As the Jerusalem correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, Bethan McKernan has spent much of the last year covering the escalating cycle of violence in in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It feels, she says, like “a slow-motion opening salvo of a new war.”
According to the U.S.-based non-profit Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), 2022 was the West Bank’s deadliest year in recent history, with over 120 reported fatalities recorded in the first 10 months. Those killed included Shireen Abu Akleh, the Al-Jazeera journalist shot dead by Israeli forces while reporting from Jenin in May 2022.
The violence has continued this year against the backdrop of rising tensions over mass protests in Israel, increased raids in the West Bank, talk of a third intifada, and predictions of a possible increase in terror attacks.
HP Risk Management, which provides security advice to the Committee to Protect Journalists, spoke on CPJ’s behalf to a number of journalists in the region about their experiences, the reasons for the increasing violence, and how media workers can protect themselves.
Those interviewed included McKernan, West Bank-based freelance reporter and producer Haya Abushkhaidem, La Croix Israel correspondent Nicolas Rouger, and Noam Shalev, producer and managing director of Israel’s Highlight Films.
Excerpts and safety advice from the discussions:
What are the main drivers behind the current violence in the West Bank?
The four journalists agreed that the pace, volatility and intensity of clashes have increased dramatically, although perhaps not to the same level witnessed during the second intifada, which is estimated to have left more than 4,000 dead between 2000 and 2005.
The journalists identified three key reasons for the escalation in violence, all of which have increased the risks for journalists reporting in the area.
- Increasingly provocative and violent behavior by the West Bank’s Israeli settlers, seen as being emboldened by their perceived support from the far-right Israeli government that took office in December 2022.
- The proliferation of firearms amongst Palestinians and Israeli settlers in recent years.
- The emergence of new Palestinian militant groups in the West Bank. These groups appear less organized and independent of the traditional chains of command in the waning Palestinian Authority, leading to increasing uncertainty on the ground and raising the risks that journalists face while reporting.
How can media workers stay safe when operating in the West Bank?
All the journalists interviewed agreed that the main threat to reporters is being caught in crossfire and random acts of violence while on the road. However, they felt it was still safe enough for journalists to continue to operate — provided they observe some crucial mitigation measures:
- Good risk assessment and situational awareness is a must in preparation and during an assignment. Reporters should not simply wander into an area expecting it to be fine. (See CPJ’s risk assessment template for more information on how to prepare and conduct a risk assessment.)
- “If you are going to invest in anything, invest in people,” said Nicolas Rouger. More than ever before, local knowledge and contacts are crucial. Both Palestinians and the Israeli settler communities are increasingly distrustful of foreigners and the media, believing reporters to be highly partisan. That makes it important for journalists to work with a local producer or fixer who knows and is accepted as an intermediary in the community/area they will be working in, and can vouch for them with the local population. The facilitator should speak the appropriate language (Arabic or Hebrew) to the community. Reporters should also ascertain if the fixer understands the geography, where the hotspots are around settlements/checkpoints, and the nature of the prevalent conflict dynamics.
Journalists who do not have enough funds to hire a fixer should first go to safer places — mainly Ramallah and Bethlehem — and build a local network, starting with their colleagues from the foreign press community, to gain secure access to more dangerous areas.
- When traveling through the West Bank, journalists should take every measure to avoid being mistaken for “combatants.” This can be done by keeping a low profile, clearly identifying themselves as foreign press, or choosing appropriately plated vehicles that do not arouse any suspicion in the area they are in.
- Whenever possible, journalists should travel in groups through the West Bank and avoid working alone. While there is minimal risk of being kidnapped, the current security situation is extremely volatile and it is safer to have the protection of a group.
- Hiring security advisers comes at the risk of appearing military and can sow distrust amongst locals. All interviewed journalists felt security advisers should only be used in exceptional circumstances. Israeli advisers can be armed; Palestinian advisers cannot.
- Journalists should be respectful and careful not to antagonize people. They should ask permission before taking pictures – not only out of courtesy, but also because these pictures may have security implications for local residents.
- Distrust of journalists is significant amongst settler communities. Since many are armed, journalists should be cautious when engaging with them and careful when entering settlements, particularly in the northern West Bank’s Shilo area and south of Nablus.
- International journalists enjoy more freedom of speech and movement than their Palestinian colleagues and are unlikely to be arrested or deported. However, their relatively protected status does not transfer to Palestinian fixers or crew members, whose safety and security needs have to be given special consideration.
What equipment is needed and what can cause issues?
- Journalists who are planning on covering raids and unrest should bring a blue bullet proof vest and helmet clearly labeled with a PRESS badge in the front and back. They should not wear any other color body armor in case they are mistaken for a member of an aggressive faction or the military. (See the CPJ’s guide to PPE for more information).
- The use of tear gas is commonplace; journalists should, therefore, have access to the appropriate respirators and canisters. If they do not, they should consider moving away from potential confrontations when it becomes clear hostilities will commence. See CPJ’s video for journalists as they prepare to cover assignments where teargas may be deployed.
- A regular cell phone is usually enough to maintain communication as the phone reception, 3G not 4G, is good in most areas of the West Bank. Journalists may consider using both an Israeli and a Palestinian SIM card to ensure the best possible reception. Carrying a satellite phone to the West Bank is legal but not currently necessary as the phone reception is good and the Israeli government rarely jams cell phone signals, even at the location of security raids.
- The use of armored vehicles by journalists is not common, but this could change if tensions escalate. A 4X4 vehicle is more popular and it is sensible to get press plates as well as foreign press stickers. Any media signage should ideally be magnetic to easily be taken on and off. Identifying yourself as press in Palestinian areas can increase safety, but it can be problematic in some Israeli settler areas.
- The Israeli government is sensitive about the use of drones in the West Bank and throughout areas of conflict. Government permission is required for the commercial use of drones, and it is recommended to use certified Israeli drone operators who can get the drones cleared for takeoff by the authorities and obtain the appropriate insurance.
Are there restrictions on movement?
- Foreign journalists can move freely from Israel into and around the West Bank, but should be aware that a heavy security presence and unscheduled movement restrictions are commonplace.
While there are no checkpoints when entering the West Bank from Israel, “border” checkpoints have to be passed when returning from the West Bank to Israel. In addition, checkpoints are found around Israeli settlements and “flying checkpoints” are set up across the West Bank. Some of the “flying” checkpoints, like the one between Nablus and Jenin, are relatively permanent and others are erected at short notice. Members of the foreign press typically do not have issues clearing checkpoints, but correspondents should carry proper identification, follow all official directives, and be prepared to answer questions about the nature of their assignment and the equipment they carry.
Palestinian journalists or fixers can cross “border” checkpoints if they have the appropriate permit to enter Israel or are Israeli citizens or residents. All journalists, including Palestinians should in theory be able to pass “flying” checkpoints or police cordons, but there is no guarantee that the Israeli police or military will let anyone through.
- Official press credentials are recommended but not required for foreign journalists reporting from the West Bank. They can be acquired from both the Israeli Government Press Office and the Palestinian Ministry of Information. Correspondents can apply for the Israeli press pass online but have to collect it in person.
It is strongly recommended that foreign journalists apply for an Israeli press pass. This can provide an additional level of protection by confirming the holder’s protected status as a member of the foreign media, help with clearing checkpoints — especially those set up in connection with security raids — and facilitate access to military or government officials.
Palestinian journalists living in the West Bank can get press accreditation from the Palestinian Authority through the Palestinian Journalists’ Syndicate. The Palestinian press credentials only provide access to areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority and usually do not facilitate Palestinian journalists’ interactions with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or the Israeli police.
Medical emergencies — the basics.
- All media should ensure that they have insurance for working in the West Bank, with an appropriate level of medical and emergency cover.
- Medical facilities in Israel and the West Bank are familiar with treating medical emergencies commonly arising in conflict areas.
- The emergency number is 101 for both Israel and the Palestinian Territories and operators usually speak English. Israeli and Palestinian emergency services are highly professional and, especially when foreigners are involved, coordinate with each other in order to reach the nearest hospital.
- There have been some reports of ambulances being blocked from accessing areas of unrest, but this is not the norm.
- CPJ is aware of an elevated risk for digital surveillance of journalists by the Israeli government. Nevertheless, internet access is generally not being blocked in the West Bank.
- Foreign journalists should be aware that even though their devices might not be compromised, Israel’s digital surveillance systems in the West Bank are sophisticated and wide-ranging and the devices of Palestinians they interact with probably are.
- Journalists may have their electronic devices searched at the airport, especially when leaving Israel, and should take all appropriate measures to protect sensitive information. See CPJ’s Digital Safety Kit for more information.
For more information on physical, digital, and psychosocial safety resources for journalists, please visit CPJ’s Emergencies page.
[Editor’s note: The first paragraph of this report has been updated to correct the spelling of Bethan McKernan’s name.]