Shooting the Messenger in Gaza: Israel is Covering its Crimes by Eliminating Journalists

2023-12-19    |   

Shooting the Messenger in Gaza: Israel is Covering its Crimes by Eliminating Journalists

This story was slated for publication in the third week of November. Due to ongoing Israeli bombardement, Statistics in the story are outdated, but the testimonies stand the test of time as a witness to gross Israeli human rights violations against the press in Gaza. (Editor)


Recently, Israel has escalated its incitement against journalists and media personnel in the Gaza Strip. As the death toll among them reached 49, Israeli and pro-Israeli media led a campaign of incitement against them and their institutions. This campaign casts doubt over their independence and credibility in an attempt to strip them of their press status and thereby justify their killing, just as Israeli President Isaac Herzog attempted to strip civilians of their civilian status on the pretext that they are not neutral. Benny Gantz, a minister in Israel’s emergency government, accused Palestinian journalists of accompanying the al-Qassam Brigades in Operation al-Aqsa Flood on October 7 and said that they therefore “are no different than terrorists and should be treated as such”. Meanwhile, the Government Press Office sent letters asking the international institutions that contract them to take immediate measures against them. Hence, journalists are “perpetrators of crimes” because they covered the military developments on the morning of October 7. At dawn on November 10, the occupation’s bombs fell near the press tent in which journalists had taken refuge at al-Shifa Hospital, sending a clear message to them and the hospital that Israel is prepared to cross even more red lines in its war. At midday, footage showed dozens of journalists leaving the north of the strip, including Al Jazeera correspondent Wael Al-Dahdouh, who commented that, “Leaving home is very difficult”. So too left independent journalist Motaz Azaiza, who documented his encounter with journalists Ali Jadallah, Hind Khoudary, and Mohammed Al Masri as they were forcibly displaced, under threat of fire from the occupation, from Gaza City toward the south of the strip. Israel refuses to guarantee protection for any journalists during its war, which at the time of writing is in its second month.


Until the time of writing, Israel has killed approximately 5% of Gaza’s estimated 1,000 journalists in its genocidal war on Gaza. It is striving hard to silence Palestinians while they fight, using whatever energy they have left, to tell the world their story. In this small city, which the occupation has drowned in blood, gunpowder, and fire, journalists struggle to document the war while it simultaneously targets them. Their mere presence and work constitute a threat to the effort by the perpetrators of the genocide to hide their crimes from the world and prevent their documentation. Most importantly, Israel realizes that the hundreds of thousands of protesters supporting Gaza in Western capitals from America to Europe, going against their countries’ official positions, have learned of the genocide and ethnic cleansing via the stories, cameras, pens, and voices of the journalists.


This article examines how the killing of journalists is not an isolated attempt at silencing but further evidence of genocidal intentions. Every journalist killed in the line of duty or under the rubble of their home, every journalist whose family is targeted, every media institution razed, every correspondent displaced, every line of communication cut, and every campaign of incitement against them only proves the intent driving the war against them. This systematic targeting of journalists and their institutions, workplaces, residences, and families, as well as the strict denial of entry to foreign press and the looming threats to their personal safety, belongs to the darkest chapters of human history. Israel seems to be following a wicked guidebook titled “How to Commit and Conceal a Genocide”.


Murder: One Journalist Killed Every 16 Hours Since the War Began


Israel is killing more journalists in Gaza every day in war crimes that have largely been documented on camera and in live broadcasts. On November 7, the government media office in Gaza announced that 48 journalists had been martyred. The death of Palestine News Agency (Wafa) journalist Mohammad Abu Hasira later the same day brings the toll at the time of writing (November 10) to 49 killed and two missing (Haitham Abdelwahid and Nidal al-Wahidi). Additionally, Issam Abdallah was killed by an Israeli attack while providing coverage on Lebanon’s southern border. Hence, Israel has killed journalists at a rate of one every 16 hours since it declared war on October 7.


Forty-nine journalists have been martyred, each with their own story whose final chapter they were unable to write. They were killed by the occupation’s bombs and rockets. Some left behind a husband, wife, children, or bereaved parents, but many were killed along with their families when their homes were targeted. The world desperately needed every one of these journalists as its eyes and ears at the heart of Gaza and between its alleyways, which are being subjected to unprecedented criminal violence.


Here, we must recall that one of the first deaths reported to the world in the war on Gaza was that of photojournalist Mohammad El-Salhi. On the morning of October 7, he was killed by Israeli gunfire at the Beit Hanoun Crossing (known to Israelis as Erez Crossing) while wearing his press jacket and live broadcasting the first hours of Operation al-Aqsa Flood. El-Salhi’s assassination was the first indication that Israel would prefer to carry out its operations in the dark. Killing journalists is a cornerstone of this plan.


While El-Salhi left behind his wife Maya, with whom he celebrated their first anniversary just one month earlier, journalist Salam Mema died along with her husband, son, and brother-in-law after they survived two nights under the rubble. Mema’s daughter remains missing. An Israeli attack wiped out the family of Sowt al-Asra journalist Ahmed Shehab, striking all its 44 members from the civil registry. As for journalist Mohammad Abu Hasira, the latest press martyr, he died along with 42 members of his family when his home in western Gaza was targeted.


The objective behind killing journalists is not only to remove them from the picture but also to intimidate their colleagues as part of the total siege on the media. Nevertheless, Palestinian journalists defy this tremendous intimidation by continuing to practice their profession with competence, courage, and determination. They conduct precise field investigations, document events, and present them to the wider world so that it knows the magnitude of the crimes perpetrated. Perhaps their determination to continue providing press coverage reflects their commitment to the principles of press freedom, free transmission, and transparency, along with their sense of professional responsibility.


Intimidation Through Killing Relatives: Israeli Rockets Target Journalists’ Homes and Families


Besides killing journalists, the occupation army surrounds the journalists who are still alive with blood and destruction. Al Jazeera English correspondent Youmna Elsayed documented a phone call from the Israeli army threatening her with being directly targeted should she not evacuate her home. Palestinian journalists have had to leave their homes in northern and central Gaza because of Israel’s decision to evict all residents. At the time of writing, Israel has destroyed at least 70 homes belonging to journalists and their families in what the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate deemed deliberate targeting. Journalists have lost 200 family members and witnessed friends and neighbors being killed or afflicted with various wounds including deep burns, disfigurements, and loss of limbs. Two percent of the Gaza Strip’s residents are documented to have been killed, wounded, or gone missing.


We have seen dozens of journalists receive news that their homes have been targeted by airstrikes and members of their families killed, yet they continue providing press coverage. Among them is Al Jazeera correspondent Wael Al-Dahdouh. Upon discovering that members of his family had been killed when they were targeted after seeking refuge in central Gaza, he took his last look at his wife, daughter, son, and grandson, then uttered in pain, “They’re taking revenge on us via our children – so be it”.


The journalists of Gaza are only human. As they confront the genocide with their voices, cameras, and pens, their hearts shatter before the horrors that they see. After Al-Dahdouh’s family was targeted, photojournalist Motaz Azaiza published a letter to the world: “Yesterday, I saw the [correspondent of Al Jazeera] when he lost his whole family and believe me or not I was going to delete everything here, I don’t want to lose more for just showing the world”.


Azaiza himself lost 15 members of his family in an Israeli massacre targeting his home, and continued reporting. We saw him, too, looking through the ruins of his home on Azaiza street in Deir al-Balah, which was targeted by Israeli airstrikes, and identifying the remains of the dead. He brought us to tears as he mourned them individually and recalled his memories with them. “We were a close-knit family,” he summarized. These family ties were obliterated by the Israeli bombs that fell over their heads.


On Instagram, Azaiza’s account is still documenting Gaza’s tears and perseverance. More than 13.5 million followers around the world watch him, hearing his cries from the heart of the events, sharing his pain, and supporting him with words of sorrow and solidarity.


The Targeting of Media Institutions


The statement that “There is no safe place in Gaza” reveals the totality of the war on Gaza and the Palestinians there, as a land and people, and hence a drive to commit genocide and ethnic cleansing. It is a statement that encompasses journalists’ institutions and workplaces, which the occupation has either destroyed or emptied of their workers through evacuation orders or direct bombardment causing partial destruction. The occupation’s airstrikes have completely or partially destroyed 62 media institutions in the Gaza Strip, while journalists have been evicted into the streets, hospitals, and relatives’ homes, all of which are under threat of bombardment.


The Israeli air raids destroyed Palestine Tower and Watan Tower, which contained the Shehab News Agency, the office of the newspaper Al-Ayyam, the headquarters of Gaza FM and Quran Radio FM, the Palestinian Independent Commission for the Prosecution of the Zionist Occupation Violations Against Palestinians (Tawtheq), and the headquarters of Ma’an News Agency. The offices of APA and Al Jazeera were completely destroyed in the Hajji building. The headquarters of Shms News was also destroyed, and the headquarters of Palestine TV, the office of AFP in the Haitham building, and a number of local media offices were damaged. AFP correspondent Rosie Scammell announced that the agency’s office in the Ghafari building was damaged on November 3 by a guided missile that targeted it, threatening the offices of Reuters, Al Mayadeen, and dozens of other institutions in the same building. Dozens of media outlets have stopped operating or had their coverage impacted because their premises were targeted, their electricity cut, or their journalists killed or evicted, including 24 Palestinian radio stations that have disappeared from Gaza’s airwaves.


With media institutions now being targeted in addition to homes, Gazan journalists tell the Legal Agenda that many of them are living in their cars and the streets or sleeping on couches or floors in the homes of relatives and friends. Many opt to stay in hospitals, where private generators provide electricity. There, they live side by side with tens of thousands of displaced people, sharing the limited space in carparks, gardens, and corridors and the scarce food and supplies. Palestinians in these ad hoc shelters face impossible conditions, lacking drinking water and waiting for hours in queues the likes of which the world has never seen just to use the toilet. With the Israeli occupation threatening hospitals since the start of the offensive and now targeting them repeatedly, journalists and the displaced are losing their last safe shelter, and evacuation orders and frequent bombardment are threatening the right of the sick and wounded to life.


The Israeli bombardment follows journalists even to the places where they have been displaced. Al-Shifa Hospital was targeted at dawn on November 10, when six citizens were killed and others wounded. On October 19, an airstrike destroyed a temporary tent housing the teams of BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, AFP, and local news agencies close to Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis. This attack came after the Israeli army refused several international media outlets’ request for a guarantee that it would not target their journalists. In a letter to Reuters and AFP, the army said that “under these circumstances, we cannot guarantee your employees’ safety”.


Cutting Communications From Gaza After Cutting Transportation: Tightening the Noose


On October 7, Israel began its war by destroying the telecommunications networks and infrastructure in the strip. Palestinian telecommunications company Jawwal issued a factsheet confirming that the strikes had damaged 50% of its infrastructure in just the first ten days. These attacks have resulted in the continuous partial outage of the network and deteriorating service to the point of nonexistence. Meanwhile, the occupation has further escalated by completely cutting landline, mobile, and internet communications from the strip several times. The first of these total blackouts came at the beginning of the land invasion and lasted 36 hours until the afternoon of October 29. Israel controls all communication networks in Palestine via its control over the cables between Gaza and the occupied West Bank and its direct control over the international cables in the occupied Gaza Sea. Cutting communications from Gaza and its inhabitants constitutes a crime under international law that impinges on their natural right to means of communication, to freedom of expression, and to receive and impart information. This crime is reoccurring with every Israeli escalation, forcing Palestinians to endure hours of intense bombing with no way to communicate with loved ones, determine their fate, or call for rescue from underneath the rubble of buildings or amidst airstrikes on residential neighborhoods or hospitals.


These barbaric attacks on the telecommunications infrastructure are not fleeting incidents; rather, they are a calculated tactic that aims to undermine the ability to report facts and events. First and foremost, this gross violation obstructs journalists’ access to sources of information and witnesses, especially amidst the ban on the entry of fuel, the breakdown of transportation, and the danger of moving about in the streets. Secondly, it makes contacting journalists in the field impossible, isolating them, restricting them to a limited domain, and thereby obstructing them from covering events continuously and comprehensively. Thirdly, it makes transmitting information, photos, and videos abroad difficult, thereby preventing the transparent transmission of facts and realistic images of what is happening on the ground in Gaza. Ultimately, this violation targets not only journalists and media outlets but also – and fundamentally – the world’s right to know the truth and access information. Targeting telecommunications infrastructure is an attempt to muffle the victims’ voices, distort the facts, and prevent the dissemination of the honest truth.


The Criminalization of the Palestinian Identity Includes Journalists


Israel, in its war on Palestinian journalists, is trying to turn them into criminals just for being Palestinian. This is part of its campaign to categorize all Gazans as Hamas combatants, deny the presence of civilians among them, and promote the idea that everything in Gaza is Hamas premises, including hospitals, schools, universities, and homes. Israel then accuses Hamas of being part of ISIS at times and “Nazi forces” at others. This tactic aims in general to justify comprehensively attacking all of Gaza, to the point of genocide and ethnic cleansing. When it targets journalists, it aims specifically to justify their killing and induce the world to ignore their reports and testimonies and to question and ignore their status as journalists. This is evident in the Jerusalem Post’s campaign accusing a number of English-speaking Palestinian journalists and activists, who have the largest followings on social media and often appear in foreign television interviews, of being Hamas affiliates. On November 2, the Israeli newspaper published an article with the headline “Exposed: Hamas’s propaganda team” and the subheading “Are these individuals independent journalists or are they associated with Hamas?”. It accused these journalists of “shar[ing] Hamas’s version of events”, presenting evidence related not to the movement but, primarily, to their documentation of crimes against Palestinians, such as the targeting of hospitals and killing of their colleagues. The paper named five out of five dozen Palestinian journalists and activists with a combined total of 100 million followers and said that it would identify the others’ later. It also attacked the foreign media outlets that have hosted these journalists, sending a message to these institutions that giving them screentime renders them liable to Israeli accusations of cooperation with Hamas.


Another form of criminalization of Palestinian journalists appeared in the letter that Israel’s Government Press Office sent on November 9 to a number of Western media outlets accusing them of employing “apparent collaborators with Hamas” in the Gaza Strip and demanding that they take immediate measures against these journalists. The office did not hesitate to accuse the Palestinian journalists of “participating in war crimes and crimes against humanity”.


Sealing the Blockade: Denying Entry to Foreign Journalists


In parallel with killing the journalists inside Gaza and persecuting them physically and psychologically, Israel is strictly denying entry to foreign journalists even though hundreds have demanded the border be opened to them. While there are foreign journalists permanently stationed in the strip, press institutions around the world usually send correspondents to war zones to cover and document the wars for their viewers. This the occupation forces have prohibited, declaring at the outset of their military operations that they were tightening the blockade on the strip.


More than 100 French journalists, in addition to 35 major French media outlets and press organizations, signed an open letter demanding that the border be opened to journalists. A similar global petition was signed by a number of media outlets and international press-related associations and organizations, along with more than 450 journalists from 39 countries across six continents. The French open letter also demanded an independent international investigation into Israel’s murder of journalists. The signatories to the global petition emphasized that access to Gaza is necessary because the war is “of vital importance for our countries and our future”. “This is not just a request for us journalists, but an appeal to defend the fundamental principles that underpin every free and democratic society,” they explained.


The petition emphasized freedom of expression, the importance of news coverage in wartime, and the right to inform and obtain information. It said, “The ongoing war in Gaza is a matter that involves… the fate of all of us, wherever we are. It is a war that influences our future, shaping the world in which the next generations will grow”. Israel’s denial of entry to foreign journalists is “not only an injustice to journalists but an injustice to every citizen of the world,” it added.


For their part, Lebanese journalists demanded, in a statement by the Alternative Press Syndicate (Nakaba Badila), that the border be opened to foreign journalists to cover the war on Gaza. The statement implored UN Secretary-General António Guterres and UNESCO General Director Audrey Azoulay to pressure the Israeli authorities to stop the murder of journalists and open the border to foreign journalists. It also demanded that the Egyptian authorities facilitate their entry “to alleviate the pressure and burden on our colleagues in Palestine and to relay the reality of what is happening in Gaza”.


Israel’s refusal to allow the world media to access Gaza reflects a calculated strategy to cover up its crimes in Gaza. Aggressors always seek to propagate the ideas and views that support their agenda, using various means of repression and prohibition. By denying entry to foreign journalists, Israel prevents their testimonies from being added to the testimonies of their Palestinian colleagues and thereby exposing the facts of what is happening there – that violations and crimes are being perpetrated against an entire people far away from questions and criticisms by international parties. In this manner, Israel is also undermining investigation and accountability efforts.


Conversely, the Israeli occupation is organizing tours in the Gaza Envelope for foreign journalists to ensure worldwide coverage of the events from its own perspective, that relays only its own narrative. It thereby removes Palestinians from the picture, causing them to remain voiceless and faceless numbers behind its walls surrounding the strip.


On November 2, Palestine TV‎ correspondent Mohammed Abu Hatab, along with 11 members of his family, was killed in an Israeli strike targeting his home in Khan Yunis, southern Gaza. In the middle of a broadcast, his colleague Salman al-Bashir shed his press jacket and helmet and tossed them to the ground. “They are just emblems we wear,” he said. “They do not protect any journalist at all. We here are victims, victims live on air. We lose one soul after another. We await our turn one after another”.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


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