The Israeli army has seized press cards from 17 foreign journalists who are covering the stand-off between the army and a number of armed Palestinians, who are holed up in Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.
The journalists, including BBC News 24 reporter Johnny Dyamond, were stopped about 400m from Manger Square and the church compound.
Some 200 armed men plus about 100 clergy and unarmed Palestinians have been under seige in the compound for 21 days, defying Israeli demands to surrender.
An army officer told the journalists they were in a restricted area and insisted they hand over their government-issued press cards.
The army did not produce any documents backing up the officer’s claim that the area was restricted, although such papers are required by law.
“It would appear there was no legal foundation for confiscating the cards and we are looking into it,” said Deuel Peli, a lawyer representing th journalists.
The local Foreign Press Association called on Israel to return the cards and “stop efforts to impede coverage of the crisis” in Bethlehem.
“The arbitrary and unfounded enforcement of these restrictions amounts to a transparent attempt to control and restrict coverage of the standoff at the church that far exceeds any conceivable security justification,” said the association, which represents 300 foreign correspondents.
The cards, which are issued by the government press office in Jerusalem, identify the journalists as legitimate 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 been a stopped at a checkpoint to prevent them reaching the church.
However, no soldiers were at that checkpoint this morning. The journalists continued walking toward the compound when they were stopped.
Dan Seaman, the director of the Israeli government press office, said the journalists’ cards were taken because the “areas in which military forces are operating right now are closed military areas”.
The army imposed sweeping restrictions on access to occupied zones at the start of its offensive on March 29.
A week ago, under growing pressure from journalists’ groups and the threat of legal action, Israel said it would ease the restrictions but maintained the right to close some areas “for operational reasons”.
The reporters and cameramen were from the BBC, the Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France Presse, the American Broadcasting Corporation, the ARD network of Germany and Arab satellite station al-Jazeera. There was also one Spanish journalist.