Journalists Speak to the Challenges of Covering the Israel-Hamas War

By: Muskan Bansal | 05/21/2024

It has been over seven months since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, and no resolution appears in sight. 

As cease-fire negotiations have been unsuccessful, Israel’s military offensive in Gaza, which has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, continues, intensifying an already dire humanitarian crisis. One hundred twenty eight hostages remain held captive by Hamas, according to Israel. 

The conflict has threatened to expand in the region. And globally, demonstrations on university campuses have broken out, demanding an end to the war. 

Journalists in Gaza have been instrumental in bringing on-the-ground reporting to audiences worldwide, at grave danger to their lives and amid limited press freedom. More than 100 journalists, the vast majority Palestinian, have been killed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in what Reporters Without Borders has called “one of the deadliest ever wars for the media.” Many have lost family members and have been displaced alongside the estimated over 75% of Palestinians in Gaza who have been forced to flee their homes. 

In Israel, mainstream media has largely refrained from communicating the war's devastation. The Israeli government has also taken steps to restrict critical reporting, while they and Egypt continue to block access points into Gaza, preventing international reporters from entering.

In an IJNet Crisis Reporting Forum session held in partnership with the Media Diversity Institute, journalists from Palestine and Israel discussed their experiences reporting on the war and humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and the challenges they continue to navigate today. 

The panel, moderated by award-winning writer and NPR correspondent Jacki Lyden, brought together Oren Persico, staff writer at the Israeli investigative magazine, The Seventh EyeGhousoon Bisharat, editor-in-chief of +972 Magazine, run by Palestinian and Israeli journalists; and Raed Othman, executive director of the Palestinian news organization, Ma’an Network

Under fire in Gaza

Journalists covering the war inside Gaza have faced unparalleled risks to their personal safety amid the Israeli airstrikes and ground invasion.

Ma’an Network offices were bombed by Israel the day after the Hamas attacks, on October 8, said Othman. All four journalists on his team are displaced today in different parts of Gaza. 

The outlet’s head of office in Gaza, Emad Eid, has lost 28 of his extended family members during the war, including his sister and her children, said Othman, adding that Eid paid $26,000 to send his children to Egypt via a private “VIP travel” service. He now lives in a tent with two other journalists outside a hospital in Rafah, where he continues to report from his phone with intermittent internet connection. 

The team photographer, Ahmed Ghabayen, has been unreachable since October 7, although Othman believes he is still alive as his name has not been listed among the casualties. 

A woman journalist on the team, Rawan Al-Sourani, who had bought her own apartment a year ago, is now living in a camp between Rafah and Khan Younis, said Othman: “I don't know if you can imagine what's the meaning of that: there’s no bathrooms, there’s no showers. There’s nothing.” 

Another Ma’an woman journalist, Fida Helles, has moved between refugee camps, and is currently at one in central Gaza. Othman is in touch with her every few days via voice message.

+972 Magazine also works with freelance journalists in Gaza. They have reported on their struggle for food, water, shelter and care for their families, explained Bisharat: “One of our journalists, Ibtisam Mahdi, is now living in a tent with her two children in Khan Younis, and also operating from a mobile, which is really difficult for her and for us. That is her fifth displacement since October 2023.” 

Due to inefficient and irregular communication with journalists on the ground, fact-checking takes longer, which often prevents +972 from publishing about an event as it unfolds, noted Bisharat. 

Bias and censorship in Israel

In Israel, news coverage has been impeded by journalists’ personal connections to the war, and the trauma caused by the Hamas attacks, explained Persico.

“Israeli journalists are part of the Israeli society, and the Israeli society is very much in a post-traumatic state. Their attention is still very much devoted to what happened on October 7, and the situation with the hostages,” he said. “Reporters were either in the military or their sons are fighting in Gaza. As part of Israeli society, they prefer to report about things that won't hurt the war effort.” 

Journalists tend to stay away from covering the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, Persico added. “What you see is mostly Israeli Jewish victims of the war, or the victimhood of Israelis,” he said. “There is a lot of self-censorship and choices that journalists in Israel [make] that prevent a lot of information from reaching the Israeli public.”

Meanwhile, Israel has sought to filter the news reaching its citizens, an effort that has extended to restricting foreign news outlets from operating in the country. In April, the Israeli Parliament passed a bill enabling the government to temporarily ban international media considered a threat to national security. The law was used just this month to shut down prominent Qatar-based news outlet, Al Jazeera. 

Persico recalled that he was the only reporter in the courtroom when a judge reviewed the order by the Israel government to close the outlet. “It shows you the lack of interest Israeli journalists have [in] what’s going on with Al Jazeera. They don't see [Al Jazeera] as colleagues or even a propaganda tool, but really a part of the terror mechanism,” he said.  

Restrictions preventing journalists from entering Gaza have also led some media organizations to turn to embedding with the Israeli Defense Forces. The reporting that comes out of this arrangement lacks authenticity and accuracy, said Persico: “It's difficult, when you’re embedded, to report accurately about what’s going on, and obviously, it is difficult to interview a citizen when your back is filled with armed soldiers.” 

Palestinian journalists are also contending with Hamas’ censorship of their independent reporting, Persico noted. “You're not allowed to openly criticize Hamas inside Gaza. And the reporters know that and are afraid,” he said.

Amplifying voices

+972 has covered demonstrations that have broken out globally, including the anti-war and pro-Palestine campus protests in the U.S. and how they are portrayed in Israeli media. 

“The way [the protesters] are perceived [by our readers], and in particular in Gaza, is with very cautious optimism,” said Bisharat of the student demonstrators in the U.S. “That [protesters] would not be able to stop the war, but at least they will raise awareness about the plight of the Palestinian people in Gaza.”

The magazine has also reported on protests in Israel, including those calling on the government to bring back hostages taken by Hamas, and Jewish-Israeli anti-war demonstrations condemning the military’s assault on Gaza. 

“We amplify voices of families of hostages who are calling for a cease-fire. We amplify voices of parents, of soldiers who died in the war in Gaza calling for a cease-fire, and for long-lasting peace and reconciliation,” said Bisharat.

She stressed the need for journalists to stand together, in light of the deadly conditions, and crackdowns on media freedoms affecting their work. 

“The level of solidarity between Israeli and Palestinian journalists, independent journalists who are opposing the war, is extremely high,” said Bisharat. “I think we need it now more than ever.” 

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