By: Ibrahim Hazboun, Associated Press Writer
(AP) The Israeli army on Monday seized government-issued press cards from 17 foreign and Palestinian journalists covering the standoff between the army and armed Palestinians holed up in the Church of the Nativity.
The journalists were stopped about 400 yards from Manger Square and the church compound, where 200 armed men and about 100 clergy and unarmed Palestinians have been besieged for 21 days, defying Israeli demands to surrender.
An army officer told the journalists they were in a restricted area and insisted they turn over their press cards. The army did not produce any document backing up the claim that the area was restricted, as required by law.
“It would appear that there was no legal foundation for confiscating the cards and we are looking into it,” said Deuel Peli, an attorney representing foreign journalists. The local Foreign Press Association, which represents some 300 foreign correspondents, called on Israel to return the cards and “stop efforts to impede coverage of the crisis” in Bethlehem.
The cards, issued by the Government Press Office in Jerusalem, identify them as journalists and allow them to work in Israel and Israeli-controlled areas.
The journalists have been moving relatively freely through the city for several weeks, although they have not been allowed to approach the church.
In recent weeks they had been turned back at a checkpoint farther from the church, but no soldiers were at that checkpoint on Monday and the journalists continued walking toward the compound when they were stopped. They passed several other soldiers who did not stop them.
Dan Seaman, director of the Government Press Office, said the cards were taken because “areas in which military forces are in right now are closed military areas.”
The army imposed sweeping restrictions on access by journalists to occupied zones at the beginning of its offensive on March 29. A week ago, under growing pressure from journalists’ groups and threat of legal action, Israel said it would ease the restrictions, but maintained the right to close some areas “for operational reasons.”
Monday’s incident marked the first time press cards were lifted during the three-week confrontation in Bethlehem. The officer said he would deliver the cards to the army spokesman’s office in Jerusalem.
The reporters and cameramen were from The Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France Presse, the British Broadcasting Corp., ABC, the ARD network of Germany, and the Qatar-based Al Jazeera television station.