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Reporting Under Siege: Israel’s War on Journalists in Gaza

Much of the news from the war on Gaza has come from local journalists, and their reporting has come at a historically high cost.

“The most difficult day to cover: bombardment, destruction, massacres, and arrests after long months of siege and starvation,” wrote Al Jazeera correspondent Anas Al-Sharif on X, as he was covering Israel’s latest raid on Al-Shifa Hospital and its surroundings in Gaza City on March 18. His colleague Ismail Al-Ghoul was abducted from the hospital along with other journalists by Israeli forces. He was reportedly stripped off his clothes and severely beaten before being released 12 hours later. The army “interrogated all the journalists present at the scene,” according to Al-Sharif, who had to then report on the abduction of another one of his colleagues, Mahmoud Aliwa.

This was yet another episode of Israel’s devastating war on Gaza which has killed over 31,000 Palestinians and injured over 74,000 since October 7. The death rate along with the massive scale of destruction has led to accusations of genocide against Israel, including one at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). 

Much of the news from the Gaza Strip have come from local journalists, as regional and international journalists have been barred by Israel from independently entering the enclave. Their reporting has come at a historically high cost. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) states that at least 95 journalists have been killed since the start of the war (90 Palestinian), making it “the deadliest period for journalists since CPJ began gathering data in 1992.” 

Israel’s killing of journalists in this war opens a new dark page for the unpunished and free targeting of journalists in the region.

Unprecedented violence against journalists

Jad Shahrour, spokesperson for the Beirut-based Samir Kassir Eyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom (SKeyes) told TIMEP that the current Gaza war is “not just the bloodiest, but the most brutal war” against journalists, as the violations are not limited to arrests, but involve “direct killings of people covering the war.” Reports on the ground show that Palestinian journalists have been, on many occasions, deliberately targeted by the Israeli army. This is a war crime, as journalists are granted the same protection as civilians under international humanitarian law. 

The killing of several reporters through drone and sniper fire strengthens this claim. Some of the latest victims of such attacks are two Al Jazeera journalists who were targeted by an Israeli drone as they were reporting from Rafah while wearing their press vests. Abdullah Al-Hajj, a photojournalist affiliated with UNRWA, lost both his legs on February 27 after being targeted. Journalists have also been shot by Israeli sniper fire. Mohamad Balousha, a reporter for Al Mashahd TV who broke the story in late November 2023 about the four premature babies left to die in Al-Nasr Children’s Hospital, was shot by an Israeli sniper on December 16, 2023. Balousha said at the time that Israeli forces intercepted the ambulances sent to evacuate him, which delayed his treatment. 

Journalists’ families are not safe either. On several occasions, families of journalists were killed in strikes on their homes or their vehicles in Gaza. Most prominently, Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief Wael Al Dahdouh lost his wife, two of his children, and one grandchild in an Israeli strike on their house on October 28. Less than three months later, on January 7, his eldest son and fellow journalist Hamza was killed along with his colleague Mustafa Thuraya and their driver in an Israeli airstrike on their car; the attack severely injured two other journalists riding with them. Wael Al Dahdouh was himself targeted and injured by an Israeli drone strike that killed his colleague Samer Abu Daqqa. When medical personnel attempted to reach Abu Daqqa to try to save him, they too were shot at and he was left to bleed to death for hours.

The Palestinian journalists’ syndicate announced in early February that 70 of the enclave’s journalists had lost “close family members.” Mohammad Abu Hattab, a reporter for Palestine TV, was killed along with his family less than an hour after he finished his live coverage at a hospital. His colleague, Salman Al Bashir, broke down on air following the news and took off his press vest, and said in a video that went viral “no protection, no international protection at all, no immunity to anything, this protection gear does not protect us.”

Anas Al-Sharif’s 90-year-old father was killed in an Israeli airstrike on his family home in the Jabalia refugee camp. Less than three weeks prior, Al-Sharif had spoken about receiving threats from the Israeli army through phone calls and WhatsApp voice notes that disclosed his location. It took Al-Sharif two months to be able to properly bury his father. 

Other tactics restricting journalistic work

Israel’s full blockade of the Gaza Strip has cut off the area from electricity, cell service, and internet connection, leading to several telecommunications blackouts. Journalists have been using eSIMs as their only method to share information and news from the war. The unstable connection granted by these eSIMs has led people to look for areas where cell service would allow them to connect. Some journalists even had to climb to the roofs of some buildings in an attempt to upload content or send messages, exposing them even further. On January 22 for instance, an Israeli strike hit an area where civilians and journalists were gathered to connect to the internet, injuring photojournalist Emad Ghaboun. 

Journalists have been heavily reducing their coverage of the war out of fear for their safety and that of their families

Journalists have been heavily reducing their coverage of the war out of fear for their safety and that of their families. Some journalists also find themselves increasingly isolated, as some people refuse to give them shelter out of fear that Israel will target them. A journalist interviewed by TIMEP said that members of his family refused to let him stay with them, saying that his job puts everyone around him at risk.

Press workers in the northern half of the Gaza Strip currently face the hardest conditions, as experts have warned that famine in the area was imminent. This is due to Israel’s deliberate policy of blocking aid, the use of starvation as a weapon of war, and the attacks on civilians waiting for the rare aid trucks. Reporters have spoken about scouring the entire area in search of food, without finding anything. They have also mentioned being in pain and hungry while reporting on camera. 

The war of narrative

“This war on journalists is not out of the blue. It has a very clear reason: to contribute to the media blackout so that Israel can win the media narrative,” Shahrour told TIMEP. As the Palestinian perspective of the war gets shared across social networks and mainstream media outlets, to the point that their reports and footage are used in international court cases against Israel, the amount of information coming out of the enclave is threatened by the active killing of journalists. Additionally, many have taken it upon themselves to evacuate Gaza out of fear for their safety and that of their loved ones.

Israel ensures an even greater control of the narrative surrounding the war by controlling who comes into Gaza. The Biden administration was even reportedly concerned over Israel’s image should journalists be allowed in. Most journalists are forbidden from entering the strip to report from there, unless they are embedded with the Israeli army. While some reporters said the army’s interference was limited, it raises questions surrounding independent information coming from these reports. 

Israel ensures an even greater control of the narrative surrounding the war by controlling who comes into Gaza

The UN and CPJ have called for international journalists to be allowed into Gaza, but in January, Israel’s Supreme Court rejected a request to let them in without being embedded with the army. On February 28, over 50 international media outlets signed a letter asking both Israel and Egypt to let foreign journalists in, still to no avail. 

Working as a journalist has also become even harder in the West Bank. In 2023, Israel became one of the “worst jailers” of journalists for the year as it arrested 17 Palestinian journalists, mostly due to its increased crackdown on the press after October 7.

Targeted attacks on journalists in Lebanon

Another example of Israel’s actions against journalists during this war relates to the attacks on reporters covering the near-daily border clashes in Lebanon. On October 13, Israel hit a group of journalists reporting from the southern town of Alma Al Shaab, killing Reuters photographer Issam Abdallah and injuring six other colleagues, some seriously. Several investigations, including the ones conducted by Reuters, the AFP, the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty found that an Israeli tank targeted the group of journalists in what the AFP qualified as “deliberate and targeted.”

According to Shahrour, international media outlets have been more hesitant to send their reporters to Lebanon’s southern border following this incident. One month after this attack, journalists from mostly local outlets suffered minor injuries after Israel fired artillery a few meters from where they were gathered in the southern town of Yaroun. A few days later, Israeli strikes on Tayr Harfa in south Lebanon killed Al Mayadeen correspondent Farah Omar and videographer Rabih Al Maamari, which the channel believes was an intentional attack. 

Challenges and impunity

Israeli officials have, at times, attempted to justify the killing of journalists by discrediting them or accusing them of being affiliated with Hamas. Most prominently, several statements came from Israeli officials following a now heavily altered post by pro-Israel outlet Honest Reporting which accused several freelancers of having known in advance about Hamas’ plan to attack Israel on October 7. Their employers denied these accusations and Honest Reporting then confessed to having no evidence to support its claims. The lack of evidence did not stop Israeli officials from using this report and threatening these journalists. One of the journalists mentioned, photojournalist Yasser Qudih, had eight family members killed by four Israeli missiles on his home days after the report’s release.

Israel generally denies targeting journalists, claiming it only targets Hamas and other terrorist groups. The Israeli army attempted to justify certain killings, like that of Hamza Al Dahdouh and Mustafa Thuraya, claiming they were members of “Gaza-based terrorist organizations” without providing any evidence, a claim rejected by the families of both journalists. An in-depth investigation by the Washington Post found “no indications that either man was operating as anything other than a journalist that day.”

International avenues

Even prior to the current war, Israel had fallen under scrutiny on several occasions for its attacks against journalists. According to CPJ, Israel “has never put a soldier on trial for an intentional or unintentional killing of a journalist,” even though at least 20 Palestinian and foreign journalists have been killed since 2001.

As the UN’s calls for Israel to ensure the safety of journalists in all the Palestinian territories carry little weight with Israel, international institutions seem like the only path forward, as many bodies have called for the ICJ and the ICC to pay special attention to “the dangerous pattern of attacks and impunity for crimes against journalists, which has intensified since October 7.” 

The killing of journalists in Gaza was mentioned by South Africa in its genocide case against Israel at the ICJ, saying that “Palestinian journalists are being killed at a rate significantly higher than has occurred in any conflict in the past 100 years. In the two months since October 7, 2023, the number of journalists killed already exceeded that of the entirety of World War II.”

Reporters Without Borders has filed two complaints to the International Criminal Court asking it to investigate “all of the deaths of Palestinian journalists killed by the Israeli military since October 7.” The ICC assured the organization that crimes against journalists will be included in its investigation into Palestine.

One method to ensure accountability would be to keep up the pressure, amplify voices on the ground in Gaza and Lebanon, and lobby governments to focus on the protection of all press workers when dealing with Israel’s actions in Gaza. More organizing across journalist unions must also pay special attention to the attempts to silence solidarity with Palestinian journalists in Western newsrooms.

Israel’s unprecedented killing of journalists in Gaza and Lebanon presents a dangerous precedent should these acts go unpunished. Prior to the war, the Middle East was already considered one of the most dangerous regions in the world for journalists, as most countries score very low on Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. Without accountability, journalists could start being treated as legitimate targets in future conflicts across the globe. Hence, it is crucial for the international community to act under international humanitarian law in order to end the continued war on the media and deter any government from targeting press workers in times of war.

Nader Durgham is a journalist and researcher focusing on the Middle East.


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