Journalists under Fire

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EVERY MORNING Abdel Rahman Khatib, a photographer for United Press International and the Palestinian daily Al Ayyam, leaves his Rafah home in the south of the Gaza Strip unsure if he will be returning. 

Since the Al Aqsa uprising began in late September, Khatib has been spending his days on the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt or near the Israeli army checkpoint west of Khan Younis refugee camp. It is his job to get pictures of Israeli soldiers shooting at Palestinian stone-throwers. The demonstrations are almost always deadly, for those participating and those standing by. 

“The day usually starts quietly, but the afternoons are the most critical periods and there is pressure to work when there are more people getting killed,” Khatib says while loading his bag with extra film and checking his Cannon camera. 

One day, while Khatib was photographing clashes in Khan Younis, an Israeli soldier shot Khatib in the mouth with a rubber bullet, smashing three of his front teeth. He was hiding behind a rock, next to a Palestinian teenager, but Khatib believes that he was targeted.  

“I’m sure that the Israeli soldier who shot me saw me, because the distance was not so great. He deliberately shot me,” says Khatib. Since then, the photographer has been much more cautious in his work.  

Khatib is not the only photographer to believe he was targeted by the Israeli military. A Japanese camera crew photographing clashes in Gush Khatif in the Gaza Strip says that they were 100 meters away from stone throwers, but Israeli bullets were whizzing by them. “They were shooting at us,” said the cameraman. The crew quickly packed their bags and headed elsewhere.  

Injuries to the press are mounting. A Palestinian journalist working for the official Palestinian agency Wafa died of his wounds in a Jordan hospital. Twenty- six other Palestinian and foreign journalists and photographers have been injured in the clashes, according to a report issued by the Palestinian journalist’s union in Jerusalem. 

Aziz El Zeer, 31, from the West Bank town of Bethlehem was badly injured on October 20 when Israeli military helicopters fired at the Bethlehem offices of Force 17 security while El Zeer was inside interviewing an officer about the killing of a security colleague by Israeli soldiers. 

El Zeer was taken to Al Hussein Hospital in Amman for treatment, but died of his wounds several days later. The Palestinian journalists union condemned the killing of El Zeer and called on the world to stop “this aggression towards the Palestinian people and Palestinian journalists.” 

The Palestinian Journalists Union in Gaza has sent a letter to the International Federation of Journalists, calling for an emergency meeting to discuss the serious situation of journalists in the Palestinian territories, said Tawfeek Abu Khousa, deputy head of the union. 

“The journalists who work in Gaza and the West Bank must be protected from Israeli sniper’s bullets. There must be an international force to protect, not only the Palestinian people, but also the journalists,” says Abu Khousa. 

He believes that the reason for the attacks is to frighten journalists and prevent them from reporting on the clashes.  

Khatib says that without journalists’ efforts to get accurate information or photograph incidents, the world will remain ignorant about the situation in the Palestinian territories and the reality of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. 

“I plan my day to photograph the funerals of Palestinian children and teens getting shot and killed by Israeli soldiers and I concentrate on the human side of the picture to show the sadness and pain of their mothers when they see their sons for the last time,” said Khatib. 

In the Gaza Strip, there are four main places where the most intense clashes take place between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian demonstrators. Salah Al Din Gate on the Gaza Strip-Egyptian borders, Al Tufah checkpoint west of Khan Younis, Al Muntar checkpoint also known as Karni and the Beit Hanon checkpoint leading to Erez crossing into Israel are all gathering points where young demonstrators gather to face off against the Israeli military. At times, Palestinian shooters are also there, heightening the intensity of the clashes. 

In many of these areas, there is little shelter if the battle gets heated. Israeli fortifications open up into wide- open streets and fields, particularly now that hundreds of olive trees have been bulldozed by Israel for “security reasons.” Still the journalists do their best to get the film they need while staying out of harm’s way. 

Samir Khalifa, the Palestinian Broadcasting Center correspondent in the Gaza Strip, was taken to Shifa Hospital earlier this week after inhaling tear gas that Israeli soldiers let loose on crowds of Palestinians near the crossroads of Gush Katif settlement. 

“It was not only me and my cameramen in the area when the Israeli soldiers shot tear gas canisters and then rained where we were standing with live ammunition, there was the crew from CNN and its reporter Rula Amin, two other TV crews, four photographers and even more,” said Khalifa. 

He says that, for him, this is proof that the Israeli army was targeting the group. They were hiding behind the wreckage of cars, says Khalifa, and there was clearly a group of them, “but in spite of this they shot at us like crazy.” 

Joel Campagna, director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, has documented more than two dozen cases of journalists being injured or harassed while covering the political violence in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip since late September. 

Campagna said that 13 of these cases involve journalists wounded by gunfire while covering Palestinian-Israeli clashes. Ten of these shootings were determined the result of gunfire from Israeli forces. In the remaining three cases, the source of gunfire remains unclear, although reporters on the scene blamed Israeli soldiers. 

Two foreign photographers working for the Associated Press were injured last week, one in Gaza and one in Bethlehem, in addition to a Japanese freelance photojournalist and CNN correspondent Ben Weideman. 

A CPJ statement said that it is particularly disturbed by seven cases in which journalists either charged that the Israeli soldiers intentionally targeted them, or where the circumstances of the shootings raise concerns that the Israeli soldiers were guilty of extreme negligence. 

It said that CPJ’s concerns about the safety of journalists have been heightened by other observers’ accounts of excessive or indiscriminate use of gunfire by Israeli troops against Palestinian demonstrators. 

Many Palestinian journalists and media specialists believe that Israel is not only using weapons and live ammunition to fight Palestinians, but that it is also making use of the media.  

Union head Abu Khousa says that the fact that all of the bureaus of international media organizations are located in West Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or other parts of Israel, is an indication of how the press can be manipulated.  

“The foreign reporters who live and work in Israel, read Israeli newspapers and listen to Israeli radios and televisions, are very much affected by the Israeli propaganda,” said Abu Khousa. “This helps the Israelis to lie and forge the facts.” 

This standard is facilitated by an aggressive Israeli campaign against Palestinian press sources. Repeatedly, Palestinian and foreign journalists holding Israeli press cards have been denied entrance to the territories. In addition, since late September, the Israeli government press office has refused to renew the press cards of Palestinian journalists who work for foreign agencies, saying that to do so would only facilitate what it says is a Palestinian propaganda war.

“This shows that not only do the Israeli soldiers aim at Palestinian journalists, intending to kill them and prevent them from doing their job, but that Israeli government officials are completing this policy,” said Abu Khousa. 

Israel has said that it considers official Palestinian media outlets sources of incitement that encourage the Palestinians to continue the “violence against Israel.” Accordingly, Israeli helicopters bombarded the building of the Palestinian radio station, Voice of Palestine, in the West Bank town of Ramallah. But it is from the official press and many local stations that Palestinians receive word about the latest military actions in the territories. 

Campagna said that the Committee to Protect Journalists sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak expressing grave concern about the recent attack on two transmission towers and other technical facilities used by the Voice of Palestine in the West Bank city of Ramallah. 

The letter said that article 79 of Additional Protocol 1 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions specifically recognizes the civilian status of journalists “engaged in a professional mission in areas of armed conflict.” This protection has generally been accepted as part of customary law, and is therefore binding on all states. Since its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, Israel has rejected the applicability of the Geneva Convention in the territories.

Some Palestinian officials have taken the step of inviting Israeli media representatives to visit the Palestinian territories and see the flip side of statements by the Israeli army spokesman and official Israeli media. 

Bassam Abu Sharif, former spokesman for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, says that he wants all Israeli journalists and reporters to see the facts “and the results of the Israeli aggression and its destructive side effects on the ground.” 

“Israel is using propaganda to make new facts,” says Abu Sharif. He says that he regrets that this propaganda has affected Israeli public opinion.

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