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Israel should immediately allow journalists and human rights monitors access to Gaza, Human Rights Watch said today. Their presence can discourage abuse by warring parties and help save lives.

Human Rights Watch urged the Israeli government to abide by an Israeli high court ruling on December 31, 2008 and allow foreign media into Gaza. The presence of journalists and human rights monitors in conflict areas provides an essential check on human rights abuses and laws-of-war violations, Human Rights Watch said.

Since early November 2008, when the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas began to deteriorate, the Israeli government has sharply restricted access to Gaza for foreign journalists and human rights monitors, and none has been permitted entry since the current military campaign began on December 27. Israeli journalists have been denied access to Gaza for the past two years because of an Israeli government policy prohibiting Israeli citizens from entering Gaza on security grounds.

"Journalists and rights monitors should be allowed into Gaza to investigate and report on the conduct of both sides," said Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Israel's excessive restrictions on access to Gaza only end up impeding this deterrent effect and placing civilians at greater risk."

According to the United Nations, Israeli attacks had killed more than 430 Palestinians in Gaza, about one-quarter of them civilians, prior to the onset of Israeli ground operations on January 3. Palestinian rockets launched into Israel have killed three Israeli civilians in this period.

The Israeli High Court ruled on December 31, 2008, that the Israeli government should allow 12 foreign journalists into Gaza. The government said it will allow eight journalists into Gaza every time it opens the border at the Erez crossing, but so far the crossing has remained closed to entry. The decision by the High Court came in response to a petition by the Israeli Foreign Press Association, which represents more than 400 members from the world's leading international print and electronic media. The association called the ban "an unprecedented restriction of press freedom" on Israel's part.

On November 21, 22 executives from the world's major news organizations, including the Associated Press, BBC, CNN, and Reuters, sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, complaining about the "prolonged and unprecedented denial of access to the Gaza Strip for the international media."

The restrictions create a very different reporting atmosphere than that during Israel's last major war, the conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon in July-August 2006. At that time, the media and human rights organizations were able to report on the conflict from both sides.

International human rights law, applicable during armed conflict, upholds the right to freedom of expression of journalists and human rights monitors. States may restrict freedom of expression to protect national security, but only as permitted by law and as necessary for genuine and specific security reasons. This principle is elucidated in the 1995 Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information:

"Any restriction on the free flow of information may not be of such a nature as to thwart the purposes of human rights and humanitarian law. In particular, governments may not prevent journalists or representatives of intergovernmental or non-governmental organizations, which monitor adherence to human rights or humanitarian standards, from entering areas where there are reasonable grounds to believe that violations of human rights or humanitarian law are being, or have been, committed. Governments may not exclude journalists or representatives of such organizations from areas that are experiencing violence or armed conflict except where their presence would pose a clear risk to the safety of others."

"The presence of journalists and human rights researchers is not just about the right to information," Abrahams said. "Independent monitoring during an armed conflict can discourage misconduct and save lives."

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