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Israel says it will return video equipment seized from news organisation AP

A screenshot taken from AP video showing a general view of northern Gaza as seen from southern Israel, before it was seized by Israeli officials (AP)
A screenshot taken from AP video showing a general view of northern Gaza as seen from southern Israel, before it was seized by Israeli officials (AP)

The Israeli government will return a camera and broadcasting equipment it had seized from The Associated Press (AP), reversing course hours after it blocked the news organisation’s live video of Gaza.

It had faced mounting criticism for interfering with independent journalism.

The AP’s live video of Gaza was back up early on Wednesday in Israel.

The government seized the AP equipment positioned in southern Israel after accusing it of violating a new media law by providing images to the satellite channel Al Jazeera.

In this image from video, Israeli officials seize AP video equipment from an apartment block in Sderot, southern Israel
In this image from video, Israeli officials seize AP video equipment from an apartment block in Sderot, southern Israel (Josphat Kasire/AP)

Israeli officials used the new law on May 5 to close down Qatar-based Al Jazeera within Israel, confiscating its equipment, banning its broadcasts and blocking its websites.

After Israel seized the AP equipment, the Biden administration, journalism organisations and an Israeli opposition leader condemned the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pressured it to reverse the decision.

Israel’s communications minister Shlomo Karhi said late on Tuesday on the social platform X: “I have now ordered to cancel the action and return the equipment to the AP.”

Mr Karhi said the Defence Ministry will undertake a review of news outlets’ positioning of live video of Gaza.

Officials had not previously told the AP the positioning of its live camera was an issue.

Instead, they repeatedly noted that the images appeared in real-time on Al Jazeera.

Al Jazeera is one of thousands of AP customers, and it receives live video from the AP and other news organisations.

“While we are pleased with this development, we remain concerned about the Israeli government’s use of the foreign broadcaster law and the ability of independent journalists to operate freely in Israel,” said Lauren Easton, the AP’s vice president of corporate communications.

Officials from the Communications Ministry arrived at the AP location in the southern town of Sderot on Tuesday afternoon and seized the equipment.

They handed the AP a piece of paper, signed by Mr Karhi, alleging it was violating the country’s foreign broadcaster law.

Shortly beforehand, the AP was broadcasting a general view of northern Gaza.

The AP complies with Israel’s military censorship rules, which prohibit broadcasts of details such as troop movements that could endanger soldiers.

The live video has generally shown smoke rising over the territory.

The AP had been ordered verbally last Thursday to cease the live transmission, which it refused to do.

Israel’s opposition leader Yair Lapid called the government’s move against the AP “an act of madness”.

Mr Karhi responded to Mr Lapid that the law passed unanimously by the government states that any device used to deliver Al Jazeera content could be seized.

Journalism organisations condemned Israel’s seizure of AP equipment, and the Biden administration also applied pressure.

“As soon as we learned about the reports, the White House and the State Department immediately engaged with the government of Israel at high levels to express our serious concern and ask them to reverse this action,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokesperson for the National Security Council.

“The free press is an essential pillar of democracy and members of the media, including AP, do vital work that must be respected.”

When Israel closed down Al Jazeera’s offices earlier this month, media groups warned of the serious implications for press freedom in the country.

“Israel’s record on press freedom already has been dismal throughout the war,” the Foreign Press Association said in a statement on Tuesday.

“It has prevented independent access to Gaza for foreign journalists.”

The AP live video shot from Sderot has provided a rare independent glimpse of the situation in Gaza.

Israel has long had a rocky relationship with Al Jazeera, accusing it of bias against the country.

AP video equipment is laid on the floor of an apartment block in Sderot, southern Israel, shortly before it was seized by Israeli officials
AP video equipment is laid on the floor of an apartment block in Sderot, southern Israel, shortly before it was seized by Israeli officials (Josphat Kasire/AP)

Mr Netanyahu has called it a “terror channel” that spreads incitement.

Al Jazeera is one of the few international news outlets that has remained in Gaza throughout the war, broadcasting scenes of air strikes and overcrowded hospitals and accusing Israel of massacres.

The AP is also in Gaza.

During the previous Israel-Hamas war in 2021, the army destroyed the building housing the AP’s Gaza office, claiming Hamas had used the building for military purposes.

The AP denied any knowledge of a Hamas presence, and the army never provided any evidence to back up its claim.

The war in Gaza began with a Hamas attack in Israel that killed 1,200 people and saw 250 others taken hostage.

More than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed since then, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its count.