More than three weeks into the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, the Israeli military has just begun to allow embedding of journalists with ground troops in southern Lebanon, and for television crews only.
The Israel Defense Forces has kept at bay many reporters seeking firsthand accounts of the army's incursion into southern Lebanon, where the fighting continues. For most journalists, daily briefings by military brass are the only source of hard details about the conflict.
The restrictions are a far cry from the Israeli authorities' eagerness to show reporters the carnage wrought in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and elsewhere by suicide bombers in years past. On many of those occasions, journalists were allowed immediate access to bomb sites and emergency crews, with translators provided when necessary. There was seldom any attempt to keep reporters behind the equivalent of yellow crime-scene tape, several correspondents said.
Israeli authorities recently acceded to pleas from the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem by tentatively starting an embedding process. They are taking a page from the U.S. military, which established a system of letting reporters ride along with U.S. troops on missions or patrols in Iraq. That system requires journalists to comply with military orders in cases of live fire and to not impede the troops' work.
Only a handful of television crews - one of them led by Emma Hurd, a correspondent for Britain's Sky News - have been allowed to accompany Israeli troops into Lebanon. At the same time, several correspondents in the region said yesterday, parts of the border and the troops there have become increasingly unreachable as Israel's ground incursion into Lebanon has intensified in recent days.
"In the last week, access has kind of tightened up," said Dion Nissenbaum, 39, Jerusalem bureau chief for the McClatchy Co.'s chain of newspapers, including The Miami Herald and The Charlotte Observer. "We're not able to get access to the soldiers coming and going as easily. You can't get through the checkpoints as easily."
Nissenbaum, speaking by phone from Kiryat Shemona near the Lebanese border, said reporters had been "trying for a week" to boost the number of "pools," in which small groups of reporters are allowed access to the fighting as long as they brief other journalists about it afterward. Just two or three pools, from embedded television crews, have resulted from the discussions with military officials, he said.
"It's frustrating because it inhibits our ability to find out the truth of what's going on," he said, referring specifically to Israel's claim Thursday that it had assumed control over 20 Lebanese villages. "From this perspective, we have no way to verify whether that's true."
National Public Radio correspondent Eric Westervelt was more blunt: Some of the attempts at pool reporting have been "pathetic," he said.
"You get almost nothing," Westervelt said yesterday, also from Kiryat Shemona. "These TV guys spent 48 hours in an ATV [all-terrain vehicle], at great risk, and they got very little for it. It was disappointing. The pool is kind of stillborn."
Westervelt said that given the preponderance of Israeli checkpoints, he had to resort to "creative subterfuge" to get close enough to glimpse some of the fighting across the border on a recent day. He befriended a woman, he said, and persuaded her to allow him to ride in her car through a checkpoint to her house, from where there was a "great view" of Israeli tanks maneuvering about.
"I pretended I was a local," he said. "She flashed her badge and we went through."
Westervelt acknowledged the journalistic impropriety of pretending to be someone else. "I didn't like to do it," he said, "but I had to get to the fighting."
In fairness to the Israeli army, some of the correspondents said, the delay in establishing a larger system of embeds is attributable to the fact that Israel does not control the region, despite its claim Thursday about its command over the 20 Lebanese villages.
And, despite the missiles raining down on either side of the border, the ground war is "taking place in another country," Ken Ellingwood, a Los Angeles Times correspondent, said yesterday after returning to his home in Jerusalem after a two-week stint on the Lebanese border.
"It was the most frustrating experience," he said as he watched his 3-year-old daughter play in a Jerusalem park. "I spent many of those days driving the back roads, trying to find some vantage point into the border towns of Lebanon, where you knew fighting was going on. All we could do is find ourselves perches."
Two weeks ago, Ellingwood said, he and some colleagues managed to catch a glimpse, through binoculars, of Israeli tanks and bulldozers moving up a hill toward Maroun El-Ras, a Lebanese village about a mile from the border.
"I was getting a feel for what was going on," he said. "It was the one day you could actually see Israeli artillery moving toward a target."
The military, he said, was "rather erratic" in its enforcement of road closures near the border,
"In some places, they'd be open one day, closed the next, and open the next," he said. "The whole thing was very difficult."
Jonathan Finer of The Washington Post, who was embedded with the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq, said yesterday from near the Lebanese border that he had asked repeatedly, and in vain, to be taken along with Israeli troops.
"You're relying too much on accounts from soldiers and their commanders," he said. As a result, many of his stories are composites of his reporting and that of the paper's three correspondents in Lebanon, who are unencumbered by military restrictions.
"It's not been easy," said Finer, 30. "The flip side is that, compared to Iraq, we can go pretty much anywhere we want to within Israel. We deal with the same threat that the population as a whole does - the rockets - but it's a very welcome change to be free to get around."