Israeli riot police tries to block a Jewish right-wing man as clashes erupted between Arabs, police and Jews, in the mixed town of Lod, central Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Journalists reporting on the clashes told CPJ they experienced violence and harassment. (AP Photo/Heidi Levine)

“The camera attracts violence”: Israeli right-wing groups attack local journalists

Israel’s May 15 bombing of The Associated Press and Al-Jazeera offices in Gaza made international headlines, as did the death of a Palestinian journalist in an air strike that may have been a deliberate attack on his home. 

There were many other press freedom violations during the recent flare-up, which included unusual levels of street violence between Arabs and Jews in Israeli cities. Inside Israel, Jewish far-right groups in particular harassed and assaulted local journalists covering their organized attacks on their Arab neighbors, as CPJ documented

CPJ reviewed screenshots of WhatsApp conversations attained by local journalists in which members of far-right groups encouraged such assaults on the press: “[We] can do both [target Arabs and journalists], it really doesn’t contradict. There are Arab terrorists and there are media terrorists,” read one message. Another member encouraged others to march to Neve Ilan, a town in central Israel where many media and film studios are located, and to bring hammers and Molotov cocktails with them. 

Threats of violence against journalists didn’t emanate from just one group: Israeli journalists told CPJ they were also at risk while reporting in Arab neighborhoods inside Israel. CPJ spoke via phone with four Israeli journalists about their experiences in recent weeks, the press freedom environment in Israel, and how they are protecting themselves going forward. Their interviews have been edited for length and clarity. 

Roland Nowitski, cameraman at Kan News

On May 13 you were filming a right-wing march in Tel Aviv and were about to go live on the air when you were attacked by some of the marchers. Tell me what happened. 

The attackers were planning to attack TV Channels 12 and 13. These days, it doesn’t matter what channel you work for. The fact that you’re carrying a camera or microphone on the street means you’re attacked. I was sent to cover a gathering of right-wing groups in southern Tel Aviv who were planning to attack the Arab neighborhood in Jaffa [next to Tel Aviv]. People in those groups were encouraging each other to attack the media.  

We arrived at the march half an hour prior to the 7 p.m. news, and we kept a respectful distance of 50 meters [164 feet]. We were approached by two guys who said, “Get the fuck out of here before your cameras and hands get smashed.” So we walked farther back. At 6:59 p.m., I was told by the newsroom to put the journalist in front of the camera and start the report. That second, a guy grabbed the lens of the camera and said, “You left-wing press, get out of here, you’re supposed to be covering [violence against Israeli Jews] in [mixed Jewish and] Arab cities and not here.”

We walked farther away, and the journalist was standing in front of me. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, two guys came up to us. The guy who grabbed the lens and a second one, who smashed me in the skull with a helmet. On the third hit, my camera was smashed. Right after that, they stole the camera and ran around the corner. The police stopped the attackers, and I later went to hospital. Later on, I was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome. I have neck and lower back pain. When the helmet landed on my skull, my neck cracked. My left eye is foggy right now; I’m not used to it. I’m a cameraman, and I’m used to seeing everything clearly. 

Were you wearing any protective equipment at the time?

I was wearing knee protection and elbow protection. I was wearing a biker jacket because I didn’t know what would happen. It protects my shoulders, spine, and elbows. I wasn’t sure if I should wear a bulletproof jacket that protects from stabbing. I wasn’t wearing my helmet because the clashes hadn’t started. I was attacked by a single person, not by a mob. Later on, I learned that a bodyguard was sent to protect us. But there was a delay and he arrived about 20 minutes after the attack. 

Have you ever been attacked reporting before?

Yes. In September 2020 a journalist and I were attacked by 13-year-old kids in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Bnei Brak [near Tel Aviv]. We were evacuated by the local police. Our car was damaged when rocks were thrown at it. We didn’t suffer any physical damage, but the car had to be repaired. Last month we were attacked by kids in the [West Bank] Palestinian village of Sebastia. Huge rocks were thrown at our car; they hit the door but didn’t go through the window. 

I have worked as a journalist in the field for 20 years and things have changed. Over the past decade, journalists have become victims, especially in West Jerusalem. When you find yourself in the field, the people who want to break your camera don’t care what channel you work for. The camera is an attraction for a physical attack. Journalists are targeted by both sides.

How has the most recent attack affected your mental health?

I’ve been to Syria, I’ve been to Iraq. After 20 years of risking my life, I’ve had enough. The attack in Tel Aviv could end up changing my specialty as a cameraman. Before, I was a news and a [TV features] cameraman. I’m probably going to switch to just features. 

Yoav Zehavi, reporter at Kan News

You were out reporting with Nowitski on the day of the May 13 attack, but you weren’t injured. What were you expecting when you went out to report? 

Before I got there, I knew that we would be in danger, but I didn’t think it would be this violent. The physical violence surprised me.

In general, do you feel safe as a journalist in Israel?

No. But I continue to do my job. It’s the first time I’ve felt unsafe to this extent. Now when people go out to cover protests, [some news organizations are] giving them a bodyguard. I’m not a senior journalist in Israel, so typically I can go out in the street and I’m not afraid. That week for me was a milestone, personally in my life, and generally in Israel’s history. It looked like total anarchy in the street. 

Many Israeli journalists are also getting harassed online over their coverage of the recent violence, according to news reports. Is this something you’re experiencing?

It happens all the time, mainly on Twitter and Facebook. It’s not violent harassment. Some Israelis don’t like the media. They call us left-wing media, fake news media. They say, “You don’t represent the people, you’re liars.” You see so much hate and it makes you think, is it worth it? Every morning you wake up and you go on Twitter or Facebook and they’re saying really bad things about you. They’re sending you awful messages. During times of war, everything accelerates. 

I also see harassment in the comments beneath stories I wrote. After this attack happened and the video of the attack went viral, most of the comments on the video say, it’s “left-wing media, you deserve it.” I’m also getting messages of support, but most of the messages are telling us that we are the ones to blame, and some of them also say it’s a shame they didn’t kill us. It’s pretty tough. People don’t usually leave these comments on things I write about international news, it’s just when I write about things in my country.

Omri Maniv, investigative journalist and police reporter at Channel 13

You have been attacked several times while reporting over the past few weeks. Tell me what happened.

The first attack, by Jews, was in [the Tel Aviv suburb of] Bat Yam on May 11, the day of the lynching [when a group of Jewish Israelis pulled an Arab driver from his car and beat him in an attack captured on live television, according to news reports]. I walked with a group of ultra-right people. They walked north because they wanted to go to Jaffa to attack Arabs. As we were walking, one person in this group hit me two or three times with their hands. It was very light. It was because I had been with a cameraman and they saw that I’m a journalist. They yelled at me, “don’t shoot with the camera.” They yelled many curses against me. 

A couple of days after, in the Hatikva neighborhood of Tel Aviv, they attacked the Kan News cameraman [Nowitski]. I arrived 20 minutes after that attack. They also attacked us, but there were a lot of police there then. They still pushed me, but it didn’t hurt. We don’t know who they are, or if they were the same people as the previous attack against me. 

The third attack that week happened in Jaffa, when you arrived to report on the aftermath of the firebombing of a family’s home. What happened when you got to Jaffa?

We heard at about 1 a.m. on Friday, May 14 that there was an event in Jaffa where people threw Molotov cocktails into a house. At first they thought Jewish people did that, then they found out it was Arabs. 

[Editor’s note: Police arrested an Arab man for throwing a Molotov cocktail into the home of a family on May 14, severely burning a 12-year-old boy, according to news reports.]

The Arabs there were sure that it was Jews who did this. A lot of them went to the street and waited for Jews to come. I went to Jaffa on the main road; the police said it’s too dangerous. But I am a journalist and I know the streets there and I went inside. I was in my car and my cameraman, who is Arab, was in the car behind me. There was a group of about 10 or 15 people waiting outside, so I opened the windows when I got there and told them that I’m a journalist. At first, it helped, because the people were 18 or 20 years old and they understood. Then came the younger people, who were about 13, 14 years old. They didn’t care whether or not I’m a journalist. I’m Jewish, and that’s what’s important. They first started beating the car, and they broke the outside mirror. My window was open, and one of them slapped me three or four times.

Then one of them pepper-sprayed me directly in my eyes. It was burning. I put my foot on the gas and drove away from them quickly to the police line. Because of the adrenaline, I was able to drive away with my eyes a bit open. After an hour I started to open my eyes, but the pepper spray was still on my skin. 

It could have been a lot worse. I think that because I said I was a journalist, it did help me. The other people waiting there for Jews didn’t attack me because they heard that I’m a journalist and that I’m going to cover what happened in their neighborhood. So it did help me, but not completely. 

What’s the situation like now?

I continued to work, and the day after I was in Jaffa with the security guard. Things are a lot more relaxed than how it was. In Jaffa and in Lod [outside Tel Aviv], everything is open. In one second, everything changed. It can change back. But you can feel normal life on the streets.

Erez Cohen, cameraman for Kan News

Your car was attacked when you drove home from work. What happened?

I was finishing my work at [the Israeli side of the barrier of] the Gaza Strip on May 11. It was about 1 a.m., and I had covered events on the second or third day of the war. I picked up my son from a bus station and we were about one mile away from my home. On the way there is a Bedouin town. I passed nearby and the police asked me to stop. They asked me where I was going and they told me to be careful, as there were burning tires on the road. He didn’t say they were attacking cars. 

When I passed the police, I saw that the road was blocked by stones. People were covering their faces, and they were selecting which cars to attack. They were looking for Jews to attack. I locked my car from the inside, but they were throwing stones and trying to break the windows. The glass of the car’s windshield and the passenger is plastic, so it’s harder to smash. They broke my back windows with stones. 

I have a piece of paper on the front of my dashboard that says that I’m a cameraman and a journalist with Kan News. It’s in English and Hebrew, so I don’t know if that is why they attacked my car. The equipment was in the back and it was in a plastic suitcase. It wasn’t damaged, and the equipment wasn’t stolen either. 

How does this incident compare with your experience of reporting in the region?

The situation inside Israel it’s much scarier. [When rockets are shot from] Gaza, you have time to run away, you have time to go to the shelter. You know what to do to protect yourself. When you’re on your way home it’s much scarier.