A tower housing The Associated Press and Al-Jazeera offices collapsed after it was struck by an Israeli missile in Gaza City on May 15, 2021. (Reuters/Mohammed Salem)

‘The war eats you alive’: Gaza journalists on the toll of covering Israeli attacks

Since May, Palestinian journalists have endured two traumatizing events: the killing of their colleague, Al-Jazeera’s Shireen Abu Akleh, and the one-year anniversary of an Israeli airstrike that destroyed a Gaza City building housing The Associated Press and Al-Jazeera, along with other offices and residential apartments, during an Israeli military campaign against militant groups in Gaza. That war also killed at least one journalist, Yousef Abu Hussein

The fresh pain of Abu Akleh’s death and the residual ache of last year’s bombings are only two examples of the harrowing environment in which Palestinian journalists do their jobs. Palestinian journalists say they work in an atmosphere of fear and exhaustion, balancing the threats to their reporting with the obligation they feel to report the daily struggles of the Palestinian people to the world.

CPJ spoke via messaging app with two Palestinian journalists in Gaza, the 25-mile-long coastal strip blockaded by Israel since the militant group Hamas seized control of the territory from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. 

The journalists spoke about challenges to their reporting and the lasting impact of the May 15, 2021 Israeli bombingof the media organizations’ building, which Israel claimed, without providing public proof, housed militant intelligence. The interviews have been edited for clarity, length, and style.   

Mohamed Dahman, reporter at the Palestinian Authority-owned WAFA news agency

Why did you become a journalist?

Mohamed Dahman: I used to work as a fixer for foreign reporters and I liked journalism. In 1990, I had an idea of how to talk about my cause and about the [Israeli] occupation. At the same time I had my own business which was linked with Israel; at that time, I dealt with Israelis and believed in peace and in living together. But after the Oslo agreement [1993 peace accords which failed to deliver Palestinian statehood] and after the Al-Aqsa Intifada [the 2000-2005 Palestinian uprising], things deteriorated, including my business. I looked for any job, I worked at the official Palestine news agency WAFA. Then, step by step I used to help in news gathering and receiving official news from [deceased former] President Yasser Arafat’s office. I liked it, and studied journalism, and became a journalist. And I also believe that there is no way for living together with an [Israeli] apartheid regime planting hatred.

Were you or any of your colleagues directly impacted by Israel’s military campaign last year? 

Plenty of colleagues lost their offices and equipment in the targeting of towers and buildings. And my house was partially damaged and needed reconstruction.

How did last year’s war impact your ability to do your job?

Among the flood of news through social media and local radio, I feel I need more time and more skills for filtering news and verifying it to avoid fake stories. 

What sort of toll has the war taken on you and your colleagues, psychologically?

We do not feel we are safe anymore, there are no limits to bombing. At any time you feel you will die or be hurt or lose one of your loved ones. And you feel exhausted. In addition, you feel guilty for not writing everything you believe and that you cannot do anything to stop killing and destruction.

What about Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing? How has that impacted your ability to work? 

I was not shocked, simply because it is one of the habits of the occupation. Lots of crimes like this happened against both journalists and non-journalists, but far from the camera. This is the only difference: the camera and the witnesses. And of course, the organization she worked with [Al-Jazeera] is a strong organization. 

But this murder and the rudeness of the Israeli military reinforces my belief that my work is a moral and national duty rather than a job. In my work I have to go on revealing the truth, revealing scandal, and the occupation. But [her killing] also increases the feeling of fear; any time I could be killed or hurt.

What sort of future do you see for yourself as a journalist in Gaza?

This is a painful question. As long as there are no opportunities and no future in Gaza, you feel you have no chance to find yourself in a better place, because everything is frozen except time.

Issam Adwan, contributor to We Are Not Numbers, a storytelling platform for Gaza youth, and U.S.-based news and commentary site Mondoweiss

What has it been like to report in Gaza in recent years? 

Issam Adwan: I still have nightmares of the day one of my [journalist] friends was shot in the leg during the Great March of Return [the 2018-2019 protests in Gaza when Palestinians called to return to homelands from which their families fled or were expelled by Israeli forces in 1948]. He was one meter and a half [almost five feet] from me. The press tent at that point was approximately 900 meters [half a mile] away from the [Israeli blockade] fence, clearly showing the word “press.” My friend was wearing the vest and helmet as well. 

During the last attacks on Gaza in May 2021, I didn’t have field assignments as I was the project manager of We Are Not Numbers. Several bombings happened next to my home like the rest of Gaza citizens; I wouldn’t call it direct targeting, but such actions killed hundreds of innocent civilians as well as journalists

What are the day-to-day challenges to working as a journalist in Gaza?

It’s absolutely difficult to work from Gaza, a place that has been blockaded by Israel more than half of my life. We barely have access to equipment to work as Israel forbids its entry. Also, we do not have access to stories and information outside Gaza, as we’re mostly denied travel due to “security reasons” by Israel. The worst part of the challenge is that you have to select [reporting subjects] from all these innocent lives lost, which makes you feel inhumane. We have to be very careful to use “neutral” words to describe what actually happens. Lately, I came to realize that all this doesn’t really matter, and I’ll report facts as I truly feel them. “Neutrality” when it comes to innocent lives lost is actually bias. I am a Palestinian and I have every right to correct the terms used, I live this situation.

[Editor’s note: CPJ contacted the Israel Defense Forces North America media desk via email for comment on soldiers targeting journalists at Gaza protests and restricting the movement of journalists and their equipment to and from Gaza, but did not immediately receive a response.]

Do you feel that last year’s war changed your ability to do your job?

Indeed. I dream of the day I don’t hear more stories of death or imagine that it could be me [as a victim] at any time. The war eats you alive. Why do I keep doing this? Simply because I know that I have a responsibility since I have access to a number of channels to report and use my language skills. It’s a huge responsibility I can’t just ignore.

What about the psychological toll of the violence?

I personally underwent therapy several times after [the war]. In addition to the war, the conditions of Gaza are deteriorating daily, and people are dying, if not because of bombings but because of a lack of food, water, jobs, and hope. 

What sort of future do you see for yourself as a journalist in Gaza?

I wish that my voice would be heard on a broader level and it truly matters as a citizen and a journalist.