Israel backs down over confiscation of AP camera equipment

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By James Mackenzie

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The Israeli authorities confiscated camera equipment belonging to the Associated Press on Tuesday, before reversing course in the face of widespread condemnation from media groups and criticism even from its closest ally, the United States.

Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi said in a statement he had ordered officials to cancel the original decision and return the confiscated equipment, pending a decision by the Ministry of Defence, which he said wished to examine the issue.

The Israeli Communications Ministry had earlier accused the AP of breaking the law by providing a live broadcast to Al Jazeera, which it placed under a temporary ban earlier this month, accusing it of endangering national security.

The agency said it was ordered to shut down a live feed showing a view into Gaza from the Israeli town of Sderot, saying this was not based on content but "an abusive use by the Israeli government of the country's new foreign broadcaster law".

"The Associated Press decries in the strongest terms the actions of the Israeli government to shut down our longstanding live feed showing a view into Gaza and seize AP equipment," AP spokesperson Lauren Easton said.

The media law, passed in April, allows the government to order foreign broadcasters to temporarily cease operations on grounds of national security.

The White House, which has supported Israel in the war, said the incident was concerning and journalists had the right to do their jobs.

U.S. President Joe Biden's administration asked senior Israeli officials to reverse course as soon as it learned of the reports, White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said.

"The free press is an essential pillar of democracy and members of the media, including AP, do vital work that must be respected," Watson said in a statement.

Media rights groups blasted the move, which Reporters without Borders called "outrageous censorship".

The incident is the latest in a fraught series of confrontations between media groups and the Israeli government since the start of the war in Gaza last year.

AP said it had complied with military censorship rules that prohibit broadcasts of details like troop movements that could endanger soldiers. It said the live shot had generally shown smoke rising over Gaza.

Like AP, Reuters also provides a live feed from positions around Gaza to clients around the world, including Al Jazeera.

When Israel closed its operations in May, Al Jazeera called the accusation that it threatened Israeli security a "dangerous and ridiculous lie". It had no immediate comment when asked about the AP incident on Tuesday.

Spokespeople for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Additional reporting by Steve Holland aboard Air Force One, Eric Beech and Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Edmund Blair and Lisa Shumker)