Palestinian journalist Abu Bakr Bashir covers a Japanese cultural event in Khan Yunis, Gaza, for Japan’s JIJI PRESS. (Photo: Courtesy of Abu Bakr Bashir)
Palestinian journalist Abu Bakr Bashir, pictured on assignment for Japan's JIJI PRESS in Khan Yunis, Gaza, got his start in journalism covering the second intifada. He asks what will become of Gaza journalism after the war. (Photo: Courtesy of Abu Bakr Bashir)

I was a journalist in Gaza. The place I call home is gone now.

I was 13 when my father moved our family from Libya back to my parents’ hometown of Deir al-Balah in central Gaza. It was 1994, a time of optimism. Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization had signed the Oslo Accords and Palestinians were heading toward an independent state. Gaza, with its successful businesspeople and its young, skilled workforce, was a central part of that project.

Palestinians celebrating the signing of the Oslo Accord’s Gaza-Jericho implementation agreement surround an Israeli police car on May 4, 1994 as they wave flowers and olive branches. (Photo: Reuters)

But over my 25 years in Gaza – 15 as a journalist – I watched how years of blockade and war eroded life in the strip. Now, with the ongoing war, the place where I grew up, went to school, made friends, fell in love, formed a family, and buried my father has been destroyed. The one place I will always call home is gone

These days, I live and work in London, where I moved in 2019. Like most journalists, my biggest professional worry is meeting deadlines. It’s nothing like Gaza, where handling the stress of life and death calculations and maintaining balanced relations with all the conflicting parties in and around the strip were always my top priorities.

The conflicting parties were Israel, which maintained a stranglehold on Gaza despite the 2005 withdrawal of settlements and troops, and Hamas, the de facto government, which based its legitimacy on its victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections and its claim that it had pushed Israel out. After those elections, amid Western pressure, Hamas and its rival Fatah agreed to form a unity government. But in 2007, Hamas took over Gaza. The Fatah-run Palestinian Authority was yet another conflicting party as it continued to claim that it was the legitimate authority over Gaza and squeezed the strip economically.

Amid all this, I was taking my first steps in journalism. During the Palestinian uprising known as the second intifada, foreign journalists needed help arranging and translating interviews. A local fixer hired me to accompany foreign journalists for $50 per day – very good money for a person my age with no experience. I only worked one or two days a month, but I was learning.

I soon made contact with the local journalist community. I initially thought they were all as wealthy and influential as the foreign correspondents they helped and frequented expensive cafes and restaurants, but I was naïve: journalists in Gaza belonged to the middle class, if not the lower class. Meeting for knafeh, a local dessert, at the Saqallah shop was a luxury.

When the Abu Al Soud knafeh shop opened, I invited a local journalist there to show respect and admiration. But journalists mostly hung out at the Matouq restaurant, at cafes by the beach, and later at the Press House, a media development nonprofit headed by Bilal Jadallah. Jadallah was killed during the ongoing war and the Press House was flattened. So were the knafeh shops in Gaza City.

As a young reporter, it did not take me long to figure out that reporting about Israel-Palestine for foreign media outlets meant there were restrictions on criticizing Israel in terms of content and language. In almost every single article produced from Gaza, I had to include the lines “Hamas, seen as a terrorist group by the West,” or “Hamas took over Gaza by force,” or, “Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel.” To my editors, these additions were simply part of the structure of any article on Gaza. To my local audience, which felt my reporting was too soft and failed to show the brutality and cruelty of the occupation, these lines amounted to bias. And to me, they were a perfect prescription for inducing stress. I soon became a regular customer for Hamas security having to explain my articles and defend myself.

Abu Bakr Bashir covered the 2018 Gaza border protests, known as the Great March of Return. During the protests an Israeli sniper killed his colleague, photojournalist Yaser Murtaja.

Ironically, the more times you meet the same people, the more “friendly” your relationships become. The challenge was how to make sure these relationships were as friendly as possible in order to save my life and career and to maintain open channels with the de facto authority. But I also had to keep them as formal as possible because I was reporting for international media, and I was not allowed to get too close to authorities.

My relationship with Abu Mustafa embodied this conundrum; he was the Hamas security officer who always questioned me about my reporting. We met so many times that we became “friends.” He was one of the first people I called every time I needed to avoid the chronic bureaucracy in Gaza; in particular, he helped me get permits for visiting foreign press as he had the authority to approve their entry over the phone in just a few seconds. However, Abu Mustafa was only his nickname. I never felt confident enough to ask his real name and he never shared it during all our years of contact.

In 2015, both NPR and the Wall Street Journal, my biggest clients at the time, invited me to visit Jerusalem. That meant I had to pass the Erez border crossing and meet Israeli security officials in person for the first time. I was very nervous as Israel, like Hamas and Gaza, was at the very center of my reporting. Just like Hamas, Israel had a say over my life and career. At that time, I had already lost several colleagues to Israeli fire in the 2014 war. I would go on to lose several more, including Yaser Murtaja, who got too near the border fence while pursuing a photograph during Gaza’s anti-Israel demonstrations in 2018. Yaser did not know he went too far; there were no signs or instructions warning him away. An Israeli sniper ended his life. In the current war, more than 100 Palestinian journalists have been killed, including Roshdi Sarraj, another colleague of mine and of Yaser Murtaja. So yes, Israel does have a say about the lives of journalists in Gaza and I had every right to fear for my life.

Hamas, too, has its own say on journalists’ lives, safety, and careers. In 2019, Palestinians took to the streets to protest the harsh economic conditions under its control. Hamas police cracked down on the protesters, and arrested and beat up the journalists covering the protests. As a journalist, I had no option but to report on the protests and on the Hamas assaults. It was just one more time when I had to put my life at risk for the sake of my reporting. I survived, but I couldn’t shake the stress for many weeks to follow. 

Back to my 2015 trip to Jerusalem through Erez crossing. While I was looking over my previous reporting to prepare myself for potential questions from the Israeli officers at the checkpoint, Abu Mustafa gave me a call. He had seen my name on a list of Gazans planning to cross Erez. He put me in touch with a nameless colleague whose job was to guide people like me, who were making the journey for the first time. That was one of the weirdest situations ever, to be guided by a Hamas security officer whom I did not know or trust and who did not know or trust me. I am the last person to seek advice from Hamas, and yet here he was, advising me on how to deal with the Israeli security, intelligence, and military officers.

I was shocked to learn that everything this nameless man said happened in exactly the way he described it. I was strip-searched by two Israeli officers, and brought into a room with a woman who appeared to be Palestinian who said she wanted to talk to me. On the advice of the nameless man, I told her I was tired. I was later interviewed by a bald Israeli officer, one of the two people Abu Mustafa’s colleague said would interview me. The officer showed me photos of people on his computer and asked me about who they were. The nameless man’s advice was: once you are asked about someone, that meant they knew you had a relationship with them, so don’t lie but give general answers.

In the end, I made it to Jerusalem and back unharmed. I felt thankful for his guidance but also stressed over how much these two fighting parties seemed to know about each other — and about me. Both had the tools to make my life miserable if they wanted, and I only had my press card, a helmet, and a vest — materials that needed Israeli approval to enter Gaza and Hamas permission to be used there.

Palestinians shelter in central Gaza’s Deir al-Balah, Abu Bakr Bashir’s hometown, as people continue to flee Rafah due to an Israeli ground operation, on May 12, 2024. (Reuters/Ramadan Abed)

When I lived in Gaza, I was worried about my life and my children’s future. Now in London, I worry about Gaza and the future of journalism there. In addition to those journalists who have been killed, dozens have fled; these losses are catastrophic to the journalistic profession there. Eight months into the war, I have so many questions: Who will guide the young journalists entering the profession? How objective can they be given the brutal conditions and lack of guidance? Will the world listen to them, let alone believe their narrative?  And at the end of this, will there be young men and women willing to go into journalism in Gaza? Who will tell Gaza’s story?