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Israeli police briefly detain Washington Post bureau chief in Jerusalem

William Booth and his colleague Sufian Taha were held for approximately 40 minutes on suspicion of incitement before being released
Israeli border police-women patrol a street following an attack by three Palestinian assailants at Damascus Gate, a main entrance to Jerusalem's Old City on 3 February 2016 (AFP)

Israeli police briefly detained two Washington Post journalists in Jerusalem on Tuesday on suspicion of inciting violence, but released them without charge, officials said.

William Booth, the US paper's Jerusalem bureau chief, was detained along with his colleague Sufian Taha, its West Bank correspondent for under an hour at the Shalem police station.

The two were arrested by the Damascus Gate entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem, after a passer-by called the police to complain that the journalists were encouraging a group of Palestinian youth they were interviewing to confront the Israeli police.

Damascus Gate has been the site of several attacks in a wave of violence that erupted in October.

According to a police spokesperson, the passer-by said that Booth and Taha were offering Palestinians money to start provoking Israeli police for the sake of creating propaganda.

"In light of the complaint, officers detained a number of suspects to clarify the facts in a discreet and sensitive manner at a nearby police facility," police spokeswoman Luba Samri said.

“When the circumstances of the incident became clear, and no suspicion of criminal activity was found, the detainees were immediately released by the investigating officer without proceedings of any kind in the matter," she continued.

The country's Foreign Press Association condemned the detention "in the strongest possible terms," and said the two journalists were held by police for about 40 minutes.

It called allegations of incitement an "absurd accusation against a respected international news outlet".

The government's press office issued a statement later saying it "regrets today's incident at Damascus Gate in which a correspondent for the Washington Post was unnecessarily detained by the Border Police".

It said the incident was "probably the result of an unfortunate misunderstanding".

"Israel is doing its utmost to enable the foreign press to work freely, without any pressure," it said. "We call upon the security forces and journalists to act with restraint and to avoid confrontations during these tense times."

Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon lamented the arrest of Booth, noting that the ministry will ask the police for clarifications.

"This is a regrettable incident, casting an unnecessary shadow over the work of an excellent journalist,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is in Berlin on a state visit, said that while he was unaware of the details, Israel does not arrest journalists.

"As I can personally testify, the media in Israel is lively and free, very dynamic and free to say what it wants," he said.