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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 August 2005, 01:25 GMT 02:25 UK
Israeli army in media spotlight

By Martin Asser
BBC News, in Kissufim, southern Israel

A radio reporter speaks to an Israeli soldier
Israel's military has promised complete openness with the media
The forced evacuation of more than 8,000 Jewish settlers from Gaza is a painful process for many of Israel's citizens - but the Israeli army is promising unflinching openness as it carries out its duty.

The army, which captured the Gaza Strip in 1967 and has for decades protected the settlers' enclaves, is now implementing Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's so-called disengagement plan.

That means delivering eviction notices, helping with removal of settlers' possessions and dealing firmly with anyone who thinks they can ignore the government's decision to pull out or violently resist.

And the intention is for all this to take place in the full glare of the domestic and international media.

"We have taken the decision to make the disengagement completely open and transparent," says Capt Jacob Dallal who is helping co-ordinate media access.

He says the decision has been taken at the very highest levels because, for this operation, the army is dealing with Israeli civilians - and it is therefore far better to have everything all out in the open.

"It will be part of the national catharsis... people will be allowed to see the bitter with the sweet, and the good with the bad. It is something the nation must participate in, and the best way to do that is through the media."

Security cordon

The historic nature of Israel's retreat from Gaza - as well as the removal of four isolated settlements in the West Bank - means that journalists have arrived from all around the world to cover the events.

It is reported that no less than 6,000 media personnel are here. That is one for every one-and-a-third evicted settler - or, as a Palestinian colleague put it, one to record every teardrop they shed.

Eshkol Communications Centre
A special centre has been set up to serve the media

No doubt many of those with press accreditation are technicians and other support staff, but it is a sign of the importance the world places on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Journalists need special accreditation to pass through the outer ring of the military cordon in place for the withdrawal - a system of checkpoints on roads approaching the Gaza Strip.

Once inside they can go to the Eshkol Communications Centre near southern end of the Strip, where large numbers of Capt Dallal's comrades - he won't say how many - are stationed to serve the media.

There are briefings and handouts, refreshments, computers with internet access, and even a free wireless network.

Coach trips

But the main event at the centre are the "shuttles".

Because access to the Gaza Strip is now restricted, the army is bussing coach loads of journalists into settlements to watch the disengagement unfold.

Al-Jazeera's Jerusalem editor Walid al-Omari at the Kissufim crossing
Many journalists are monitoring the border crossings

So far the shuttles have not been a huge success. For a start, each trip leaves at 0300 and doesn't come back until late afternoon.

Journalists can't choose where they go and so far they don't appear to have gone to the "hot spots".

That means very little happens during the 12-14 hours spent on the buses - the kiss of death to story-hungry reporters.

However, the army is sticking to its policy and Capt Dallal promises that as the evacuation proceeds he will continue to send up to 300 journalists a day to watch even the most confrontational moments.

'Embeds'

What the army does not appear to have anticipated is that many journalists have embedded themselves inside the settlements.

Some of them have been there for weeks, fearing that settlements would be declared closed military zones long ago (although they haven't been, the gates only closed on Sunday).

Television journalists
Some of the 6,000 media personnel said to be covering the story

But with its policy of complete transparency, Capt Dallal says the army is prepared to accommodate the "embeds", as long as they don't impede the job in hand.

Finally, please spare some sympathy for poor hacks at the other media area laid on by the army, a dusty lay-by next to the Kissufim checkpoint.

Here is where some of the big Israeli and foreign TV networks have set up live camera positions to monitor comings and goings at the main exit for the Gush Katif settlement bloc.

There is not a lot happening there, yet. Just troops and equipment going in and a few trucks carrying settlers' possessions - cupboards, windows, the odd palm or olive tree - coming out.

But the heat-wave that has descended on Gaza and southern Israel is making the long wait for action less than agreeable.




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