Omar Nazzal was on his way to attend the General Meeting of the European Federation of Journalists in Bosnia when he was detained by Israeli soldiers on Saturday as he tried to cross from the occupied West Bank into Jordan. He is the latest victim of a growing list of Palestinian journalists who have been arrested and detained arbitrarily by the occupation forces. It confirms more than anything else the lengths to which Israel is prepared to go in order to silence Palestinian voices and destroy media freedoms.
At the time of writing, the whereabouts of Nazzal remains unknown, although some reports claim that he was taken to the Etzion interrogation centre. What we know for certain is that he is being held by the Israelis, which was confirmed by his wife after she received a phone call from him to this effect.
Nazzal is a member of the general secretariat of the Syndicate of Palestinian Journalists. His arrest and the arrest of too many others before him must now be a source of great concern for Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which only last week released its 2016 index on press freedom and ranked Israel 101 (out of 180 countries) for the second year running.
This raises some questions, for if all countries are judged by the same criteria then Israel should have been ranked closer to Egypt and Syria at the bottom of the table; the Israeli assault on press freedom in Palestine is consistent with a wider malaise affecting the entire region. Almost everywhere, according to RSF, work conditions for journalists and media institutions are becoming increasingly dangerous. In Palestine this has become strikingly so where the Israeli occupation authorities are determined to isolate the Palestinian media from the outside world.
Surely journalists in Palestine should be free to report that 1,631 Palestinian children under the age of 18 are being held in Israeli jails, making up 42 per cent of the total number of detainees. The success of the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement — of which Israel is so frightened — has been due largely to the collaboration of citizen journalists and media networks in the occupied territories. Therein probably lies the reason for Israel's anti-media campaign.
Since the start of the Quds Intifada in October last year, Israeli forces have arrested dozens of journalists. While some have been kept in detention others have been put under house arrest. There are at least 20 journalists, including one woman, and media students who are being held in Israeli jails in the legal limbo known as administrative detention; they have not been charged with any crime or gone through any trial and yet their imprisonment can be extended indefinitely.
Apart from the threat of detention, journalists in Palestine today must also undergo frequent searches of their offices. The confiscation of computers, cameras and other equipment by Israel is now routine, as is the summary closure of media institutions under the pretext of "spreading incitement". These include Felesteen Al Yawm TV station in Ramallah, as well as two other local stations in Hebron and Jenin.
If ever such evidence was needed, the widespread harassment of journalists in the occupied Palestinian territories is damning proof that Israel's much vaunted claim that it is the only democracy in the Middle East is pure fantasy. The RSF 2016 index ranked Tunisia and Lebanon, at 96th and 98th respectively, ahead of Israel.
Israel's systematic assault on journalists and media institutions in Palestine is evidently part of a broader campaign to dismantle the structures of Palestinian society. The Palestinian Authority has always maintained that it is building a state from the debris of occupation. This now seems to be even more illusory than ever before. One by one, civic institutions have come under attack. If it's not the charitable and volunteer sector it is education and culture. Now it is the turn of the media. The only institutions that have survived and will continue to do so are the security and intelligence agencies whose sole raison d'être is to serve the occupation.
Immediately after the disappearance of their colleague Omar Nazzal, the Syndicate of Palestinian Journalists wrote to the International Red Cross to intervene and determine his whereabouts; the union also asked the IRC to secure his release. This case will be a litmus test of the competence of the organisation. It can treat Israel as an exception or it can adopt a strong posture against what is clearly a pattern of unacceptable behaviour that falls well below acceptable international standards.
Of course, the Red Cross is not the only body which must do, and be seen to do, what is right. The European Federation of Journalists, which will be convening the conference which Nazzal was supposed to attend, should also send a clear message to the Israeli government.
Furthermore, journalists and media institutions in the Middle East and around the world campaigned successfully a couple of years ago for the release of Al-Jazeera's Peter Greste, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Baher Mohamed in Egypt. They must now take up the cause of their colleagues in Palestine who are hounded by a military occupation that is hell-bent on eradicating the last vestiges of free speech and media freedoms in Palestine. Israel's silent war on journalists in Palestine must be exposed for the whole world to see.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.