter Gaza devote much of their time reporting on rocket attacks by Palestinian militants and filming the damage caused on the Israeli side of the line, or filming Gaza from distant vantage points inside Israel.
Hesna Al Ghaoui, a correspondent for Hungarian television, was reduced to filming her cameraman change a flat tire on their rented car inside Israel, footage she said she would use in a report on how she covered the war. She said she had applied "many times" to enter Gaza.
"I have been reporting from many wars and conflicts, but I have never met such frustration," she said.
In the buildup to its air assault on Gaza, Israel sealed the border to all but the most vital supplies. The only people allowed in or out were urgent medical cases and a few humanitarian workers. Restrictions were further tightened after the air bombardment began.
The Foreign Press Association appealed the ban to the Supreme Court. Without making a final ruling, the court suggested a compromise of sending in a handful of reporters to act as a "pool," sharing their reports with other foreign media.
"We want to honor that decision," army spokesman Doron Spielman said, but he added it would be done only in a way that would not compromise military operations or endanger journalists.
Hamas officials went into hiding after the bombing campaign began and were unavailable for comment. But Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas spokesman, said before the fighting erupted that the ban on journalists was part of an Israeli policy of isolating Gaza internationally.
"This stops outside parties from seeing the crisis taking place in Gaza," he said.