Leo Correa/AP
Smoke rises to the sky after explosion in the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel Tuesday, May 21, 2024.
CNN  — 

In a sharp reversal, Israel said Tuesday it would return camera and broadcast equipment it had seized from the Associated Press in the southern Israeli city of Sderot on Tuesday after the action prompted swift backlash from US officials and press groups.

In a statement late Tuesday, Israel’s Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi said that he “has ordered that the equipment be returned to the AP news agency,” because the Israeli “Ministry of Defense requested to re-examine the matter of broadcasts from sensitive locations and their effect on the risk of our forces.”

Earlier in the day, the Associated Press said Israeli authorities had shut down its live camera feed showing Gaza and seized its equipment in what it decried as an “abusive use by the Israeli government of the country’s new foreign broadcasters law.”

“The Associated Press decries in the strongest terms the actions of the Israeli government,” the non-profit news collective said in a statement. “We urge the Israeli authorities to return our equipment and enable us to reinstate our live feed immediately so we can continue to provide this important visual journalism to thousands of media outlets around the world.”

Karhi said that the AP feed was cut and equipment seized because the AP was providing Al Jazeera with content after the Qatari-based network was banned in the country.

The Israeli military regularly classifies areas around Gaza as “closed military zones,” restricting movement there. The AP’s live feed provided a view of actions in Gaza, where no independent journalists are able to operate because of Israeli and Egyptian restrictions on entry to the strip.

The Israeli government’s decision to return broadcasting equipment to the AP came after the White House expressed concerns to the Netanyahu-led government, a White House official told CNN.

“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, which they have publicly committed to do,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson told CNN. “The free press is an essential pillar of democracy and members of the media, including AP, do vital work that must be respected.”

The Associated Press applauded the Israeli Ministry of Communications’ decision to return its equipment but said it remained concerned about the law at the center of the action.

“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.”

Earlier, the Foreign Press Association voiced its alarm about the shutdown and confiscation.

“Israel’s move today is a slippery slope. Israel could block other international news agencies from providing live footage of Gaza. It also could allow Israel to block media coverage of virtually any news event on vague security grounds,” the FPA said in a statement.

The move comes weeks after Israel shut down Al Jazeera’s operations in the country, raiding the news outlet’s offices and seizing its communication equipment, prompting swift condemnation from the United Nations and rights groups over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s moves to restrict press freedoms.

The law approved by Israel’s parliament last month gives the prime minister and the communications minister the authority to “temporarily” order the closure of foreign networks operating in Israel that are deemed a threat to national security. News organizations could be banned for a 45-day period, although the government can renew the ban for additional 45-day periods. The law itself is also technically temporary and will expire on July 31 or earlier if an emergency declaration due to the war is canceled.

Several legal challenges to the law are pending in Israeli courts. The Israeli Supreme Court recently declined to issue an emergency injunction against the law filed by The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, although a hearing is expected to be held on the challenge by June 6.

The group said in its petition filed in early April that the law “violates freedom of expression, the right to information and freedom of the press,” and “tramples on the principles of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, since it includes an “override clause” that prevents the court from overturning an illegal decision.” Another legal challenge has been filed in the Tel Aviv District Court.

In an earlier statement, Karhi had accused the AP of violating its new law by providing a feed to its thousands of news clients, including Al Jazeera.

The confiscated equipment included a camera, tripod, two microphones and transmission equipment, the statement said.

The press freedom group Reporters Without Borders condemned Israel’s decision to seize the equipment.

“After having banned Al Jazeera, Israel is lashing out at the AP,” it said in a statement. “RSF denounces the seizure of the news outlet’s camera and the interruption of the continuous feed that films Gaza under the pretext that these images are supplying, among others, Al Jazeera.”

The Union of Israeli Journalists also condemned the act, calling it “a serious threat to press freedom and democracy.”

Israel opposition leader Yair Lapid also denounced the seizure as “an act of madness.”

“This is not Al Jazeera, this is an American media outlet that has won 53 Pulitzer Prizes,” he said in a statement. “This government behaves as if it has decided to make sure at any cost that Israel will be outcast all over the world. They went mad.”